Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Sunday 29 September 2013

Live Blog #3

So, if that was it, we’ve had!

Another GamesDay UK is over!

It was a blast.

We got to see people and say hi, shake hands and sign stuff... and things.

We had a chat or two with some fabulous folks and we even hatched a plot or two for future projects. A wonderful time was had by us, and, I hope by some of you, too.

It’s all over too quickly, though, isn’t it? There just isn’t quite enough time or attention to go around. I found myself wanting to talk longer to people, and I even realised that all I managed for some old friends and acquaintances was a nod or a smile or a wave from a distance, and that’s not really good enough now is it?

So here’s a thing. The barriers have gone down on GamesDay UK 2013. literally:
you see... blue shirts disassembling barriers.

It’s over, and we’re sorry to say goodbye...

But it’s not the end as we know it. 

Next month... come November... On the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd, so not long now, The Black Library is hosting a weekender at the Belfry Hotel, Nottingham.

There will be two full days of stuff and things, and both of us will be taking part in... well... some of those bits of stuff and some of those wondrous things. We’ll also be on hand for all of both days to join in with other stuff and things, generally, and to stop to chat and actually spend some time and attention on you.

If you haven’t already bought tickets to the event, I happen to know that there are still a few available. So, make haste... Go on... You know you want to, and, what’s more, I want you to, and you know that’s always got to count for something... Right?


Live Blog #2

We’re breaking for lunch after a very busy couple of hours... Well, strictly speaking I was only as busy as I wanted to be. I did join the husband once or twice when called upon to sign the occasional copy of one of the Gilead novels or a Sabbat World’s Anthology, and it was a pleasure so to do. Mostly, though, I just bibbled about, stopping to chat with some of the people I recognised.

It was lovely to see Philip for a proper conversation, and of course Pete of Fifty Shades of Geek fame and Oliver, who to my delight came to tell me that he’s getting married! @OldManGun should have been here, but I gather that he’s poorly in bed, so I hope he feels better soon, but it was a pleasure to see Lee. I was hoping to catch up with Shane, Owen and Connor, and I even visited their VIP box, but no luck so far... Maybe I’ll catch up with them this afternoon.

I have had the pleasure of seeing a constant flow of people filing past Guy Haley, Chris Wraight, Anthony Reynolds, Andy Smillie, Darius Hinks, Nick Kyme, Bill King, Graham McNeill, Neil Roberts and of course the husband, Dan Abnett. Between them they’ve signed an awfully lot of books, hinted at any number of upcoming story lines and nodded and winked at the endless possibilities that lie ahead for the Legions of the Horus Heresy, not to mention their many and various favourite characters. 

I also happen to know that the husband has taken down a name or two for later use in future Gaunt’s Ghosts novels. You just can’t have too many red shirts.

Lunch is almost over, but just before they start to stir, here’s a photo of the writers looking out over the floor of the NIA, watching the World go by.

And here’s the floor of the NIA... Look at all those people!

Live Blog #1

I guess, strictly speaking, that all blogs are live blogs. I write them and I post them, and they’re about the thoughts that I’m having.

Today’s a little bit special, though, because today is GamesDay UK 2013, and that only happens once a year.

We’ve breakfasted, laughed about Diehard 7: Jury’s Inn with Phil Collins in the Bruce Willis role and the theme tune Coming in the Air Tonight and we’ve had the very surreal experience of that very tune beginning to play, as if by magic, two seconds after it was mentioned. The husband, Graham McNeill and Anthony Reynolds riffed on the elevator pitch and they set the budget. They decided they could probably bring it in for around the ten million mark. 

You’ve got to admire their ambition.

We’ve broken half the rules of the NIA, because we had no idea which door we were actually supposed to entire by, we’ve had Claudia’s event briefing, the guys are sitting down, the sharpies have been deployed, and the doors are open!

It’s a smaller, more select event this year, and the writers have a signing room and a seminar room all of their own, which is all rather splendid. I suspect that any minute now things are going to spring into action, but for the moment, it’s the real diehard fans who’ve made it to the head of the queue!

The Early Birds!
And that's the husband, under the window centre left

Saturday 28 September 2013

Sacred Feth! It’s that Time Again!

It’s almost become like a pilgrimage!

It’s the last weekend in September, and we’re bound for Birmingham.

This is my fifteenth GamesDay UK in a row, and goodness only knows how many the husband has attended... I’ve certainly lost count.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been to every single GamesDay UK since the inception of the Black Library, and if not, then I’ve certainly been to every one since the first novel was published.

It means I’ve been attending GamesDay UK since the last millennium. To some it means I’ve been attending GamesDay UK since before they were born. It means that Commissar Gaunt has been around for longer than they have, for goodness sake... Or should I say for Feth’s sake?

GamesDay UK is the only convention that I attend every year, come hell or high water. I was there last year, and I’ll be there next year, and every year that I’m invited to attend... Try stopping me turning up. In fact, the first year I’m not invited I’ll damned well want to know why.

The new classic edition of
First and Only
available at GDUK 2013
There is nothing quite like it. There is nothing quite like the war cry that goes up as the crowd surges into the room. There is nothing quite like the rush of excitement as the husband’s queue begins to form and then starts to snake off into the distance. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of seeing old friends and new acquaintances in that queue, and there’s nothing better than seeing the excitement in the eyes of the kid who’s just discovered the pleasures and indulgences of picking up the novels and stories associated with the Warhammer World and the 40K Universe.

There’s the family, too, the men and women that I’ve got to know over the years. There’s George and Rik, and Lindsey and Andy. There’s Eve and Rachel and Chris and Claudia. Nick will be there and Christian and Laurie and Graeme, and that’s before I even get started on the writing fraternity, in which, of course I include the women who also add their brain power and wordsmithery to the cause.

I should probably think of this as the husband’s gig. He’s contributed a vast stack of novels to the Black Library cannon, now running into the dozens, not to mention audiobooks, short stories, comics and the first ever graphic novel. I do feel as if I belong, though, even if my contribution has been small, and, for the most part, collaborative. 

It’s always a pleasure to work with the guys on the editorial team at Black Library who are some of the most enthusiastic and dedicated people in the publishing industry, and it’s more than a pleasure to work for the fans, who, however diehard, always seem to manage to take us imperfect souls to their hearts, one way or another.

I salute you all, and can’t wait to be back in your company in Birmingham tomorrow.

Bring it on!

Friday 27 September 2013

A King Among Castles

Those of you who’ve been here for a while might remember three blogs I wrote ten months ago about the first Landmark Trust property the husband and I stayed in. It was last November and we got a deal under the late availability heading on the LMT website menu. You can find the blogs here, here and here, if you’d like to take another look.

Last night I was more than a little delighted to learn that Astley Castle, which we loved so much, won the Riba Stirling Prize for architecture.

The Royal Institute of British Architects offers an annual prize for architecture, named after James Stirling one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. It’s particularly interesting then that this year’s prize was awarded to a building that has been standing in some form or another for a thousand years.

views of the old castle from the new house
Witherford Watson Mann designed a house that fits snugly into the original millennium old castle while exploiting all the merits of the modern. The glass walls of the vast living space on the first floor offer wonderful views of the house’s original walls, windows and fireplaces, and the new walls constructed of mesmerisingly small bricks echo the original construction, which breaks through in any number of places exposing the weathered surfaces of stone and brick erected centuries ago. 

Everywhere you turn in the house there is something new to see, touch and marvel at, and yet everything is comfort, too. The new wood of the floors and central staircase look and feel like English oak that has been growing for hundreds of years; the colour is just right and the touch is warm and almost yielding. The space is grand enough to feel special and yet still intimate.

the first floor living space

I loved Astley Castle so much that I wrote it into the modern romance novel that I was working on while I was staying in the house. It hasn’t been published yet, but watch this space, and if it ever does find its way into print, you can be sure that a copy will find its way into the well stocked bookshelves in Astley Castle’s living room.

As soon as we returned home from our idyllic visit to Astley Castle I went straight back to the Landmark Trust website to book another visit, and we’re due to return in the spring next year. It’s a popular venue, so there’s a long waiting list. I suspect that list won’t get any shorter now that the house has won this very prestigious prize. On the other hand, the year since we visited Astley Castle has passed very quickly, and there’s something to be said for enjoying the anticipation of a second visit. No doubt when it’s over, I’ll be booking a third.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that I booked the first visit from the late availability menu. People do have to cancel trips and holidays from time to time, and you never know, you just might get lucky. We certainly did. In the meantime, we've enjoyed visits to other trust houses, and we've got more places on our growing 'to visit' list.

Congratulations to Witherford Watson Mann, to Astley Castle, and, of course, to the Landmark Trust on the Riba Stirling Prize, I for one think it was very well earned.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Rules for Writing, Rules for Life

Casting my eye down my Twitter feed last evening, looking for inspiration for blogs that I’m going to have to produce with a certain amount of aplomb over the next few very busy days, I came across a tweet from @NickKyme, and I couldn’t help myself, I was off and running. It went precisely like this:

Odd piece of writing advice I've just recalled: 'never write anything in your pyjamas'. Anyone else ever hear that? Thoughts?

Well, my thoughts on the subject are many and various. 

My first thought was that I’ve worked with Nick and not only have I written for him in my pyjamas, but I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken to him on the phone in my pyjamas, too. Of course, I’d never admit that to him, because I’m a professional, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

My next thought was that I write my blog in my jammies every single day. Well, to be fair, sometimes I’m wearing a nightie, and sometimes nothing at all under my duvet, and sometimes I’m wearing an odd assortment of clothes that might include joggers, a t-shirt, socks and a cardi, depending on how cold it is or how sad I feel, but I am, nevertheless, still in bed.

The thing is, this tweet says writing advice when what we’re actually talking about are RULES!

Stuff and things tend to have rules. Life has rules, and so does school and work and most households. There are society’s rules and our parents’ rules. There are our bosses’ rules and even our partners’ rules. Then there are the rules we make up for ourselves, because we can, or because we need to in order to make it through the day, the week or our lives.

Writers aren’t any different from anyone else. In fact, we’re probably worse off than most other people. What we do is sort of ephemeral, but it also takes a long time to complete, say, a novel. Unlike a lot of people, we can’t finish a job in a few minutes or an hour or a day. We’re in it for the long haul, and if we didn’t have some discipline, or at the very least learn to impose some on ourselves, we’d never get to the end of a project.

Lots of people who go out to work for a living can spend time sort of doing nothing, because they’re salaried or they’re paid by the hour. I’ve worked jobs like that, and I know how much nothing gets done, because I’ve witnessed people doing it. On the other hand, in this job, if I don’t write, I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver on time I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver to length, I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver to a standard, I don’t get paid.

If I don’t get paid, I don’t eat.

Back in June, when I hit my 400th blog, I wrote a list of ten things every writer should know, and that’s what I called it, “Ten Things Every Writer Should Know”. I was very careful not to call it “Ten Rules for Writers”, or even “Advice for Writers”. I even thought about calling it “Ten Things Every Writer Might Want to Know”, but thought it a little mealy mouthed. I was also very careful to say that every writer will give you ten different pieces of advice, and for every writer it’s easily possible to find another writer who will contradict that advice.

See how natty jammies can be?
I would never advise anyone to write in his or her pyjamas. I do it, but I’m not suggesting that it’s good practice. I like pyjamas. I wear them a lot, but I don’t feel undressed or even necessarily under-dressed in them. I’m happy to answer the door in them, bring in the milk and, on occasion, pop to the garage for a newspaper still wearing my pyjamas. They are simply alternative clothes as far as I’m concerned. I have been known to swap one pair of pyjamas for another after my bath instead of putting on street clothes, and I’ve got pyjamas that cost more than you might spend on a decent pair of jeans, because I know that I’ll wear them and they’ll give me pleasure.

Discipline is important, because without it deadlines won’t be met. Taking pleasure in the work is important, because sometimes a writer is going to be alone with the work for long hours at a time. Advice can be well  meant and might even be useful, but most of the best writers learn to take it or leave it. I might let you into a secret and tell you that the husband doesn't feel dressed for work unless he's wearing shoes, and it's true, but I somehow doubt that's the reason why he's so much more successful than I am.

Rules, if you absolutely must have them, absolutely must be self-imposed, and even then it’s worth remembering that rules are for bending, preferably to breaking point.

So, @NickKyme, I’ve heard your advice about not writing in my pyjamas, but my own experience tells me that, for me, it’s not just fine, it’s essential if I’m ever going to get anything done. If I was going to make a rule at all, it ought to be that I only write wearing pyjamas, but then I’d have to break it once in a while, at least when I slip into my winter nightie.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

The Rules of Engagement

I write and the husband writes, and let’s not pretend that the husband isn’t pretty well known in his field, and we have what we refer to in our house and in our corner of our profession as ‘The Rules of Engagement’.

They begin with: the point of the writer is the reader and end with: if you read the good reviews you’ve got to read the bad.

As a result of our rules of engagement we believe that once any piece of work has left our sphere of influence it no longer belongs to him or me or, in some cases, both of us, and, once the reader has paid for his copy it belongs wholly to him.

There is a reason why we believe this and it was very ably demonstrated last week on the internet when a writer, a reviewer and a book blogger became embroiled in a very nasty piece of intercourse.

That’s the problem with the internet, isn’t it? It leads us all to believe that we are part of a global happy family where every one is equal and where anyone can take part on a level playing field.

It isn’t true and it never was.

We’ve seen it before, of course, in the review sections of the newspapers, when some writer or other has written an open letter to a paper that has carried a review that said author has taken exception to. That shit never ends well.

The problem with it is that it is never personal... Except, of course, it often feels that way to the writer.

We are sensitive souls. We work hard to produce what we consider to be our best work. We birth our ideas in a sort of solitary confinement. We labour long and hard in the dark corners of our minds, filling with industry what would often, otherwise, be our leisure hours. Some of us feel that we open our veins and bear our souls only for some superior son of a bitch to spend a couple of hours skimming through our lovingly wrought prose to write some scathing review that entirely misses the point, that willfully skirts our intentions or that ignores the crux of the thing.

So be it.

Books, books and more books!
It is the writer’s job to write and once her advance is in the bank and the final proofs have been OK’ed, her job is over.

The reviewer is paid to review.

Our book is in the hands of the reviewer, who brings his or her, but more probably his own reading to it. He has his own points of reference, his own experience of a the body of work that has brought him to this point in his reading career, his own inclinations and preferences and his own peccadilloes, not to mentions his own prejudices, and, dare I say it, he may have woken up on the wrong side of the bed that day, might not like the cover or the first line, or the last book any particular author might have written, might have had an argument with his significant other or colleague, might have had his own novel turned down by an agent or publisher, might have been woken umpteen times the night before by his teething child, or been stuck in a traffic jam that morning, or missed the train, or heaven knows what might have befallen him, put him in a bad temper, or disinclined him to write a favourable review that day.

None of it matters.

For what it’s worth, the old adage, all publicity is good publicity still holds true. A bad review on Amazon will still get you thirty percent more sales than no review at all, or so I’m led to believe.

The author that engaged last week with a reviewer and with a book blogger lost more fans and more followers than he garnered with his responses, and such a storm was whipped up that, in the frenzy, the woman blogger was sexually threatened (not by the author, I should add), which was abhorrent behaviour in any arena, although predictable in this instance, and, sadly commonplace among the kind of anonymous trolls who frequent internet fora of this variety.

The author has since issued a statement that he no longer intends to take part in public discussions, and, as I have met the man, who is not only a clever and popular writer in his genre, but a witty, thoroughly intelligent man in person, I know that he will keep his word. 

It is a shame that it has come to this, but I am not surprised. The internet is not a cosy, inclusive place, and whoever you are, in whichever genre you write, and however close to your readers you feel, once it is published, and the reader has paid the price of your work, it no longer belongs to you. Be grateful that your work is selling and reaching an audience and that it is considered worthy of a review at all, and, for goodness sake, don’t feel you have to read reviews. I certainly don’t.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

The Russians are Coming... for Wentworth Miller

Two new pieces of news just came out of Russia.

The first is that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has written an open letter describing abuse in the penal system in Russia and explaining why she began a hunger strike, yesterday, to protest.

I wrote about the Pussy Riot in this blog earlier in the year, and associated it with the new laws in Russia criminalising homosexuality.

The gay actor Wentworth Miller
The second piece of news associated with Russia is that the actor Wentworth Miller has come out as a gay man.

My younger daughter was a big fan of the TV show Prison Break, so I’m more than a little familiar with Mr Miller and his work. I didn’t know that he was gay. He hadn’t as far as I can tell, ever mentioned it. 

In fact, as recently as 2007, Wentworth Miller is quoted as saying he, “hadn’t met the right girl yet.” Well, of course he hadn’t. There is no such thing as the ‘right girl’ for a gay man, and you’d think that by the age of 35, the age at which Mr Miller made this statement, most men, most people, would be aware of their sexuality.

What is it with Hollywood?

What is it about Tinsel Town that makes it almost as conservative as, (dare I even suggest it?) Putin’s Russia?

There are out and proud gay actors and actresses. There are also a great many who have preferred to keep their private lives more-or-less indefinitely private. Jodie Foster was lauded for coming out, but she didn’t do it until she was 50, and when she did come out it was something of a mealy-mouthed affair, as I made a point of saying in this blog on the subject.

It seems that most openly gay members of Hollywood’s elite are precisely that, they are the big names, the hot properties, the stars who are already way up there in the firmament. You’d have to be very, very brave to be a young up-and-comer and admit to being gay. 

Ellen de Generes came out shortly before her fortieth birthday and Rosie O’Donnell was also forty when she came out. Even Neil Patrick Harris, possibly the most openly gay man in Hollywood did not come out publicly until 2006 when he was well into his thirties, and seventeen years after he became famous as Doogie Howser. Sean Hayes started playing a gay character in Will and Grace in 1998, and claimed never to be ‘in’, but he didn’t actually acknowledge that he was gay in public until  2010, when he, too, was 40. 

Clearly Hollywood is still political. Clearly someone has decided that no one is going to believe in a gay leading man, regardless of how well he can act. Clearly 40 is some sort of magical age when most men have peaked and they’ve got nothing left to lose, so  any spotlight will do, and coming out can’t do them any more harm and might add a little glamour to the second half of their careers.

I don’t know, and I might be sounding cynical by now, but there’s a reason for that. I think Hollywood is all about politics, and I think it’s horribly cynical.

There are more younger actors who are taking the chance and being truer to themselves, and I hope that taking the perceived risk of coming out pays off for them. They should carry the torch and lead the way, and break down some of the prejudices that either still exist or, at the very least, are perceived to exist by the powers that be, by the old, white men, who still control the purse strings in Hollywood Land.

Wentworth Miller turned down a trip to Russia to attend the St Petersburg International Film Festival, citing the persecution of homosexuals in Russia as his reason. He is quoted as saying this:

As someone who has enjoyed visiting Russia in the past and can also claim a degree of Russian ancestry, it would make me happy to say yes. However, as a gay man, I must decline... [I am] deeply troubled by the current attitude toward and treatment of gay men and women by the Russian government... [where] people like myself are being systematically denied their basic right to live and love openly.

We can all acknowledge Wentworth Miller’s integrity in declining this invitation and in doing so publicly, but isn’t it a pity that it has taken something as horrendous as these laws in Russia for a man like Miller to publicly acknowledge something as simple and fundamental as his own sexuality. 

Any man, any person, who was truly proud would not feel the need to hide such a basic part of his nature or dissemble about it. At forty-one years old, I wonder that Wentworth Miller doesn’t cringe to recall some of the things he must have said and done in public during his spell in the Hollywood limelight.

Monday 23 September 2013

Burqas and Baby Pageants

I’m a big fan of the French. Having visited Paris fairly regularly over the past several years, and having found the people very civilised, family oriented, hard working and sophisticated, I have very little to say about them that is bad. I also tend to be in favour of their more than usually left wing and inclusive politics.

Last week on Twitter, I heard about the first steps towards legislation in the French parliament banning beauty pageants for the under 16s. My first reaction was to be impressed. I think beauty pageants represent a pretty horrendous objectification of anyone, whatever form they occur in, and I’d never expose my own children to them, so banning them seemed like a good idea, and I said so.

The problem is that word, ban. 

I have a natural inclination to mistrust the idea that it’s a worthwhile and even a noble exercise banning anything. I am, essentially anti-censorship for the very same reasons. We are adults and we should be as free as possible to make our own decisions on behalf of ourselves and our children. The desire to want to stamp out the sexualisation of children is one I share, but banning beauty pageants in order to do it, banning children from taking part in competitive activities that require them to learn a skill like singing or dancing seems a pity, even when it is accompanied by all that make-up and hairspray. No, I’ll say it again, I wouldn’t do it to my kids, and the thought of it appalls me, but the idea that banning it will change the hearts and minds of the parents who encourage their children to take part in beauty pageants is a nonsense. 

I remember an occasion several years ago when I was invited to watch a group of pre-school little girls in tutus singing and dancing to the old song, “Be Young and Beautiful”. It made me want to throw-up. They had been taught a rictus grin and to wiggle and gyrate and flap their hands to the words, “Be young and beautiful – It’s your duty to be beautiful – Be young and beautiful – If you want to be loved!” 


The French can and no doubt will ban child beauty pageants, but the sexualisation of children doesn’t begin and end with them.

In the same week as I heard about the ban, I was reminded of another law passed in France. I think of it as the Burqa Law, passed in 2010 and banning the wearing of face coverings in public spaces, including balaclavas, crash helmets, and, of course, the niqab, burqa and other veils worn by women for religious reasons.

So, alongside the sexualisation of children the French also disapprove of the desexualisation of women. 

It would appear that it’s polarisation they don’t like. 

I’ve long been suspicious of the burqa, its parts and the various, so-called modest garments worn by various religious groups, and let’s not pretend these garments aren’t almost exclusively worn by women. We shouldn’t forget that the more and most religious of many religions wear modest garments, including some Jews and Christians, as well as many Muslim women. It always seems to be the Muslims that we focus our attention on.

I have heard Muslim women speak eloquently of their reasons for wearing modest garments and the freedoms that they enjoy as a result of their choices. I am often given to wondering, though, how often it is the choice of the woman to wear the burqa, and how often it is the rights of freedom of the Muslim man that are being upheld, that he might instruct his wife and daughters, and the other women of his household or under his influence to wear the garments.

I’m hugely ambivalent about all of this. To insist that a modern Muslim woman, who is making a choice to wear modest garments show her face if she choices not to seems to me like a possible infringement of human rights. It also seems to me that no man should insist that a woman in his household wear anything she chooses not to, and that her government ensure her freedom not to.

Strict laws banning beauty pageants for children or the wearing of any particular garments for anyone seem to miss the point somehow. Children genuinely at risk of sexualisation and sexual exploitation need protection, and women who are genuinely being repressed need their liberty, and those things must be protected under existing laws, surely?

In this clip TV journalist Riham Said demonstrates her own feelings about wearing the veil.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby! part ii

 or Sex Ed for the More Advanced

After yesterday’s blog, I didn’t think for a moment that I’d be writing about sex or sex education again quite so soon, and then I saw this article, and I just couldn’t help myself.

For those of you who didn’t click on the link, it’s about a young woman who gave birth to a baby with two tiny little front teeth in its lower jaw. This happens for about one in 3,000 births. The woman, who clearly has some experience of children since she works with them, decided that as a consequence of the teeth she wouldn’t breast feed her baby, despite having planned to.

Colour me utterly, unbearably baffled.

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

My own experience of sex is, of course, specific and limited, so I’m just going to throw this wide open and say, hands up any adult, sexually active woman who’s had her breast in a mouth full of teeth! And I’m going to say, hands up any adult, sexually active lover of women whose had his or her mouth (I’m guessing complete with a full set of gnashers)  clamped around a breast!

Of course, in the modern age, not all children are conceived sexually, but supposing that this child was, I’m also supposing that this woman might, at some point in her sex life, have had her breast in her lover’s mouth.

What on Earth is she afraid of?

If she planned to breast feed her child if it had been born toothless, how long does she suppose it would have been before her baby grew teeth? Teething children chew everything. Their carers give them hard, cool objects to chew, expressly to relieve the pain of teething. The victorians gave their babies ivory rings or lumps of coral to chew on to soothe away their teething troubles. Plenty of women breastfeed their teething babies, and I did too, but I was never bitten.

Here comes the lesson.

Most babies begin to teeth around the six month mark, although it can vary widely, and most babies begin by teething those two front teeth in the bottom jaw. Most babies have a full set of twenty milk teeth by the age of three years.

The World Health Organisation recommends that a child is entirely breast fed for the first six months of its life, and continues to be breast fed for up to two years and beyond. The average length of time that a child is breast fed, worldwide, is 4.2 years, although that’s rare in the first World.

A newborn’s instinct is to suck, and all the time that I breast fed my babies, fifteen months for my older daughter and a year for my young daughter, I was never bitten once, despite both babies having plenty of teeth by the time they were ready to stop feeding.

“Breast is best” has been a slogan used to promote breast feeding for years, but the message still isn’t getting through to some people, and clearly a great many of the practicalities of breast feeding are being left unexplained. It’s about time that ignorance in this as in all areas of sex education ended, once and for all.

The woman in this article is missing out on giving her child a great start in life and in potentially protecting it and herself from both short and longterm ills, including increased risks of obesity for the child, and breast cancer for herself, and all because she’s fearful that her baby might bite her. She’s also missing out on a wonderful bonding experience, a closeness with her child that I don’t believe can be achieved in any other way.

I realise that not all women are able to breast feed, but I also know that the numbers of women who can’t be helped to manage some successful breast feeding are small. Not to begin at all seems a terrible shame.

I was lucky, I had a mother who talked to me, and a sister, who physically helped me to breast feed my first child on the day that I gave birth to her, when I found it difficult and emotional, and my child was becoming distressed. You can’t teach that in a classroom, and reading it in a pamphlet might not be enough, but there are resources, and they should be available.

Let’s begin at home and in school, and, for goodness sake, let’s do better than this.

Friday 20 September 2013

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!


And when I say ‘Baby’, I’m not talking about partners, I’m talking about kids.

I’ve been meaning to talk about sex education for a little while now. I just didn’t have a hook to hang my argument on until I saw a tweet a couple of days ago. It was quite, quite brilliant.

I was one of those parents who never had any problem with educating her own kids on the subject of sex. It doesn’t embarrass me, and answering kids’ questions on the subject isn’t a problem, either.

“Where do babies come from?”

“Out of mummy’s tummy.”

If that’s all they ask. That’s all the answer they want or need.

Of course, if they ask, “How do they get in there?” You’ve got to answer that question too, and I did, and I used the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’, and I talked about the mechanics in a matter of fact way as if I was talking about anything else.

We call them ‘the facts of life’, but for me ‘the facts of life’ include managing money and being responsible, holding down a job, being loyal to friends, and being civil to people, among other things, as well as conducting sexual relationships. We should discuss all of these things with our children. We should equip them for a full, satisfying adult existence. We don’t, always do that, of course, but we should.

We don’t do it because of our own embarrassment, and let me make it clear that I believe that it’s absolutely critical that we do it. Sex education helps prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and every child should be armed with the knowledge that protects them from those things. It's a no-brainer. I don't want to end sex ed in schools, I simply want to supplement it.

We put our children’s sex education, and, increasingly, our children’s moral and social education in the hands of others, usually in the hands of overworked, underpaid teachers, whose ideologies we might not necessarily share, and who are hamstrung by laws and by the rules laid down by the governing bodies of their schools about what they can discuss with their pupils and how they can interact with them.

It’s not necessarily right for our children, and, personally, I’m not at all sure it’s fair on the teachers.

Besides, I wanted my kids to learn that stuff from me. I wanted them to know what I thought and felt, and think and feel about how to conduct relationships with people. I wanted them to know what I thought was important about dealing with finances. I wanted them to know what my work ethic is, and what I think it is important to take responsibility for in life. I wanted them to have an example in me and the husband, and I wanted them to be clear about what that example was, what it meant, and where it came from and why.

Honestly, I think a lot of that happens naturally in the environment that a child is raised in. I think a lot of that happens in the home. The husband and I shared time and a home with our children. They saw how we were with each other. They saw how we treated each other, how we interacted, and they knew what we expected in their interactions with each other. We didn’t fight, we didn’t raise our voices, we were all heard, and treated kindly and with respect. We were always caring and affectionate in our dealings with one another and with the children.

You can’t teach that in a classroom.

There is a move towards sex and relationship education, but all the time that children live with unhappy and or dysfunctional relationships in their homes that will be the example that prevails in their lives. You can’t un-teach that, either.

The mechanics of sex can be taught in biology. If we don’t teach our kids about sex when they ask, in a caring atmosphere, they’ll probably learn most of it in the playground or from the internet. They’ll learn at the extremes. They’ll learn the myths and stories and the misunderstood odds and ends that kids pick up, and they’ll see the rest on porn sites.

None of it’s real or pleasant, or, dare I say it? Sexy!

It leads to problems. It leads to misunderstandings about sex and it leads to skewed expectations.

Every past generation and every couple in every combination has had the right and the privilege to invent sex. I think that’s over. I think that, with the access that kids have to the internet, and the lack of real involvement in their education that parents seem to have, many kids know far too much about all the wrong things, and that there is no innocence and no trepidation and hardly any excitement as they embark on their own journeys of sexual awakening.

I was thrilled, then, to see this tweet, posted by Rachel Vail @rachelvailbooks

Great point made in son's college orientation re sex/safety/respect/etc: "Consent is really too low a bar. Hold out for enthusiasm."

I don’t know who wrote the handbook, and I don’t know whether it’s specific to that college or whether it’s a generic one that’s handed out to most or even all college kids, but whoever wrote that line should be congratulated. That’s the sort of sex education that our kids really need. That’s the sort of thing I’d say to my kids and it’s the sort of thing I want my kids to hear.

I felt sad and sorry for this first generation of computer taught kids, who, it seems to me, come jaded to sex before they’ve even experienced its pleasures, but perhaps I was wrong. I certainly hope I was.

Thursday 19 September 2013

For the Want of Spin

Yesterday, I learned of a pair of apartment blocks that are due to go up in Seoul, South Korea in 2015.

We don’t generally hear very much about architecture unless it’s local, or unless it hits the headlines for being World-beating in some way. We tend to hear about the latest tallest building, or the most groundbreaking in terms of design or materials, or something built by or for the richest or most powerful man or woman.

This building doesn’t fit into any of those categories. This is simply a pair of apartment blocks called ‘The Cloud’.

It was designed by the Dutch company MVRDV, and it is causing a huge stir, because it looks startlingly familiar, and, as a consequence, it is hugely controversial.

detail of 'The Cloud'
designed by architects MVRDV, Rotterdam
The two towers, standing side by side, are joined together, at the twenty-seventh floor, by a ten storey ‘pixelated cloud’, which forms a public space with restaurants and a conference centre. The towers, which are square in profile, become irregular for those ten storeys, spreading away from the basic tower in a series of irregular steps, meeting and bridging where the two towers face each other and spreading away from the towers on their other three sides. When they have reached their widest point, after about five storeys, the shapes begin to step back in again, in an irregular fashion, until they meet the regular square profile of the original towers and continue upwards to the roofs. 

The building is controversial, because the square profiles of the towers blossom and spread, linking them in a way that seems, quite deliberately, to mimic the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as they were exploding on the 11th of September 2001.

The architects of MVRDV, who designed this pair of buildings, all understood the reference. They all lived through that day, all remember it, probably as vividly as we all do, and, no doubt, have all studied the buildings that were brought down by terrorists in a tragedy that killed three thousand people, and still counting. They’re architects, after all, this is their field of study. Everything that comes afterwards must, by its very nature, reference that which has come before. It’s as true in art as it is in science, and it must be true of any discipline that involves an understanding of both design and engineering, as architecture must. 

Anyone who looks at the designs, simulations and models for these buildings cannot fail to see the reference, and, some will no doubt be shocked by them as a result. The article I saw had a long string of horrified responses condemning the designers and calling for the drawings to be shelved and the buildings never to be built. Many saw it as an insult to those who perished on that day, and, perhaps more particularly, as an insult to the United States in general.

Whatever I personally think of the designs, MVRDV clearly have talented architects at work, doing the job they’re there to do. Artists in all disciplines should push the boundaries of what is expected and acceptable. It was ever thus.

What MVRDV clearly don’t have is a good PR department, a proper spin doctor.

I'd been thinking about this for all of two minutes when I wondered, "Where is the spirit of ‘Lest We Forget’?" 

"Where is the man or woman who will stand up and say that this is not mockery or parody, that this is homage?"

"Who in his right mind would take terrorism lightly? Who in his right mind would mock the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Centre?"

The Cloud
due for construction in Seoul, 2015
The answer to that question was and is: NO DECENT HUMAN BEING!

I’m not going to make a judgement call on this particular building or on its designers. I do think that there is pathos in it, though. I do think that it is as likely to make people remember, and stop and think, and perhaps keep alive in our memories a day that I know I won’t ever properly forget, but which I already need to be reminded of.

When I first saw the pictures of these buildings, I gasped, and I was reminded, and I felt something that I haven’t felt for a little while. I’m not altogether sure that’s such a terrible thing.

There will always be those who don’t want to remember, and there will always be those who are appalled, and their feelings are as valid as the next person’s. I worry about people who claim not to care, who appear to feel nothing, but a little contact with the rest of us, and a public debate over a building like this one might cause some small stir in them, too.

Think about it, this building hasn’t been built, who knows, maybe it never will be, but, already, we’re talking about an event that is twelve years old, that new voters in our next general elections have only a superficial understanding about and only the vaguest memories of. Events pass so quickly into history, and are so soon forgotten that anything that galvanises us into a response has some value, surely?

There are lots of good PR people out there, MVRDV. Hire one of them, rename the building, on the plans, and see if it makes a difference. While you’re at it, enter the debate, and try not to intellectualise too much, because you brought it, so, one way or another, you’re going to have to answer for people’s feelings on the matter, and, boy are people ready to emote. Right now the jury's out, but I suspect the window of opportunity for justifying this design is small and closing.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Getting Back on the Horse

The last time I thought about writing something for myself was probably back in March when I last talked about Naming Names in this blog.

As a writer, writing my own stories was what I always wanted to do. I’ve done it twice... Strictly speaking, three times.

I wrote Savant, which has only ever been offered a digital contract, and, I suspect, only then because of my name and the husband’s pedigree. It’s an odd little book about parenting and autism. It’s too literary and too left field for the current SF market, though, according to a publisher friend of mine.

Then I wrote Naming Names, and we all know where that book took  me.

I had more or less decided that I wasn’t going to put myself through it any more. Speculating is a tough business. It seems tougher when I can work regularly for decent money on stuff that’s commissioned and paid for.

The investment was too great when the returns were non-existent. It’s tough to take round after round of rejection, particularly for something I spilled blood over. It’s tougher still being built up to expect something more, and then to have the rug pulled out from under my feet.

So, for six months I’ve worked on other things, and I’ve been happy doing it.

The problem is, there are stories in my head, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

For some people it’s about the writing. For the husband, it’s about the writing, and I get that. I feel it too, some of the time. I have to feel it, otherwise I couldn’t invest in the projects I commit to.

In the end, though, for me, it’s about having a story to tell.

It begins with a nugget, a premise, the merest suggestion of an idea. I get a flash of something, and I say to the husband, “I want to write a story about the seven deadly sins.” He’ll inevitably ask me what the hell that even means, and I won’t know... not yet.

That’s what this is like.

I’ve got that feeling.

I haven’t written a project of my own for almost exactly a year, and the last independent project was actually suggested by someone and something else, so I'm not sure how much it counts.  Either way, I haven’t been as vulnerable as I feel right now for what feels like a long time.

I’ve been busy, and I’ve been ignoring that gut feeling, though. I’ve been ignoring it, partly because it doesn’t buy the baby a new bonnet, and partly because I know the cost of writing a book like Names.

I’m beginning to wonder, though, just how long I can keep this stuff at bay. It’s all in my head, and it’s beginning to clamour for attention.

The trouble is, it’s not just one book any more... It’s not just one idea... This shit is piling up. There are at least three almost fully formed novels in there now, and they’re fighting for space. 

The Winter Lamb, Pieces of Hate and White Work are banging around in my head, and I know the time will come when I have to do something about them. 

When I put Naming Names away after trying to find space for it in the World for three years, I thought I was done... I thought I could stop torturing myself. 

It turns out it’s not about torturing myself, it’s about the stories torturing me. 

So, sometime soon, I’m going to have to put aside some time, pick a story, and set about opening a vein. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it, and I’m guessing that this will be another novel that will be unsaleable in the current publishing marketplace, because, apparently, that’s how I roll.

Trouble is, it’s beginning to look as if I simply don’t have a choice.