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


Diary of a Goldfish

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:
Shaft
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

34

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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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Lesbian for a Year - some questions.

I've been thinking about Lesbian For A Year by Brooke Hemphill, a memoir of a straight woman who, frustrated by the single life, decided to forego men and date women for a year. I haven’t read the whole thing; this article by the author describes the basis for the book and how "Ultimately, dating women made me a better straight person."

All I seem to have here is questions:

What if a lesbian got fed up of women (it happens) and decided to date men for a year?  Would this be a marketable memoir? What would the backlash look like? Would we expect straight men to be more or less insulted to find themselves portrayed as romantic and sexual guinea pigs?

Many gay men and lesbians have spent a year or ten pretending to be straight; dating people of other genders, occasionally even marrying them. Is anyone interested in gay perspectives on the straight life and if not, why not? 

Could a woman hope to become “a better lesbian” by dating a few men? Can we only become better people by occupying marginalised spaces? If so, what hope for self-improvement among marginalised people?

Why is it that the word bisexual seems entirely unavailable to some people who experience romantic and sexual attraction or relationships with both men and women*?  Folks should be free to use whatever labels they like, but outside of single-sex environments, is it common for straight women to enjoy sex  or having romantic relationships with women? What makes a straight person straight?  

Imagine that a straight guy wrote a book, “Gay man for a year.”  He was fed up with women, finding them too demanding or fussy or whatever the stereotype may be. Then one morning after a night on the town, he wakes up in bed with a man, and decides to give gayness a go. Observing the behaviour of other men in romantic relationships, he realises something about himself before returning to the pursuit of lady-love.

Yeah, imagine that.

Why am I so certain that such a book would never happen? Why do I suspect that if a man conducted such an experiment, he might be anxious to keep it a secret from his friends, and from any future girlfriends?

Sexuality is weird and wonderful. The way our culture frames sexuality is plain weird.


C N Lester has some suggestions for alternative books they would rather read


* I assume most bisexual people are attracted to members of various genders of which men and women are but two, but in this case, it's about men and women.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Robin Williams, narratives of depression and suicide.

In the month since the death of Robin Williams, there has been a lot of social and mainstream media discussion about depression and suicide. This is a good thing. The more we talk about it, the more likely that we might move towards a position where mental illness is seen as the commonplace yet debilitating experience it is, the more likely we are to better manage these conditions as a society and the greater the hope that meaningless deaths and the devastation they cause can be avoided. 

But as with any move towards greater awareness, there are a lot of messages floating around which aren't necessarily helpful, which simplify illness and risk re-enforcing assumptions about mental illness. Emma wrote about the simplistic message that folk just need to tell someone, and I want to talk about other dominant narratives of suicide and depression.

The world at large cannot know what was going through Robin Williams’ mind when he decided to take his life. We know about some sources of stress in his life (a cancelled show, potential bankruptcy, a Parkinson's diagnosis). We know that he had bipolar disorder and a history of alcohol and substance abuse. However, there is no neat story to tell – not right now and maybe never – about what he was thinking and why he did what he did. 

However, that doesn't stop us pretending there is. 


“This is what depression feels like.”

I’ve seen so many articles with this kind of title since the death of Robin Williams and you know what?  That’s not what depression feels like. My experience of depression isn’t exactly extensive – it’s probably about eighteen months, all totted up, but even I can tell you that it feels like physical pain, also numbness, also total emptiness, also like all the colours have been toned down, also utter blackness, also a menacing figure in the corner of the room, also complete indifference, also a bell jar and a black dog. Not all at once, you understand, but it changes.  Meanwhile, symptoms vary hugely between individuals; how much a person can do, how sociable they are, whether they're sleeping all day or not at all, whether they're eating all day or not at all, and so forth. 

I think it’s immensely important to talk about our personal experiences of depression – the biggest barrier for people seeking help is the fear of judgement and misunderstanding, the belief that they are the only person who has ever felt like this (or at least the only person they know). So it really is great that people have the courage to write about their darkest experiences. 

However, framing anything as a definitive account (perhaps especially when it’s beautifully written) plays into the idea that this is a condition which looks one particular way. That readers of such accounts can know exactly how Robin Williams, or any person with depression, must have felt.  

This is especially dangerous when it comes to perceptions of functional impairment; the idea that someone with serious depression can't get out of bed, or will withdraw from the world altogether.  There's a danger of assuming our friend who is having dark thoughts but still making it into work each day will be just fine.

Fortunately, it's possible to be both respectful and compassionate without having to know exactly how a person is feeling at any given moment in time.


#depressionlies

Yes, depression lies.  Depression can make people believe things about themselves, their lives and other people which are not true.  A truly wonderful person can come to hate themselves because of this trick. A very fortunate person surrounded by love and material comforts may hate their life because of this trick. 

But.

Some people experience depression for random chemical reasons, as with post natal depression, but many others have depression caused or compounded by abuse, trauma, discrimination, isolation, physical illness, poverty, heartbreak, bereavement and very often, a combination of these things.  Meanwhile, depression makes a person more vulnerable to negative life events, to poverty, to exploitation, to losing supportive relationships and to other physical and mental health problems. In other words, people with depression are likely to have some very real problems in their lives. 

And people with depression are not believed.  It is much harder for people with mental ill health to get the benefits they’re entitled to.  When someone with depression takes a physical symptom to the doctor, it will often be put down to depression. When someone with depression takes a criminal case to the police, they may be told that they are an unreliable witness. When someone perceived to have a mental illness speaks out about politics, an elected official may advise them to "refrain from commenting in the public domain" as if a diagnosis discredits a person completely. 

People who live with these experiences often wind up with problems trusting themselves, rendering #depressionlies a far more complex message than can be done justice to in 140 characters. 

Meanwhile, all chronic illness lies.  Chronic pain is a lie – the point of pain is to warn you of injury or illness, so you can respond accordingly, recover and avoid whatever made you hurt in the first place. Chronic pain says that there’s a crisis now, when (often, at least) there’s no crisis at all and nothing you can do.  Chronic pain tells you to stay still when you need to move and to move when you need to stay still.


“People don’t die by suicide. They die of depression.”

Suicide is a physical act, not an internal experience. People take their lives in a great variety of circumstances. One person might plan their death a year in advance.  Another person, in the absence of any mental health problem, finds themselves in a difficult situation, panics and departs.  Suicide is not, as one commentator has it, a symptom of depression.

Suicide is a physical act at one particular moment in time - this is one reason why speculating on why Robin Williams, or any other person, died, is ridiculous. All these deaths tell us is that, at one particular moment in time, a person intended either to to gamble with their lives, to inflict severe self-injury or to end their life. Sometimes people die and those left behind have no idea what was going through their minds. Sometimes a person gets very drunk or stoned or desperate or angry and makes a dreadful mistake which would not have occurred to them the following day. The fact that a deceased person had depression doesn't mean they were in complete agony for months leading up to this event. These are tragic deaths.

I feel we desperately need to be honest about this because suicide is highly preventable. One of the great tragedies of suicide is the fact that, in very many circumstances, external events might have disrupted the act. Speak to people with a history of suicidal depression and you frequently hear stories of rescue; this event, this person, this pet, even a personal realisation that struck them at the right moment saved their life

Depression is not a simple condition and occasionally, people don't get completely better. But it's often simple kindnesses, responsibilities and thin rays of hope which enable people to survive the worst periods and regain some quality of life. 

Meanwhile, there is a hell of a lot we can do, socially, culturally and politically to help reduce the impact of depression on people's lives, so far fewer people ever get into a position of danger. Both depression and suicide are hugely influenced by sociological factors (including the way that famous suicides are reported).

Describing suicide as if it is something that just happens to depressed people is doing no-one any favours.  It patronises people with depression and renders the rest of us helpless.

Fortunately, we're not.

....
If you're in trouble right now, these links may be useful:

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

On writing & listening to music

My iPod is rather like a vortex manipulator; the most primitive transport through time and space. Music can make me feel most like myself, my secret cool self, the self where all things are possible and then again, music can make me feel most like someone else entirely. Music in an effective way of changing gears. Music is an effective way of changing masks.

If you know what sort of music a person likes and particularly, the way they hear it, you know an awful lot about them. I find it really useful to give distinct musical tastes to characters. Outside fiction, of course, you nearly never know how other people hear music, which is why it can be so reassuring that Barrack Obama cited Ready or Not as his favourite track, yet so devastating when David Cameron professed to love the Smiths. Yet, try to consider just how David Cameron actually might listen to the Smiths. The lyrics change their meaning. The colours of the music are completely altered. Can you imagine? He hears “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” and is moved to demolish the welfare state while vilifying the poor.

The article I linked to documenting Cameron’s love for the Smiths quotes him as saying, "The lyrics – even the ones I disagree with – are great, and often amusing.”

That's interesting, because not everyone listens to pop music thinking, "Now, that's an ideological point of view I disagree with, but that cat sure be laying down some the phat rhymes."  So that's another thing to consider, when using music to tune into fictional characters; Charles Manson thought that the Beatles' White Album was all about race war. People hear and interpret lyrics differently; sometimes they don't matter and sometimes they're everything.

Tragically, David Cameron is not a fictional character, but if he were, understanding how he enjoyed the Smiths would be very useful to his creator. Playing the Smiths while writing about him would be useful. No reader need know about any of this - the subject need never be raised. But it's co-ordinates in time and space.

That having said, there's no harm in musical references. A detective with an eccentric taste in music has become a cliche in British detective fiction, but that's only because it worked so well with Morse (classical, particularly Wagner) or Rebus (rock, particularly The Rolling Stones). I’m really excited in movies and TV shows when they pick distinct music which a character actively chooses to listen to - McNulty listening to The Tokens' version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight while tailing Stringer Bell or Walter White racing along the desert highway to A Horse With No Name.

There are people – and therefore there must be fictional characters – who either can’t or don’t appreciate music (I have known a few extremely lovely and poetic people who are either deaf or just not bothered for music). In these cases, it may be necessary to plug into some other piece of culture that a character is into; a favourite movie, TV programme, a favourite painting or whatever. Only naturally, you can’t do that while writing, and it often takes more time and consideration.

Beyond the matter of character, I use music as an aid to concentration. I can only work for short spells and time, energy and peace arrive at fairly random intervals. I have to get in there as quick as I can.

This music is not music that I would particularly enjoy in other circumstances, because it has to meet the following criteria:

  1. A track has to be at least four minutes long. Longer is good.
  2. A track can't have a lot of variation - the classical music I love provides long movements, but often with too much going on.  
  3. I must be very familiar with this track for some reason, even if that reason isn't love for the music.
There's a fair amount of classic music that's good for this, as is goth music; Bauhaus' Bela Legosi's Dead goes on forever. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry's Talk About The Weather is shorter but you can play it on repeat and not notice that it's ended and started again. Dance tracks from the 1990s which became numbingly familiar on the bus to and from high school are also very useful; Adamski & Seal's Killer or What is love? by Haddaway. That kind of nonsense. 

I don't dislike this music, but if I were a fictional character, it would not be mine.  

There are dangers listening to music when writing, apart from obvious things like singing, dancing and spending half an hour rearranging a playlist before you’ve even got started.

The first is feeling it too much. When I was younger, I treated fiction-writing much as I treated dramatic performance, as if, should I only feel everything a fictional character feels, the reader would too. Only actually, feeling it all makes it impossible to write. Your tears may short the keyboard but that doesn't make for articulate prose. As music is such a catalyst to strong emotion, it’s sometimes best to listen to a tune before writing in silence. You can take notes. No, don't just copy down the lyrics - what are you? Twelve?

The second is feeling hampered by the fact that nothing you can write in words can ever be as expressive and exciting as music, because music is the bomb. You’re thinking about the way a character feels, you listen to a track and know that you cannot express their feeling better than what you just heard. It’s true, you really can’t. But music cannot tell complex narratives with all the richness that entails. It's different. You can practice your guitar later on.

The third is the temptation to nerd out about music in writing, which is always unwise when one's purpose is to get on and tell a story. There are exceptions - here is one, from Howards End

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