------------ ---------- Diary of a Goldfish

Diary of a Goldfish

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mother's Day, 2010

I had read that you should try to write fiction with just one particular reader in mind, even if your reader is an entirely imaginary person. It’s a mistake, I read, to write for a broad audience. It’s easy, I read (and found out for myself) to get distracted by the idea of different people reading your work. You can’t please everyone. You may shock, annoy or offend some of them. And you don’t want to write the book that wouldn't shock, annoy or offend anyone at all. 

Instead, I read, you should identify someone who you think will really enjoy what you’re trying to do. If you don’t know anyone like this, invent them. Make them up and keep them in mind.

I didn't know anyone like that, so I made them up; my imaginary ideal reader. Not someone who would unquestioningly adore every word I wrote, but someone who would love what I wanted to achieve. I made them up and kept them in my mind. They were quite appealing to me so they became a secondary character in my novel, a love interest in a rather unromantic book.

I made them up. Then a friend sent me to their blog.


My novel was near completion when 2010 came around. I had worked so hard, for so long, with so many damn set-backs. There had been periods of months where I couldn't write, because I was too sick or because all my energy was otherwise spoken for.  There had been periods of months where I couldn't write because my confidence had been comprehensively flattened. And now, finally, I was nearly there.

A satellite image of the UK in January 2010.
This was a long, hard winter, the coldest in my life time. There was snow about for weeks. My then husband had had an argument with his family at Christmas and was spiraling into depression. In January, my friend Jack died suddenly – the third friend who, having enthused about my writing and looking forward to my completed novel, had died before I was done (I’m putting this in the context of my novel-writing; this was not my first, second or third thought on hearing of Jack’s untimely death). This was the year I would turn thirty and I started doing a Project 365, taking a photograph every day. 

There was something else going on. I would like to say that a rational calculation was taking place, but it wasn't. I would like to say that I was beginning to stand up for myself, but I wasn't. I often say, of this time, that my marriage was falling apart, but I didn't know that. Not yet.

I was very happy. I was not happy. I felt extraordinary well-loved; for much of my adult life, I’d been lonely, believing I was little more than a convenience or a useful ear to my friends, but that had all changed. Despite pessimism from my then husband (nobody will turn up and I’ll have to pick up the pieces!), I was planning a thirtieth birthday party with my three close friends. Two of them were old friends by then, but I’d only recently realised what that meant.

And thus, I felt full of love, but a love like molten lead; I was weighed down by it, burning up with it, in danger of starting a fire if I stood too close to the curtains. Sometimes I basked in the warmth and light of it all. Other times, I wanted to open a window and scream for help. That last sentence isn't a metaphor.

The last two blog posts I wrote before I finished my novel were On Not Being Beautiful #1 and #2. These are strange to me now, because what I wrote is perfectly valid, but I know they are written by someone who is regularly being told that she has the face of a Klingon, the skin texture of a pizza, her arse takes up all three lanes of the motorway or some variation of the above. At the same time, she has friends who casually tell her how good she looks, who greet her “Hello gorgeous!” or sign off e-mails, “Keep smiling, beautiful.” She's trying to navigate the dissonance.

Everything was rather like this. My friends were excited as I moved towards the end of my book, while my then husband said I wasn't going to make it and mocked every error or slur in my speech with, “I thought you were supposed to be good with words.”


During the last month of novel writing, I went a little mad and this madness was that bloody novel. It sounds dreadfully pretentious - suffering for my art - and I do know it was completely unnecessary. If my life had been better, it would have not made me sick and, crucially, my work could have improved.  I didn't have to bleed all over the page (metaphor), I didn't have to go into hell and back just to get the words down (not sure). These days I can write with greater power and much less pain and mess. Back then, I was in pain. I was a mess. 

This is the sort of thing I got up to at this time.
(A sort of pyramid made up of white blister
packs on top of a wall socket against a red
wall. A tiny metal angel looks on.)
I couldn't work all day long, but it became very much harder to shut down my mind or escape into other things. I couldn't sleep when I tried and fell asleep with my fingers on the keyboard. I lost interest in food. I was sometimes confused about whether I was living in the story of my life or the story I was writing.  

I listened to music of flight and music of falling. I did a little yoga every day and always finished playing Otis Redding's cover of (Can't get no) Satisfaction. I played the Cranberries’ No Need To Argue album an awful lot, just as the daffodils came into bloom. 

Other things too, I would understand differently later on; my long exaggerated startle reflex was now ridiculous. Someone could casually approach me, no loud noise, no sudden movement and I would cry out in alarm. Then there were moments of high drama, threats and shouting where I noticed I felt nothing - worse, I was thinking about some trivial aspect of my novel, as if what was happening in the room was some unfathomable soap opera on the TV in the background.

I was also trying to help my then husband, because he was really very unwell. Every day I spend time looking for jokes or funny stories to provide a moment's relief. I rented movies I thought he'd like and watched every one by myself first, in case there was something that would upset or annoy him. At one point, I bought him smiley potato faces in a desperate childish attempt to put a smile on his face.  

The night before I finished the novel, I told him that I was starting to panic about the deadline I had set. He responded, “I don’t care.”

The next moment, an e-mail from Stephen; How It Ends by Devotchka. I began to listen, thinking, Oh god, this is long and I have no time, it’s got accordians in it and I’m going to have to say something polite about it! but then the piano started. It was oddly perfect. I listened to it on repeat as I worked. In the morning, I played it again four or five times until I got up the courage to send the long rambling e-mail I’d been writing, complete with a 144,000 word file attached.

In this e-mail, I tried to tactfully address the fact that Stephen might recognise himself in one of the characters, but he mustn't read anything into it. After all, Stephen has a different reason to walk with a stick and references Dawn of the Dead rather than Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town as an allegory for human endurance. The personalities may be identical, but I wrote all that before I knew him. I made him up! I don't want Stephen to think I am secretly in love with him or anything. 

I couldn't say all that. So I wrote around it. At a great length. 


(The bottom of an unsent e-mail, reading
"Got to... click... send... button..")
It is Sunday morning; Mother’s Day 2010. I take this screen grab and put it on Flickr. Only one other person, apart from Stephen and I will see it and know what it means. But I am compelled to make some public record.

Then I click send.

Everything has changed. I've written a novel. I am not the same person I was yesterday, when I hadn't written a novel.

Stephen e-mails me with photographic evidence of my novel safely on his e-reader. He then sends the Thomas Truax cover of I’m Deranged in response to that weird rambling e-mail.  Half an hour later, he e-mails to tell me he’s read the first chapter. He's loving it so far.

(An e-reader held in a hand.)
I haven’t mentioned the fact that I've finished my novel to the man I am inexplicably still married to; I really hoped he would ask. But I tell him that Stephen's read the first chapter. No congratulations. He says, “Sure he’s not on top of a tall building, about to throw himself off to avoid reading the rest?”

My then husband is thinking about death a lot and imagines I have the same effect on everyone.

It’s Mothers Day. I must spend time with my mother.  

My parents and I go to my cousin’s house, where we have a meal with two cousins and an aunt (we’re supposed to be eating with my Granny, since it’s Mother’s Day, but we've managed to mislay her). We catch up with what was happening with everyone’s life, apart from mine. We talk about my sister, brother-in-law and nephew, we talk about other cousins, their partners, aunts and uncles, we talk about Granny and the great uncles and aunts. Even a couple of second cousins are mentioned at one point. Nobody asks me a damn thing.

I notice this - I do notice it, from time to time, the way my family believes I have absolutely no life to speak of - but I especially notice today because I’m thinking, 

This is the most important day of my life!

This really is. I consider blurting out, “I just written my first novel!” but I don’t. And to be honest, it’s just good to be out of the house and away from everything, to hear about other people's lives and dramas. People write books; it's not all that extraordinary. It's just extraordinary that I should.

It’s also good to have some time away from my laptop where I might anxiously await e-mails from Stephen. When I get back, he's e-mailing to complain that he had a sleep during the day and my book gave him nightmares.

The produce of my imagination has entered another person's subconscious. 


On the Monday, while Stephen is still reading my novel, my then husband and I have a big talk. He tells me that he doesn't love me anymore. I am boring, unattractive and very difficult to live with. He knows he’s depressed and things may well change in time, so there's no point doing anything about it right now.

I have heard something like this before, several times. The routine is that I go on a sort of probation; try harder, avoid pissing him off so much and after a while, I will say I love you and I’ll get it back: “I love you too.”

But this time, I take it badly. A big chunk of the lovely awful molten lead inside me breaks off, leaving a deep physical pain, a gaping aching space in my chest where there should be no space. I weep. It is like witnessing a death, the totality of loss I feel.

Yet, straight away, I feel lighter. Lighter in a lost and listless way, but definitely lighter.

A friend and I have talked about me staying with her in Wales for a week sometime. I call her and we make a proper plan.


On the Tuesday, Stephen finishes reading my novel. We talk on Skype for about two hours. He loves it. He is brimming with praise and talk of the bits that scared, moved or amused him. He is so proud of me, he gets a little choked up saying so. There are issues with pacing. There are a shameful number of typos. There are a few points of slight confusion. But he loves it. 

When we've finished talking, the man who doesn't love me anymore warns me, quite seriously, that I mustn't trust Stephen. He’s too nice. He couldn't possibly be being honest about it.  

I believe otherwise.

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Saturday, March 07, 2015

Two fat men: fictional bodies as metaphor and identity

I’ve been thinking about bodies, metaphor and identity, in the context of two very different stories; J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies (the same story over two books). Both have been given recent BBC TV adaptations where prominent fat characters have been played by fairly slim actors, which is undoubtedly why they have been on my mind.

 This is how J K Rowling introduces the patriarchal character of Howard Mollinson in her novel, The Casual Vacancy:
He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him; wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.
I like this, but you know, I don’t like it. Then, as the book goes on and we’re not allowed to forget how very fat Howard is, I like it even less.  Howard’s fatness represents his greed; he is a glutton and a lech, he is hungry for power and influence. He has a disgusting rash under his belly, he takes up space and tax-payer's money.

In much the same way, we know that Uriah Heap is ghoulish before he speaks or moves because he looks like a ghoul. Except even that was David Copperfield's own impression.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
A large white bearded man
in regal Tudor costume, complete
with codpiece, in case you forget.
Another fat man with a game-changing penis is Henry VIII in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies. Mantel is at a great advantage with Henry on two counts. First of all, she didn’t – couldn’t – invent his body. She didn’t choose his red hair, his colossal height, his increasing girth or his gammy leg. Secondly, most of us have a fairly clear vision of what Henry VIII looked like. Thus, there is no passage where Mantel says, Here is a man called King Henry; here is what he looks like.  His appearance, however, is mentioned often:
How colourful Henry is! How like the king in a new pack of cards! 
When he sees Henry draw his bow, he thinks, I see now, he is royal.
A broad man, a high man, Henry dominates any room. He would do it even if God had not given him the gift of kingship. 
Is the king’s head becoming bigger? Is that possible in mid-life?
Henry is overwhelming. He is, both literally and figuratively, the biggest man around. His clothes and physical mannerisms serve to make him seem larger and brighter.

There are other important bodies in these books; the body of Catherine of Aragon is deemed too old to play her role of bearing children. The body of Ann Boleyn, so desired by Henry, is criticised by her enemies as undesirable; she is flat-chested, she is a “goggle-eyed whore”. Princess Mary is unsuitable as an heir, both as a woman, and because she is small; a “dwarf”. Even toddler Princess Elizabeth, sharing her hair colour with her father, is described as a “ginger brat”.

But all of this information is delivered in the words and thoughts of characters. Mantel never tells us what people look like but instead, how they are seen. Sometimes, how they see themselves.

When J K Rowling invented lustful lingerie-saleswoman, Samantha, and teenage sexpot Crystal, the two most sexual and sexualised women in the novel's universe, she also made them the only two women with notably big breasts (Samantha even has sexual fantasies in which she is conscious of what her enormous breasts look like to her lover). The romantically desperate social worker, Kay, has stocky thighs.  Lovelorn teenager Andrew, beaten by his father and exploited by his far more confident best friend, has extensive facial acne.

Rowling does sometimes place visual descriptions in the minds or words of characters, but often she uses the authorial voice. Most people see a fat man and think about his penis.

The character of Tessa, described as “overweight” (that's a BMI of between 26 and 30, in case you were vague about what that looks like), sits looking at Heat Magazine in a doctor’s waiting room:
She remembered telling a sturdy little girl in Guidance that looks did not matter, that personality was much more important. What rubbish we tell children, thought Tessa. 
Tessa has a point; in this universe, people’s looks are often physical manifestations of their vices and vulnerabilities*.

My body is part of my identity. I didn't chose my face, but if you see a photograph of it, you see me. My bodily experiences influence who I am. There are folks for whom their bodies are much more or much less part of their identity; some people go to great lengths to express themselves through their looks, while others are largely indifferent. Some people feel trapped inside their bodies, while others revel in every detail of their physical selves.

However, my body is not a metaphor for anything. And goodness knows, people see metaphor in me, in my gender combined with my age, my height, my weight, my breasts, my bum, the length of my legs. People see metaphor in a walking stick or a wheelchair (hardly surprising when it's pretty rare to read fiction where these things are not metaphorical). I know people see metaphor if I wear make-up or not, the length and style of my hair, my clothes and shoes.

I'm not especially worried about the plight of fat, middle-aged white men - they are not underrepresented in the highest echelons of power, they are not a vulnerable group who suffer widespread discrimination or abuse (although they suffer some discrimination and abuse, and the BBC cast Damien Lewis as Henry and Michael Gambon as Howard, presumably because they couldn't find high caliber fat male actors in the right age brackets, presumably because such actors don't usually get a lot of work).

Meanwhile, I am fascinated by the mechanism; I am fascinated by the way rational human beings seek out meaning in accidents of genetics and nutrition. I am fascinated the way that hated figures are seen as ugly - David Cameron is almost eerily unremarkable in his looks, the silver Ford Focus of men, who you wouldn't so much as glance up at on a bus or in a pub. Yet to many of his detractors, he becomes reptilian, his eyes are too close together, his hair is receding comically, his skin is plastic.

People need to tell stories about the way people do this.

We need to avoid telling stories as if this way of thinking is entirely fair.

* When we were talking about this, Stephen reminded me of The Singing Detective, which handles skin disease as perceived punishment for various sins - the body as metaphor, at some considerable length.  This is absolutely superb but it is all about how the protagonist understands his body and illness (other characters have different perspectives - other characters apply different metaphors).

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The 10th Bloggerversary Post

This morning I thought, "It must be about ten years since I started Diary of a Goldfish." and indeed it is - Sunday was the tenth anniversary of my very first post. I started on the casual suggestion of my brother-in-law, before I ever really read a blog. I feel quite lucky that I plunged into it without much thought - if I had had a particular agenda or theme, it might not have proved so useful.

A lot has happened in ten years. I wrote a novel and am almost done with my second. I got married to the wrong person for the wrong reasons, met Stephen, divorced and married the right person for the right reasons. I learned to paint. I've seen a fair amount of bereavement but I've gained a nephew, niece and a new extended family. I moved home four or five times, depending on how you count it.

As a result of blogging, my words have ended up all over the place; The Guardian, the BBC, education resources, disability studies periodicals. I got my face on the front cover of The Cambridge City News (along with some rescued kittens - it was a real slow news day). I've been invited to join Where's the Benefit? and the F-Word. I never had any ambition to do any kind of non-fiction writing, so it's been great.

I've also made some very good friends and had some very interesting and important conversations. I founded Blogging Against Disablism Day, which I know has come to mean a lot to many people.

However, this blog is really a gift you give to me, dear reader. I don't imagine I'm providing any kind of public service or useful function - it's really nice when something I write is useful or interesting to someone. But the person who has benefited the most from Diary of a Goldfish is me. It's given me lots of writing practice and helped my writing to improve. It has given me a place to express myself, vent and lecture people on subjects that matter to me without awkward social consequences. And I know you're there, in varying numbers, so I can pretend you're hanging on my every word. I sometimes get lovely comments, here and elsewhere and that stuff is huge to me. At a particularly difficult point in my life, I had an A4 print out of the nicest things people had said about my writing.

My blogging has changed a lot in ten years (as the world of blogging has). Earlier on, I was more or less keeping a diary, which was useful because, at the age of twenty-four, I was still struggling to be the protagonist in my own life story. Later on, some of these posts became downright disturbing. While it was going on, nobody knew about the violence in my first marriage and I rarely had to explain anything - my face was never bruised, I never sought medical attention. However, after my divorce, when I went through my archive in order to completely anonymise my first husband, I found that it was as if I had been compelled to write on days where there'd been violence and instead tell a funny or sweet story where no-one got hurt. I was spinning stories to myself, in public. Sometimes I told abject lies - entirely unnecessarily lies.

I find that baffling and weird, even now. I took all these posts down, by the way. There are plenty of posts where I express ideas or opinions I no longer agree with, but I took down anything I found where I actually lied.

There have been a few points where I thought about ditching the blog, possibly starting afresh, but I'm really very attached to it. If I had thought more about my 10th Bloggerversary coming up, I would have prepared a better post.

Stephen suggested that I should post links to my "Top Ten Posts". I don't know if these are my favourites - there's almost a thousand to choose from and I'm not going to spend the next week reading through my entire archive. However as a fairly evenly spread selection (2005 was just too weak):

  1. Love is real, Real is love (2006)
  2. Above and Beyond: Butch's Diary (2006)
  3. Propaganda (2007)
  4. I thought I was someone else, someone good (2008)
  5. How to be a Disabled Villain (2009)
  6. It Was Thirty Years Ago Today (2010)
  7. Looking After Yourself as Radical Political Activism (2011)
  8. Domestic Violence: Why Zero-Tolerance is So Tough (2012)
  9. How Marriage Became More Meaningful (2013)
  10. The History of My Adult Life in About 100 Objects (2014)
And now, having skimmed the archive to retrieve these links, I realise I really ought to organise some pages of links to the three or four subjects I keep coming back to.

Thank you all very much for this. Where on Earth are we going to be in another ten years time? 

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

We must tolerate the tyranny of jesters #charliehebdo

The kind if terrorist attack we've come to fear in the West is targeted at random civilians. They attacks our freedom, in so far as they inhibit the freedom of any of us to go about our daily business completely without fear.

But yesterday's massacre at Charlie Hebdo is a specific attack on freedom of expression. It is not a freedom everyone in the world has access to. Even when protected by the law, it is not shared equally in real terms. Some voices are louder than others, some are handed platforms and loud-hailers while others are muffled and overlooked. Yet however imperfect, it is an absolute and fundamental freedom. It is one of the greatest strengths of a liberal democracy.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed featured two rather odd responses to the events in Paris.

There were folks who insisted that satire is always a force for good. There were folks who said things along the lines of, "My idea of equality is that everyone has an equal right to be laughed at."

Some of these were posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Although the magazine mocks all faiths and political stripes, the most notorious cartoons mock Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine's freedom to publish such material is absolutely precious, as precious as any liberty you can name. The cartoons on Twitter, however - just two or three in forty-four years of weekly issues - mock members of a feared and stigmatised minority.

On the other hand, there were folks discussing, at length, what a dreadful racist and Islamophobic publication Charlie Hebdo is. Some complained that the magazine has joked, in the past, about Muslims being killed. It was really hard to see that yesterday and not infer the belief that the dead cartoonists and others, their lives stolen from them in a terrifying manner, their families and friends faced with devastation, had it coming to them.

"It's just a joke" is very often a lie. Humour is like any other tool of communication - its uses are not morally neutral. It can bring people together and lighten the load. It can be used to speak truth to power - often in circumstances where a direct attack would be impossible or ineffective. Satire is an immensely powerful weapon against governments and institutions which resist straightforward criticism.

This is partly why freedom of expression is so vital, but that's not how the argument must be made. The argument must be made in the defense of things we don't like, opinions we wish didn't exist, the stuff that offends us. And some of that is also expressed in humour.

There's no hateful force in history that hasn't employed humour to single out its enemies, to humiliate and degrade people it wishes to dismiss, oppress or eliminate. Anyone who has ever been bullied or abused is familiar with humour's sharp edges and bludgeoning force. People who rape or beat people will joke about raping and beating people - sometimes while they're doing it. Bigots of all variety will get away with making jokes about the beliefs they would be condemned for expressing openly.

When I say get away with, I do of course mean that such people can sometimes say things without provoking censure or disapproval. Censure and disapproval are appropriate responses to words and pictures that offend us. Offense matters. But it never justifies violence.

It's no accident that almost every time a public figure is criticised for racist, homophobic or other bigoted speech, it's a joke. In a liberal democracy, there are many opportunities to express the most extreme belief you can think of - you just can't paint it on the side of your house or demand five minutes on BBC One. However, there are many views which are now, largely, socially unacceptable - like being racist, misogynistic or homophobic.

But tell a joke about a marginalised group and it's ambiguous. You can use the ugliest terms and explain it away as an accident, a momentary error of judgement. You can say, "I didn't mean it - it was a joke! Some of my best friends are black/ gay/ women/ whatever!" Or, if comedy is your trade, you can explain it away as simply doing your job; making people laugh. You can hold onto your progressive, nice guy, right-on credentials. You can dismiss objectors as humourless, thin-skinned and politically correct. You can laugh at them all the harder.

There's nothing inherently benign about humour in general or satire in particular. Satire can be fueled by hate and it can stir up hate. It can reinforce ideas that lead to violence or oppression.

But, crucially, it is not violence. It is an awful long way back from violence. It shouldn't be criminalised and it most certainly shouldn't be responded to with violence. Objection, argument, boycott, social and political pressure - we need to take humour seriously (I really hate that, but it's true). But the worst, most hideously offensive joke doesn't warrant a punch in the face, let alone being shot in one's place of work.

This cartoon by David Pope of the Canberra Times is entirely apt. Killing people because of the things they say or write or draw is as ridiculous as it is horrifying.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

And why shouldn't Idris Elba play James Bond?

Here are some facts about the fictional character of James Bond as represented in the books and films:

  • James Bond's age shifts randomly along a range between 30 and 57 years old. In the most recent movie, fifty years after the first book, he was 44. 
  • Bond's height varies between 5'10" and more than 6'2". 
  • He has a range of upper middle-class English accents, with the exception of one Sean-Connery-trying-to-sound-English accent.
  • His eyes are blue-grey, blue and brown. His hair is blond, brown and black. He has either smooth complexion or a significant facial scar.
  • His parents are probably Scottish but possibly Swiss. 
  • Sometimes, he gets attached to a woman and is very upset if anything happens to her. Other times, he shrugs off the death of a lover like a broken nail.
  • His entire personality shifts about in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. 

Different creative people, different writers, actors and directors treat their subject differently. But here are some ways in which James Bond has always been the same:

  • He is a British secret agent with MI5, code name 007, etc.. 
  • He's really into stuff. He likes expensive clothes, watches, weapons and cars.
  • He likes a dry martini, shaken but not stirred. 
  • He enjoys having sex with women that either he or his enemies have power over. 
  • He is suave, cool and charismatic. He suits tailoring. 
  • He is serious but not especially earnest. 
  • He is quick-witted, with a dry sense of humour.
  • He is a bit of a git. Sometimes a lot of a git, but always a bit.
  • He is physically imposing, fit, fast and strong.
  • He is taller than the average British man.
  • He is white.

Together with height, whiteness is the most superficial trait that all versions of Bond have had in common. Whiteness is not part of the essential character of James Bond. Whiteness is part of the origin of Bond, along with the Cold War and all manner of 1950s period detail, long since discarded by film-makers. Whiteness is not anachronistic, but whiteness as an essential quality, important to Bond's character, context or any of the adventures he gets up to, is.

selection of outraged comments about the suggestion of Idris Elba as the new James Bond from the Daily Mail website, was making the rounds on Twitter (I found them so unlikely, I had to verify them. At Christmas time!). Among other nonsense, there are various demands that white actors be allowed to play fictional characters who had previously been cast as black.

These fictional characters included:
Idi Amin
Martin Luther King
Nelson Mandela
So, in other words, just Shaft; a character who can boast only a handful of films, only one of which everyone saw. A character who has only ever been played by one actor (remember, Samuel L. Jackson played Shaft's nephew). A character who lives in the Harlem of the 1970s, whose friends, contacts and context are largely black. A character whose experiences are informed by the racism of his country at the time. Shaft is a big black private dick, who's a sex machine to all the chicks.

Shaft is black as Hornblower is white. Hornblower is a British naval commander in the 1800s. There were British black folk about during the Napoleonic Wars, but racism would make it impossible for a black man to have such social privilege and education, let alone become a naval officer. Hornblower is a great white naval nob, who never thinks of petticoat when he's on the job.

Other characters have far greater flexibility. There are examples of characters, previously played by white actors, played by people of colour without a hitch; the new Annie is black, the recent Ironside is black (though played by a non-disabled actor). Both Guinevere and Elyan in the TV series Merlin (although there are people of colour in the Arthur legend) are black and Lucy Lui plays Watson in the US version of Sherlock. The only production of Julius Caesar I've seen had an all black cast and was fantastic. Yeah, Julius Caesar probably had paler skin, but he also spoke Latin and he probably died saying, "Aaaarrrrggghhh!"rather than "Et tu brute? Then fall Caesar!"

Far far more often, literary characters are made white, or much paler, on our screens (just in the last year, see Noah*, Exodus: Gods & Kings and Half of a Yellow Sun). In the same way, disabled characters are either made non-disabled or played by non-disabled actors. The excuses are that there are too few actors of colour with box office draw and no famous disabled actors at all (maybe you have to get cast to get well-known).

However, the fact that the same industry routinely straightens out lesbian, gay and bisexual literary characters suggests another motive. There's a widespread belief that white straight non-disabled men can only tolerate movies and television shows where people like themselves predominate. This despite the fact that movies with strong female characters do very well indeed.

(Not that long ago, all significant characters were played by white folk. The most recognisable Othello on film remains a blacked-up Lawrence Olivier. Of course, in the earliest productions, even Desdemona was played by a white man. Times change. People change them.)

I'm not suggesting that we attempt to counter this erasure with a black Bond. I'm suggesting that if we can fiddle about with characters in order to appease the variously bigoted elements of the film and television industries, then there can be no argument about preserving the whiteness of a fictional character if there's an excellent non-white candidate.

Idris Elba would make an excellent Bond. Not all talented and charismatic actors can do it as there's a certain kind of charisma required. Even the omnipresent Cumberbatch has his limits. Elba is not the only candidate right now - Tom Hardy could do it, maybe Damien Lewis - but I can't think of anyone who would do it better.

Meanwhile, there are good reasons, in addition to pure merit, for casting a black guy as Bond or any lead role. Folk - especially young people - need to see themselves represented in a diversity of roles. Folk - especially young people - need to see one another represented in a diversity of roles. James Bond isn't exactly renowned for this, but hey.

Wednesday's New Yorker featured the following cartoon:
[A domestic scene where an older white lady clings to the arm of a tall black man in a santa outfit while an older white man with a long white beard looks on. The caption reads, "You've been Santa for a thousand years. Let Idris Elba have a chance!"]

It acknowledges that Idris Elba is a man of colour with an immense draw. But, well, who says Santa has been the same white man for a thousand years? Sometimes the Santa in a store grotto is black, as he is in Run DMC's Christmas in the Hollis video; he's just never black on Christmas cards or in movies. But he does change. He puts on and loses weight. He frequently restyles his hair and beard. He can be aged anywhere between about 35 and 80. He changes, possibly even regenerates. Is there any essential quality to Santa's character, context or behaviour that suggests whiteness?

And yes, on regeneration, the Doctor of Doctor Who could be a person of colour (though not Idris Elba - he too has his limits). The Doctor could also be a woman or non-binary, have a physical impairment or whatever else. Not should, just for the sake of it, but if an actor is right for the part.

We're talking fiction. Things still have to fit together; characters must be consistent, plots must hold. But the possibilities are as expansive as the silence that follows the question, "Why not?"

* The Bible makes no reference to Noah's race or his geographic location (unlike the story of Exodus, which is quite specifically not a time or place with a lot of Northern Europeans running the show). However, if you're going to recount a world-famous origin myth and you the resources of a major production, you have really four options:

  1. Cast people of African descent because that's where all our early ancestors were.
  2. Cast a great mix of ethnicity, to represent the diversity of humanity on Earth. 
  3. Cast people who look like the people who created and eventually wrote down the myth, 
  4. Cast only white people, because only white people matter.
These things do not apply if you're making a student film, a school play or a theatrical production with a small company. But in a big budget movie depicting a myth that belongs to a huge proportion of the world's population, the decision to employ an all-white cast supports a very particular world-view. 

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Our Christmas looks like this. (A hearth over
an open fire with an enormous Christmas tree
in the background).
Today, I am thirty-four years old.  Life is a lot better than it was this time last year. Obviously, the dead stay gone, but it has been a year characterised by healing. Healing is not the same as fixing, but there's been some fixing happening too. The greatest fix is that finally, Stephen and I have our own home which is one of the very best things that has ever happened for us. We have borrowed a Christmas tree and we're spending our first Christmas on our own.

When I thought about writing my birthday post, I thought, but that's it really. We moved. This entire year has been taken up by thinking, talking, planning that move, moving, then trying to get organised in our new place. I mentioned this to Stephen and he promptly corrected me.

My year in unordered bullet points:
  • In the last six months, my health has improved. What was a good day at the beginning of the year is close to a normal day now. I'm getting bad days, rather than weeks. I don't know how this can be the case given the stress and effort involved in the move. I get a little nervous about it, afraid I'll mess it up or catch a nasty bug and lose all this progress. However, it's extremely nice.
  • I finally joined Facebook. I had resisted it for years, but after Emma died I was full of regret that we hadn't spoken more often in recent months. I hoped Facebook would be a way of having more contact with some of the people I care about, and yes, it is. 
  • Connected but not limited to this, I seem to have acquired a bunch of really great people in my life. I don't mean to suggest I have gained a great crowd of bosom buddy besties, but I have supportive people I like immensely. Some are new, others became more prominent and some are lost friends now returned. 
Lanky the wolf. (A terrifying wolf made
out of grey fabric, wearing trousers, a
waistcoat and bow-tire)
  • There have been family crises, some decidedly unbloggable. My Dad lost a third brother and my Granny lost her third son in very difficult circumstances. My mother-in-law had a bad fall from which she is only very slowly recovering, at a time when we'd just moved and couldn't travel to see her. Stephen hasn't seen his Mum since the summer, so that's the big negative of having Christmas all to ourselves. 
  •  I was going to finish my second novel this year, but we moved. It's close though and disaster notwithstanding, it will be done soon.
  • In June, I became a permanent blogger for The F-Word. This is a great honour and something I enjoy a lot. Here's a quick list of posts, in case you haven't seen any of them: 
Kirsty Allsop and myths about women's choicesSelf-defense as rape preventionPermission to kiss: consent is simpleWhen break-up music turns sinisterSexual assault allegations and attention-seekingWhen your lover says you're ugly, it's a low-down lieRichard Dawkins and the logic of "date rape"Reluctant WomenSex, lies and statisticsWhat does it mean to be vulnerable?Restrictions on porn which protect no-oneAre fat people disabled?
  • Because we've been so bogged down with house-related stuff, we've made a particular effort marking events. We celebrated our two first wedding anniversaries. We got over-excited about the Eurovision Song Contest. We celebrated my parents' 40th wedding anniversary in October, which went really well (at least, they're still together). We all wore red (it's the Ruby anniversary) and I carved flattering pumpkin-effigies of them. 
A painting of Sophie, a toddler dressed as a
superhero, standing on a cloud with the night
sky in the background.
  • We started going to church. As a disabled Christian, Stephen has struggled to find any spiritual home where he doesn't feel inconvenient until now. As a bisexual humanist, I anticipated a lot of difficulty with what's basically an Anglo-Catholic church, but it's all extremely egalitarian and anti-establishment. I mean, seriously. My main problem is that I get really into the hymns but then dyslexia strikes; I have recently read (and sung) "gifts of goodness and money" for "gifts of goodness and mercy" and, more critically, "man-made God" for "God-made man". 
  • I haven't had the space or time to paint very much, but I did produce one painting (right) and I'm still rather pleased with it. 
  • We got to see quite a lot of our nephew and niece, who are doing really well. Our nephew Alex is doing well and is a very curious and creative kid. Sophie is talking and singing more or less constantly, and her drawing is amazing. She drew her first recognisable human face before the age of two (I mean, it was recognisable as a human face - the likeness to her subject (her Mummy) was less impressive). 
  • We made a rag rug and I've done a lot of sewing. I have sewed a few items of clothing, a big bad wolf for my niece's birthday and a lot of curtains. So many curtains. Most of the curtains are now hanging at the windows with unfinished hems - I'm letting the creases drop out, in theory, although they've now had a couple of months to do this. We've also done some sugar-craft and a big marquetry project. So we did do other things, apart from moving.
Thank you all for being around.  Hope you have a lovely peaceful Christmas if you celebrate it and a very happy New Year. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Potato Harvest

Stephen and I finally moved into our own place.  It's weirdly blissful. Weirdly because there's a lot going on and we've still got a huge amount to organise and work out. But it's so peaceful. We're very busy and very peaceful; quietly productive.

We live opposite a junction and watch a lot of agricultural traffic passing through; enormous slow but very deadly looking farm machinery, mud-splattered jeeps, the occasional horse. Every now and again, we'll be sitting quietly in our living room (our living room) and Stephen will exclaim, "Potatoes!" as a truck, bearing enough spuds to feed the village for a year, goes by.

For almost two weeks, I couldn't believe we'd really done it. We've talked about a home of our own for four and a half years. We've talked so much and planned and schemed, so that actually moving in felt like a further exercise in fantasy, as if we'd been allowed to play house for a few days before having to go home. Home - I was finally given my own key to my parents' house on the day I moved out.

This spell was broken by a new washing machine - strictly speaking, a washer-dryer. Turns out, when the machines achieve singularity, they won't take over and enslave us, they'll simply humiliate us by undermining all logical steps we might take to wash our clothes. We could have fantasised about the peace and quiet, the freedom and the flat-pack furniture (it's so satisfying). I wouldn't have fantasised about spending the best part of a day trying to get one load clean and dry(ish). So it had to be real.  It's real.

When he was a boy, Stephen heard the Strangler's Golden Brown and understood perfectly; Golden brown, texture like sun - Hugh Cornwell was quite obviously singing about his love for potatoes, a love that young Stephen could relate to.

This is one reason why I love him. I've known a few people who have survived periods of adversity by holding fast to some positive in their life; a dream for the future, a passion in the present, a pet cat. At some point, Stephen learned to find joy in the minutia; the pattern of veins on a leaf, the comfort of woolen socks or the glorious versatility of the humble spud. He's carried me through difficult times this way. Bad morning? Then let's make lunch an event. To say every day is special sounds both corny and slightly nauseating, but the truth is occasionally like that.

Manna From Potato Heaven; a large, still rather dirty
potato embraced by a pair of manly white hands.
As the potato-laden lorries turn the corner, they lose a little of their load. You often see this in the countryside, at this time of year; mostly root veg and sugar beet, scattered along the outside of sharp corners, usually cracked by the fall and crushed by the proceeding traffic. The gutter outside our house is strewn with spuds, partially-mashed.

A large specimen lands in our garden, perfectly intact. We'll have that. Vegetarian roadkill.

We've always lived in other people's homes, one way or another. Stephen has always lived with his parents. I've lived with my parents, my ex-husband and briefly, a friend, but I've always had to fit myself to other people's routines and rituals, the way other people want to do things, sometimes infuriating in their futility, sometimes just impossible to abide by fully. When I first left my ex-husband, the relative freedom was overwhelming; when you've had someone else dictating everything from what you wear to how you make a cup of tea, it's hard to know where to begin.

Something similar is happening now, although it's shared between us. We need to work out how to manage our energy, now that we can do pretty much what we like, whenever we like. Fending for ourselves, we need to use a lot of energy on the basics, but those basics don't need to accommodate anyone else, whether in terms of space or timing or anxiety that if there's food on every shelf of the fridge, it may stop working altogether.

It's a long time since I lived in a town; I've never lived in the city.  But I don't know what comes next, once all the potatoes are gathered in.  I'm sure onions came earlier - late August, early September. You could smell them, even if you couldn't see them.  Once the potato lorries drive away (Potato Merchant, one of them declares on the side), is that it, for the winter?

I'm so tremendously happy right now.

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