Monday, December 30, 2013

All The Books We Read In 2013

We turned our notebook upside down and back to front and used the other end to record all the fiction books we read in 2013. We didn't read all books together, but negotiated a running order. Some of the books we read together, one of us had read before. Some were audiobooks, some paper books and some e-books.

We also read some non-fiction books  but they're not so easy to rate or compare and Stephen read a lot of short stories.

So, the book-shaped works of fiction we read in 2013, worst to best:

Cross and Burn - Val McDermid - 4/10 (read by The Goldfish)
Dolly - Susan Hill - 5/10 (The Goldfish)
Blacklands - Belinda Bauer - 6/10 (The Goldfish)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Susanne Collins - 7/10 (read by Mr Goldfish)
One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night - 7/10 (read together)
The Accusers - Lindsay Davis  - 7/10 (together)
Guns in the Gallery - Simon Brett - 7/10 (The Goldfish)
A Darker Domain - Val McDermid - 7/10 (The Goldfish)
Squirrel seeks Chipmunk - David Sedaris - 7/10 (together)
Reaper Man - Terry Pratchett - 7/10 (together)
World War Z - Max Brooks - 7.5/10 (Mr Goldfish)
The Broken Shore - Peter Temple - 7/5/10 (The Goldfish)
The Dark Adapted Eye - Barbara Vine - 7.5/10 (The Goldfish)

The Ides of April - Lindsay Davis - 8/10 (together)

Our Top Ten Books We Read In 2013

10. The Hunger Games - Susanne Collins - 8/10 (Mr Goldfish)
9. Bring Out The Bodies - Hilary Mantel - 8/5/10 (The Goldfish)
8. The Eye In the Door - Pat Barker - 9/10 (The Goldfish, on recommendation from Mr Goldfish)
7. Jagannath - Karin Tidbeck - 9/10 (Mr Goldfish)
6. Complicity - Iain Banks - 9/10 (The Goldfish)
5. The Cutting Room - Louise Welsh (The Goldfish - amazing audiobook read by Robert Carlyle) - 9/10
4. Watership Down - Richard Adams - 9/10 (together)
3. Regeneration - Pat Barker - 9.5/10 (the Goldfish, on recommendation from Mr Goldfish)
2. The Little Friend - Donna Tartt - 9.5/10 (together)
1. Oh Dear Silvia! - Dawn French - 10ish/10 (together - this was a particularly incredible audiobook production - it may not have been quite so amazing on the page.)

All The Movies We Saw In 2013

This year, we kept a notebook for all the films we watched for the first time and what we thought of them. We did this for fun and our own reference, but we might as well share our findings with you, as our tastes are impeccable. Avoid the Very Bad Films, Watch all the Very Good Films if you haven't already. Watch our Top Ten over and over and over, even the one about the giant crocodile and the other one about the sea monster off the coast of Ireland.

So, films we saw in 2013, worst to best. Where one of us had seen the movie before, the score is mostly determined by the person who was watching it fresh.

It is probably only right to disclose that one or other of us (usually me) slept through a number of these movies, but so long as one of us remained conscious throughout, we've scored it anyway - The Hobbit is the only one that scored higher than 4/10. We've left off Robot and Frank (2012) which I really do want to see the end of as Stephen says it's really very good - we'll save that for next year.

Very Bad Films 

Dark Shadows (2012) - 1/10
Carnage (2011) - 1/10
How To Rob A Bank (2007) - 1/10  
Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012) - 1.5/10
The Dinosaur Project (2012) - 2/10
Bottle Rocket (1996) - 2/10
Battleship (2012) - 2/10
Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters (2013) - 2/10
The Bourne Supremacy (2004) - First for Mr Goldfish (but I did warn him) - 2/10
A Good Day To Die Hard (2013) - 2.5/10

We disagreed about
The Master (2012) - Mr Goldfish gave 1/10, The Goldfish gave 4/10. Either way, it wasn't great.

Quite Bad Films

Dredd (2012) - 3/10
Abduction (2011) - 3/10
The Watch (2012) -3/10
Ice Age 4 (2012) - 3/10
World War Z (2013) - 3.5/10
Greenfingers (2000) - 3.5/10
Olympus Has Fallen (2013) - 4/10
Oblivion (2013) - 4/10
The Big Year (2011) - 4/10
Man on a Ledge (2012) - 4/10

Okay Films

Total Recall (2012) - 5/10  (1 for Bill Nighy, 1 for Brian Cranston plus 3.5 for set design)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy (2004) - 5/10
In The Loop (2009) - First for Mr Goldfish - 5/10
Iron Man 3 (2013) - 5/10
The Handmaid's Tale (1990) - First for the Goldfish - 5/10
Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (2012) - 5/10
Silent House (2011) - 5.5/10
Pirahna (1978) - First for the Goldfish - 5.5/10
Little Man Tate (1991) - First for the Goldfish - 6/10
Paul (2011) - 6/10
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) - 6/10
Loups Garous (2010) - 6/10
Despicable Me (2010) - 6/10
Dodgeball (2004) - First for the Goldfish - 6/10
One Hour Photo (2002) - First for the Goldfish - 6/10
Man on the Moon (1999) - First for the Goldfish - 6/10
Don't Look Now! (1973) - First for Mr Goldfish - 6/10
Point Blank (2010) - 6.5/10
Prometheus (2012) - 6.5/10
Skyfall (2012) - 6.5/10
Thale (2012) - 6.5/10
The Adjustment Bureau (2011) - 6.5/10

Quite Good Films

Brave (2012) - 7/10
Johnny English Reborn (2011) - 7/10
Source Code (2011) - 7/10
Unknown (2011) - 7/10
Shutter (2008) - 7/10
Orphan (2009) - 7/10
The Number 23 (2007) - First for Mr Goldfish - 7/10
The Manchurian Candidate (2004) - First for Mr Goldfish - 7/10
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) - 7/10
Strange Days (1995) - First for the Goldfish - 7.5/10
Towering Inferno (1974) - First for the Goldfish as an adult - 7.5/10
The Last Samurai (2003) - First for Mr Goldfish - 7.5/10
Inkheart (2008) - First for Mr Goldfish - 7/5/10
The Hurt Locker (2008) - First for Mr Goldfish - 7.5/10
Don't be afraid of the dark (2010) - 7.5/10
Twister (1996) - First for the Goldfish - 7.5/10

Very Good Films

Heat (1995) - First for the Goldfish - 8/10 (but only just)
Tootsie (1982) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8/10
Warm Bodies (2013) - 8/10
Vantage Point (2008) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8/10
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8/10
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) - First for the Goldfish - 8/10
The Tower (2012) - 8.25/10
Argo (2012) - 8.5/10
Kick Ass (2010) - First for the Goldfish - 8.5/10
Man on Fire (2004) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8.5/10
Fiddler on the Roof (1971) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8.5/10
Mama (2013) - 8.5/10
The Bourne Identity (2002) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8.5/10
The Life of David Gale (2003) - First for Mr Goldfish - 8.5/10

Sightseers (2012) - Mr Goldfish gave 8.5/10, The Goldfish abstained due to the uncanny familiarity of a serial killer character rendering the film inadvertently uncomfortable and disturbing.

Top Ten Films We Saw in 2013

10. The Wrestler (2008) - 8.5/10
9. Rogue (2011) - 9/10
8. Grabbers (2012) - 9/10
7. Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) - 9/10
6. The Hunger Games (2012) - 9/10
5. Stranger Than Fiction (2006) - First for Mr Goldfish - 9/10
4. Paranorman (2012) - 9/10
3. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) - First for Mr Goldfish - 9/10
2. Les Miserables (2012) - 9/10
1. Das Boot (1981) - First for Mr Goldfish - 9.5/10


The Dajeeling Limited (2007) - First for the Goldfish - 8.5/10 for cinematography and soundtrack, 2.5/10 for everything else. It's very beautiful, but has very little substance and some of that substance is offensive.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - 8/10 for film-making, perhaps 3/10 for narrative, but we concluded that this is the wrong point in history - if ever a point exists - to document these events in the form of a movie.

The Blindside (2009) - 8/10 for heart-warming schmultz, 1/10 for social justice. I can't believe that this film was made in 2009. We had to keep retrieving our jaws from the carpet.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Ten days ago, my old friend Emma died. She was one of the most passionate and courageous people I have ever known, one of the very best friends I've ever had. Without her, I may not have survived the first years of illness. She had a brain aneurysm, then a stroke and died at the age of 32. 

Today is my thirty-third birthday. I had decided against posting my usual review of the year, but then it would be wrong to behave as if this has ruined the year. Emma was around for most of 2013. She won't be around at all in 2014, which makes 2013 an altogether better year in this respect. Death is a permanent absence, not a dark blot on a timeline, even if there is a particular point when it is more painful than it will be in the future.

In the end, I decided that the thing I can't do is write about the lows of the year, which have been numerous and some remain ongoing, but since none of them involve the death of someone I really love, they're all pale and pathetic just now. Meanwhile, I am very lucky and an awful lot of good things have happened for me this year.

Thus, the positive aspects of my year, in bullet points:

  • From the middle of February to the middle of March, we rented a cottage on the Norfolk Broads with a friend, to see how we got on living together. We got on very well. It was a beautiful place and there were several days when we watched a Barn Owl hunting up and down the adjacent field. It wasn't meant to be a holiday - we tried to carry on as normal - but it was as good as a holiday and a very nice one it was too.
  • In April, Mr Goldfish and I got legally married, amid an unseasonable blizzard. This was supposed to be a very quiet bureaucratic affair but, with the help of a small invading army of only-vaguely-invited family, ended up being really rather special. We became demi-husband and demi-wife.
  • Throughout the summer this year especially, we were lucky enough to see a lot of niblings Sophie and Alex. They're wonderful kids, if in completely different ways.
  • In July, we had our wedding in my parents' back garden. This was extremely special. We were quite nervous about doing everything differently and effectively leading the service ourselves, but apart from a slight panic the night before about whether it would be possible to broadcast on-line, it was everything we had hoped for and more besides. Thanks to all of you that helped make it so special.
  • About a week later, we embarked on what turned out to be a six week honeymoon in Ceredigion. This was blissful. I swam in the sea. I wrote and wrote. Stephen did some woodcarving. We both painted a little. It was wonderfully peaceful after months of stress and excitement.
  • During our honeymoon, we became a media sensation after Suffolk Police issued a press release about my pencil. At one point, my face appeared on the front page of Cambridge News. We were discussed on Heart FM. Google suffolk police pencil - it got all over East Anglia. Charting the progress of our media fame through a intermittent mobile connection was both surreal and hilarious. Especially as, when I told my folks about the first newspaper we were in, they wouldn't believe it.
  • I have done a hell of a lot of writing this year and have been generally feeling very good about it. If I hadn't been so ill in the last few months, I would have almost certainly finished my second novel. As it is, it's coming along very well.
  • My favourite cousin had a baby and quite unexpectedly, we got to spend an afternoon with them both soon after. New babies are always fascinating.
  • In mid-October, we celebrated my Mum's 60th birthday. She was terrified that we were planning a surprise party with all her friends and family there, despite explicit instructions not to and our reassurances that we wouldn't. So, as it was, the quiet gathering was a little like a surprise party, in that Mum had convinced herself she was in for something much worse.
  • Early in December, we learned that there's a good chance that we should be able to move out from our parents' houses into a place of our own at some point in the new year. This is very exciting news, only slightly complicated by the various and significant complications life holds at the minute.
Next year will be completely different. Right now I have many many feelings. They're not all bad, by any means; I count my considerable blessings. It is also impossible to lose someone so brilliant without reflecting on your tremendous fortune for ever having them in your life, for their good example and all the lessons they taught you. 

I hope you all have a super Christmas if you celebrate it, a lovely break if you don't and an extremely happy New Year. Thanks for reading, commenting and generally being around in 2013.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

It's okay to call Tom Daley bisexual, even if he isn't.

Young Olympic diving hero Tom Daley talked publicly yesterday about being in a relationship with a man, provoking a huge variety of responses in my Twitter stream. These ranged from the romantic realism of "Oh good, I fancy Tom Daley and I'm a man, so there's hope for us yet!" to straight people coming out as straight in hilarious parody because, in their world, homophobia is a thing of the past... last week sometime, whatever, they're over it already.  But there was also an argument raging about what labels should be sewn on the young man's swimming trunks.

Some news outlets described Daley as gay when he had said he is still into girls. There were a deluge of complaints about bi erasure, followed by a second wave of scorn for anyone who described Daley as bi, given that he hadn't used the label himself:
Tom Daley has not said he is gay or bi. Let him choose his own label, if/when he wants to. - @kindjourneys
Find bi carping over media calling Tom Daley gay as annoying as the media calling every MSM gay. Project rigid sexual identity? No thanks. @MxsQueen.
(A deluge, as you see - there were many others but these were most direct and to the point).

On the same day, I read an article from last week, daringly entitled: Lesbianism: Sexual fluidity is a fact of life for women. The headline is misleading - the author, Stephanie Theobold doesn't actually claim that all women can experience profound shifts in who they're sexually attracted to, but does suggest a widespread degree of fluidity based on a great hodgepodge of evidence, some valid (the author herself has experienced such fluidity), and some irrelevant (glamorous straight interviewees expressing an enthusiasm for lesbianism - as does my Mum. She will physically cringe at a scene on telly where two women kiss, but on hearing that a woman is gay, she'll always say, "Well, it sort of makes sense - with another woman, you wouldn't have to be clearing up after her all the time.").

Human sexuality is fascinating and strange and labels are never ever going to cover it. In her article, Stephanie Theobold tries hard, referring to the fact she now identifies as a Kinsey 4. reminding me of folks who offer their Myers-Briggs results by way of introduction (and the fact you remember your MBTI results and offer them as important information about yourself says a lot, regardless of the actual result).

In fact, I can easily imagine a future whether someone will devise a Myers-Briggs type matrix to describe sexuality. You'd need more letters, of course. I'd guess you'd need at least four options for libido, ranging from asexual to highly sexual. Then at least four options for sexual preference - hetero, homo, bi and fluid. Of course, bisexual is complicated - many people reject bi as referring to two genders as opposed to homo and hetero, so we may need pansexual to clear that one up. For some people, being monogamous or polyamorous is something they feel is absolutely hard-wired, so maybe that should be included too.

Recently, a friend described themselves as sapiosexual (attracted primarily to the minds of others, rather than any particular shape of body) which implies yet another spectrum between sapiosexuals and... carnisexuals? - people for whom, sex is all about flesh and circus performers. Added to this is kink, which throws us into a complex web of multicoloured handkerchiefs,

In a culture which wants to place us all in one of two boxes - straight or gay - and where those boxes are loaded down with expectation, it is understandable that folks seek to define their own special box with great care. To describe myself as bisexual is necessarily an over-simplification. Bisexual is not a love story. Bisexual is not even a story about sex. It doesn't tell anyone anything about my behaviour, it isn't clear what it says about my feelings and it doesn't say whether this is how I am now, or this is how I've always been.

But as a political word, bisexual is just fine. Perhaps disability helps with this, partly because medical matters are far less interesting than sexual ones, but mostly because I'm used to separating the social and political effects of an identity (disability) from the personal mess of how I come to it (impairment, chronic illness, however else you'd phrase it).

This is why it is valid to talk about bisexuality in the context of Tom Daley. Not to say that he's bi in the sense of having joined our club and why isn't he waving our flag already. This isn't about labels, but merely description. Bless him, but the poor lad is already experiencing (hopefully unknowingly) prejudice as a bisexual man; the assumption that he must be gay, the assumption that, by loving a man, all attraction he claims to women is the folly of youth or a strategic ploy to avoid seeming too queer. He is also experiencing prejudice as a gay man, because of general assumption that he is and all the homophobia that follows.

All this becomes harder to describe if we can't use the word bisexual as opposed to experiences attraction towards his own gender and members of at least one other gender. The media assumption that a man who loves another man is gay is something which effects all bisexual people. It's okay to discuss that.

Same if we were talking about historic or fictional characters. Unless someone has identified the words they would choose themselves, we have no choice but to use the words that best describe the feelings or behaviour we witness (and sometimes we have to override folk - the protagonists from Brokeback Mountain insist that they're not queer, Liberace insisted he was straight, but we wouldn't be able to discuss their experiences without accepting that they are wrong.)

As queer people, we should reject the idea of rigid sexual identity. It shouldn't matter if anyone was born this way or happens to feel this way for the first time in their mid-seventies. But worrying about using a word like bisexual in this context is the anxiety that bisexual is something rigid, unwieldy, a mantle which, once placed on someone's shoulders, will stay on them for life. Tom Daley may never describe himself as bisexual. As disabled people, we're very used to famous and successful disabled people telling us that they don't see themselves as disabled. But if we're to talk about the way they're treated in the media and society at large, we need to use these words about them.

There are many contexts where it is inappropriate to presume a label. In conversation, we should avoid assumption and never demand that people use words they're not comfortable with. Describing famous people with words they wouldn't use themselves is very different from talking about our friends and acquaintances.

But if we want to promote a world where sexual identity does become politically irrelevant, where our labels become far more nuanced, flexible and fluid, then we need to remove the weight from the language we have to work with now, the language that everyone understands.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This will make you cry

When I am less well - and just now, I am less well - I cry very easily. Nothing to do with unhappiness. It's more about the loss of certain inhibitions - I also laugh very easily, sometimes way too easily. But crying is more of a problem.

I might cry because something is sad, because it is happy or because it is beautiful, I cry when I try and talk about deep emotions, even (especially) entirely positive ones. And I hate it. I hate crying. Of course, I'd much rather cry than vomit - vomiting is physically painful, messy and smells bad - but crying is similarly uncontrollable, exhausting and demoralising. You don't want other people see you do it.

Worse is that most people only cry when they're really very upset. There are people I have known all my life who I have only seen cry once or twice. So it's natural to assume that a crying person is extremely distressed. Which can either make people feel anxious or guilty, or, sometimes, irritated.

Have your tissues at the ready.

I can't stand others telling me when I should or shouldn't be moved to tears except that, my heart hardened by indignation, it makes it less likely I will.

This household is obsessed with Strictly Come Dancing. Four of us sit down together and watch Strictly: It Takes Two every weekday evening, as well as the weekend shows. Every Monday, Zoe Ball interviews the dancing pair who have been eliminated at the weekend and she always tells us, averaging about ten times, that we're all going to cry. The dancers will cry. She will cry. The viewers at home will cry. Sometimes, she just talks about the urgent need for tissues, which makes the whole thing sound a bit disgusting, like everyone is about to leak or spurt in unexpected ways.

Rarely, does anybody cry. It happens occasionally, when people talk about the things that matter; the intense physical and emotional experience of learning to dance, the friendships formed, the art created. Ball thrusts a glittery box of tissues in their face as they speak, feeling the need to dramatise and glamourise something simple and human. She is the sort of person who uses hashtags in spoken language.

On-line people often precis a link with "This will make you cry."  This could be anything from a story about child soldiers in the Congo to a video of a puppy opening its eyes for the first time or the John Lewis Christmas Ad. And it's okay if any of these things do make you cry. But it's okay if they don't.

In fact, a story about child soldiers in the Congo, which is a really really terrible thing, might be less likely to make you cry. Just like the problems of our own lives, we can be numbed by our strength of feeling. We see a real-life problem as complex, and our brains are too busy trying to understand what's gone wrong and how it might be made better. This is why we can face serious illness, loss and bereavement and not cry for a good long while, if indeed ever. Or burst into tears on the spot. Complex situations provoke varied responses. All of them are legitimate.

"A mermaid has no tears, therefore she suffers more."

I have empathy issues. If I see you cry, I will probably cry. Watching TV, I will cry over a cake that's failed to rise if the person baking it is moved to. If I see you laugh sincerely, I will laugh without knowing why. If there's a crowd scene in a film when everyone is cheering for the evil tyrant, I will want to cheer, even though it is for the evil tyrant*. If I see a person or animal get injured, I can flinch so violently that I might injure myself. Increased empathy is among the stranger long-term side effects of dihydrocodeine.

(The only thing I don't copy from other people is yawning. That one's broken. I could sit in a room full of yawners, during a lecture on the contagious power of yawning and I wouldn't yawn. Odd.)

This obviously doesn't make me a better person - I feel like cheering the evil tyrant. It doesn't tell me how other people are feeling, doesn't make me understand other people's problems. I do try to understand, but that's a choice.

So much of our media-saturated culture would teach us that depth of feeling, and displays of feeling, are what counts. Last week's Children in Need is a good example. During the week, the British public gave £30 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal for the Philippines, on the strength of news reports (including reports like one I saw on the BBC, which amounted to "The trouble with Johnny Foreigner is that he can't queue in an orderly fashion, and that's why he gets into this kind of fix.")

No need for vicars in bathtubs of baked beans or moving VTs with soft focus wheelchairs and tragic music. On Friday, the British public gave about the same amount (£31 million) to Children in Need. But telethons are not really about raising money. They are about making people feel good - or specifically, making people feel like good people. The programming is designed like the most manipulative rousing sermon, with a mixture of spiritual highs (Yeah, we're really making a difference!), interspersed with deeply moving VTs about how tragic life is for the children - often disabled children or the children of disabled people (a tragedy that has nothing to do with say, the current political climate, cuts to care and services, welfare reform etc..).

And this tells you that you're a good person. You're a good person because you see suffering and respond with emotion, often with tears. You're a good person because you feel good about the fact that someone is doing something - you're supporting it, even if you're not actually, you know, supporting it. I don't know the viewing figures for Children in Need, but last year's were 8 million, raising £27 million, putting the average donation-per-viewer at under £3.50.

White Woman's Tears

Crying is a weapon of the passive aggressive. When people troll with feminine identities, they often claim to be driven to tears by the words of others. "After I read what you wrote, I cried for a whole hour!"

People do make each other cry on-line. Some people say horrible personal and insulting things. But what does the mere fact of tears indicate? If I cry and you don't, does that mean my pain is greater than yours, that your words have proven more hurtful than mine? And if - as is usually the case - we started off by arguing about a point of fact, do my tears mean that I win?

I think of White Woman's Tears; the use of hurt feelings by white women to silence black women, which often works because white women are seen as more feminine and crying - literally or figuratively - as a display of soft and gooey-hearted feminine sensitivity. Like when folk talk of sadness that Lily Allen should be met with criticism by those bullying all-powerful black ladies, when she's made such a sweet satirical video.

(This is the way my mind works. I don't experience white guilt when I cry, but you know, I think about social justice a lot.)

Crocodile Tears

I learnt to cry on demand as a stagestruck teenager, just as I learnt to fall to the ground without hurting myself (a skill that doesn't transfer to trips, falls and faints that aren't written into stage directions). The only time that's been useful has been during depression or bereavement, when tears are ironically unforthcoming, but I've really wanted to, needed to cry. Tears help to carry cortisone out of the body. I concede they have their uses, on occasion.

Obviously, you need to think of something sad. An appropriately sad thing might not be a real and seriously sad thing, like a personal bereavement - it has to be simpler than that, and less personal. Events from fiction, especially uncomplicated events, such as from children's books and films, especially things that stirred you early on. The death of Bambi's mother would work for a lot of us. The bit when Hazel realises he doesn't need his body any more at the end of Watership Down (here I go again).

After that you have to stop blinking. It helps to keep a light source in your line of vision - not to stare directly at a bright light, but to make sure you're half-turned toward a lamp, window, TV or computer screen. So your eyes are irritated.

You can sometimes tell when someone is making themselves cry. If you cry naturally, you usually lower your eyes (unless you're trying to talk to someone), you look away from the light and you blink much more than usual as your eyes attempt to rid themselves of the excess fluid. When George Osbourne was photographed crying at Thatcher's funeral, his head was up, eyes wide open and his face was turned slightly towards the light. Also, there's surely the face of a man with The Animals of Farthing Wood on his mind.

There's a genre of film called Weepy.

Last week we watched the movie of Les Miserables. I've known this music since I was eight or nine years old, and saw the stage show when I was seventeen, one of only two big shows I've ever seen (the other was Fame. It wasn't great.). The film is superb but I would have hated to sit through it in a public place. I had five separate bouts of crying.  Still, far more satisfying that my tears for the sacharine sad moments in even terrible films. I really do cry at the John Lewis Christmas Ad, despite it being twee and dreadful.

Some people seem to like crying, like Zoe Ball, and folks who chose to watch movies because they will make them cry. This isn't, I think, the paradox of tragedy - a weepy film or book doesn't need to involve hubris and might even have a happy ending. I think it is perhaps about bonding through tears. In tragedy, there is catharsis. In weepies, the emotional tank simply fills to overflowing and even if you watch them alone, you know that you feel as you're supposed to feel; you feel as the characters feel. If you're with other people, you feel as they feel. You cry together.

And I guess that's what folk are after when the tell us "This will make you cry."

They mean to say, "Feel as I feel. Cry with me"

* Stephen read this and said, "Be honest, you don't just want to cheer - you do cheer for the evil tyrant."
It's true. I avoid seeing any footage of the Nuremberg Rallies around people who don't know me extremely well. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

My Top 10 Complaints About Housing in the UK

I know - riveting! But this is something that, one way or another, effects most people I know under about 45. The effects vary greatly and I know that I am extremely lucky, an unlucky kind of way; there are folks I know who are far more securely stuck in unhappy housing situations or worse, teetering on the precipice of homelessness.

Anyway, here's why I think we're getting housing wrong in the UK:

10. It's too cheap to own a second home and leave it empty.

Second home-ownership is fairly ruinous to rural and coastal communities, pricing local people, on local wages, out of the housing market while flats and houses remain unoccupied most of the year. On the day of the 2011 Census, 29,000 residential properties in Cornwall - one of our poorest counties - stood empty.

It's not immoral for rich people to own second homes - I live between two homes, neither of which I own, but I can see the advantages of having places to live in two very different places, just as I can see the advantage in having a robot butler or more than three pairs of shoes. But what cannot be right at all is that tax law should make it cheaper to run a second home than it costs to run the first, through discounted council tax. At the very least, second-home owners should be paying full whack to support any community they own property in, given that their part time presence is unlikely to be an unmitigated force for local good.

On the same score, although MPs represent a small minority of second-home owners, they need to do much better (especially as so many have spoken of what a luxury it is for a poor person to have a second bedroom so their kids can stay over at the weekend). For one thing, any MP who fiddles their expenses to any extent needs to be fired, just like you would in a regular job. But if the tax-payer is to foot the bill for MP's second homes, this should be funded allowances according to need rather like housing benefit, e.g. a married MP with one child only needs a two bedroom property. If they want something bigger for their own comfort, they really can afford to pay for it themselves.

9. People enjoy living in expensive houses that they couldn't afford to live in if they didn't already own them.

There's house prices which vary, but fundamentally a house is only worth the cost of a similar house. If I owned a house that cost £150K, it wouldn't matter (very much) whether the price rose to £200K or dropped to £100K; selling that house would only generate enough money to buy another similar house in a similar area. I know it gets a little more complicated than that, but fundamentally.

The trouble is that people enjoy the fact that they bought their house for £3.50 thirty years ago and suddenly it's worth more money than they could ever have afforded if they didn't already own it - more money than their own kids, if they work in similar jobs, could ever dream of earning. I knew people who charted how much their house was worth during the boom as if this was real material wealth they were accumulating. High-rent prices mean that there are a lot of very wealthy landlords who didn't know a thing about property ten years ago. And the people who have benefited most tend to be of a generation who are also most likely to use their vote. They believe that they worked hard to pay off their mortgage (which they probably did, but everyone does), and if younger people can't afford to buy, that's their look out.

These people do not want to see the price of their houses fall, nor do they want their tenants paying any less rent. Yet elsewhere, when the recession hit, property prices fell and everyone survived in. We should stop seeing a property slump as the disaster to be avoided at all costs - apart from anything else, one of those costs could be a far more massive slump than would have happened otherwise.

8. We're not building enough of the right kind of housing (I)

In the UK, we're building very old-fashioned houses, with an only limited nod to environmental concerns. Outside house-building TV programs, the houses I see being built now look exactly like the houses I watched going up when I was a kid.  Where is our architectural imagination? Why aren't we using any of the technology that's developed in the past thirty years on mainstream development?

Part of this is about the environment (and for the most part, environmental materials are not expensive to use and generate work within the UK), but quite obviously, making homes where people will source most of their heat and light from the sun, ground, air or whatever, would lower the cost of living. It seems ridiculous that almost all the houses we're building now will still be predominantly reliant on fossil fuels, when those things are only going to get more and more expensive.

7. We're not building enough of the the right kind of housing (II)

Another problem with new builds is that every single one I've seen is on two storeys. They're also small, not just small rooms, but very narrow walkways, making them difficult to navigate with crutches, let alone a wheelchair.

While I don't want to sound pessimistic about old age and disability, with 1/5 of the population over 60, the number of people who struggle with stairs, at least to some extent, is an increasing minority. But there's nowhere for them to live. I know dozens of disabled people of all ages, who still live in houses with stairs, but remain on one floor or struggle - dangerously, and at detriment to their health - to get up and down stairs.

I understand that building up is much cheaper than building across, but I can't understand why there is no obligation on developers to build a small proportion of houses that are fully accessible, in the same way they're obliged to build a few that pass that vague criteria of affordability.  It's local councils who are going to have to foot the bill for adaptations on these inaccessible houses in the long run.

6. We're not building enough of the right kind of housing (III)

Most of the new building I see is happening on new estates away from existing towns and villages - not necessarily far away, but they require residents to drive to get to a shop or post-office, let alone schools, doctors and pre-existing community centres. They don't have any buildings apart from houses in them, so they don't encourage communal activities and the sort of community that builds up simply by having folk pop into the same shop every now and again, let alone a pub or Church. There are obligations on developers to plan around the prevention of crime, but nothing about encouraging or sustaining community.

By the same token, these affordable houses, whether owned or rented, are not where the work is. You're going to have to drive to get anywhere and that's going to mean that as a low-income worker, you're going to have much less money in your pocket at the end of the day. Many people cannot live near the places they work, but far fewer can afford to live in the middle of nowhere.

5. We're propping up the property market in the worst possible way.

This government cares that people will stop buying houses and all those middle-class home-owners (they're not all middle class, but the ones that matter are) will see their house prices drop. So how could you help first time buyers?  Perhaps providing its own low interest loans for first-time buyers, who've saved up a bit but are struggling to find a mortgage on a small flat or house?

Or you could guarantee a proportion of a loan up to £600,000 where the borrowers have only a 5% deposit. Because you want to help folk who have managed to save £30K to buy a £600K house - that's normal people, ordinary folk with ordinary aspirations, just needing a little leg up. And the tax-payer's money will be perfectly safe! And it's not going to artificially prop up property prices because people wouldn't be able to buy such expensive houses otherwise!

Urgh. I really don't think the government should be in the business of helping people buy property at a time when many people don't have enough to eat. But if they chose to, it should surely be low-waged first-time buyers with modest aspirations.

4. Government is afraid to further regulate, let alone compete with, private landlords.

Rent is way too high.  Rents are too high for working people who earn too much to claim benefits, but let's talk about those who can't or don't.

Much emphasis has been placed on how much money in spent on Housing Benefit (now Local Housing Allowance) with few politicians considering why this bill is so big. The sum you get is based on the cost of the smallest accommodation you could live in, in the 30th percentile of the local rental market. So for example, a single person my age where I stay in Surrey would be entitled to £346 a month, based on a room in shared accommodation. Only that's based on the 30th percentile across a region; round here, the going rate for a room is more like £500-600 a month.

Most people are either already renting somewhere or paying a mortgage when their income drops to a level where they need the extra help. Moving can cost many hundreds of pounds - people can't just up and leave (away from where the work is, away from their communities, their kids' schools etc.) because they're unemployed this month. By the time a situation reveals itself to be long-term, there's less money to make a move with. Meanwhile, if you're disabled, you don't get any extra because you need an accessible flat, or room for a wheelchair or other equipment.

The bill to the tax-payer has nothing to do with the choices made by benefit recipients. It's all about landlords - not a bunch of villains necessarily, but folk who will pragmatically charge as much as they can. If your rent goes up, you have to move or pay, and most people can't afford to move.

This is why, in 2013, we're needing food banks and Red Cross Parcels. People on low incomes (including some who are not even entitled to benefits) are spending most of their money on keeping a roof over their head and finding there's not enough left to eat.

The idea that cutting benefits will help control the rental market is bullshit. If, as taxpayers, we can't afford to pay the rent of our very poorest people, we need to control what they're allowed to be charged. Or better yet, compete with the landlords:

3. We desperately need more social housing.

Both sets of my grandparents lived in council housing before they went on to buy their own homes. They were working people and there was no shame or stigma. In fact, the council house Kelly grandparents moved into (Granny showed me on Google Streetview) was a central-heated semi-detached palace compared to the tiny terrace houses they both grew up in. They had fought and won a war, they aspired for a better life than their parents' generation and that council house was the first step on that journey.

These days, attitudes towards social housing are completely different. Many people have the idea that if you live in a council flat, you live rent-free (you might do, but only if you're out of work and poor besides). Council housing is highly stigmatised, some people don't want to live near it and many people understand the word chav as standing for council-housed and violent.

Meanwhile, folks are desperate for social housing, there are 1.7 million people waiting for social housing in England (about 3.5% of the population), let alone the numbers who need urgent transfers to non-existent smaller housing because of the Bedroom Tax (there's even talk of demolishing three-bedroom council housing that tenants can no longer afford).

We desperately need more social housing. We need to re-embrace social housing as a necessary facility that anyone might make use of if they need to (much like public transport. Only, you know, more like public transport ought to be.)

2. The Benefit Cap

When they talked about capping benefits to £25K a year a household - once they discounted Disability Living Allowance from the calculation - I thought, "Well that's a stupid crowd-pleaser, but there aren't going to be many families effected by that. £25K is a lot of money."

Only, it's not, when it's fairly easy to pay more than half that much out in rent. Frances Ryan's coverage of a recent (failed) High Court appeal by a group of women escaping domestic violence demonstrates what a mess we are in. Yes, it is a bit ridiculous that someone who is out of work should be getting more than an average salary (which, being the mean average, is more than most salaries).

However, it is even more ridiculous that someone could be having £25K income and still have no money to spend after food, bills and most importantly rent. And until we sought out that moral scandal, we need to cough up the extra in order to keep children fed and clothed.

1. The Bedroom Tax.

The Bedroom Tax is a policy whereby people in social housing who are perceived as having a spare room must now pay a weekly fine for the privilege. The "spare room" could belong to an autistic girl struggling with puberty who the government thinks should share with her boisterous six year old sister. It might be used by children who only visit on the weekend - its presence being a condition that the parent is allowed to have their kids overnight. It might be used by adult children who are away at university or in the army and do need that place to return to. It may be used by disabled people to store equipment - a wheelchair, hoist etc - or as a bedroom for one half of a couple to retreat to if pain, spasms and other symptoms make it impossible to sleep comfortably together.

Or it might be a spare room where nobody regularly sleeps, but which is part of the flat the occupants have lived in for the last forty years. Part of the home the occupants were placed in by the council.

One inevitable effect of the Bedroom Tax is to force people to move away from their work and employment prospects, families and communities. But mostly, there are no smaller places to move to, so it's just making poor people poorer. A third of council tenants are now in rent arrears and many are now becoming homeless.

There are no words for the damage this is causing, both to individuals, families, communities and society as a whole.

The first rule of any government policy relating to housing in any way?

Don't actively increase homelessness.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Care & Familial Responsibility

When I wrote Why does disability make people more vulnerable to domestic abuse?, I talked about how carers are often seen as universally saintly and this can mean that it becomes harder to question whether they're doing what they should be. There are other, related effects. We praise carers, but - as with the sanctity of motherhood - believing that people are endowed with magical powers of patience and wisdom, we tend to stop supporting them (what could a mere mortal do to help?) and certainly don't value what they do in any material way.

The week before last, Jeremy Hunt gave a speech vaguely advocating that families care more for their elderly - that we should aspire to be more like cultures in which care homes are "a last resort." This is so cynical, it makes my skin crawl. Then the lovely Glosswitch wrote about caring for her brother, and her fear that her caring role will increase as her parents age.
What are the rules for caring for a sibling, anyway? I'm not sure but I've always felt they must be different to those that apply to parents or offspring. Indeed, I've often hoped I'd find them written down somewhere: 
Rules for Caring: 
• children – definitely 
• partner – of course 
• parents – probably 
• grandparents – maybe 
• siblings – siblings? Who do you think you are, Mother Teresa? Surely everyone draws the line at siblings, not because we love them less but because it's just too hard.
So I really want to talk a bit about care and familial responsibility. This post is a little epic and Glosswitch's bullet points won't be the last.

Apart from any kids who you brought into existence, I don't believe you're responsible for any family member just because of blood. Yet we're all responsible for the people we love, for people who have loved and cared for us, and that's the same whether they are blood, related through marriage, or our close friends. If you love people, you need to look after them as best you can, whatever that entails.

But that doesn't mean that you should ever have to perform care. Two things worth mentioning before we go on:
  1. Here, I'm talking about responsibility. Sometimes, people have no real choice about becoming a carer and that's a terrible thing. This post should demonstrate why this choice is essential.
  2. Fortunately, most people never even face this prospect. We're sometimes presented with a picture of old age where everyone needs round-the-clock care. In reality, most people grow old and remain independent until death or shortly before death. Hooray! 
Right, back to what happens when folk do need care..

Granny Kelly told me a story about when her own grandmother, who lived next door, was sick. This was the 1930s and my great great grandmother had a morbid fear of the hospital - everyone she knew who had gone in alive had come out dead. So Granny's mother cared for her bedridden mother, whilst running her own home and bringing up her three children.

One day, Granny's aunt came to stay with the old lady and give Granny's mother a rest for a few days. The aunt didn't even last to midnight, before she came round to Granny's mother's house, knocked on the door and begged for her sister's help. She could not cope with her poorly mother. She could not perform care. She had to go home. So she did.

This is the first reality of care within families: Some people are extremely ill-suited to this. I could look around my family now and tell you who would do well caring for their parent, partner, sibling or child should they become disabled  (I could tell you some of these things from personal experience).

This is not about how nice people are or the quality of love in their hearts.

Although needs vary, I'd say a typical carer needs to be pretty good at
  • Working to a strict routine; meals at these times, drugs at these times, the same every day.
  • Being able to rest and sleep during breaks, as opposed to the one long break most people have from the end of work in the evening to the beginning of work next day.
  • Flexibility. All plans may change.
  • Not getting easily bored.
  • Not panicking in a crisis. 
  • A certain kind of detachment when it comes to bodily fluids, effluent, injury and nudity.
  • Respecting the inherent dignity of a human being, even when they are helpless.
  • Reassuring people.
For some people, in the right circumstance, this stuff comes quite naturally - I've written before about how tasks we could define as "care" can merge with the natural teamwork that takes places within a partnership or family. But people and family dynamics vary hugely.

Take reassurance as an example. This is an essential skill for many carers; people often need reassurance when they're distressed, confused or in pain - let alone when they're having symptoms that will one day kill them. And that isn't something that comes naturally to everyone. If you think about times you've been in a real panic, then think through your friends and family and consider how many you're bloody glad were nowhere in sight. Some very lovely people have a habit of pouring petrol onto flames.

This doesn't mean that people can't or don't learn new skills - people often do. But if they can't, you're looking at a very miserable carer and very poor quality of care.

And that's plain old innocent aptitude. There are loads of families - there are elements of this within my own - where there's a great deal of talk of love, charity beginning at home, doing anything at all for one's nearest and dearest, but a complete lack of action or support when help is really needed.  Some people find illness in others irritating and lose patience when their partner has a cold, let alone something more long-term. In fact - as anyone with chronic illness will have learned - many people just don't have the stamina for any kind of problem that goes on and on and doesn't have a simple solution and a happy ending.

It would be great if everyone acted in the best interests of the people they love.  However, when they won't, insisting that they should does no good to a disabled or elderly person (nor indeed, does reminding them that their family could function differently).

Then there's the fact that some disabled and elderly people are extremely difficult to deal with. Some people who require care aren't pleasant people.  Some parents have given their children a lifetime of ill treatment before needing help in their old age. Others are decent caring folk who nevertheless become ill-tempered and demanding when living with illness, pain and impairment. Just as some people don't cope at all well with care, many people cope very badly with needing help, and find it much easier to snap at family members than they would at a professional performing a paid service (a professional who could resign their position if they feel mistreated).

And that's before we talk about conditions. Caring for someone with severe autism is very very different from caring for, say, someone with muscular dystrophy. Meanwhile, most conditions effect different people very differently - coping with someone who has profound dementia but is cheerful and co-operative is a completely different kettle of fish to dealing with a loved-one who - through no fault of their own - is now aggressive, even violent towards you.

And all of this is before we talk about what is practically possible. My Gran has four children, ten adult grandchildren and a few adult great grandchlidren (she is a great great grandmother), most of whom live within the same town. But when her health deteriorated, there was nobody who could take on a full-time caring role. There was nobody who met the following essential criteria:
  • In possession of a house with a spare room and bathroom that was physically accessible to Gran or
  • Able to practically move into the small spare room of Gran's bungalow.
  • Not working or studying full-time. 
  • Not chronically ill.
  • Not on the list of people Gran strongly disliked and mistrusted even before she got dementia. 
  • Not on the list of people Gran had so deeply hurt or offended, they may not show at the funeral.
So my Gran went into a care home. It was the last resort, but really, it shouldn't have been: my Gran suffered a series of falls at home, including one where it seemed clear that she had left the gas on, had later smelled gas and had fallen in her hurry to leave the house. The general feeling was that Gran would suffer a great deal leaving her home and she would stubbornly resist. In fact, she adjusted to it in the blink of an eye and quickly became happier than we've ever known her. She's currently insisting that she is engaged to another resident of the care home, although she's forgotten who that is.

Of course, this isn't the way things are, but our experience. It would have still been the right thing to do even if she'd hated the care home - she was made safer, and none of us could keep her safe otherwise. No amount of love or concern keeps someone safe when they really can't be left on their own for any period of time.


So, what if you love someone who needs care but you're not in a position - whether through personal, practical or financial reasons - to perform that care? Well, the great thing about care work is that it can be performed, to a very high standard, by professional people. But (a) someone has to make sure that's happening and (b) good care only gets you half way to good quality of life. There are a thousand things we can do to support our disabled and elderly loved-ones and their carers (paid or otherwise) without ever having to see them naked.

People often fail at these things for a few different reasons:
  • The sense that anything done to support disabled people is a tremendous chore/ act of charity. 
  • Guilt. I feel guilty I can't do more, so I'll pretend there's nothing I can do.
  • The thing mentioned above about problems that go on and on and can't be fixed.
  • It really is easy to get on with my busy life and let time (and good intentions) fly by.  
  • Generalised squeamishness about age, illness or disability.
  • If I can't be the hero of the hour, I'm not playing the game.
Jeremy Hunt talked about loneliness, but as Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out, young people are more likely to be lonely than older people. Disabled people of all ages, especially those not in work, are much more vulnerable to loneliness than say, my Granny Kelly who at ninety, keeps a calendar jam-packed with family visits, trips out with friends, concerts and church events.

But receiving good quality care is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to a disabled person avoiding loneliness and having a good quality of life. We all need to look after one another, best we can. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

This Year's Toned-Down Dalek Cake

A round white-iced cake featuring twelve
small Daleks, some peachy flowers and
a 60 shaped sparkler on top.
Last Sunday, Mum turned sixty.  Naturally, there was a cake. Naturally, it involved Daleks. However, this time we wanted a really big cake and we wanted it to look neat, unlike previous chocolately Daleks which have variously resembled walruses and fire hydrants.

Thus we attempted a collaborative effort which... it still wasn't stunning. The cake itself was structurally unsound. There was a little miscommunication about scale and colour. But hey, this is a Dalek cake. If it didn't look like something produced by an alien life-form, there'd be an issue.

Stephen and I made the cake, iced the cake & made the Daleks (it was about time that Warhammer figure-painting experience came in handy). Granny made the flowers. My sister provided the sparkling 60. Next time, we will make another Dalek.

However, most importantly, Mum loved the cake, it tasted good (a sort of Black Forest Gateau re-interpretation) and a lovely time was had by all.

The Dalek Cake Ignited: A white woman, looking all of 59, is
surprised to see a small explosion taking place on the cake
in front of her.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Some Reading Matter

It's ages since I've made a post of links, but I seem to have seen several I really want to share.

Wheelchair Dancer has been writing about a revamp of Ironside, the (originally 70s, I guess) American TV series with a wheelchair-using detective. WD's posts on this have been phenomenal and she's promised a fourth. So far we have:

Read them all.  Read the fourth one when its published. Okay? Good.


Biphobia is not (only) an LBGT issue, on how straight folk can't blame queer folk for biphobia.

Disability in Kidlit: A new blog providing "reviews, guest posts and discussions about the portrayal of disabilities in MG/ YA fiction".  I know YA is Young Adult. Apparently MG, in this context, is Middle-Grade.

This is really old, but I first saw it this summer: Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not To Pass The Bechdel Test - infuriating and insightful.
I read this after I posted this blog, but it needs to be here: A geek against Gok
- Zoe Burgess on the manipulation and humiliation of a TV show and the triumph of a geek over adversity.

Some powerful personal posts:

One Classroom, Two Genders - The experiences of a trans woman when identified as a man, then as a woman, by her students.

Peeling Back The Layers of Shame: Talking About My Mother - Rachel describes the shame she has felt for not loving her mother, and how that continues to effect her years after her mother's death.

My Mother-in-law and Me - Lucy tells the story of a mother-in-law, who has always disapproved of Lucy because of her impairments.

This is What You're Missing: An American Love Story - A deeply moving story of sisterly love and grief.

On Being An Auntie (again). NTE watches her new nephew come into the world.

I'm sure there were other things, but usefully, my reader has just been closed for maintenance.

Since I'm here, I'm guest-blogging at the F-Word this month.  So far, I've written about women abusers and sex tips.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

On Hamlet and Hip Hop

Oh dear! Tory Conference: Hip-hop Hamlet "racist and evil"

Curiously-bearded Lindsay Johnson has been speaking at the Conservative Party Conference about a strawman school production of Hamlet with a Hip Hop soundtrack.
"Hamlet doesn't need a hip-hop sound track for young people to enjoy it." 
Mr Johns added: "It's been doing just fine for the last 400 years." 
Same production, same costumes, same accents, same set.  All the women played by men in dresses. As Tara tweeted, "we know exactly how it was staged due to Shakespeare’s excellent notes." Johnson goes on:
"It's not only incredibly patronising, but also viciously racist to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only 'get Shakespeare' if it's set to a hip-hop beat and presented in three-minute, MTV-Base-style chunks." 
"It is positively evil to deny inner city kids access to the manifold joys of hearing their national poet's true voice, in essence their birthright, simply because of a culture of low expectations."
Presumably, our national poet's true voice had a Midlands accent. Lawrence Olivier could never pull it off.

Right. There are reasons for teaching Shakespeare in school other than it's always been that way. Shakespeare is a major part of our metatext. Shakespeare's plots are much older than Shakespeare, but they're still present in our books and movies. Shakespeare's language is not ours, but it is familiar. Learning Shakespeare teaches us a lot about the effective and expressive use of language.

If all of this is being taught, however it's being taught, then everything is fine.

Next. Johnson, who looks about my age, accuses teaches of "genuflecting at the alter of youth."

I'm thirty two - old enough to have a kid in high school, plenty old enough to be a high school teacher and yet younger than Hip Hop. As a white kid writing poems in primary school, I called them raps. Teachers liked poems, but raps had credibility. I wrote a rap about my class and it was, by popular demand, blue-tacked to the classroom door. Everyone was impressed. Oddly, the kids in the other classes said I couldn't have written it because I was girl and girls didn't rap.

Okay, so, I didn't - I had to ask a boy to perform it. I always had a slow calm voice, more suited to recite Tennyson than 2 Pak. But rap is no more removed from the modern grammatically-correct British English I express myself in than Shakespeare. In fact, rap is much closer to Shakespeare because of adhering to meter and the fact it often rhymes. For example:
I pour a sip on the concrete for the deceased
But no, don't weep. Wyclef's in a state of sleep
Thinking 'bout the robbery that I did last week.
Money in the bag; banker looked like a drag
I want to play with pellet guns from here to Baghdad.
Gun blast, think fast - I think I'm hit.
My girl pinched my hips to see if I still exist
I think not. I'll send a letter to my friends
A born again hooligan, only to be king again.
 Ready or Not - The Fugees. 

This is not Shakespeare, but it has much in common with Shakespeare. And like Hamlet, Wyclef Jean, who in this context speaks with the indifference and self-centredness of youth, considers the violence of his world, his desire to be in charge and the eternal sleep of death. Now, my heart has an indie beat, but if I can think of that off the top of my head, someone who actually knows this music could come up with much better evidence.

If you can't connect Shakespeare with Hip Hop, the poetry of all our pop music, movies plots, soap opera or something that exists in 2013, then what is the point?  Hamlet is not about a prince in medieval Denmark, it is a play about young angry masculinity. Some kind of pop music soundtrack is entirely apt, but perhaps especially Hip Hop; Hamlet's world is absorbed in a violent power struggle, he has a love/hate relationship with the women in his life, all the people he respects are in show-business and he believes that the arts - in this case, the dramatic arts - have the power to retrieve the truth and finally set him free.

I loved Hamlet as a young person because it seemed to be about teenage angst.  I felt as miserable and misunderstood as the next person, but noticed that this was an irritating quality, taken to extreme in some of the boys around me. I had a massive crush on an older boy who became suddenly ridiculous in my eyes when he stated he would kill himself before he turned twenty, because after that, what was the point of going on?  It seemed to me that Hamlet was the story of such young men, who didn't want to die at all, but indulged themselves in petty jealousies and rage towards their parents, and wore self-pity like a beat up leather trench coat. Hamlet moved me deeply, because it is a tragedy; Hamlet is a twit, and his failure to pull himself together (learn guitar, put it down in writing, join the Elsinore Amateur Dramatic Society) results in his destruction.

There's plenty else going on of course, but the point is I saw that it was relevant to my life. Of course, I wasn't typical. We never studied Hamlet - I read Shakespeare for fun. It was on at the local theatre with a bloke in from The Bill and I asked to my Mum to take me to see it. If other kids need a few extra pointers, then hand them over. We were studying Romeo and Juliet for GCSE and saw two theatrical productions; one in a converted warehouse in Norwich, one by the RSC at the Barbican, with lavish sets and Elizabethan Costume. We chatted, fidgeted and sniggered at the Barbican: Juliet was an eminent actor, but she was thirty-five and had the voice of a cut-glass chain-smoker. In Norwich, with younger actors, looser annunciation, plain costumes and minimal sets, we were transfixed. Had we seen Baz Lurman's Romeo + Juliet, which came out at the cinema around this time, "Do you bite your thumb at me?" would have replaced "What're you staring at?" in form-room fracas.

Shakespeare lies dead and decomposing in the adolescent memories of so many adults, because it didn't seem relevant and was never presented as relevant. If we truly believe in its relevance to the modern world, as opposed to a mere source for quotations and self-congratulations, we need to show the kids. A Hip Hop soundtrack doesn't sound like a gimmick, but the placing of a play in a living context.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who does nuance belong to?

In Roman Polanski and the sin of simplification our beloved Victoria Coren Mitchell discusses a new book by Samantha Geimer (the woman that Polanski drugged and raped as a thirteen year old girl). Much as I adore VCM, she confuses a fact about child sex abuse, and abuse generally, and a despicable lie that regularly gets in the way of reporting and justice:

  Fact: Abusers are human beings and thus are very complex, possibly with talents, virtues, their own pain, strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us. Victims are often well aware of this.

  Lie: If someone has talents, or has suffered in some way, the wrongness of their crimes somehow becomes more complicated.

Child abusers are rarely terrible people in every aspect of their lives. Victims will be particularly aware of this because usually, a victim knows their abuser; these are their parents, their family friends, their priests, teachers and mentors. What's more, victims are heavily invested in the idea that their abusers were not monsters because, from their point of view;
  • If he were a monster, I wouldn't have liked or trusted him. 
  • If he were a monster, other people who cared for me would not have let him alone with me. 
  • If he were a monster, what he did to me is without meaning or explanation.
None of this is irrational.  Abusers are human beings. Victims (and the people who care for them) are not stupid, careless creatures who wander naked into caves past signs reading, "Rapist Troll Lives Here". Unless you look at the fundamental humanity of abusers, then you can't understand why this happens or how this happens. The idea that rapists and sexual abusers are monsters is one of the chief reasons that victims are so often met with disbelief; this nice family man has no horns, this talented sportsmen has no forked tail.  

And VCM would have done very well to write an article about that - to say that Roman Polanski is a man who has suffered in his life and he is very talented (though honestly, he's no Kubrick) and yet he still committed this monstrous crime. We need to see that and take note; people who are virtuous in some respects are monstrous in others. But she loses her way. Any article which discusses a rape and has the line 
"A second complicating factor is that Polanski's work is filled with beauty and humanity."
is going to boil a lot of blood. Gandhi beat his wife at least once - we don't think that was okay, and he was Gandhi, for goodness' sake. Polanski is just a film director, whose reputation has been elevated beyond his talent by his history of personal suffering. I think story-telling is nearly the most important thing on Earth, but there's nothing he could ever do in the creation of a movie that would somehow mitigate the rape of a child. VCM talks about Geimer's book:
"She says that the police investigation, hospital exams and reporting of the case were more traumatic than the attack itself. She says: "I did something wrong, I was stupid… To pose topless, and to drink and to take the [sleeping] pill." 
"It is so easy and tempting to knock this into a pigeonhole: the misguided self-blame and denial of the victim."
Only, this is not self-blame or denial.  I was abused as a young adult, so I can tell you about all kinds of foolish things I did, positions I put myself in, misplaced trust and loyalty, and I don't get to wipe that all away with, but I was a child; children are daft and don't know any better. However, none of those things make me responsible for what was done to me. None of those things make what my abuser did less serious because I made a few bad choices.

Geimer was a thirteen year old girl, who chose to pose topless, drink and take a pill she was offered. Some might judge that as stupid (I have very little context). But to think that could be read as self-blame suggests that a thirteen year old girl can do stupid things that make her to blame for her rape. She can't. Rape just isn't that complicated.
"It is the complication that we need. People have become desperate to reduce everything, including each other, to mindless categories of good and bad, as if the world can be divided into Facebook likes and dislikes."
But deeds can and should be divided in this way. I like yarn-bombing. I dislike child-rape. For all I know some yarn-bombers are complete bastards and I'm sure that there are some lovely child-rapists. Except for, you know, the raping children thing, which I struggled to see past.
"So what is to be done with Samantha Geimer's story? She does not condemn Polanski nor exonerate him. She does not blame herself nor refuse to examine herself. Her voice is strong and complicated. You cannot simplify her, or him."
No we can't. But we can simplify the crime he committed towards her - which Geimer does herself. She describes it as "rape, in every sense of the word" because that's what it was. Roman Polanski is a rapist. However complicated he is as a human being, this crime was not and our response to that needs no nuance whatsoever.

Geimer's reaction is nuanced. Like all victims, Geimer is a human being who has reacted, coped with and confronted her experience in a unique and personal way. She's done it bravely, and has written a book that people say is well-written.

But the nuance of what happened to her belongs entirely to Geimer.  It doesn't belong to anyone else. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

10 Reasons A Marriage Tax Break is a Dreadful Idea

1. People have and always did marry for silly reasons. The proposed marriage tax break provides another very silly reason. People who marry for silly reasons don't tend to stay happy or married for long.

2. There's a mixed message about childcare here. Impoverished lone parents are under greater pressure than ever to find full-time work as soon as their children are on solid food. The principle beneficiaries for the planned tax break will be married couples where one partner stays at home or works part time. If you're into social engineering (and there is no other term), then you at least need to be consistent.

3. It's quite complicated. It's to do with transferring part of your unused tax allowance to your spouse. I'm not sure I even know what that means or how it will work, and I'm guessing there'll be eligible people who never see a penny.

4. As with all political moralising about the merits of marriage, rhetoric around the tax break fails to understand why people who aren't married aren't married. There are perhaps four categories of people who aren't married:

(a) Single people.  Single people may or may not like to be married, they may or may not have been married in the past, they may believe that marriage is the bedrock of civilisation, but marriage is not a reasonable lifestyle option open to a single person. Because there's only one of them.
(b) Committed couples who can't or don't want to get married just now or perhaps ever. Reasons may include a conscientious objection to marriage (see point 10 below), deeply personal reasons, legal or financial obstacles, an uncomplicated disinterest in the subject and, very often, plans to marry in the future. Unmarried couples are not necessarily unmarrying; most married couples were once cohabitees.
(c) Groups of more than two people who are in love and can't have a legal marriage that includes all parties.
(d) (Much more commonly) Couples who aren't entirely committed to each other. 
The elevation of coupledom as the place we all want to be, the first class arrival lounge of adulthood, means that a fair few people are in relationships which aren't really working too well. People in these relationships may be restless, discontented or they may be desperately unhappy but afraid to leave. Such couples should, under no circumstances, be encouraged to marry. The trouble is that some people do think fairy dust is sprinkled over couples at marriage - as with having a child (which is worse), some people believe that a wedding is just what a struggling couple needs to sort themselves out.

The rhetoric around this tax break encourages unhappy couples to marry. The message is that married relationships are better, which can easily sound like your relationships would be better if you were married. It won't be.  It will be roughly like it is now, only harder to get out of. 

5. £3.85 a week is not a great deal of money to most working people. The scheme is expected to cost the state £550 million and not make a great deal of different to the lives or incomes of anyone. 

6. In fact, the administrative cost of marriage is just over £100.  If you want to wear fancy clothes, invite your family and have a nice meal, it's going to cost a few hundred more.  At £200 a year (the maximum tax break), a marriage will take between six months and several years to pay for itself. 

7. Cameron says, "Love is love, commitment is commitment." but marriage is a not a necessary or sufficient condition for love or commitment. For example, former MSP Bill Walker, on his forth marriage having violently abused his first three wives, would still be theoretically eligible for this tax break (if he was working and not in prison). Meanwhile, the most conservative-friendly hard-working jam-making war widow one can imagine would not. 

8. It is very much cheaper to be part of a couple than it is to be single. This is especially the case for couples or single people with children. It is therefore ridiculous to give any kind of subsidy to a group of people who - presuming married people generally live, sleep, eat and socialise together - are already blessed with lower living expenses that many other people.  

9. This policy really feels like it is about making certain people, those lucky enough to have found someone they love, those privileged enough to have been able to afford marriage, those where one person earns enough for another not to have to work full time, to feel superior and smug about a lifestyle that landed in their lap.

10. One of the chief reasons people object to marriage is the idea that it is an institution that belongs to conservative moralisers and religious zealots. The sort of people who say that marriage makes for superior relationships. The sort of people who grit their teeth through decades of domestic conflict, sexual frustration and deception just so they can call their marriages successful.

It strikes me that policies like this are exactly what gives marriage an image problem.

Monday, September 23, 2013

People Are Strange #3897

A woodland path in late summer; leaves slightly yellowing,
sun low in the trees.
So Stephen and I were on honeymoon in West Wales, coming out from the woodland path, both of us on mobility scooters. A slim anoraked woman in her mid-forties was walking down the road and, although we were moving at casual walking pace, she startled and stepped back. Then she said, "I thought you were a rat!"

Most people in the world might respond to this with a mixture of bafflement and offense.  But we're English. We apologised.

"I just saw a rat up the road," she went on to explain. "I thought you were another one, about to jump out at me. It was dead and everything!"

Of course; two tall adults using mobility scooters could easily resemble a rat. Particularly a dead rat. Just like the dead rats that often jump out at people on country lanes in broad daylight.

I have no clue whether the scooters were a factor in our rat-like appearance - we may have been mistaken for a rat by this eccentric person whilst on foot. In fact, had we been standing up, the sight of all six foot of us on our hind legs may have caused the woman to scream and run back up the road.

We had a wonderful honeymoon; exciting, relaxing and productive in equal measures. I got a great deal of writing done, we watched in wonder as this little story took the East Anglian press by storm and Stephen went a little bit wild:

Video description: Stephen (a handsome young white man with dark hair, dark glasses and a funky hat) zooms down a steep slope on his mobility scooter, holding a bubble sword (a plastic loop) that creates a modest cloud of bubbles in his wake. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

On Love, Stationery & Law Enforcement.

When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a detective.

Television had taught me that children could achieve almost anything by writing letters, so I wrote to Suffolk Police offering my services as a detective. I thought I could help out - that really is how I phrased it. I also offered the services of my older cousin because crime-fighters generally come in pairs.

A Police Range Rover with my nine year old self
at the wheel. 
The police were unable to find a position for me at that time, but they did take my cousin, myself and a boy who'd had the same idea, for a day at the Suffolk Police Headquarters at Martlesham, at the end of the Christmas Holidays, in January 1990. I had just turned nine.

This was amazing. They picked us up in a police car. They shows us the control room where they receive emergency calls. They took our fingerprints. I got to sit on a police motorbike. I got to sit in a police Range Rover. They showed us a private museum of criminal paraphernalia; weird weapons, benign-looking objects with secret compartments for smuggling drugs.

The best bit was sitting in the back of an ordinary-looking car while the driver demonstrated advanced driving skills; speeding around and skidding all over the place. Scary and brilliant in equal measure.

That day was one of the most exciting days of my young life and it influenced me in two significant ways:

1. Unsurprisingly, I carried on wanting to be a detective, right up until an adolescent need for attention and self-expression beckoned me onto the stage. Thus, I kept looking at the world with a view to solving its mysteries. I noticed curious behaviour. I watched people. And I've never really stopped that - I still notice people who don't quite fit and briefly fantasise about their criminal story.

I always wrote stories, as soon as I could spell enough words (or at least, I could spell some words, and build a story around them). However, I'm not sure I've ever written any piece of fiction which wasn't about some kind of mystery. This is, apparently, what I do.

2. I basically trust the police. I report crimes and encourage others to do the same. When asked for information, I've always been forthcoming (except once, when I had the most inappropriate fit of the giggles*).

Three children and a police officer in front of an ordinary
looking white car which can go faster than you'd think.
I know some people can't trust the police and I understand that; if you've been dismissed or belittled in your most vulnerable moment, if you have been repeatedly treated with suspicion because of your race, impairment or the place you live, then trust would be an unnatural response. I also know that some people enter the police force (together with certain other professions) because they enjoy wielding power over others.

However, that day at the Suffolk Police Headquarters established a fundamental trust in the police which has remained largely unshaken by adult experience.

Anyway, my most beloved souvenir from my day with the Suffolk Police was my Suffolk Police pencil. Well, obviously - you use it to write things down!  I used to write stories, but also to collect the number plates of suspicious (or at least unfamiliar) vehicles, to note the strange comings and goings at Number 52 and to record general observations in the hope that one day, one of my neighbours would be brutally murdered, and I'd be able to work out who'd done it.

Then one fateful day, I was on a school trip to West Stow Anglo Saxon Village. I was dressed as an Anglo Saxon, casing out one of these reconstructed Anglo Saxon dwellings for signs of underhand Viking activity (why no Anglo Saxon literary sleuths? We've got Falco, a Roman, then no detectives until medieval Cadfael?).

I dropped the pencil.

I don't recall my visit to the Anglo Saxon village as well as I do my trip to the police headquarters, but I can tell you that when Anglo Saxons built a house, they first dug a deep hole for foundations. I know this because I watched helplessly as my pencil rolled through the gap between the floorboards (no tongue and groove for those Saxons) and fall down to the floor of the pit the house was built over.

I could see my pencil, but there was no way I could reach it. Also, it was really going to confuse future archaeologists if the settlement got buried again by the sands of time, only to be dug up again, featuring authentic Anglo Saxon buildings and artifacts and one graphite pencil with Suffolk Police printed on it.

I don't generally get too attached to objects, but I was fairly gutted about the pencil.

My nephew has been to West Stow himself a few times and has always brought back a pencil. "It's to replace your Police pencil!" he declares (he knows the story but being six, he may have forgotten the fact he'd bought me a pencil on previous visit. After all, when I asked him what year he thought the Anglo Saxons lived at West Stow, given that it had to be a very long time ago it was, his guess was 1998).

Anyway, fast forward to our wedding day, last Monday. Stephen gives me a long velvet box, the sort you might display a bracelet in, or perhaps a fountain pen, or perhaps... a Suffolk Police Pencil! Exactly the same pencil!

Me holding a white pencil with an eraser on one end and
"Suffolk Police" printed in blue on it.
I am stunned. Delighted. Curious. Surely they're not selling these things on eBay now?

In May, Stephen wrote to Suffolk Police - sent an e-mail entitled "NON-EMERGENCY - a request" and told this story. He used what he had learned of the language of policing from TV and Films, referring to Suffolk Police as Suffolk's Finest (like New York's Finest, only with many more incidents involving pigs). He even concluded the story with "Can you see where this is going?" just like on The Wire when they've presented incriminating evidence to a hoodlum.

This e-mail traveled through departments at Suffolk Police over a period of some weeks before landing with a public relations officer. They no longer have pencils (they probably give away USB pens these days) but they had a rummage in their stock rooms and found two. Two Suffolk Police pencils. And they sent them to Stephen, along with a compliments slip congratulating us on our wedding. Suffolk Police congratulated us on our wedding.

A man and a woman in fairly fancy clothes:
Mr Goldfish & myself on our wedding day.
And so, now you know. Now you know why I still think the police are basically a good bunch who will be there for anyone in their time of need. And now you have a tiny taste of why I married Stephen.

[The school liaison officer who took us around the Police HQ that day was a PC Howlett, who also came into our primary school to advise us against playing on railway lines and the like. He was an engaging speaker and some of the stories he told (fun stories about feckless criminals, rather than stories about children getting hurt) stuck in my mind, regardless of everything else. Just saying on the unlikely chance he should google himself. ]

* They were door-to-dooring following a very serious crime on the street where I was living (this was the North Yorkshire police, or the NYPD as I'm sure they prefer). Anyway, the officer handed me two sheets of paper, one of which had an outline of a car, the other the outline of a man - a person, I suppose, but definitely a mannish figure. The idea was to draw or write in any details you remembered. The whole situation was so serious, but this outline of a man struck me as very funny - there were just so many silly thing you could - and people probably would - do with it. So I had the giggles. I expect the police are used to that. I expect they have gigglers even when folk are identifying bodies. Especially if someone has died in a comical way.