Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Saturday 31 October 2015

Free to read: Addled Kat part II

So… it’s time for the second instalment of Kat... Just click on the title above and away you go.

You might like to know that quite a lot of people read the first instalment… more than I had anticipated, which is rather nice.

I hope that people enjoyed it enough to want to read the next bit. I’ll soon find out, because I’ll be checking the figures over the next few days.

Part II is the first bit of the book that has any actual sex in it. You should all be used to the pace of the book by now, and you should have some idea about who the characters are. Some of you might not like Kat yet, she’s a little brittle. You might be rather charmed by Bob, because you’re seeing him through her eyes.

I suspect that dynamic might shift a little.

I’m going to give Part II my first warning. There is some sex in this bit and some violence, so if you’re squeamish or easily offended, please don’t read this book.

Of course, if you’re easily offended, you probably didn’t get past the first sentence of the first part of this novel, because I quickly realised when I was re-reading this to prep it that Kat swears... a lot!

For those of you who came here to read my opinions about something or other, my usual blog will be back tomorrow. Right now, I have no idea what I’m going to write about. There is a blog in the drawer, but I can’t help thinking that it’s contentious… possibly very contentious, so I’m going to have someone else cast their eyes over it before I decide whether I’m going to post it or not. As you know, I haven’t blogged regularly for a while, so my filters might be a little off.

I’ll see you all tomorrow, and if you have any thoughts on Kat, there is a comments section at the end of each instalment. Catch up on Addled Kat part I

Friday 30 October 2015


I was sent on a huge nostalgia trip earlier in the week when I listened to Radio 4 while messing about with my accounts, and heard Alistair Cooke talking again, as he had all through my life, right from my childhood, punctuating my weeks with his regular Letters from America.

I was plunged back into nostalgia again, yesterday, by a newspaper article bemoaning the scarcity of pumpkins this year. Honestly, I didn’t know that the pumpkin harvest had been bad, that pumpkins were a rare and expensive commodity this Halloween season. 

I have carved quite a few pumpkins in my time, mostly with my children, and I’ve prepared and eaten a great many more. My pumpkin soup isn’t half-bad, and I make a very good veggie ‘shepherd’s’ pie with fat lumps of pumpkin in it, too. (I really must think of an alternative name for it, rather than put those quote marks around shepherd, even if the idea of herding pumpkins does make me smile). But when I was a kid in the sixties and seventies pumpkins, if we had them at all, were definitely for eating, or for exhibiting and competing with in village fetes. They weren’t for carving, or at least, I certainly didn’t carve any.

When I was a kid, in the sixties and seventies, Halloween wasn’t really a thing; it certainly wasn’t anything like as important as Guy Fawkes Night. Now that was a big deal! We watched the fireworks, lit huge bonfires, and ate the spuds that were baked in the embers. We ate good treacle toffee, too, although I have no idea why.

The Dort in her Sugar Skull make-up,
which she cleverly applied herself
The Dort dresses up for Halloween from time to time, but when she does, it’s not as a nursery rhyme or cartoon character, it’s not as a superhero or Disney princess. On the occasions the Dort has dressed up for this holiday, it’s been as a pumpkin, a witch, or, more recently, as a sugar skull. It’s all about All Hallows Eve, about Samhain. It’s not the American way, even though my feeling is that it’s really our friends across the pond who gave us back the idea that October 31st was worth looking at again.

I have a fondness for Samhain, and for the kind of people who like to celebrate it. This goes back a long way, to my teens when a good friend of mine celebrated her birthday on that day... Still does.

The Vincent-Abnett household has one unshakeable ritual that we’ve been exercising for a couple of decades. On October 31st we put a cauldron on the table, and we eat from it. When the kids were small, this was a tricky business, and we had rules, but now it’s become a bit of a free-for-all.

This year, there is talk of three cauldrons on our dinner table, by which, of course, I mean three fondues: one for oil, one for cheese and one for chocolate. It would appear that we are planning something of a feast, and that seems right, too, with the year waning.

But back to nostalgia.

I don’t know whether the journalist was remembering a childhood spent in the sixties and seventies, but if so, it was very much like mine. As I read the article, my nostrils filled with the smell of scorching vegetable.

Forget the pumpkins, it suggested, and carve out a turnip this year to make a jack o' lantern. That’s what I did as a child. We didn’t call them turnips; we called them swedes, and our friends across the pond would call them rutabagas. We carved out the hard orange flesh to be used in a stew, and we cut faces in the purple skins. The results were smaller than our own heads, and the tea lights placed in them invariably scorched the insides of the vegetables, sending up a heady smell of burning swede.

They were wonderful, and preposterous in their way, but I was surprisingly happy to be reminded of them.

If you've come here looking for my free novel, click on this title: Addled Kat part I

Thursday 29 October 2015

Guilty Pleasures and the Original Blogger

Sometimes we have to find our guilty pleasures where we can; sometimes, we have to cram them into the oddest corners of our lives or sneak them in when we think no one’s looking.

The husband and I work for ourselves… We work for a lot of people and a lot of companies, one way or another, but the bottom line is that we are selling a service, or, sometimes, our skills and we are what is generally referred to as self-employed. That means that paperwork has to be done every so often, which sometimes involves accounts.

Every three months, I sit and post a lot of numbers into spreadsheets. I can’t claim that I really do accounts; I have various people who do all that, but I do some of the leg work by entering figures for accountants to sort out for me. This takes time and is mostly very dull.

I use the time it takes to do this stuff to indulge one of my guilty pleasures and catch up with an old habit.

As a kid I listened to a lot of radio.

Do people still do that?

My brothers and sisters had their favourites, including some of the old pirate radio stations, Radios Luxembourg and Caroline, and Radio 1 for the chart show, of course. The kitchen radio was tuned to Radio 2 for Jimmy Young in the mornings and then to Radio 4 for the other twenty-two hours of the day.

Radio 4 was my constant companion at University. Of course, we’re talking about the days pre-personal-computer. Most students didn’t have a television either, and the TV room in student halls wasn’t used much, except for big sporting events and movie nights, when we were packed in like sardines, regardless of fire regs.

There were a lot of great shows on Radio 4… There still are, but I don’t listen regularly any more. For years, I had a radio in the kitchen tuned to Radio 4, and listened while I cooked, which was usually around the time that the big news programs, The World at One and PM were being aired. Now, I listen in the car, from time to time.

Most often, if I listen to Radio 4, it's while I am feeding numbers into spreadsheets. I have it running in the background, streaming on demand, and I pick and choose my way through the best of the half-hour programs that happen to be available when I need something to listen to. I can blast through any number of them in the time it takes to do all that drudge work.

One of my very favourite programs growing up, and I remember it from being a very small child, listening to my mother’s radio long before I had a radio of my own, was a series that was first commissioned for thirteen episodes in the spring of 1946, and went on to run for 58 years. The program was weekly and ran to almost 3,000 episodes, each written and delivered by one man, and all by the same man.

The blog, when it is done well, is always about ideas, is always a comment of some kind, on some subject or another, sometimes on something very specific, but, I think, often on more general things that affect all of us: Life, Love, Adversity, Politics… That sort of thing.

The blog when it is done well, is universal, can be read and understood by almost anyone, and will often engender a response, either agreement or dissent, approval or opprobrium.

Blogs are a relatively new phenomenon… Except that they aren’t, are they? Not really. People have been entertaining us with their thoughts and opinions for a very long time, and they’ve been doing it well, and consistently.

One of my very favourite Radio 4 programs was Letter from America, written and delivered by Alistair Cooke every week for almost six decades. He told stories, and he talked about sport, his beloved golf, and politics. He was always charming, often funny, sometimes bullish, but well-mannered and erudite.

BBC Radio 4's a Letter to Alistair from his Producer
While I was banging in those numbers, yesterday, One of the programs I chose on Radio 4 was A Letter to Alistair from his Producer, and it allowed me to listen to Alistair Cooke again. It was such a nostalgic pleasure, and I feel no guilt about it at all. If you remember Letter from America it’s well-worth taking a trip down memory lane, and if you don’t, listen to it anyway, you might be surprised, and you might just pick up some tricks for your blog.

The one thing I was struck by, almost as much as the nostalgia, was that if Alistair Cooke was a young man now, he’d be a phenomenal blogger and a YouTube sensation. He might have enjoyed the idea.

If you've come here looking for my free novel, click on this title Addled Kat part I

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Free to Read: Addled Kat part I

Here you are, and have at it!

For those of you who aren’t up to date with the blog, I’m giving a book away, in instalments, right here, right now! All you have to do is click on the title link above.

I could have self-published, but I didn’t; that’s not my thing.

There is a long-ish history to this book, but I won’t bore you with it now; I explain it more here and here, if you're interested. The gist is that I ended up writing a sort of antidote to the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon, which also wasn’t my thing.

There’s sex in this book, although not in this first part, and it turns out there’s quite a bit of swearing, since the eponymous protagonist is a little on the feisty side, so consider yourselves warned: I use all the words.

This is the first of six episodes that I’ll upload on Wednesdays and Saturdays over the next three weeks. I hope that people will read and enjoy the book.

Author photo by James K Barnett
If you’re here for my usual blog, scroll down, because I’ve written a few since the beginning of October, after a long absence. You might find something to interest you. And, I’ll be writing more in the days and weeks to come. Subjects might include Germaine Greer, the Pope, Ai Weiwei, women in advertising, the WEP, and the original bloggers… or they might not. You all know what I’m like when I get a bee in my bonnet, so topics for the blog are hard to plan, and those I do make notes on sometimes get thrust aside in favour of new ones that bubble to the surface and bring on a snark.

I’m enjoying being back, and it’s great to see so many of my old readers back with me.

If there’s anything you think I should be talking about, or you’d like my take on, give me a shout in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.

See you on the other side.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Ultimate Cabinet of Curiosities

It’s daft not to think that you know we’re writers. Of course you know that; I talk about it all the time.

The husband, in particular works a lot; he’s well-known for it. I work less, in so far as I’m published less than he is, but I also support his work quite a lot, and do stuff for him behind the scenes.

We work in very different ways, but something we both share is the need for stimulus.

Some of that stimulus comes in the form of books, music and visual stuff like tv and movies, but some of it comes in the form of what we call ‘stuff and things’. That can include anything from experiences to food and on to travel, art and objects. It’s about experiencing the World and what it has to offer.

One of the many things we do, and the husband in particular does this, is surround ourselves with objects. The entire house has stuff in it, apart from the bedroom, which is still and quiet, both visually and otherwise. As someone who sleeps very little, I do, at least, need my rest. 

It is useful to the husband, and, to some extent to me too, to be able to pick up and look at objects, to get an idea of what things look and feel like, whether those things are weapons, say, or artefacts, whether they are made of particular materials, whether they are simply odd, historic, interesting or beautiful, or whether they evoke a memory of a time, place, person or of another object.

When you write as much as the husband does, and when you need to generate ideas, the mind must constantly be fed. This is one of the ways we feed our minds.

It was the husband’s birthday recently, and so we spent the week in Oxford. We don’t really do holidays, so, while we didn’t do a lot of writing, we did spend a lot of time gathering stimulus and having experiences, all of which informs the work.

Oxford has several good museums. I’m a big fan of the Ashmolean, and we visit it every time we go to Oxford, but it’s a long time since the husband had been to the Pitt Rivers Museum, and I’d never been.

The Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers is possibly the biggest and best cabinet of curiosities in the UK… perhaps the World. I’ve never been in another museum quite like it, but I shall certainly be visiting it again, and soon.

Arranged thematically, or in 'typological series' it’s possible to walk around and around the exhibits and stand in front of the cabinets for long minutes just staring in wonder at collections of all kinds of wonderful things. I loved the nose-flutes and the canoe bailers in particular, and the model boats were gorgeous. It’s not every day you see a shrunken head, but a glass case full of them!

Part of the wonder of the museum is the way that everything is displayed in the old wood and glass cases and cabinets, often with viewing cases above and below, so that it’s necessary to squat, bend or lean to get a good look at everything. There are cabinets with drawers below, too, which can be pulled out to see yet more of this amazing collection.

The Victorians were great collectors of things, often for the sake of curiosity or acquisition. They would plunder and despoil as a matter of entitlement. They were imperialists.

Pitt Rivers, the man after whom this collection is named was an ethnographer, an educator. His interests lay in the evolution of design and technology. It’s for this reason that the displays are arranged by type rather than by era and location.

There is something wonderful about the arrangement of the exhibits, something that shows us how very much we are one race, thinking alike and reacting to similar conditions, responding along the same lines to comparable situations and circumstances.

In this exhibition we see fewer of the differences between various cultures and more how very much we all think alike, solving the same problems in very similar ways. It shows how we strive for the same things: to communicate, make art and music, clothe and feed ourselves and stave off the elements. It shows our shared longing for exploration and how we cope with adversity. It shows that we all turn to rites and rituals, that we all celebrate and mourn.

I loved the Pitt Rivers Museum and I highly recommend it to all of you. This was not just the best cabinet of curiosities it has ever been my privilege to explore… it also gave me food for thought.

Monday 26 October 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: A Response

Get your first instalment here 28-10-2015
So… The results are in. It’s true, there are only a couple of comments on my last blog about my proposal to share “Addled Kat” with the World, but I got responses on the social networks, too, and I got texts from people who seemed pretty excited by the idea, including some of my beta-readers, who, after all, have read the book before.

I also read “Addled Kat”, again, for the first time in a couple of years, and while it isn’t the kind of novel I would normally choose to write, I actually think it’s a bit of fun. I rather like Kat; she’s full of contradictions, but she’s also funny and feisty.

Honestly, when it comes to the sex, I still haven’t made up my mind. Writing sex scenes is technical, and, for me as a writer, it wasn’t sexy. It’s the same as choreographing any action sequence, like a fight scene, for example: I’m so busy remembering how bodies work, how they move, how weight and gravity affect outcomes… all that sort of stuff, that for me, fight scenes aren’t violent, they’re more like a dance… The sex scenes were a bit like that to write, too. 

I can tell you that the language for the sex scenes, like all of the language in this novel, is unambiguous. You won’t find any ‘throbbing members’ or ‘lady gardens’ in this book. 

All I was hoping for when reading back the sex scenes was that I wouldn’t laugh, and I didn’t. 

My beta-readers have told me that the sex scenes are sexy. I’m happy to take their words for that.

I was asked to write something that would appeal to the audience that had grown for "Fifty Shades of Grey", but I'm not that audience, and most of the people I know aren't that audience either. Yes, this is a love story, and, yes, there is sex... There is even the slightest hint at the kind of sex the 50 Shades audience seemed so titillated by, but there the similarities between that book and Kat end.

So, this is a full-length novel of about 90 thousand words. I call it Clit-Lit. It’s somewhere between Chick-Lit and Erotica. It’s set more-or-less in the present, in London and the surrounding counties. The porn isn’t just centered around the sex either, there’s house-porn, fashion-porn and art-porn in there too. I like a bit of culture, and I wanted a bit of balance.

The first episode of “Addled Kat” will be available to read here on Wednesday 28th October, and I will post subsequent chapters every Wednesday and Saturday until I’ve uploaded the entire novel. I’m not entirely sure how long that will take, because I haven’t carved up the book yet, but I won’t keep you all hanging around for weeks on end.

I will add warnings to sections that contain the explicit sex scenes, but I will upload them in their entireties and in single blocks, so that, if that’s your thing, you can read those sections in isolation, even though they weren't written that way, and they weren’t intended to be read that way.

See how generous I can be?

Right, I’m doing paperwork today, but there’ll be a new blog tomorrow. I’ve got stuff to say about… Well all kinds of things that the Sunday papers have thrown into my consciousness. Who’d have thought I’d feel equally snarky about the Pope and Germaine Greer? Go figure.

Friday 23 October 2015

“Fifty Shades of Grey” and the Self-Publishing Saga

I’ve been talking about self-publishing for a long time. I’ve written about it often on this blog. You can find posts about it here, here and here, if you’re still interested in my views on the subject.

You know that I’m not going to self-publish… Right?

I did talk about doing it, once, because of a conversation with my brother. I fear I’ve let him down because we had a kind of agreement, a wager of sorts. I just can’t let go of my principles on this one, though.
A mock-up of a cover for Addled Kat.
The reference to the Grey covers is, of course, deliberate.

“Addled Kat” is a novel that I wrote a long time ago… years ago, in fact.

Something like four years have passed since “Fifty Shades of Grey” was picked up from the self-published slush pile and put into print. I didn’t plan to read it, because those I trusted had read it before me and hadn’t liked it very much, for all sorts of very good reasons. I did, in the end, and very reluctantly, read the first volume. As I suspected, I didn’t like it either. At that point, I was invited to write an erotic novel; the problem was, I wanted to do it my way.

My way didn’t sell.

I wasn’t surprised. Much of what I write doesn’t sell.

Much of what I write doesn’t sell for the very simple reason that it’s hard to label. Kat isn’t very much like “Fifty Shades of Grey”. It isn’t very much like it, because I didn’t buy into E L James’s vision. I didn’t buy into the characters, the relationship or the sex. The writing didn’t appeal to me either. 

I was never going to write a book like that. I wasn’t even going to try.

I wrote something else. I call it Clit-Lit.

When Kat didn’t sell, my brother wanted me to self-publish it, and I almost… very almost agreed to do it, but I couldn’t.

Last week the husband celebrated his 50th birthday, and, for the first time ever, he and I took a week off. We went away to Oxford. It was lovely. While we were away, we had dinner with Dan’s old college tutor. Actually, she isn’t old, her birth pre-dates ours by only a handful of years. She’s lovely, funny, clever, thoughtful, and all kinds of good. We happened to talk about writing quite a bit; Lucy’s a poet, and she’s very interested in the process of writing. I’d love her to write a novel, and I talked freely about some of the things I’ve done, including Kat.

It was Lucy who suggested I give the book a readership. Very wisely, she didn’t mention self-publishing, but she did get me thinking.

I don’t have to self-publish Kat to give it an audience. I could, say, just give it away. I could just post it on-line, and let whoever wants to read it have at it.

Why don’t I just do that?

I might just do that.

Here’s where you lot come in.

First of all, if you’re interested in reading this story, perhaps you could let me know in the comments below.

I plan to offer it several chapters at a time on this site. I’ll blog as usual, but every few days, probably at regular intervals so that people know when to expect the next instalment, I’ll post an excerpt as a blog and then a link to the next few chapters. All previous chapters will also be available for a period of time, yet to be determined.

I don’t know whether I will ever put the whole manuscript up at any given time, because: COPYRIGHT, but I realise that’s not a failsafe. Not utterly stupid, obviously. Smiles.

What do people think?

Here’s a bit of a synopsis:

Kat Adler is a twenty-nine year old fashion journalist and blogger with a string of appropriate, lovely boyfriends in her past, who, frankly bored her. When Barista Bob makes her a cup of good coffee at a family wedding, dances with her and then ignores her, her hackles rise, but her juices also start to flow.

Two more disastrous liaisons lead to a stinging slap that changes Kat’s perception of herself and of sex. The couple play cat and mouse in her blog for all the World to see, and have an opinion about, and yet, somehow, the relationship rolls on.

When secrets emerge about Barista Bob’s real identity, his past and his work, Kat is devastated by the obvious betrayal and has to make some hard choices.

Did I mention this book has sex in it? I was asked to write an erotic novel, after all. In the end, this book turned out to be all kinds of things, but it does contain graphic, explicit sex scenes, so, if that isn’t your thing, please don’t read it, because if you’re offended by that stuff you will want to avoid exposing yourself to this. If you read it and you’re offended that’s on you. Is that sufficient warning?

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Dreaming Spires and the Democratic Process

There has been a debacle. I know this, because I have watched it unfold over the past several months.

The husband and the older dort both have degrees from Oxford University. It is a place, an institution, that we all have an opinion about and an understanding of. For most, it is still simply one of the foremost seats of learning in the World.

Academia is a strange world with rules all its own. 

Many of us have been to university, and an increasing number of people are getting their degrees. I’m ambivalent about that. I imagine I always will be. I went to university before the big push towards increasing the numbers of undergraduates in the UK. I went at a time when leaving school at sixteen was very commonplace, and getting A’ levels ensured securing and holding down a good job. Times change, except that not everything keeps pace. Not all progress is necessarily good, but sometimes progress seems to be halted altogether.

Academia is a strange world with rules all its own. 

There is a hierarchy of teaching and learning. Great teachers at the best universities generally continue their own studies. They become recognised in their fields by the research they do and the work they publish. 

Universities look to the best and brightest to fill certain academic posts from time to time.

I’m not talking about conventional jobs. There are all kinds of rules and regulations for advertising and filling positions, in any and all industries, and that goes for education too.

I’m talking about those rarefied positions that come with titles and status, for which candidates are nominated and elected, because there are still quite a lot of jobs like that in academia, and not just in Oxford and Cambridge, but all over the UK and around the World. These are very special chairs and professorships, established and awarded through various systems, generally determined by the universities offering them.

There is a long history of these appointments, so long, in fact, that Oxford and Cambridge each have five Henrician chairs (in civil law, divinity, medicine, Hebrew and Greek), created by King Henry VIII.

Today, I want to talk about one of Oxford University’s chairs. I want to talk about the Oxford Chair for Professor of Poetry.

Oxford is a big university by British standards. It has about 22,500 students, of which a little over half are undergraduates. Oxford university currently has fourteen students between the ages of 16 and 18.

The husband is a graduate of Oxford University. He studied English there in the 80s, and in the past few years he has renewed ties to the city and to the university, not least because our older daughter was an undergraduate at his old college, studying languages.

We found out quickly when the new Professor of Poetry was due to be elected. 

The Guardian on Wole Soyinka's nomination
At the outset, we were interested in the nomination of the Nigerian, Wole Soyinka. He is a World renowned poet and playwright, with a staggering breadth and depth of experience. He has been a political prisoner in his homeland, and an exile. He has been a teacher and lecturer internationally, and a Nobel Prize winner, the first, for literature, from Africa. He was commended in his Nobel citation as someone who, 

in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence

Candidates for the chair needed fifty nominations from Oxford graduates, Soyinka led the field with 149 nominators, including nods from Melvyn Bragg and Robert Macfarlane.

Simon Armitage was among the candidates for the chair in a second round of nominations. He’s a popular poet from Yorkshire, who studied Geography at Portsmouth Poly. You’ve all heard of him, I’m sure. He has taught mostly in British universities, but he also did a stint at the University of Iowa, and he’s made programs for the BBC on the  radio and for television.

I imagine that outside the realms of academia, on the streets of the UK, more people have heard of Simon Armitage than know Wole Soyinka’s name. It’s a pity perhaps, but I still imagine that to be true.

The people who really cared about the Professor of Poetry chair at Oxford lobbied very hard for Wole Soyinka. Those people included a Professor of English at one of the university’s colleges, who is also an accomplished, published poet.

If I didn’t know my own mind, I’d still trust her judgement.

The fact is, I’m not as much in touch with poetry as I might be. The husband is certainly rather more in touch with it than I am. I am, however, a writer, and so is he. I also have children who have passed or are passing through the education system, and one of them is in the arts. I’m closer to all of this than most people probably are.

Of course, the people closest to this appointment aren’t just the academics, they aren’t just people like my friend the poet/professor. The people at the heart of this, the people who will benefit from this appointment are the students. They surely deserve the very best teachers, since they are considered to be the very best, very brightest students.

The Professor of Poetry at Oxford University is a teaching position. The holder of the chair is required to give three lectures a year.

That might not sound like much, but the opportunity to hear lectures given by world class speakers at the top of their games is rare. When was the last time you had that privilege? To be a member of a student body with access to a Nobel Laureate… isn’t that extraordinary? I would’ve loved the opportunity to sit in that lecture every term.

Oxford University didn’t get a Nobel Laureate for its Poetry chair, it got the Yorkshireman.

Simon Armitage is the new Professor of Poetry.

From all that I’ve said so far, you might well be wondering how that could possibly have happened. The answer is that I’m not entirely sure. I can, however, tell you the process by which Mr Armitage was voted in.

An election was held. It’s as simple as that.

The magic word is Convocation: a legislative or deliberative assembly of a university. And it’s all about who can vote. In this case those eligible to vote were the Congregation: the members of the faculty both current and retired, and former members of the university admitted to a degree, so basically former students. The husband and the older dort, as graduates of Oxford University were eligible to vote for nominees for this chair.

I don’t know how many ex-students of Oxford there must be around the World, but, given that there are 22,500 students at Oxford right now, I imagine it’s quite a lot. I don’t know how many of those people had any interest in who might become Professor of Poetry. I don’t know how many of them are politically active. I imagine many of them are middle-aged, middle-class and white. I imagine many of them sit comfortably at home with their jobs and their 4x4s and their families, feeling very settled with life, thank you very much. I imagine many of them belong to Cameron’s Britain... You see how my imagination runs away with me when I feel politically agitated!

I like to think that quite a large number of the current student body were very interested in who might become their Professor of Poetry, not least the 850 undergraduates studying English. None of those people had a vote. I like to think that quite a large number of the current student body were very interested in any academic appointment that fielded a candidate who was also a political activist. None of those people had a vote.

So, all sorts of people, who might know very little, were able to influence the lives and educations of people who, conversely, wanted to know a very great deal. 

I’m not suggesting that those people who voted for the chair didn’t do so with the very best of intentions. Simon Armitage is a popular poet, people have heard of him, his books sell, and they’ve seen his face on the television and heard his voice on the radio. He's very Middle England. Melvyn Bragg even endorsed him… Well, yes, as a matter-of-fact, he did, but he nominated Wole Soyinka, so I’ve got to wonder what happened there.

The first Oxford University chairs were gifts of King Henry VIII, and we’ve come a long way since then. Before 1970 undergraduates were mostly considered to be minors, since they didn’t reach their twenty-first birthdays until their final years of study. In that year, the age of majority was lowered to 18, and now, of course, Oxford students are adults, except for the fourteen that I very deliberately mentioned when enumerating the current student population, above.

Currently, Convocation includes former students of the university. Perhaps that’s a hangover from a bygone age when students were thought of as minors and not capable of adult decision-making. I can’t help thinking that lots of Oxford University’s rules must have changed since Henry VIII’s days. Perhaps it’s time for a change in the Convocation rules to recognise the students.

We all know that given a chance, some students will vote for the glove puppet of their favourite StarWars character, or for the toaster in the JCR. But this is a two-tier system, and the first round process with its minimum of fifty nominations ought to mitigate against the silliness. 

We also know that students take their educations seriously. We know this because we have all seen the time, effort and energy that goes into getting the GCSE and A’level grades to secure places at our best universities; we know it because we have all seen the level of debt eighteen year olds are prepared to shoulder to get that education.

These students are not just adults, they are some of the best of us. 

I believe the current student body should have had a say in the election of the Professor of Poetry. If they had chosen Simon Armitage I would have applauded their choice, but as it is, they are stuck with a decision that was made on their behalf.

Jack Moran has started a petition to make the Oxford University Professor of Poetry election more democratic. It's too late for 2015, but changes can be implemented in time for the next election. You can sign the petition over here.

Lucy Newlyn, poet and Professor of English at the husband's old college has also been a strong supporter of Wole Soyinka, and of a more just system when it comes to the selection process for these posts. Her article in THE makes for compelling reading.

I didn’t get a vote in this process, because I’m not a former student of Oxford University, but the people I know and trust voted for Wole Soyinka, and, believe me, if I ever get the chance to hear him speak, I’ll queue around the block in the pouring rain to do it. 

Sunday 11 October 2015

Happy Birthday to You

Every day is someone’s birthday, and isn’t that just lovely?

Birthdays are a big thing in our house, and big birthdays are a bigger thing.

I’m not sure how it came to be that way, because I know it’s not true of everybody’s birthday. I know people for whom a birthday can pass by with barely a celebration. They might get a card and a gift from their nearest and dearest, but nothing much else. For us, birthdays are almost bigger than Christmas… And we do pretty spectacular Christmases.

My birthday falls on Christmas Eve, which is odd. It has always been odd, but it is what it is. The husband makes a big deal of it, and I love that he does. My last birthday was a pretty surreal event. My father died on the 9th of December, which was also his youngest grandson’s eighteenth birthday. There was a kind of symmetry in that, and it meant that the entire family was together. It must have been a strange experience for my nephew, but he dealt with it wonderfully well. 

The husband and I have an anniversary on the 10th, but it rather passed us by.

The husband the younger dort,
 who have birthdays this week
I hosted my father’s funeral on the 19th of December with family and friends in attendance, and we are a big family. It was sad, but also quite lovely. The 20th of December would have been my father’s eighty-third birthday. Four days later I had a birthday on the day before Christmas, and on the 27th of December my sister got married. Those three weeks were some of the strangest I have lived through. My birthday, in particular, passed in a strange, surreal haze.

It is birthday season again. Both of the dorts, and the husband have their birthdays in October. The husband turns fifty on Monday. It’s a big birthday and one I’m very much looking forward to. I want it to be full of stuff and things, and more than anything I want it to be a warm and happy celebration. We like to gift-give, so there is always a birthday sack the equivalent of any Santa sack in any house in the land… It’s tricky, though, to buy gifts for the husband, and it seems to get trickier with every year that passes. He’s not a hard man to please, but his interests are diverse, specific and sometimes fleeting.

The younger dort has her birthday the day before the husband, so it’s all go, no stop! She’s always a pleasure to surprise and a delight to party with… Besides, she makes lists. She doesn’t ever expect anything that’s on the lists, and she’s always more than delighted when I take a tangent, but it’s good to have guidelines.

The older dort will get the best gift of the year this year, though, and it’s a gift that I couldn’t possibly give her… It’s a gift that no one on Earth could possibly give her, and one that must be incredibly rare. She’s a very lucky woman… I rather envy her. 

This year, the older dort turns 25, her birthday falls on the 25th, and this year, the 25th will be 25 hours long! How cool is that?

For any and all of you who know the husband, and I’m guessing that’s quite a lot of you, come Monday, you know what to do. Smiles.

Friday 9 October 2015

If you're looking for a Feminist Rant... This one's a Doozy! part ii

I wrote a blog last Thursday, which some of you might have read. It was a big, fat feminist rant, which you can read over here, but it was actually triggered by a conversation with the husband, which was, in turn, triggered by a piece of research.

Research, for us, comes in many forms, and is often shared. We read the papers together, and often the same books, but a lot of our shared research comes in the form of movies and TV shows. 

One Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, the husband and I were eating supper together, and it happened to be in front of the TV. We’d had a couple of long weeks, without breaks and were in crash mode, so we were watching The Antiques Roadshow on BBC1. To be fair, we weren’t watching it; we were eating and talking and winding down, and the TV was simply on in the background. When the program finished, a show was trailered that was due to start on BBC2. It was Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week. Of course, the husband is always in work mode, so we switched channels and began watching this show about ordinary men and women being put through their paces by instructors from various special forces operatives from around the World.

There were women volunteers among the recruits for the program, and that’s where our conversation about women in the armed forces, and about their comparative strengths and weaknesses as frontline troops began. The debate spun out from there and formed the backbone of that first blog.

Things have moved on since then. We had come in around the third program, and it was interesting, so we checked out iPlayer and watched the show from the beginning. Last night, the final program in the series of six was aired, and, of course, we tuned in.

Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week was all things to all people: it was a competition, beginning with 29 recruits, whittled down over the weeks to end with 6 in the final, with contestants leaving injured, being ejected by the special forces instructors, failing to complete tasks to the instructor’s satisfaction, or dropping out of their own volition; it was a reality show, showcasing personalities and characters for the viewers to love or hate, to root for and get behind, and to follow through physical, mental and emotional trials and tribulations; it was a platform for the elite forces of the World’s armies to demonstrate their skills; and it was, very loosely, a form of documentary, informing the viewer about training and instruction of the special forces. All in all, it was pretty interesting TV.

There are, as far as I know, currently no women operatives in any of the special forces represented by the seven instructors who took part in the show. They were from the United States of America, Israel, the Philippines, Australia, Russia and the UK. As of 2015, the official line in the US Navy is that there is no reason women will not be allowed to join the SEALS, providing they complete the training; there aren’t any women SEALS yet. There is a female NAVSOG training program in the Philippines, women have to be single, and training appears to be segregated, but the opportunity is there. In 2013 about 150 women began training for Spetsnaz, I can find no further reference for them. As of 2012 a number of women had passed the entry requirements for the SASR, but had not progressed further, which suggests that the Australians have ‘other concerns’, probably in line with current thinking that women are in some way a liability. It is, of course, widely understood that women are deployed by several of the World’s elite forces for specific tasks relating to secret counter-terrorism operations. In the British forces, women are currently not allowed to bear arms. An assessment in 2010 reported that women were able to meet the physical and psychological standards required for close combat, and the situation is under review. That’s a pretty long way off having women operatives in the SAS.

OK, back to the program. I’m not entirely sure of the ratio of men to women in the show, but over the twelve days of the endurance tests, recruits of both genders fell away pretty quickly, and, it seemed to me, evenly. It was hard to predict who was prepared to suffer what struggles or indignities, or what would break a particular person. For some it would be hunger or sleep deprivation, for others it would be facing their fears. Some simply couldn’t complete a task, others couldn’t keep their attitudes in check, or just tried too hard. So-called ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ personality traits seemed to have very little to do with anything.

Some of the women were fierce and great leaders when the men struggled, and some of the men were patient and long-suffering when the women weren’t. All of the recruits were complex characters.

I can’t help thinking that all of the instructors, and everyone that I saw was male, including the six specialists, and the presenter, Freddie Flintoff, expected the women recruits to be the first to leave. I can’t help thinking that all of the men running the show were surprised when the women began to find their feet and get on with the jobs at hand. It showed all the time in the comments they made about the women and to the women. I realise it wasn’t their intention, but they were often a little condescending when talking about what a great job the women were doing, and how they’d never seen such tough women. Those women are people, guys, as tough and prepared and resourceful as the men. They knew what they’d signed up for, they knew what they were getting in to, they knew what they had to prove, and they were ready to do it.
Clare Miller and what the Telegraph reported before the show aired

Many of the women recruits… Many of the recruits were athletes. Murphy was a firefighter and a soccer player, Martlew was a specialist in obstacle course racing as was Clare Miller, who also rowed for her university. They were also mentally tough. I wonder whether it isn’t rather easier to be mentally tough when society makes you the underdog in every aspect of your life.

No one expected women to do well in Ultimate Hell Week. Miller weighed in at 55kg, but no concessions were made for her small size or for her gender when it came to the competition. She carried out exactly the same tasks as the men, and that included carrying the same bergen at the same weight, with the addition of the same water bottles. At one point, I noted that she was carrying more than 40kg. The man standing next to her probably weighed 90-100kg. She was carrying 73% of her body weight, while he was carrying between 40% and 45% of his body weight, putting her at a huge disadvantage. And the woman never wavered.

It would be easy to expect that the final six contestants would be men. I don’t know what the ratio of men to women was at the beginning, but two of the final six recruits were women, and I think that roughly represents the original ratio. On the final day, Clare Miller was left with Danny Bent and Huw Brassington. If it had been about the physical test on the final day, the woman beat both of the men with the fastest time on the run, fully loaded with that bergen, but other factors were also taken into consideration, including responses to capture and interrogation.

Clare Miller came out top on those tests too, showing greater resilience than Bent and Brassington to being hunted down, humiliated, sleep-deprived and a whole host of other stressers.

Clare Miller is a great role model; She took on physical and mental tests of endurance and mettle, and she accomplished things that most people, irrespective of their gender wouldn’t even try to do. Not only that, but she competed with twenty-eight other people to prove that she was the best in the field. Anyone should be proud of such an achievement. We should all applaud her.

The instructors on the show applauded her, as did her fellow contestants, and Twitter went wild for her.

It was a bitter-sweet victory, however, for me, at least.

This was not a person being applauded for doing a good job well. This was a woman, and this was a woman besting a field of men. The men on the program had grown to know this woman and to appreciate her for who she was and what she had achieved. They were clearly surprised by the outcome of the show, but it was the Clare Miller they had come to know, and she was brilliant and exceptional and that was good enough for them.

Women love Clare Miller, and I’m one of them. She is a role model for us and for our daughters, and we badly want her there as a great shining beacon, and why wouldn’t we? Of course we want women like her to shine a light… Of course we do! But Clare Miller was just doing what she does, what she loves. She’s a smart woman, and a little bit of her might just have been doing it for the rest of us, but, honest to goodness, is that her responsibility? And should it be? I rather think not. It shouldn’t be anyone’s responsibility. 

If the World was a friendly place for women to exist in we wouldn’t need these heroines, these role models, because life wouldn’t be so damned hard, and we could all just get on with it in our own sweet ways.

And then there was the Twitterverse. Women love Clare Miller, and they said so all over Twitter… But where were the men? For all of the hundreds of women who posted positive comments celebrating Clare, where were all the fans of all things military congratulating the winner of Ultimate Hell Week? Where were all the male fans of the show? And why did they all seem to go quiet when the winner was announced?

OK, not all of them went quiet. There were some lovely men who applauded and appreciated Clare Miller, and good on them. But the ratio of men to women tweeting about the show was hugely overbalanced. There were dozens of women congratulating Clare for every man that showed support.

And while the number of men showing support was small, a good proportion of them weren’t showing support at all, because they were aggrieved. They didn’t like the result, they didn’t like it one little bit, and they said so. Here is just a small sample of the tweets from unhappy men after the show aired:

Liam: Bullshit should Miller have won
John-Paul: She could not carry the weights and should have gone out weeks ago

John-Paul: She failed on weight challenges every time and saw it all as a game. BBC being PC.

Nathan: Brassington should’ve won that for me.

Tim: Miller won because of some sickly pro women BBC agenda. Awful.

Calvin: Absolute travesty that Brassington didn’t win.

Aj: “He’s the perfect soldier for special forces, couldn’t find a single flaw.” Yet Brassington still lost. We all know why.

John-Paul: Another politically correct fix by the BBC? Miller never was the best and could never be special forces.

C: The right man won.

Clearly John-Paul has got problems, and as for C… Seriously… Clare is now an honorary man, because, after all, a woman couldn’t possibly do this, so let’s just take her under our wing and make her one of us, let’s welcome her into the boys’ club. Yeah… right!

Men say ‘prove yourselves’, so we do, and some man calls shenanigans. So, I’m going to refer you back to that blog that I wrote on Thursday and remind you all that this is a choice. We can come onto your playground and beat you at your games; Clare Miller just proved that. Or we can bring our own strengths to the table and we can create a better world with more balance that will benefit all of us.

Take your pick.