Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 30 June 2013

The Lost Boys

Some of you will remember a blog I wrote, a little while ago, talking about whether or not I hold back.

Today I have decided not to hold back. Today I plan to reveal a secret that will change the World for geeks and nerds, everywhere, and, perhaps even more importantly, for girls and women, too.

Bear with me... It’s coming.

Today, even though it’s Sunday, and I shouldn’t, I’m going to get snarky, and I’m going to get snarky with, of all things, my local branch of Waterstones. In fact, I’m going to guess that what is true of my local branch is probably universally true at Waterstones and get snarky with the whole damned company.
My local Waterstones

So... listen up Waterstones!

We used to have two Waterstones shops in our local town. The original was in a tall, old, rather lovely building, and the usurper arrived in the form of a unit in the brand new shopping development, and, no, not actually a mall. The two shops have coexisted for several years, serving different demographics, and I regularly used both.

Recently, the original shop closed and the usurper had an extensive refit in order to accommodate, I suppose, the extra weight of traffic it might expect. I was in the shop for the first time yesterday. I’m not hugely keen on the refit, if I’m honest, but I did think it would be a good idea to familiarise myself with the new layout, so that’s what I did.

And that’s where the snark comes in, because something occurred to me for the first time, even though I believe it might have been a policy at Waterstones going back into the dim and distant past.

The ground floor of the shop appears to be broadly dedicated to fiction. That’s what you’d expect, isn’t it? It’s a bookshop, after all, and it’s a good idea to have books front and centre. There are other things there, too, including children’s books, poetry, study aids, cards and gift wrapping, stationery and electronic books. So far so good.

There are more books upstairs, including reference and hobby stuff, just as you’d expect.

Here’s what made me cross, though, and this is the thrust of my snark: Fiction was shelved downstairs, except for SFF and Horror.

Can anyone explain to me, including the good people at Waterstones, how SFF and Horror do not constitute fiction? Can anyone explain to me how cards and gift wrapping or stationery have more in common with all other kinds of fiction than do SFF and Horror novels?

No, I didn’t think so.

Can anyone explain to me, including the good people at Waterstones, how SFF and Horror have more in common with, say, cooking and sewing than they do with all other forms of fiction?

No, thought not.

As parents and teachers and caring adults involved in kids’ lives, we encourage them to read Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, His Dark Materials and all and anything by J K Rowling, not to mention Roald Dahl, the grand master of gothic horror for children. The children’s section, on the ground floor was positively heaving with SFF and Horror, and rightly so.

There’s snobbery too about how long a book’s been in print or how many copies it’s sold. The Harry Potter novels, in their smart, for-adult jackets were displayed in the general fiction section, naturally, and Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, Wilkie Collins, John Wyndham and Jules Verne were all shelved on the ground floor in classic fiction. Who doesn’t recognise Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights as spiritual forbears of many a gothic horror novel?

So, kids can read SFF and Horror and so can adults, just so long as they’re... what? Discerning?

You know what that means, don’t you?

That means that someone, somewhere doesn’t want young people, who might appear to be a tad unconventional, and might wear black and have a tattoo or a piercing, and, heaven help us, doesn’t everyone now, and don’t I? Someone somewhere doesn’t want those sort of young people standing next to people who buy ‘real’ books, cluttering up the fiction section of Waterstones.

Segregation is bad, and not only is it bad, but it’s always bad, and it’s particularly unpleasant when it’s about culture and when it’s based in misplaced snobbery, because now we’re getting back to the example of those Lost Boys in the title of this blog.

SF is probably as full of ideas as any writing being done in any genre.

Take Chick-Lit for example. I don’t read a great deal of it, but I don’t read a whole lot of SFF or Horror, either. I do think that Marian Keyes is about as likely to make me laugh as Charles Stross is to make me think, though, and that’s probably fair enough, isn’t it?

I doubt very much whether women writers like Marian Keyes, Sophia Kinsella or even, say, Grace Dent would object at all to having SFF and Horror on the ground floor, cheek by jowl with their novels, because these are women that I suspect know the same thing that I know, and if they don’t they ought to, and, if they don’t, they, like you, are about to find out.

Here we go.

Girls always think they want to date cool boys, because girls are foolish, and, come to think of it, so are cool boys. 

Women, when they come to their senses, and I came to my senses tragically early, want to date the cleverest boys.

There are things you can’t tell about a man, but you can tell how smart he is, and it’s simple. The smartest dudes are the ones who take an interest in things. If a boy takes an interest in something, pretty much anything, it’s a sure sign that a) he’s got a brain, and b) he’s going to take an interest in you. If a boy takes something seriously, and pretty much anything will do, it’s a sure sign that i) he’s got a brain, and ii) he’s going to take you seriously.

Here’s the real kicker, so listen up. Cool boys don’t take an interest in much because they’re busy getting cool and maintaining the cool, and cool boys only take the cool seriously. None of that is going to get a girl very far with that kind of boy for very long.

Boys that take an interest in things and boys that take things seriously are, invariably, geeks and nerds, and they’re the same people who read, and they’re the same kids who want to read SFF and Horror, because that shit’s full of ideas. We know it is because we want our children to read it, for crying out loud!

So, Waterstones, perhaps you’d like to reconsider your policy of separating geeks and nerds from the general population. We all have a lot to learn from each other, and a great read is still a great read... I know you know that, because I’ve seen what’s shelved in your kids’ section and in your classics section.

Fiction is fiction, and all this labeling isn’t helping anyone, and geeks and nerds aren’t just people, too, they’re clever, serious, interested people, and those are the sort of people who read.

Come to think of it... Aren’t you in the business of selling books?

Saturday 29 June 2013

I Say Thee Brava, Nigella Lawson!

So... Nigella Lawson has left her husband.
Nigella Lawson looking glorious


There has been a lot of talk about the incident between her and her estranged husband, or, more correctly put, the assault perpetrated on her by him. I thought Juliet McKenna quite good on the subject in her blog, and there were endless column inches everywhere.

Domestic violence is a subject that you might expect me to wade in on loudly and at some length, so some of you are probably surprised that it’s taken me this long.

It’s a tricky subject.

Put simply, if one person is abusing another, mentally or physically, he or she is not demonstrating love. He or she is demonstrating any number of emotions and showing a form of weakness, but he or she is absolutely not, and I cannot express this strongly enough... he or she is NOT demonstrating love.

I was once assaulted by a man. The relationship was short. The man was volatile, and the assault occurred when I vocalised an opinion that I knew he wouldn’t like. Some would say I provoked him. I would, categorically, not say that.

There was a part of me that always knew this man could hit me. Until he did, I was always a little afraid of him, I think. When he did, I was bloody furious.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone take the action I took, and I suppose that it takes a surge of chemicals and a certain sort of control to pull it off, but I did what I did, and I got lucky.

My assailant knocked me to the floor. From somewhere or other, I reasoned that I was in a position of strength, because my legs were where all my power was, and I had the chance to use them. Shouting at the top of my lungs, I started kicking. 

He backed off long enough for me to gather myself together and pack a bag.

He didn’t want me to leave, and came at me again. I got in first, the second time, with one, open-handed strike to his face.

I slapped him.

It doesn’t sound like much does it?

For a woman, I have big, flat hands, and I was pretty keyed up on adrenalin, and very, very pissed off.

He tried stepping towards me once more as I tried to leave, but when I lifted my hand a second time, he begged me not to hit him again.

I left, and I never looked back.

People who assault the men and women they claim to love have got all kinds of problems, and some of those problems might be legitimate and they might be treatable, but, even if those people need help, they also need to be separated from the people they are assaulting. 

The people being assaulted, and I’m reluctant to call them victims, because, mostly, they’re just people; they’re you and me; they’re men and women with jobs and families and ordinary lives and responsibilities... The people being assaulted need to be separated from the people who are assaulting them, but they also need to know that their assailants are bullies and cowards.

I was lucky enough to see my assailant for what he was, at the time of the assault. I was lucky enough to get angry and to stop my assailant in his tracks. I was lucky enough not to react with the natural freeze response that most people react with. I was lucky enough not to be sitting across a table with a man’s hands around my throat. I was lucky enough to be lying on a kitchen floor with the full use of my vocal cords and my, frankly, athletic legs, and I was lucky enough to be incensed by what was happening to me.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone fight back. I would recommend everyone get out of an abusive relationship at the very first opportunity.

Ms Lawson was married to her assailant for ten years, and I think it’s unlikely that this was the first time that she was mistreated by her husband. A build-up of misery, verbal abuse and small acts of cruelty break down a person’s spirit, giving more and more power to the abuser, and sapping the esteem of the person being abused. 

Clever people are often more subtle abusers. I don’t remember, for example, Ms Lawson’s husband ever discussing his food preferences before becoming involved with his wife, a woman whose professional status revolved around food. He undermined her constantly on the subject, talking about liking nursery food, and not eating her dishes, when he might have supported her, or simply not spoken on the subject, in public at all, particularly given his reputation as a taciturn individual.

I wish Ms Lawson well, and I hope she finds some peace in the future and some way to restore her confidence and rebuild her self-esteem, but I suspect her recovery might take some time.

Friday 28 June 2013

Murdering Bastards part ii or Polarising Opinions

This was my FaceBook status update, a couple of weeks ago, the evening after the morning that I wrote a blog, which garnered a very angry comment, clearly opposing the viewpoint I had expressed in that day’s post:

People can and will and should be able to say whatever the hell they please on any subject on which they care to express themselves. I'm all for it. I positively encourage comments to my blog, and I have never deleted a comment, despite disagreeing with many of them. I also rarely engage with commenters that I disagree with, not least because I have the main floor and it seems rude to take over the comments too. I would say one thing... I would say this: My blog has my name and my likeness on it, and everything I say, I say under that banner. I do not hide behind any kind of pseudonym and nor do I choose to cloak myself in any kind of anonymity. We should all stand up and be counted, particularly if we believe so strongly in something that we decide to write about it with uncompromising vehemence in a public arena.

Yesterday, I wrote about Ian Brady and his current appeal to return to the general prison population. My views are not, I think, particularly controversial on this subject. As a general rule, my views tend to the liberal, and this, I thought, was an interesting exception. In fact most of the comments I received, on FaceBook and Twitter, where these things are generally talked about, were positive and broadly in agreement with my sentiments.

On the whole, I’d be tempted to conclude that commenters were, perhaps, a little more condemnatory of the penal system and the press than I would tend to be. I would conclude that, as a whole, those who read my blog were more in favour of tougher sentencing than I am, more in favour of press embargoes and blackouts than I am, and more likely to invoke a higher power to deal with the Moors Murderers in the eternal hereafter than I would be. So, perhaps I was more liberal in my thinking than I, at first, thought.

One of my commenters, and he has every right to comment, and is welcome to his views, stands a very long way from my position in almost all things. I admit to being a little surprised that he appears to feel that he is broadly in agreement with my opinions on this subject. I have no problem, however, with the fact that he makes his own argument and signs his name to it. 

The penal system, the law, justice, was a subject upon which I might have been expected to be rather more liberal, and some people might have been surprised that I wasn’t. Of course, there are reasons for that, and they are personal, but I’ve talked about them before on the blog, not least in Whatever Happened to Naming Names

I was expecting someone to pull me up on this, one or other of my more or most liberal friends, probably. I wasn’t expecting this on Twitter from Dr Karen Evangelista, @BaronessVerney; I do not know her, but she is clearly somewhat invested in this debate and its outcome:

FAR FAR FAR too much assumption and speaking (often wrongly) on behalf of British Public - of which you have NO right.

I would have preferred a fuller comment, and I would have preferred it to have appeared in the comments section of the blog. I invited Dr Evangelista to do so, but, so far, have had no reply, on Twitter or anywhere else. 

I would have liked some explanation of Brady’s psychiatric history or current mental health status, despite the fact that it’s my understanding that he hasn’t allowed the staff of Ashworth Hospital, where he has been a resident since 1985, to carry out psychiatric evaluations, although, clearly, it has been possible to observe him. 

So far as I can ascertain, Dr Evangelista has not examined him, but she does appear to have read his book “The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and its Analysis”.

I would love to see any and all evidence for what the British public thinks of Ian Brady. I wonder what research has been done on this subject, by whom, and whether the results are available to the general public. Dr Evangelista clearly has some insight into this, and I’d be very grateful if she’d share it with us. 

Oh, and while I’m at it, I’d like to apologise for any misunderstanding that I, in any way, speak for the ‘British public’ when I believe I represent only one opinion, in this or any other matter, namely, mine.

I will continue to blog, and, I’m afraid, I’ll continue to blurt out all sorts of opinions that I might go on to contradict as I get older and wiser. Who knows, perhaps Dr Evangelista will have a hand in my education, and yesterday’s blog will become tomorrow’s virtual chip paper. All she needs to do to make that possible is turn up and offer a persuasive argument, and, according to her Twitter profile, she’s more than qualified to do that.

Again, I have decided not to post a picture of Ian Brady on this blog. Today’s line-up consists of the children sexually assaulted, tortured and killed by him. They were, from left to right: John Kilbride, Lesley-Ann Downey, Keith Bennett, Pauline Reade and Edward Evans, who were aged between ten and seventeen years old when they were murdered between 1963 and 1965.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Murdering Bastards

I am not an aggressive person, and it is hard to imagine what would drive me to an act of real violence. I have often said, though, that if I were to kill or die for anyone, it would, almost certainly, be for my children.

I think that holds true for many, probably for most, of us... I sort of hope it does.

Ian Brady is in the news again this week. He wants to return to prison, after serving almost the last thirty years of a full-life sentence in a secure psychiatric hospital. He claims no longer to be suffering from the mental health disorders that ensured his move to Ashworth Hospital in 1985. He prefers to serve out the remainder of his sentence, until his death, in a conventional prison in Scotland. Apparently, this is in order that he can choose not to eat, and, hence, hasten his demise. He can be force-fed while in a psychiatric hospital, but not if he is part of the general prison population.

Ian Brady and Myra Hindley  committed their heinous crimes fifty years ago. The murders they committed and their victims will never be forgotten. They don’t just live on in the memories of those who read the papers and followed the case at the time, but in particular, in the community that suffered at their hands. They live on, too, in the minds of all of us who came after, in the children raised since. 

Ian Brady IS the bogie man.

I do not believe in capital punishment. I abhor the notion that the state might kill in cold blood on my behalf. It is an abomination. 

I absolutely uphold the right of those individuals whose lives were touched by this hideous creature and his horrendous crimes to bay for his blood. It is a wonder he escaped the wrath of many... of any... incensed individual brave or foolhardy enough to make an attempt on his life, before he was imprisoned or, indeed, since.

As to his making an appeal of this nature, at this stage in his life, at this juncture in his incarceration? It is his human right to do so, and human rights must be inclusive, but there is a part of me that wonders if this person should have a public voice. I wonder whether this is news, and whether it is in the public interest to debate this subject. We all have opinions, of course, and rightly so, but giving this man a platform seems wrong.

Do we simply cause more pain by reporting this criminal’s words? Or by showing his likeness in sketches made by the artist in the courtroom? Do we somehow humanise the inhuman by comparing psychiatric reports? Or by having caseworkers advocate on his behalf? Do we simply cause more pain by showing all of this in the press?

Of course we do.

Does that make it wrong?

Perhaps... Probably.

However, I don’t honestly believe that this man does garner any sympathy for himself or his cause. I don’t honestly believe that our opinion has changed with time. I don’t believe we have softened, and I don’t believe that we ever will. Those who followed the case in the news media at the time are reminded of how terrible his crimes were, and those who learned about them subsequently are no less horrified by them. Younger people who are reading or hearing about the Moors murders for the first time, because of this new appeal will, I’m sure, be as appalled by Brady’s crimes as the rest of us have been for the past half-century. 

There has been nothing but hatred and vilification for Brady and Hindley in the past, and there is nothing but hatred and vilification for him now. Those feelings don’t go away. That will never change.

Ian Brady claims to want to die, and I doubt whether any of us feels that his life is very much worth preserving, despite the fact that many of us would not choose for the state to end it prematurely.

If he is moved to a prison and he does go on hunger strike, he will not live for long. He is a seventy-five year old man and he has been incarcerated for the better part of fifty years, so what makes any one think he’s going to live for very much longer, in any case?

There’s the irony of all of this.
Keith Bennett

Thirty years ago, Brady convinced the authorities that he was sufficiently mentally ill to require longterm psychiatric treatment in a secure mental health facility, and his life was preserved and very probably extended because of it.

Prisoners don’t live for very long, particularly those incarcerated for decades. They live sedentary existences with high levels of stress, and their general lifestyles do not promote long and healthy lives. The death through natural causes of a man in prison occurs, on average, at the age of 56. For women that average age drops to 47.

Myra Hindley, who was Ian Brady’s partner in crime, and who was incarcerated in a conventional prison, died at the age of sixty from pneumonia, a complication of heart disease. The average age at which a woman dies in the UK is 82. 

This could and probably should have been a moot point, by now, but this man has played the system, and he is still playing the system, and it’s just one more reason to despise him.

I have chosen a picture of Keith Bennett for this post. His body has still not been recovered from its burial place on the Moors.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Writers’ Retreat or Busman’s Holiday?

The husband and I have been talking about running a writers’ retreat for a while now.

We have our reasons. My reasons are not necessarily the same as his.

I like staying in really groovy buildings, mostly those owned by the Landmark Trust, and lots of them are too big for us to justify visiting them a deux, as it were. So, if we were to choose one of those for a writers’ retreat, how cool would that be? I also like a lot of the writers I know, but don’t get to socialise with them as much as I’d like, because... well... because we’re all busy people.

We do socialise, mostly by having people down to stay, but that generally means they have to travel a fair distance, and there’s only so much room at the house. We could throw a bigger party if we just all stayed together, couldn’t we? And, we could do it more centrally, too.

You might be beginning to wonder why on Earth we’d bother having a writers’ retreat at all. Why not just have a big old weekend party and invite whoever?

Well, there are reasons for that, too.

We don’t do down time. We don’t really stop or rest. We have to justify everything, and, you know what? We actually like to work, and we love the stimulus of new environments in which to work. We also like talking about work, and sharing what we’re doing, and we love the company of other writers. 

There is no greater buzz than sitting in a room full of almost-like minds, throwing ideas around, riffing off one another. It’s a thrill... And writers are talkers, in my experience. When we party, we do it with our mouths and our minds. We don’t turn up the music and cavort about the place, we sit on our backsides with glasses in our hands, gesturing and talking non-stop. 

It was date night last night, and it ended with the husband and me sitting side-by-side with our laptops open, looking at possible venues for our first ever writers’ retreat to take place some time at the end of November or the beginning of December. It looks as if we might actually do it. We’ve got a beautiful building in mind, and a long list of guests. We’ve got some ideas about how we’d like to structure the weekend, what it’ll cost, and what we might all expect from the experience, including a fair amount of mucking in with the self-catering element.

I’ll be very interested to see who takes us up on our invitation, and it’ll be even more interesting to see which writers have what expectations of a retreat. I’ve never been on one, but I’ve never attended a writers’ group or sat in a creative writing class, either, so what the hell do I know? 

I have been thinking about this a good deal, and I think I know what I’d be interested in doing, and why, and I think I know the sort of writers I’d be interested in spending some time with, both professionally and socially.

I suspect this is going be quite a learning curve, though, for the husband and me, and for any writer who has the bottle to join us on our proposed adventure. I do hope we get enough interest to actually have a crack at this. 

I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Do I Hold Back?

I was asked this question recently, and I actually had to think about the answer.

I doubt that the people who listened to me on Saturday  night, telling the story of the husband’s nickname at school and how he got it, believed for a moment that I ever hold back, and on that occasion, I didn’t, because, frankly it’s a funny story worth telling... And, no, I’m not going to tell it here, and neither are any of the people around that table, because I know they’re all sufficiently afraid of me and the repercussions they’d suffer at my hands if they did, and because I know that they all utterly respect the sanctity of the author’s post-event supper table.

I also, recently, wrote a blog titled Control and Restraint, which explains something about holding back, and the fact that I don’t, and why I don’t, and why it’s OK not to under certain circumstances.

The answer to the question depends on circumstances, though, doesn’t it?

When it comes to dinner parties, of course I don’t hold back. These occasions are private, and, even if conversations are reported, on Twitter or FaceBook, it’s all hearsay, isn’t it? It’s all ‘he said’, ‘she said’. We can all deny our parts in proceedings, or laugh them off, or put it down to a drink or two too many. The chances are that nothing very terrible is going to happen in the end. We might feel a twinge of embarrassment, and we might feel a little cross or betrayed by the person reporting our words, but such is life.

When I’m writing fiction, I see no point in holding back. 

I often speak of opening a vein when it comes to fiction. I do it regularly, and, I hope, with a purpose, and I wouldn’t and won’t change that. Sometimes it’s recognised and sometimes it’s even appreciated... Not always, of course, but that’s just a matter of the World catching up, and, who knows? Maybe, one day, it will.

Then there’s the other... Then there’s saying or writing things first person to the World... Things that weren’t meant to be private and aren’t leaked or reported by other people.

Telling a story to a dozen people around a supper table when I can see the whites of their eyes, the shock on their faces, and the glee at being let in on a secret is one thing. Tweeting into the void when I might be saying something scurrilous or even offensive, when tone is not necessarily translatable is something entirely different. If I can’t quite set the scene, if I can’t rely on my audience to know exactly what has come before, if what I want to say can easily be misinterpreted, if there is a chance I will misrepresent myself then, surely, I should think very carefully before updating my FaceBook status or tweeting my random thoughts.

I try to do it, I really do, but, of course, I don’t always get it right, and I have found myself caught up in minor controversies of my own making.

I also have a long list, on file of the things I haven’t said, out of context, off the cuff. I have a long list of things that didn’t make it past my filters, such as they are.

Do I hold back?

Yes I do.

Is there ever a good reason to say, for example, “...”

You see... I looked down my long list of things I haven’t said, and I couldn’t find a single quote that I could use, even as an example, without encasing it in a metre thick defensive wall of explanation and excuse, so I’m just going to leave it at that.

I do hold back. I do it for myself and I do it for you, and I do it because there has still got to be room in the World for manners, for politeness, for consideration. 

There are a great many people out there, particularly among the young and impressionable, who insist on saying that they simply want to be loved for themselves, for who they are. My answer to that is that I’m happy to love them just so long as they work on being their very best selves, and that includes having some bloody manners, and knowing when it’s a good idea to hold back a little.

Monday 24 June 2013

Shoes and Balloons

And... scene...

Thanks for your patience, and thanks to the husband for guesting on the blog. 

This is the longest break I’ve taken. It feels weird.

It felt weird not to write a blog every day, and now it feels weird to write one. It feels like beginning again, somehow.


We just got back from Dublin. It was fab! Black Library hasn’t done Black Library Live anywhere but GWHQ in Nottingham, but I’m rather hoping that they’ll make a habit of hosting events like the one at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin last weekend in other cities in the UK and Ireland, and, who knows, maybe even in Europe too.

We enjoyed ourselves, and I rather think that the ticket holders enjoyed themselves, too.

I signed stuff.

I sat on panels with such luminaries as Graham McNeill, Guy Haley and the husband, Dan Abnett. They were introduced as ‘Mr’... each of them, and all of them. I wasn’t introduced as Ms or Mrs... I wonder why not. I wonder if that might have been considered pointed. That was sort of weird, too.

Lots of things feel a bit weird when I’m coming off a bit of an episode, especially when the episode is recent and the ‘things’ are out of the normal range of life experience. I didn’t do much for a while before the event, so pretty well everything was outside my normal range of life experience for that week.

Of course, it’s part of my job to sign things and talk on panels, from time to time, but not all that often, and I’m still not really used to it, and I’ve never done it when I haven’t had total control of my head before.

Turns out, it doesn’t make a whole heap of difference.

Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.

Some people get fearfully nervous. Some people need to take time out to prepare. Some people need to sit quietly in a darkened room, some need a lucky charm, a particular uniform, or a measure of dutch courage. Some like things structured in a certain way, or for the room to be the right temperature, some are put off by PA systems, some like to be able to walk about, and some like a barrier of some sort between themselves and an audience: a table or to be raised on a stage or platform.

I don’t much care. I’m pretty well at ease. I’m happy to admit ignorance when I don’t have a good or coherent answer to a question, I don’t mind contradicting  myself or other members of the panel, and I have no problem being put in my place. If someone’s come to see me speak, I just assume there’s a good chance he’s already on my side.

It’s about shoes and balloons, isn’t it? OK, you don’t know yet, because I haven’t explained it, but, you can trust me on this... it really is.

If someone says he's never owned a pair of shoes, it would be a lot of people’s instincts to give him a pair of shoes, but just because someone says he's never owned a pair of shoes doesn’t mean he’s asking for a pair of shoes. To give someone who says he’s never owned a pair of shoes a pair of shoes might well be a total waste. If someone has never owned a pair of shoes, there’s a good chance his feet are like old leather, and he probably has no need of a pair of shoes... 

On the other hand, if you give someone who has never owned a pair of shoes... well... for example... a balloon...

How cool is that?!

So, when it comes to being a person, when it comes to interacting with and talking to people, and when it comes to talking to readers and sitting on panels, that’s how it works. My  head is what it is, and it was ever thus, and it needs no gift of shoes. It has never had the benefit of shoes, and shoes are redundant now; there’s nothing that would comfortably fit, and it has grown its own thick skin, of sorts, instead. A balloon, though... A jolly, red balloon... is always very welcome!

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Guest Blog # 1

The two of us

Nik’s not well, so it’s me, the husband, writing today’s blog, in between providing cups of tea and soothing words. Given the regularity of Nik’s blog posts, I thought it was a good idea to step up and post something today before people start to wonder what’s happened.

Nik is remarkably frank in her blog posts, so you’ll know about her bi-polar disorder. She’s had one of her episodes and is feeling very low, but she’ll be back to her snarky self again soon, without a doubt.

Stepping in to provide the first guest blog ever on her site, I am reminded of the efficiency and energy she puts into blogging. This is what a proper blog looks like. I’ve had my own for seven or eight years, and it has a decent throughput, but I manage to blog at best only every few weeks (sometimes it’s even less often than that). I also blog about events and work, and virtually never stray into the realms of the personal. I am always impressed at the frequency of Nik’s blogposts, at the way she disseminates her blog through Twitter and FaceBook, and the sheer discipline of producing something on an almost daily basis. What is even more impressive is the quality of the material she produces. It’s not vacuous waffle publicising this, that or the other, it’s almost always frank, political, surprisingly insightful, controversial and far more personal than most bloggers dare to be. I presume that is why she attracts so many repeat readers. Her blog is a proper open discourse with the World; she is the person that she appears to be from her posts. I wonder how many bloggers you can say that about.

Nik has just recently posted her 400th blog, which is quite a landmark, especially given the timeframe and the sustained personal engagement of those blogs. If you’re going to talk to the World on a daily basis, you’d better have something to say or you’re just adding to the noise. I often don’t, which is why I don’t do it that regularly. I think Nik always does, which is why I felt you might miss her if she went quiet for a while. If you want proof of the range and candour of her output (and her snarkiness) here are six of my favourite posts.

Thursday 13 June 2013

The Russians are Coming part ii

I am a big fan of the blog comment. I positively encourage people to comment on my own blog, particularly when I post about issues rather than about writing, which I do fairly regularly. I have opinions, and I tend to air them.

It’s interesting to me, though, that people tend to want to enter into a dialogue, and, as a result, the most interesting comments on blogs tend to come through my Twitter and FaceBook feeds, and comments on the actual blog are often simply ripostes at best, or rants at worst.

Yesterday is a case in point. In the afternoon I had a rather interesting conversation with a couple of people over on Twitter, who had read my daily post. I had cited the Roman Catholic church in my blog about the Russian parliament passing laws discriminating against promoters of homosexuality and defending religious believers against offense. 

One of the people who talked to me on Twitter broadly agreed with me, calling the fact that, according to polls, half of Russians believe that gay people should have fewer rights than straight people ‘despicable’, which is perfectly right, of course. 

The figures don’t surprise me much, Crawl down into the lowest common denominator spaces, and remember that you’re getting answers from those people willing to respond, and those are the sorts of numbers I’d be prepared to expect just about anywhere, including little Britain and middle America, but maybe that’s just me feeling as if I’m losing a losing battle.

I was in for a surprise from this perfectly nice and well-meaning person, though, because here’s what came next:

And as a Catholic, some of the things the Catholic Church says and does leave me truly saddened.


Way back in the early eighties, when I was at university, I remember one of those late night conversations when a bunch of us were all sitting around putting the World to rights... and it’s important that you remember this was the ‘80s, fifteen years before the Good Friday Agreement. 
An Irish catholic from Derry, whose brother was a seminarian named Pius, no less, was in conversation with a third generation Italian American catholic from New York. They were discussing their faith and how they practised their catholicism. The American, let’s call him Tony, saw himself as a rational man with a conscience growing up in the modern era. He wanted all the things that all young men wanted in the second half of the twentieth century and he believed that he could have them. He also believed he was a good catholic. The Irish man, let’s call him John, believed in the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and of God’s representatives on Earth. Tony advocated for safe sex in the wake of HIV and AIDS, and contraception in the face of unwanted, unplanned and teenage pregnancies. He even advocated for abortion for the most extreme cases where a mother’s life was in danger, for example, or where a rape had been committed. 

John waited patiently for Tony to finish talking while most of the rest of the group nodded wisely along, and then he asked how Tony squared those things away with the church’s teachings. Tony said that his priest, his church and his family felt that those things should be left to a man’s conscience. John sighed, and said, ‘Yep... We call you people Protestants.’

We we young and we were shocked, and some of us were even embarrassed by that, but here’s my point... a point that I couldn’t make in a conversation on Twitter, yesterday. It’s a point that applies across the board, too, to all religious groups.

Faith is one thing. I respect it, hugely, whatever personal struggles I might have with it. Faith in a higher being has great value when it is brought to bear with love for the greater good, both of individuals and of communities, and, even of the World, if that’s possible. Faith and organised religion are not the same thing, though, are they?

Pope Francis
We align ourselves with religious groups for all sorts of reasons. My friend on Twitter yesterday called himself a catholic, and he has every right to do so, but he might be doing so for all sorts of reasons. He might be calling himself a catholic, because that’s how he was raised by his family, or his community, or because he comes from a traditionally catholic nation. He might consider himself to be catholic, culturally, as it were.

However, if he puts Roman Catholic on forms when asked to state his religion, he is endorsing something that, in his own words, leaves him truly saddened. Why, then, does he do it? The Roman Catholic church might begin to ask real questions about its direction if all disillusioned catholics, and people who call themselves catholics because it is some sort of legacy or birthright, stopped putting their religion down on forms as Roman Catholic. If they stopped going to mass, if they stopped putting their pennies in the collection plates, if they stopped buying votive candles, if they stopped propping up the church, whose teachings they, at the very least question, perhaps things would begin to change in the church itself. 

I’m not suggesting that anyone deny his faith. I’m saying, how can this man be a catholic and call himself a catholic when he fundamentally disagrees with the teachings of God’s representative or representatives on Earth. I say, if you need God to have a representative on Earth find one you agree with. If you want to belong to a church, to some sort of organised group of worshippers, at the very least find one whose politics you agree with. My presbyterian grandmother became an Anglican without too much heartache, and when my good friend saw hypocrisy in the Church of England, she found solace with the Methodists. I also know one woman so appalled by the ordination of women that she became a Roman Catholic, and she feels very at home with her choice.

Call yourself a Christian, by all means... or not. If you have faith, find a religion that suits how you feel about your God.

For that matter, as ignorant as so many of us are, we are too apt to toss all Muslims into one great, heaving pot of fundamentalist hatred. It isn’t like that, and we shouldn’t do it. It is wrong and ignorant and it demeans us. Islam is no better or worse than Christianity or Judaism, or Sikhism or Hinduism. 

Faith in a God or Gods isn’t the problem, interpretation of God’s laws is where we begin to go wrong, and that’s all about us, that’s all about men arguing over theological questions that they choose to answer to suit themselves and their times and their politics.

So, if we choose labels for ourselves, and many of us do, we should be aware of the reasons why we choose those labels, and then we should be aware that we will have to live with the consequences of carrying those labels.

My friend on Twitter calls himself a catholic and that means something to him, and it means something to me, and it will mean something to almost everyone who sees or hears that label, and I honestly think that he should be aware of that, and so should I and so should we all. 

My problem is that if the label doesn’t fit or it compromises how you feel about yourself, or if you’re excusing the label or yourself because of the label, maybe you should think about why you’re wearing the label at all. Maybe the label just doesn’t fit. Maybe you should try on a new label. Maybe, ‘I was raised catholic’ might be closer to the truth, now.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

The Russians are Coming!

When I was a kid and the Cold War was on, and we all talked about what we’d do when, not if! the four minute warning went off, the Russians are coming! was a genuine threat. Well, I suppose not, strictly speaking the Russians, but the Soviets.

The capitalists and the communists didn’t get on for, oh, a hundred years, and, for thirty of those, things looked pretty grim. We thought it was all over, though, didn’t we? What with Glasnost and Perestroika, and good old Gorbachev! The ‘80s came along and everything started to look a whole lot better for the World, at least when it came to the threat of all-out nuclear war between the super powers.


It’s the little things, though, isn’t it? Or, at least, the things that seem little, but which are embedded so deeply in our society and speak so thoroughly to our character, to how we identify as people, both as individuals and as communities, that really mark us out, and alter our standing on the World stage.

In April, New Zealand passed its Equal Marriage Act. This is how they celebrated in parliament. What could possibly be nicer or more moving?

I heard, this morning that the Russian parliament, yesterday, unanimously passed a law that prohibits providing information on homosexuality to anyone under eighteen. Yes, that’s right, unanimously! There was not a single dissenting voice, not a single gay member of parliament, apparently, nor one with a single gay relation, it seems.

This means, of course, that those most in need of help, advice, counsel and compassion will not receive it. Gay teenagers will be stigmatised in a modern, first World society. Teachers could be under threat of losing their jobs if they talk to their gay students about issues they might have, or answer questions relating to their sexuality, and could end up with criminal records because of it... In the first World... in the twenty-first century. 

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina
of Pussy Riot in a courtroom in Moscow
If this weren’t absurd enough, this nasty piece of legislation was passed on the same day as another law, imposing jail sentences on those who offend religious believers, reinforcing the convictions, for protesting in an orthodox cathedral, of two members of the punk band, Pussy Riot

It is hard to separate those two things in one’s mind, isn’t it? Where there is what is laughingly called religious conviction, where believers of all stripes are involved, hatred never seems very far away. It is not for the believer to be offended, surely? Didn’t Jesus, at least, teach us to turn the other cheek? Didn’t he preach love? 

The latest line from the Catholic church is that if one knows about the Catholic church, but one does not join her and remain in her, one cannot be saved and go to heaven when one dies.

It seems to me that there is increasing polarisation between secular and religious communities. It worries me. Polarisation of ideas always worries me. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be a little more inclusive, a little more thoughtful, a little more moderate, a little more accepting? What are we so afraid of?

Cameron and Clegg make a mess so we head to UKIP and the BNP for political solace? Why? It makes no rational sense. It’s like being in a storm and working our way out to the edges when we could try, instead, to find the calm and peace and still of the centre.

I want to be a thinker and I want to have a spiritual element in my life, and I want to respond emotionally to things. I want to feel calm and rational, and I want to respond to ideas. I can’t do that if I’m angry, and I can’t do that if I’m dogmatic and I can’t do that if I already believe that I am right about everything.

That’s what these people do, whether their convictions are political or religious; they close their hearts and their minds and they harden their souls, and every new idea and every act of love and every opportunity to change for the better bounces clean off them.

I do not know if Russia showed her true colours, yesterday. I am very sad if she did. I know that the backlash has begun. I know that the brave are already protesting for their right to be heard and to be accepted. They fought their battle for homosexuality to be decriminalised, and they won it, twenty years ago, in Russia, and now they have to fight it all over again. 

I wish them well.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Blog 400 part iii Share and Share Alike

To celebrate my 400th blog, I invited subjects of discussion. This one comes from Chris Quinn, @irlchrusty, who wants me to talk about clowns, and about how different forms of entertainment have fallen out of fashion, eg circuses, in favour of others.

Clowns! Crikey!

For so many people there was never anything so terrifying as a clown, and for anyone who’s read Stephen King...

I suggested, the other day, that for people of my generation, our childhoods more closely resembled those of our parents’ generation than they did those of our children’s, and, having made the observation, I promised myself that I’d follow it up. 

I think the same is true of entertainment. I think the manner in which we entertained ourselves and the scale on which we do it has changed dramatically, and that includes clowns.

a gorgeous old circus poster
Chris cited circuses, and, having grown-up in Great Yarmouth, I'm more than a little familiar with the concept, but let’s begin with all live entertainments. It’s only sixty years since the coronation, which is when tvs were first bought in any numbers, so most entertainments, excluding the radio, of course, were live prior to that time, and even most radio entertainments were broadcast live. The exception to the rule was film, of course, which, while it wasn’t live, was, at least, entertainment for the masses, and was enjoyed en masse.

TV and radio were the beginnings of small scale home entertainment, but, until very recently they were also very much shared. Until the 80s we all watched the same three channels and we all watched the same programs at the same times on the same days. We shared the experience of watching them, usually in family groups around the only tv in the house, and we discussed them together, often at work or in school with friends and colleagues and a wider community.

Entertainment was a community activity, from singing around a piano in the local drinking hole to standing room only at the local theatre, for hundreds of years. Until modern times, most people didn’t even eat their hot meals alone in their homes, but in local bake shops.

We still indulge in big events and special occasion entertainments, but we don’t share them in the same way we used to. We travel to our entertainments. We don’t walk to our local theatre, we travel to a big city. We don’t sit with our neighbours and friends, we sit with strangers, and when the show is over we get back in our cars or on the train, and we don’t share the experience, except with the people who might have accompanied us on the trip.

There are a few exceptions.

I haven’t been to a modern music festival, but I certainly see the appeal. I can imagine the camaraderie, the hedonistic delights of living in a field, in tents, with strangers for three or four days at a time, sharing food and music, and love and mud; making friends, possibly for life, and making plans to meet again at the next venue. 

I completely understand why people who meet under no other circumstances gather in fields half a dozen times a year for LARPing extravaganzas, or why they meet enthusiastically at conferences and conventions.

I worry, though about the dilution and dissolution of our entertainments. I worry about their specialism. I worry about labelling.

Take fiction. Books used to be books. When I was a kid, fiction was fiction, a good story was a good story, and I never cared what genre it happened to be; there really wasn’t anything like the snobbery there appears to be now. 

When I go into a book shop, now, everything is labelled, and heaven forfend a book doesn’t easily fit into a category. What is YA? What are Gothic Historical Romance and Alternative Steampunk Fantasy? And where, oh where, is the joy?

Every time a kid plugs his earbuds in, I cringe a little, especially when he’s got a buddy sitting next to him. Whatever happened to sharing, and why aren’t we all sharing our entertainments a little more readily.

I hope that we are, and I hope that we’ll continue to.

Shared entertainments like shared experiences of all kinds have got to be a good thing, surely?