Saturday, December 27, 2014

And why shouldn't Idris Elba play James Bond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Potato Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm so tremendously happy right now.

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.

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.


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. 


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:

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Accessing The Future and That Movie Where The White Straight Cis Non-disabled Guy Saves The Day Despite Everything.

I wanted to join in the blog hop to raise awareness (and hopefully money) for Future Fire's latest project Accessing The Future,which they describe as an "SF anthology exploring disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality."

If you enjoy science fiction or have any interest in promoting diversity in fiction, please support this project. Also check out (and join in) their blog hop - here are Jo's and David's intriguing contributions, as well as this post by A C Buchanan on disability in speculative fiction.

I have not managed to do anything new and am soon to be invaded by small children. However, I unearthed this monster from my Drafts folder as the subject matter is not irrelevant to diversity (or the lack thereof) throughout fiction:

That movie where the white straight cis non-disabled guy saves the day despite everything. 

This is jam-packed full of spoilers – can’t work round that.

Most of the greatest films ever made feature a hero from a very narrow demographic; straight cis non-disabled white men make up around a quarter of the British population and even less of the US (where most English language movies are made). And yet this minority are often treated as a massive majority in movies; these are the faces we see most often on screen and indeed, these are the faces of some fantastic characters: James Bond, Philip Marlowe, Indiana Jones, the Man with No Name and up to a point, John McClane. 

The fact that in 2014, film-makers treat a character's whiteness, masculinity, straightness etc. as necessary criteria for a protagonist, particularly in action, science-fiction and fantasy, is disappointing. But something worse is happening. In recent years, I've seen a whole raft of movies where heroes with these qualities have very little else. They don't save the day because they behave heroically; they save the day just because they are that guy. 

This hero is not heroic.

In many cases, he is outright incompetent.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson's character is an alcoholic who was thrown off the police force for his drinking and then, miraculously, employed as a Air Marshal.  White House Down begins with Channing Tatum's character being turned down for a job at the White House because he’s unqualified and has terrible references. In Star Trek, Into Darkness, Kirk is the least talented person on the Enterprise, an incorrigible lech with a reputation for getting into brawls, a man of thirty-something they talk of sending back to the academy.

These are not men who are underestimated and come to prove themselves; in Non-Stop, our hero fannies about, upsets everyone and eventually follows protocol after the bad guys have messed up their own plans. The most pivotal action Kirk takes in the entire movie is to fix a machine by repeatedly kicking it in frustration. The hero of White House Down is good at shooting people, but he isn't crafty or cunning. He's just sufficiently violent.

I assume there must be an idea, somewhere, that movie audiences want heroes they can relate to - ordinary people who aren't particular good at anything and don't make good choices. Only, most of us are good at stuff and we do make good choices. Flawed heroes are great - we want to consume fiction featuring human beings (even if they are pixies, rabbits, crockery or whatever). But where's the entertainment in watching someone just get lucky?

He was a far greater man in the original film or book. 

It's also remarkable how this treatment has been applied to established characters. William Shatner's Captain Kirk had tremendous charisma and often made smart choices, even though his wisdom was a little inconsistent. You understood why everyone wanted to follow him into battle and/ or eat his face. Chris Pine's Captain Kirk, on the other hand, has a surprising large forehead.

Given the immense amount of time and effort they put into making The Hobbit into three - three! - movies, you'd think they would have considered the character of the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins; a small man who uses wit, cunning and the help of his friends to overcome enormous foes. In the movies so far, Bilbo is a small man who happens to be aggressive and fast. 

In the book, when the dwarves have been captured by spiders, Bilbo makes himself invisible and sings to them, freaking them out before driving them off by throwing stones. In the film, he fights them, stabbing them and waking up the dwarves so they can pull the spider's legs off. In the book, they gradually win the trust of Beorn (apparently a recluse since leaving Abba) by introducing themselves and telling stories. In the movie, the gang run away from Beorn's bear self, occupy his house and wait for him to turn human. 

If you're determined to suck the dynamism out of your heroes, you need to bring in a lot of outside help to make sure they save the day. This is done in two ways:

It is his destiny.

There's an awful lot of destiny involved in these movies; these are legends, not fairytales. The idea of an ordinary boy or man who discovers he is something significant doesn't make for a bad story - that's Harry Potter, among others. However, Harry Potter found out he was a wizard and then worked hard at being the best wizard he could be, overcoming obstacles, forming alliances, facing down his enemies.

In these movies, destiny is pretty much enough, although unlike Harry Potter, these are privileged boys and men, living very comfortable lives. In Ender's Game, Ender apparently has some skills but he is repeatedly tricked and manipulated by the people who believe it is his destiny. The same people manipulate his colleagues to like or dislike him and to follow him as a leader. He is then finally tricked into saving the world. 

Comic book superhero movies are not generally That Movie; superheroes belong to the metatext and are thus pretty reasonably-constructed characters. But the sheer number of these films and the fact that these heroes triumph because they are heroes (or in the case of Thor, because he is a god) are part of this general pattern.

In Kick Ass, good prevailed because of considerably cunning, courage and acquired skill. In Kick Ass 2, good prevails against far greater odds because... well, it just does somehow.

The other way you overcome the great gap where the hero's heroism should be is to make him adored by everyone around him.

Everybody loves this guy. Nobody knows why. 

Oz, The Great and Powerful came out of the questionable idea that there are no fairytales with strong male protagonists. So what kind of hero did they go for? Well, the first, second and third thing we learn about Oz is that he exploits women for both money and sex, he also exploits his male colleague, he continues to behave with abject cynicism even after he finds himself in a mysterious magical land. Yet everyone he meets adores him and thus he is reformed through the entirely irrational love and faith of others.  

In Non-Stop, two smart women - played by the excellent Michelle Dockery and Julianne Moore - never waver in their faith in our unreformed alcoholic Air Marshal, despite their short acquaintance, knowledge of his drunkenness and the fact he manhandles and accuses them.

In Oblivion, the Scavs risk life and limb to communicate with Jack Harper, a man who has been killing them all, just because he's started to frown and gaze into the middle distance. They already have a perfectly good plan for defeating their enemy without him - a plan that would have worked out if they hadn't brought Harper there to tell him about it. For no good reason.

The hero always gets the girl.

We've apparently moved on from having a final scene where the leading man takes the leading (often only) woman into his arms for a snog, even if they've only exchanged a few lines about nuclear fusion early in the second act. Getting the girl is now more often implied; the final scene features a moment of flirtation or a mutual look of longing. But that guy still gets the girl. Beautiful women are no longer prizes for heroic acts, they are the prize for being the protagonist in the movie, even an incompetent protagonist whose path was largely dictated by fate.

Bilbo Baggins is the one exception - he does not get the girl (although I've only slept through seen the first two movies so far), although the film-makers have invented a love story which begins when the dwarves are captured by the elves. Addressing a lady-elf, the best-looking dwarf says, "Aren't you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers!" 

At this point, Tolkein's ghost entered the room and smashed in our telly with a copy of The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

There are action, adventure and science fiction movies with black protagonists and women protagonists and those aren't all great movies. They do, however, make their heroes and heroines demonstrate some reason for us to root for them and some means by which they might have a chance at fulfilling their quests or defeating their enemies. In fact, action movies with women protagonists work hard to establish, within the first scenes, this is not just any woman; this is a special woman, with special skills. Or occasionally, this is a very ordinary woman who is about to befall a terrible fate which will force her to learn to be special.

In fact, an irony about these movies is that they are not short of competent women and people of colour. The women on the Starship Enterprise are massively qualified and brave and Sulu takes the helm with great success (let's skip past the casting of Khan). White House Down staffs the Secret Service with smart women and has Jamie Foxx as president (as he deserves to be). Most of the women in Oz, The Great and Powerful are tremendously strong and powerful, despite Oz's baffling sexual allure being enough to turn a good witch bad.

So, as well as these character's failure to engage the viewer, there's a dreadful message of entitlement here. It used to be that a white straight cis non-disabled guy could go to the movies and come away with the message that people like himself were capable of great things. Now he can come away with the message that someone like him will achieve greatness however little he actually does.

Meanwhile, the rest of us? We've got to knuckle down and rally around our hero; the whole world is at stake and he doesn't look like he can save it without us. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who is manipulating us on social media?

It is Apple or Lenovo? A gorgeous white man with dark
hair and glasses clutches his mysterious laptop.
When Google’s search results became personalised, anxious voices were raised about the danger of keeping individuals within their own happy filter bubble, where they only saw things in which they had an established interest, only heard opinions of which they already approved, only came into the presence of people like themselves.

Similarly, when last month it was revealed that Facebook had been conducting unethical psychological research on its users, people were outraged that they could be so manipulated. Laurie Penny said
“Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively." 
And I’m thinking, what about us?

Now, I can’t tell you how big a fan I am of social media – without it, my universe would often shrink to the size of a bed. However, the biggest danger of social media is how, quite unconsciously, we influence and are influenced by one another. None of it is terrifying but - just like bearing in mind that all our free tools belong to commercial interests with American cultural values - this is stuff we need to think about.

On-line and off-line social behaviour differs in three main respects. The first is by far the most explored; with fewer clues to social status and identity, people talk to others with an ease that doesn’t occur in the same way off-line. This is mostly a good thing. Disadvantages are obvious.

The second is that on-line, a person may socialise with a wide group of people at any time of the day or night, in almost any physical location. Things can get intense, which isn't always a problem - a lot of information can be exchanged and friendships can fuse fast. Yet equally, this social world can become psychologically inescapable. It can be hard to leave alone, whether you’re in the middle of a great conversation or a raging argument. It's in your pocket. It sleeps beside you at night.

The third is this world’s typical reliance on one central and cohesive identity for each person. Some people have a few different on-line handles, each used for a different purpose. But most people have just one. Off-line, a person may be one version of themselves with work colleagues, perhaps another with the boss, another on the train, at home, with the in-laws, at choir practice, in the football team and so forth.

In the olden days, the internet was yet another place to be where you could be another, often freer or more authentic version of yourself. It was a place marginalised people flocked to, in order to be around other people like them and to find acceptance of the versions of themselves (as members of sexual minorities, disabled people, crumhorn obsessives etc.) that wouldn't be made so welcome elsewhere. Facebook, in particular, encourages us to consolidate all our identities into one definitive self. 

We need to be aware of this and how it affects us and I don’t think we generally are.

Almost the first people I found on-line as a teenager were other young people with my chronic illness. This was a wonderful thing but after a while, I came to terms with my condition and grew disillusioned with the culture of these groups. I don’t want to tar all illness-related support groups with the same brush or slander my friends who are still part of these groups - most of my experience is with particularly vulnerable young adults. But there are groups, or cliques within these groups, which work like this:

Everything people talk about is placed in the context of illness. Every positive experience must be qualified with the cost in symptoms (probably spoons these days) – this turns a lot of positive experiences either neutral or negative; I had a lovely day today but I will now have three weeks of raging agony. Other people’s positive experiences can be celebrated but not without regret; So glad you had a lovely day; if I did half as much, I would probably collapse and die. Everything that goes wrong in life is put down to or made very much worse by illness. Outsiders can’t possibly understand.

This is a caricature, of course, and it’s very important to recognise that people who edge in this direction are not especially morbid and self-obsessed. It’s all about isolation and belonging. Folk are isolated and vulnerable to varying degrees but have found a group to which they can belong. So they cling onto that, imitating one another’s behaviour and constantly reasserting their qualifications for belonging: I am one of you, I am one of you. Did I mention I am one of you?

It’s a strong example because the common ground is very specific. However, I've seen something like this in pretty much every on-line community I've wandered into since, whether creative communities, sceptic or geek communities, political or egalitarian groups. 

Political campaign groups are particularly at risk because of the combination of passion, urgency (things must change – lives are at stake) plus the issue of public opposition. Any social media campaign will meet with dissent – Blogging Against Disablism Day has a very broad remit, more a carnival than a campaign, but still meets a few voices of derision every year. 

Campaign for something specific, something counter to the status quo or government policy and there are going to be objectors. It may even be that most people in the world basically agree with you but don't care enough to be involved - objectors care enough to let you know about it and often in abusive terms (even if it's about the faces on our banknotes). It can very quickly feel like the enemy is everywhere. This adds to a sense of isolation and increases the need to feel safe and secure within the group. 

And again, the three big difference between on-line and off-line worlds come into play:

My fingers on a keyboard. Photograph by Stephen.
Relative anonymity as well as - I think, more importantly - geographical and psychological distance allow arguments to rage. I've seen trolls, but far more often I see two people who have the same objective abandon basic civility over one small contested matter. I'm guilty of this myself. 

Someone can campaign from the moment they wake up in the morning until they go to bed at night. They might be doing many other things as well, but there’s less likely to be a set time for this activity, after which they leave it alone. Without carefully managed separate accounts and a will of steel, it is difficult to socialise while staying clear of politics. There are rows in grass roots meetings in the village hall, but everyone goes home after an hour or so. 

Having a single on-line identity means that everything feels personal. It’s more difficult to differentiate between an attack on your views and an attack on your person. And then there’s personal branding.

When I first started blogging, I quickly saw that the way to get the most hits, comments and links was to be as consistent as possible; blog about the same kind of thing, or different things but from the same angle. I resisted this, not for any noble reason around authenticity or being true to myself. It’s just that this blog very quickly became a tremendously useful vent and I wanted to  use it however I fancied.

However, there was and is - now more than ever - validation to be had in consistency. There are times when I've had a spell of writing about the same kind of thing (usually gender, sexuality or disability) and it is during these times that I get the most hits, the most links and the most retweets. This naturally drives me to do more of the same. These are also times I have felt quite lonely. After all, I am not all about disability, or gender, or sexuality. Meanwhile, people agreeing with you - worse, simply retweeting or showering you with "likes" isn't engagement. It's tremendously gratifying, it's very nice. It is, in fact, successful branding. If you're a business or someone who needs to sell themselves professionally, this is exactly what you need to aspire to in your professional life. But it's applause, not social interaction. You win fans, not friends. 

Folk always got hooked on applause and I see a lot of that. Not just blogging about the same thing, but tweeting on the same subject, backing that up with Tumblr, doing the same on Facebook. I see a lot of it in political movements, but I also see it in the way someone might tell the same joke over and over, the way some parents now keep a cameraphone between themselves and their kid, the way some people apply cynicism to everything other people care about and then feel compelled to apologise for any glimmer of enthusiasm. It's so tempting, to keep coming back to what works, but when we do that, we risk denying ourselves the opportunity to do something different; it's not who we are, it's not what others expect, we're going to confuse and disappoint them.

I strongly feel we need to avoid being one brand of person - partly for our own health and happiness, but also for the health and happiness of others. We're no longer in high school; we don't have to identify ourselves as the sporty one, the diva or the nerd. We don't need to identify our tribe, fall into line and hold on tight, forsaking all the other interesting people around. 

Believing we have the strengths that others attribute to us can be a confidence boost or it can set us up for a fall. Believing we have the limitations that others attribute to us can be a killer.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Contains Strong Language

Years ago, I was in a cafe listening to a conversation between a group of builders on their break. One man was telling a story about how his family had travelled to Greece to see his cousin ordained within the Greek Orthodox Church.

“My fucking cousin,” the man declared, “a fucking priest!”

As I learnt from my eaves-dropping, being ordained is a “big fucking deal” in Greece or at least it was in this particular family, who treated the occasion much like a wedding, with “a fucking banquet” and “fucking speeches”.  But towards the end of festivities, a crisis struck:

“We couldn't find my fucking cousin – the fucking priest! We look everywhere but he’s gone fucking missing in the middle of all this. And at the same time, we realise my fucking sister’s nowhere to be seen either. We look all over this fucking hotel we’re staying at. Then finally, in this big fucking dining room where the whole family is, someone thinks to pull back the curtain. And there, behind the fucking curtain is my fucking cousin – the fucking priest – and my fucking sister, and they’re, you know, doing it.”

One of the oddities of living in two households is the effect it has on my language. My in-laws don’t swear, ever. They don’t blaspheme. They don’t make rude jokes. I’m making them sound square, but there’s a lot of laughter in the house, and very little of it is ever at the expense of other people. I don't swear around them. In fact, I barely swear in their house out of earshot. Worse, I struggle to swear in writing when I'm there. 

My parents do swear, though not very strongly - mostly the B words; bloody, bollocks, bugger, bullshit. They were more careful when we were children and even these days, Mum often tries to stop herself – she reaches for Fiddlesticks! or Gordon Bennett!, but it comes out “Fiddlebugger!” and “Gordon Bollocks!”

I swear at my parents' house. I tell rude jokes. But I can't say I feel a lot more at home or more myself. I think I tell better jokes at my in-laws' where I can't always reach for the obvious. 

I once told the story of the builder, his sister and his cousin the Greek Orthodox priest in the pub. A friend then told of a man whose car broke down outside her flat. She knew cars, so she came outside to ask if there was anything she could do. Exasperated, the man pointed in the approximate direction of the engine and exclaimed, "The fucking fucker's fucked!"

Common problem with cars that age.

One day, I was in the kitchen at my in-laws' house when a bird flew in through the window at great speed. It bounces off my head, flew in a circle than crashed against the glass of the patio door as it attempted to leave. This all happened in a few seconds and it was a shock. I spoke. I said, “Goodness!”  Not even a “Damn!” or “Crap!”

(The bird was probably okay. It was alive, though stunned and it hadn't broken its neck. We put it under a bush and it did disappear - we hope it flew away.)

The other night, here at my parents’ house, a box of chisels fell on my toe – not just any toe, but the big toe whose nail has only just recovered after an eighteen month saga of infection, threatened removal, an in-growing crisis and and recovery. I said, “Fuck.” I said it a few times. But I know, had the same thing had happened at my in-laws, I still wouldn’t have sworn.

(My toe is probably okay. The next day, it was the next toe along which was bruised.)

I almost feel like it shouldn't be possible for spontaneous reactions, exclamations of shock or pain, to vary according to social context. When people live somewhere where they must speak a second language, I wonder how often they swear or curse in their mother tongue?  What does the context have to be?

When I had post traumatic stress disorder, swearing was a major trigger. My first husband used to call me shithead, shit for brains, I talked shit, my stuff was shit, I was a bitch, sometimes a cunt, I needed to fuck off, shut the fuck up or go fuck myself, and so on and so forth. If I complained about the swearing, I was being pathetic; it was just the way he spoke. He would have never used the phrase tone argument but that was the gist. But of course, tone matters. Tone is context.

“How are you doing, shithead?” said with a smile and in a friendly tone, preferably to someone who likes to be called that and is permitted to call the speaker something equally ridiculous is quite different from, “Shut up, shithead!” said in anger, even if it happens every day. And the shit is emphatic – it’s there for a reason, shithead is not the same as airhead, let along sleepyhead. It's no coincidence that someone who used this language was physically violent. 

Even my PTSD symptoms differentiated between different types of swearing. I had to adjust my reading and cull my Twitter feed of very sweary people, even people I liked and respected in other ways. But it wasn't just about the words, but the way they were used.

If I read “Bloody hell, why doesn’t [Named Politician] go fuck himself?”  

I might think it unnecessary and maybe irritating, but it wouldn't upset me. Big difference if I read

“Bloody hell, [Named Politician], why don’t you go fuck yourself?” 

This isn't just about trauma. I've been around the usage of "Fuck off!" as a warm, friendly "Give over!" almost like "Stop tickling me!" or the wide-eyed "Shut. Up." of adolescent disbelief. But unless you grew up with that, swearing in the second person can still feel like an attack. Especially in writing where there's no voice to reassure us.

Stephen was one of these poor kids who suffered that great indulgence-neglect of a TV in his room from an early age. He's also a massive film buff and you can’t really be that if you can’t tolerate the full range of the spoken word in English. He spent his teenage years travelling by taxi to hospital school, exposing him to both typical South East taxi-driver parlance, as well as the language of those classmates who were there for behavioural reasons or in one case, because they had impaled themselves while evading the fuzz. Thus, while his parents never swear, Stephen was in no way sheltered from foul language as a child. 

Yet Stephen almost never swears. He swears perhaps once a year. And when it happens, it's an earth-shaking swear.

I have pointed out that as a non-swearer, swearing would offer a little pain relief, at least in the immediate aftermath of injury. But it’s not in him. I have suggested he invents words that sound like curses for this purpose, but he is against it in principle. He doesn't even use the substitute swearwords available to him; no sugar, darnblast or curses.

I'm not convinced this is entirely healthy. Not the not swearing, but the not even cursing, even mildly, when things hurt or go wrong. 

My swearing varies massively according to pain and stress. On a bad pain day, I can be oblivious to the amount I’m swearing, so much so that it’s disturbing to have it pointed out to me. Yet, although I'm less likely to spend time with other people on such a day, I know I still won't swear in front of anyone who might be offended. 

When I am stressed out, I become painfully aware of how much I swear. In recent weeks, our housing situation is looking to get sorted, but with no certainties and many causes of minor panic along the way. Plus there's been - there is - a family crisis afoot. I've been swearing like a trooper, I've been swearing in unhelpful ways about other people, I've been swearing in ways that would make me cringe to repeat.

And clearly, I should have a handle on this. My Granny may visit at the weekend and I won't swear in front of her, whatever happens. Burning rocks can fall from the skill and all I'll say is "Blimey!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

This is what the Devil looks like.

We never take enough time to consider why tyrants are popular. Some of them, including Northern Europe's own mustachioed bogeyman, were elected by the people. Elsewhere in the world in recent years, people have voted for Putin, Morsi, Mugabe, al-Assad, even if the count is often rigged. But we’re not baffled, not really; these people who believed that the Devil was their best option either lived in the past, or they live in the developing world, which is as good as living in the past. They are vulnerable, gullible, much less sophisticated than us. The Devil walks in, horns polished to a shine, fork-tail swishing in the cloud of sulphurous gas that surrounds him and they have no idea at all.

Only this is what the Devil looks like. The Devil looks just fine. He can talk okay, is arguably charismatic, but his magnetism is not supernatural. He comes across as a decent sort of chap. He makes a few extreme statements - so sometimes he goes a little too far - but at least the man is honest, horns unpolished, refreshing in his candor. And he's funny. Charming rather than seductive. His blunders only prove that he is human.

He is nothing special, this Devil. I don't mean merely that he doesn't look that special, but if we’re honest (and we rarely are about this), evil is quite commonplace. The Devil has many guises; tyrannical regimes come in many bitter flavours. Yet there are three things all tyrants have in common:

  • They happen to have massive, massive power.
  • They use fear-mongering and scapegoating to maintain their power.
  • They are in love with their own reflection, with an anxious need to protect and manipulate their image, as they imagine it to be, in the eyes of the world.

The massive power is what makes all the difference. It's an external factor; something that other people, circumstances, history or brute force makes happen. Look around for a leader who merely meets the second and third criteria and you have three out of our last five Prime Ministers. We only point and say, "Look, it's the Devil!" when they've been completely let off their reigns. When hundreds or thousands of their own people are imprisoned or violently killed.

So this is what the Devil looks like; like so many other politicians with a suit and a sound bite. And that’s part of our trouble when discussing his rise. People called Thatcher a fascist. People have described Blair as a murderer and Cameron as a man with no conscience. We’re not talking about people you’d leave your pet goldfish with – not if you didn't want it be sold off, drowned or abandoned with nothing to eat.

Only none of them made a bid for power on a platform of socially-retrograde authoritarian nationalism (or, you know, Fascism), suggesting we be afraid of our neighbours, with fellow candidates advocating the execution of minorities and political opponents. Other sinister political figures of my lifetime had a far nicer image to preserve. That's part of the reigns I mentioned.

A lot of people can smell the sulphur just now.

There’s a now much-quoted blog post by poet Michael Rosen which includes the passage:
"Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you..."
On Twitter, Steve Graby objected: “Worth remembering fascism comes as your friend IF you are white, straight/cis and non-disabled. Otherwise it's pretty blatantly your enemy from the start.”

That would surely be the case if everyone knew what the Devil stands for. But it is not a civil duty to keep track of all the political goings on, to read the full manifesto rather than the single-page pamphlet. It is not morally irresponsible to zone out while the politicians bicker on the breakfast news. And many ordinary fallible people do. Most people who vote for the Devil care about one or two issues and see that guy as the guy who’s going to fix them.  A lot of people vote for the Devil just because they don’t like their other options. Evil is commonplace, but naivety is pandemic. It's part of our charm.

This is what the Devil looks like. The horns and the fork-tail? All that's in the small print. There’s good and bad news about all this:

The bad news is that ordinary and fallible people can be taken in by the Devil. They don't have to be very bad or stupid, just misguided. Worse news is that you are as ordinary and fallible as the next person. He would have to wear very different clothes to fool you, of course. And maybe you do read the small print, and maybe you’d never place your vote on anyone less than a saint (abstention again, is it?), but at some point, in some context, you may well shake the Devil’s hand.

The good news is that people who support the Devil, vote for the Devil, are not evil or beyond reason. There’s as little reason to despair of your neighbours as to fear them. Better news is that a population of ordinary, fallible people in a country not yet overwhelmed with despair due to famine, mass poverty, internal divisions and war are more than capable of keeping the Devil in his place.

Despair is always the danger. Right now, politicians are so despairing of their own people that they grit their teeth and flare their nostrils, trying not to gag on the sulphur and give away the fact they can smell it. Meanwhile, some of them are, themselves, a little bit evil and the presence of the Devil beside them can only improve their own precious image. But politicians aren't very important.

Last week, I was rolling round my village, looking at potential places to live. And the thought crossed my mind,
"What if people put party political posters in their front windows? What if we find somewhere perfect but we know, without meeting them, that the neighbours are a bunch of bastards who hate people like us, our friends and families?"
And I knew I was wrong at the time (and I saw just one poster, in the house of someone who always parks their sports car on the pavement so that my wheelchair is in danger of scraping the paintwork as I pass). Then this weekend, I hear that I should prefer not to live next door to Romanians and I felt even more guilty. It would be reasonable to assume that people with those posters in their windows are ordinary, fallible, just not paying so much attention, maybe with a little less to lose.

This is what the Devil looks like. His potential power lies in our despair at each other.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Peak Beard & The Universal Principles of Body-Shaming.

I began to write this post some weeks ago, when the world was shaken by the news that we (or at least white Westerners) had reached Peak Beard. I was busy and it got abandoned. Then this weekend was Eurovision and I decided to return to the subject.

We watched Eurovision with my folks this year, and thus were subject to my mother's beard commentary. My mother doesn't like facial hair. She seems particularly offended by a beard on a good-looking young man because it's such a waste. Eurovision featured lots of good-looking young people with beards; beards remain very fashionable. And thus we sat through two hours of

"I like this song but not the beard!"
"I'd vote for him if he'd only shave!"

and inevitably,

"But she'd be so beautiful if she didn't have that beard!"

Then yesterday, I heard of Russian male homophobes shaving their beards off in order to defend their fragile masculinity against the full-bearded influence of Eurovision victor Conchita Wurst.

One of several fascinating facts about men's facial hair (or lack thereof) is that the subject, when raised, provokes just as much alarm and disdain as discussion of women's grooming and appearance.

Every week, newspapers and magazines will have a news story or opinion piece about women's pubic, underarm or leg hair, women's body-shape, fitness or fatness, make-up, cosmetic surgery, bras, high-heels, corsetry and so forth. Every week, newspapers and magazines can guarantee a hoard of men and women clicking through to confirm and often share their opinions about the disgusting, unfeminine, unfeminist, shallow and lazy choices that women make about their appearance.

We've talked about this a lot - many of those articles talk about this, despite the fact that they often repeat the same messages (don't judge me for behaving as everyone should!) and play host to the same vitriol below the line. However, while there's no doubt that there's a massive gender imbalance in whose bodies and choices are being scrutinised, men's facial hair shows us that there's also something universal and ungendered going on.

Looking through the articles, comments and Twitter chat about Peak Beard (the idea that beardless men appear more attractive in a world of beard ubiquity and vice versa) we see that

1. Exactly the same arguments are used for and against facial hair as are used for and against any choice a woman might make about her own appearance. You'd think that that an argument about beards would be dynamically different from, for example, an argument about high heeled shoes. But they're not. The only difference is that there's no unfeminist choice to be made about beards, although feminism is blamed for men shaving - apparently, men who shave have been rendered fearful of their own masculinity (apart from Russian homophobes). Men who don't shave have the more rational fear of sharp objects.

2. The same arguments are made both for and against any given behaviour. Shaving isn't healthy; it causes rashes, nicks and dryness, whereas beards are breeding ground for deadly bacteria. Shaving is part of being a real man, a rite of passage to young men, the minimal requirement for smartness, whereas beards are a sign of masculinity; a real man is a bearded man and men who shave are afraid of growing up. See also women's pubic hair, dieting, bras etc..

3. Almost all arguments originate from a personal preference; I like my beard, I like my smooth face, I prefer a bearded man, I prefer a smooth face. But it has to be extrapolated to some universal truth; "Sorry guys, but women just don't fancy men with beards. None of the men I've dated in the past yea had beards. So if you ever want to get laid again, have a shave!"

And here, we begin to see what's going on. Folks are anxious. Folks are defensive about their own behaviour or preferences. There must be a right way. Newspaper columns, magazines and advertisers of all variety certainly suggest this: Do things the right way. Buy our products to avoid humiliationThe recent Veet advert suggested that if a thin female model has 24 hour's hair growth on her legs, she might as well be an overweight, hirsute bloke with a high-pitched feminine voice. Which brings me to

4. Cultural tropes around nature, gender and sexuality are then wheeled in as if they were facts. There are real men, and real women - all straight and cis gender. Real men and real women behave in a certain way and desire certain things in their partners. People who deviate are not real; women who don't fancy bearded men are lesbians, are afraid of real men and will die alone. Some men (with or without beards) talk with utter disdain about women who might not fancy them, as if any pognophobe is going to think, "Brian from Skegness thinks I'm a silly bitch for not fancying men like him. How could I have been so wrong?!"

Some straight women are compelled to share fairly graphic detail about how they like to tug on a beard during sex, or ask their boyfriends to shave mid-way because they can feel the hairs growing. Worse are the ones who are effectively negging; "Most women run screaming when they see a bearded man, but I'm able to see past that. What do looks matter? Leave all those scornful women who will laugh at you, humiliate you in front of your friends and be rude to your mother to those cleanly shaven men! Come here, beardy!"

Exactly the same thing happens with women's appearance. There's no shortage of straight men lining up for medals for their courageous tolerance of slight variations from our cultural model of conventional beauty (for a recent essay-length cringe-athon, see In Defence of Hairy Women).

It's quite easy for me to write about beards because (a) I cannot grow one, (b) nobody would expect me to and (c) I really have no particular opinion about them. Some beards look good, some not so much (a fashionable shape on an unfashionable face*) and some are quite funny (our Latin teacher, an eccentric and very skeletal-looking man had a long goatie beard that curved dramatically to one side, despite constant ponderous smoothing). People should do what they like - or what they can; some men cannot grow a beard, others struggle to shave.

It would be much harder for me to talk about female grooming. It shouldn't be too hard for me as a woman who, in being attracted to other women, knows that there are few universal turn-offs around these matters. It shouldn't be too hard for me as woman who, being a conscientious feminist hippie-type, has conducted long-term experiments in things like growing or removing leg, underarm and pubic hair. I have worn a lot of make-up and none at all for many years. I even stopped using any commercial products on my person (apart from soap for handwashing) for about eighteen months.

The only thing I've ever dismissed outright are those Spanx-type magic pants that squeeze everything together? I bought some, I put them on and then I cut them off. 

However, it is almost impossible to talk about these issues in complete neutrality. And in the absence of such neutrality, it seems that culture has primed us to get defensive (I wouldn't leave the house without my Spanx. But you can't expect miracles, you whale!). And I think the beard thing demonstrates that this is nothing inherent to women, or even women's conditioning. We all need to get over the fact that other people like, want and do different things to ourselves and it's all perfectly okay.

(yeah, but if I work harder on that last sentence, I'll never post this).

* By an unfashionable face, I don't mean an ugly face, just one that hasn't got this week's bone-structure and colouring. Vaguely related to this, here is a great piece about being a young brown guy whose now-fashionable beardedness has previously been a factor in his experience of racism.