Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Here Comes the Groom

I found myself in a bridal shop yesterday.

I don’t have much experience with weddings. I am married. You all know that I’m married, and to whom I am married. I often think that I am more married than other people. Not many couples live and work together as closely as the husband and I do. We are together, at least in the same house pretty well 24/7. We each have an office, so we’re not exactly tripping over each other, but we collaborate on projects, and I’m his go-to for editing and advice. We each know what the other is doing professionally, we have a private life together, and, of course, there are the dorts and the animals.

We work together, we travel together and we play together.

Marriage is important to us; weddings aren’t.

It’s a bit of a family thing. It took me and the husband twenty-two years from meeting to getting married, and when we finally managed to get around to it, we eloped. Our older dort eloped, too, and so did my parents and my maternal grandparents. Two of those generations even did it legally. 

A few years ago, I interviewed my father, on video-tape. It made for some fascinating film, and one of the stories he told me was of his elopement to my mother. It isn’t the point of this blog, but I really must tell it one day; it’s romantic and interesting and sort of lovely. Pops was a bit of a dude.

Met in 1982, eloped in 2004, currently married 11years and counting
The point, I suppose, is that marriage is important, that relationships are important. Weddings, to me at least, have never been very important. The husband always felt right to me, and me to him. I always felt married to him. I didn’t want or need a big wedding. I wore a dress that I already owned, and which I still sometimes wear; I picked black tulips from our garden and made my own bouquet; there are no formal pictures of our wedding, just a couple of snaps that our children took, because they were our guests, along with our oldest friends and their two kids.

My experience of bridal shops is limited to glancing in windows, and visiting them with my sisters when they were planning their weddings.

I found myself in a bridal shop yesterday for the singular purpose of hiring the husband a kilt. We’re off to a New Year’s party which is tartan themed; my ancestry is Scottish, so we thought it’d be nice if the husband wore a kilt. I’ve been meaning to have one made for him for years, and haven’t got around to it. If you want to hire a kilt, apparently, a bridal shop is the place to do it.

When we arrived in the men’s department of the shop a rather beautiful young man in his late twenties was standing in the room in full regalia, including a powder blue kilt. I didn’t like the colour of the kilt, but he wore it well, and looked very dashing. The bride didn’t like the colour of the kilt either. It wasn’t baby blue enough; it didn’t go with the colour she’d chosen for the bridesmaid’s dresses. The poor groom appeared to be suffering, and the atmosphere was a little tense. 

All the husband and I could do was wait, and the room wasn’t huge, so, I cheerfully offered that I thought the groom looked good in the kilt, that he wore it well. I imagined that a little encouragement from a neutral party couldn’t do any harm. The shop assistant was doing her very best, but it was all rather hard work.

Eventually, after various bridesmaids dresses were compared with the kilt, and various waistcoats were tried on with it, and a lot of photos were taken on the bride’s phone, the groom went into a changing room and the bride went downstairs for a fitting. The husband got his chance to try on some kilts. 

I was talking to the shop assistant and said I’d rather the husband wore one of my family tartans. The store only offered generic tartans that anyone could wear. At this point, the groom appeared in his own clothes. He’d clearly overheard what I’d been talking about, and said that he wished he was allowed to wear his family tartan.

I was taken aback.

I asked about his family tartan and he said that it was red and his bride wanted the bridesmaids in powder blue and his kilt wouldn’t match. He then went on to say that she didn’t really want him to wear a kilt at all, and that he’d only just managed to persuade her to let him try one on to show her what it would look like.

At this point, I was horrified.

Relationships matter. Marriage matters. Weddings, to me at least, don’t matter very much. Of course we all know that weddings matter to a lot of people. We all know that a lot of people take a great deal of care organising their weddings, and we all know that a lot of those people are women. A culture seems to have grown up around women fantasising about perfect weddings right through their childhoods. I hear stories about this sort of thing: little girls tottering around in their mother’s heels with pillowcase veils on their heads… I hear about it, but I don't get it. I wonder how much thought those same little girls give to marriage.

A wedding is just a big, fancy party. Everyone wants to look good for a party, and if you’re the centre of attention, then that dress might be a big deal. OK, so the bride takes some time to choose a dress that she’d never wear under any other circumstances, and that she’ll never wear again, and she spends a couple of month’s wages on it. That’s her business. I guess it’s also her business if she wants to dictate what her best mates and/or her sisters and/or cousins and/or baby daughters wear. Again, I know this happens, but I don’t get it.

What about the groom? As I understand it, most grooms these days are also expected to wear clothes that they would never choose to wear under other circumstances. Lots of grooms and often the best man and fathers of the couple too, now wear morning suits, but how often are they bought? and how often are they tailored to fit? I’m guessing that the answer to that question is, ‘almost never’.

How many brides wear a rented dress to their weddings? I’m guessing that most women wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. And yet most brides expect their grooms to wear a rented suit. How many grooms have any say in what they wear? I don’t know.

I do know that I would never dream of telling the husband what he should or shouldn’t wear. I also have a very strong feeling that most grooms wouldn’t turn to their brides and say, ‘I hate that dress’ or ‘Why are you wearing that white, meringue monstrosity? It’s just plain daft, and it looks hideous!’ How many grooms see their brides in their dresses for the first time when they see them at the altar or the registrar’s table or in the hotel ballroom? How many of those brides have ever worn their hair that way before? or had their make-up professionally done in that style? Most brides look completely different on their wedding day from the way they looked when their groom met them, dated them or woke up with them the morning before the wedding. What an almighty shock that must be for a lot of men who are probably already beside themselves with nerves.

Is it fair? Is it right? Is it reasonable?

I don’t know.

I believe that a marriage is vastly more important than a wedding. 

I think that women, and in particular brides, do a great deal more towards organising a wedding than do most grooms.

This groom did want to do something towards his wedding. This groom wanted to represent himself, his family and his heritage by wearing his family tartan; he wanted to wear his traditional kilt at his wedding. His bride had other ideas.

I can’t imagine organising such a big event, and I’m not sure that most of us are really up to it. There’s a very great deal to do, and most of us aren’t experienced at this kind of job. Most weddings take a year or longer to organise; there’s a lot to remember, and it’s all horribly expensive.

It takes two people to make a marriage work. At various times, one or other of those people takes a break, falls apart, or simply goes off-piste. This happens in most, if not all marriages, and when it does, if the other partner doesn’t pick up the slack, rein things in, work stuff out, forgive, forget or fight to get things back on track, that’s the end of that, and the whole thing ends up in the divorce courts.

I wish this couple all the best for a long, loving, happy relationship, but I think that this bride is making a mistake. This is a man with a mind of his own, and with wants and needs. He’s also a man who’s willing to communicate. All of that seems good to me.

This bride is getting what she wants now, but at what cost later? No one gets all of what they want all of the time. I don’t think there’s a compromise on this. A wedding should be a joyous event, no matter the size or scale of the party. If he gets any kilt, she won’t be happy. If he doesn’t get his family tartan, he won’t be happy.

The problem is, this wedding won’t be perfect. It seems to me that he knows that, and he just wants to get married and have a big party. She seems to me to be going for the perfect wedding; she’s quibbling over his choice of suit, and none of the umpteen choices of bridesmaids dresses was precisely the right shade of blue.

If she finds exactly the right shade of blue for the dresses, what happens when someone gets drunk at the wedding, or something kicks off between a couple of relatives who can’t get on? What happens when the meal’s twenty minutes late or when the microphone for the speeches doesn't work? What happens when the bridesmaid gets off with the best man, or when the father wants to thump the step-father? What happens when the champagne’s not cold enough or the pudding’s too cold? What happens when the flower girl cries or the celebrant gets the hiccoughs?

I’ve been to quite a lot of weddings. I don’t remember a single one where something didn’t go amiss. I’ve been witness to weddings where everyone bigged-up the groom in the speeches and no one remembered to mention the bride. I’ve witnessed a mother-of-the-bride make an utter fool of herself. I’ve even seen a wedding cake take a nose-dive off a table onto a floor. I’ve seen grooms get totally plastered to the utter devastation of the bride, and I’ve seen bridesmaids in floods of tears over wayward boyfriends. I’ve seen screaming pageboys and heard inappropriate sermons from vicars.

There is no such thing as the perfect wedding, but it’s the dramas and the mayhem… it’s the unplanned moments that make a wedding memorable.

It’s hard to relax when you want something badly, and it’s hard to relax when you’re planning something complicated and expensive. But these two could begin with the outfits for the wedding party. This bride could begin by giving the groom his choice of kilt. She could let the bridesmaids choose their dresses, too, and that’d be two fewer decisions she’d have to worry about. The stress of planning this event isn’t just making the groom’s life less fun, it’s making the bride’s life more difficult too.

Marriage is important; a happy, loving relationship is important. A wedding, in the end, is just a big expensive party. It will be a day to remember whatever happens. This bride might one day regret that she didn’t take it all a little easier, and this groom might one day grow to resent that she didn’t.

I do hope not.

Monday 28 December 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road… Some Thoughts

Mad Max: Fury Road The website
Yes, I’m late to the party; I just watched this movie, at home, last night.

Christmas is a great time to catch up on movies we’ve been planning to watch, and we have, and this was one of them.

I was around for screenings of the original trio of Mad Max films with Mel Gibson in the eponymous hero role, and I enjoyed them at the time, although Thunderdome was less good than the first two films. The ideas were fresh, then; we’d never seen anything quite like what Miller was doing in the genre. We bought into the concept.

When Fury Road hit the screens back in the summer, it got a big audience and a lot of attention. I was told by quite a lot of people that they were interested in my take on the film when I saw it. I was keen to see it; I heard and read over and over again that it was a game-changer for women in film. I read and heard that this was an action movie with key female roles and that there were feminist themes.

I was surprised… Not that there could be room for roles for women, because, why not? We all know women can drive, and these movies are all about the vehicles. I was surprised that anyone would want to make a Mad Max movie with a feminist agenda anywhere near its heart. Honestly, this brand is pretty wedded to its post-apocalyptic, barren World themes, and I wasn’t sure there was room for more. It’s all about the action, isn’t it? Big crazy vehicles, linear storytelling and lots of action: The storytelling follows the trajectory of the action. We go on a journey, stuff happens and we end up where we’re supposed to be.

In the end, this, like the other movies in the franchise, is about survival. It’s somewhat about home, another thread that runs through the movies, since Max has always been displaced. There’s some vengeance, and, I suppose, moral corruption, but that’s not unusual in a movie this violent.

This movie is violent, and not just in the action sequences, which take place on the road. The imagery, from the outset, is incredibly violent and disturbing. It’s also beautifully done. The visuals are spectacular, while at the same time being absolutely in keeping with the earlier movies. It’s hard to fault the intent of this film to deliver an action-packed slice of more-of-the-same.

Of course, people who know me will want to know what I thought of this as a film about women, and whether I agree that it had a feminist agenda.

There are women in this film where they were mostly absent from the first three movies in the series. It is worth remembering, though, that it was the loss of his family that first set Max on his path through the films.

Charlize Theron plays Furiosa in the movie. As far as I can tell, she’s the only female driver, and this was my first problem. There is no explanation for her unique role in this society where women as young and beautiful as she is are routinely held captive as ‘breeders’. I wondered how she avoided her natural fate. This was a particularly knotty problem given that she was stolen as a child, and it became a massive plot hole for me.

I have no problem with this role being written for a woman… Let’s have more key roles for women actors, lots more! I simply wish there'd been a plausible reason for it. 

I’m also becoming very jaded by the backstories introduced for female characters in almost every film. When was the last time you saw a key female character that didn’t have a backstory that involved some kind of neglect, misery, abuse, tragedy or loss? That’s right… You could answer that question with ‘never’ and I’d be prepared to believe you. Why must the damage that’s been done to women always be their motivation for everything? 

Yes, we live in a society in which women are constantly damaged and undermined; we can and do all talk about those experiences. Those are not always the things that motivate us, though; they are not always the biggest things in our lives. Sometimes, we’re motivated by the positives. We are often bigger and stronger and better than the shit we’ve been through, and it’s time some of that was seen on screen.

That brings me very neatly to the ‘breeders’, who have, of course, had miserable lives. This film is ostensibly about their rescue. Yes, this is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘damsel in distress’ scenario. As a feminist, this is something else I’m rather tired of. These women have no agency of their own, and, obviously, they’re incredibly beautiful, white, young, and they’re wearing almost nothing. (Not for nothing there’s also a blonde, a redhead and a brunette, just to keep all the male viewers happy). We’ve been seeing this trope in films made by men for men since girls were tied to train tracks in silent movies.

Film criticism is often written by quite intelligent white men, and I’m happy for them to read this and any other movie any way they want to, but the majority of film-goers are not critics. When your average Joe sees a movie like this, or when your average misogynist goes, what he’s seeing is his fantasy, because he’s seeing the victimisation, the subjugation of women. The ‘breeders’ spend most of this movie half-naked, terrified and being chased down by men. As a feminist, I don’t find that empowering, and those images don’t represent any feminist agenda that I espouse.

Add to all of this the fact that one of those 'breeders' falls in love with one of the enemy, because, let’s face it, women can’t live without men, even a man who was trying to kill her hours before… Well, you get my drift. Yes, I know he switches sides and comes to the breeder’s rescue, but look at the type of man we’re talking about!

On the subject of saviours, Furiosa is a key character in this film, and one that women and even feminists are supposed to identify with, but it’s Max who makes the decisions. He persuades the women to return, and he saves Furiosa with the live blood transfusion… The women would absolutely have failed were it not for Mad Max, the real hero of the movie.

I know that there are women out there who like this film, and I know that there are women who saw it and for whom it ticked feminist boxes. I wonder whether some of this is about appropriation. The idea of the ‘breeders’ was a neat way of getting women onboard, of appealing to us. Childbirth and breastfeeding belong to women. Take those things away from us, and we fight for them.

Again, I had problems with this. Breast milk certainly appears to be some kind of commodity in this society, but it’s never explained what value it has or why. Furiosa doesn't try to take down the regime, she doesn’t appear to have a feminist agenda of her own with regard to the abuse of the ‘breeders’, or, more particularly, to the appropriation of the breast milk. The rescued ‘breeders’ don’t discuss it, and Furiosa rescues only these four women, the young, beautiful women. We clearly see more established breeders continuing to be held captive and being milked, and their is no plan to change their fates. 

Then, of course, there’s the caesarian scene, the second of its type in a movie in the past couple of years… I’m sure you all remember Prometheus

These two caesarian scenes are about appropriation, the abuse of women, and about ownership of offspring. They’re about patriarchy. They cut a swathe through feminism. They make things worse for women, not better, because they demonstrate how easy it is to rob women of the very last things that we can claim as our own. 

Those are the images that misogynists take away from this film.

It’s too easy to assume some kind of happy ending in the closing scenes of Fury Road, but we’re left with a morally corrupt society, and a broken, disabled woman to lead it, who has failed in her original undertaking. She wanted to go home, after all.

There is the hope that this might become the new Green Place, of course, but we all know what the chances are of that happening. Hope is a small thing. We all know that the Keeper of the Seeds is an old woman, and, by definition barren. Will the seeds prove to be the same?

Mad Max: Fury Road is a pretty good action adventure. It ticks a lot of boxes for those who like a film that looks good and moves at a pace. I quite enjoyed watching it, not least for the nostalgia of reliving the ideas from the original movies, which it matches pretty neatly.

This absolutely wasn’t a feminist movie. I’m not even sure that it wanted to be, and if it did, the all-male writing team and George Miller, the director, might have considered running their ideas past a woman before they put Fury Road into production.

Monday 21 December 2015

A Round Up of the Year 2015

First of all can I say, Season’s Greetings, Have a Wondrous Solstice, a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

I’m doing this mostly because it’s that time of year, and I believe in good cheer, but also because it’s the 21st of December and I’ve only just begun doing Christmas stuff, so nobody’s actually getting a card… It’s simply too late for that to happen. I apologise.

What a year 2015 has been!

I wrote a novel this year, I began another, which I hope to finish in the New Year, but it’s one of my own, so the chances of it ever being published and reaching an audience are negligible. That won’t stop me doing it, though, obviously. Sometimes, it feels like torture, but this is what I do, and this is what I love, and I can’t stop doing it just because what I write for myself and what I believe in happens to be a hard sell. I’ll give it to Robert (my lovely agent) when it’s done and let him wrestle with it. I also started to write a factual book this year, which is almost half-done. I’m going to send that, too, to find out whether Robert thinks it’s worth finishing. My beta-readers like it, but there’s quite a lot of work to be done to bring it to completion, so it’s worth finding out whether my agent thinks he can sell it before I commit.

I also gave away my Clit-Lit novel Addled Kat on this blog. Quite a lot of you have read, and apparently enjoyed it. Thank you.

A big chunk of this year has been given over to work on narrative for a computer game. I love to collaborate with the husband, and this has been a lot of fun. It’s also been brilliant working with some very talented, very energetic people in the games industry. This is something you’ll all be hearing about pretty soon. So, watch this space.

There have also been a couple of short stories, which will be published next year, notably an urban fantasy short for an anthology edited by Jonathan Maberry, and a combat SF story for a tenth anniversary anthology for NewCon Press edited by Ian Whates.

What else? Possibly my favourite job of the year has been writing back-matter for Dan Abnett and Ian Culbard’s Wild’s End: The Enemy Within. If you’re not reading it, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful, surprising comic from Boom! This is the second arc in the series that began with Wild’s End: First Light, which is now available as a collection. I loved the idea for this comic, and the husband’s writing is some of his best. I’m also a big fan of Ian’s art, which is subtle, clever, beautiful… I’m running out of superlatives. When I was asked to write some back-matter for the first arc I was thrilled. It’s only small jobs, never more than a couple of thousand words at a time, but the story’s so good and the characters are so much fun to write for and about that I’ve really enjoyed my small part in making this comic.

There have also, of course, been some blogs… Not many, I admit, mostly because my father died a year ago, and when I couldn’t write about that I simply didn’t feel able to write about anything else. 

Your favourite blogs of the year were my comments on mass shootings in America. I’m not sure what that says about us all as a society.

The Dort, making a song and dance of dressing the
Christmas tree on a previous occasion.
I have found that a lot of my blogging, recently, has been rather political. I don’t know whether that’s a sign of the times, or whether that’s just the mood I’m in right now. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if and when my mood changes.

With only four days remaining until Christmas Day, and one of those my birthday, there’s a great deal still to do, chez-Abnett: gift-shopping, house decorating, tree-procurement, gift-wrapping (assuming I manage to buy gifts), housework (it’ll still be there when I get around to doing it)… And we’re taking delivery of furniture and a crap-ton of logs for the wood-burning stoves. Did I mention that the food hasn’t been delivered yet? (thank God we did actually get around to ordering it), and cooking hasn’t begun.

So… it’s been a funny old year… A mixed curse… I’m going to concentrate on the good, and hope for a better 2016, not just for me and mine, but for you and yours too.

Best love


Saturday 5 December 2015

Mass Shootings part II

A couple of days ago, after the mass shooting in San Bernardino California, I wrote a blog about gun deaths in America, and about how gun control works here in the UK.

Regular readers are pretty familiar with my politics. I live on the left wing. A lot of Americans would refer to me as a Liberal Intellectual, as if that were some kind of insult. I take it as a compliment. I’m also a feminist, which you can probably tell, since my other blog this week could be labelled a feminist rant, as could several of last month’s blogs.

After posting my blog a couple of days ago, I got some feedback, despite not getting many comments on the actual blog. There was also a blog response to the blog, from one of my American readers, which you can find over here.

A lot of my regular readers liked the blog and broadly agreed with the sentiment. I know this because people liked or shared my links on FaceBook and Twitter. I’m not surprised by that, because birds of a feather do tend to flock together. It’s not unusual for any blogger to be preaching to the choir.

I also have regular readers who happen to consistently oppose my views on many things. Some of them are people that I know and respect, others are simply passing through. This particular blog got a decent amount of traffic because of the subject matter; it was topical and of fairly universal interest. It was read around the World, including in America, Europe and the Middle East. Mass Shootings have also become a popular topic of conversation on the social networks in the past few days, and I have seen many arguments for gun control and for the freedom to carry arms. If you want to read my ideas about gun control you can take a look at my previous blog on mass shootings.

It seems to me, in its simplest terms, that an American friend of mine was expressing his honest feelings on the matter when he said that his freedom to bear arms was second in importance only to his freedom of speech and his freedom of religion. It seems to me that this holds true for a great many Americans. It seems to me that this is what I hear over and over again when gun control is the subject for discussion in the USA.

The right to bear arms was written into the American Constitution. I know of no other country that talks about its constitution the way that the USA does, and a great many countries have them. My argument is that we live and we learn, and that we grow and change. My argument is that no constitution should be set in stone, that, by its very nature, it must be a fluid, changing document. The USA has altered the constitution before. There have been a total of twenty-seven amendments. They include the following:

13 - the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude
15 - prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude
16 - permits Congress to levy income tax
17 - establishes the election of senators by popular vote
19 - prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on gender

And let’s not forget amendments 18 and 21. The former prohibited the production and sale of alcohol, and the latter repealed the former.

Had the American Constitution been the perfect blueprint for governing a nation, if it had been considered as sacrosanct at any time in the past couple of centuries as it appears to be now by so many American citizens, there would still be slavery, and only white men would have the vote. Of course, income tax would be less of a problem, but then so would government, because how the hell would it be financed? What's more, there’s proof that adding an amendment can be more trouble than it’s worth, but that clearly didn’t prevent the elected government of the time doing the right thing and shoving in another amendment to put the error right. This document, as holy as it seems to be to many Americans is a living, breathing entity. It’s supposed to work that way.

Not for nothing, I wonder how many Americans know what the 27th amendment is. I’ll tell you. It was added in 1992 and it delays laws affecting Congressional salary from taking effect until after the next election of representatives. The amendment was proposed in 1789 and took 202 years seven months and twelve days to be ratified, according to Wiki. 

The 27th amendment became the project of a Texas undergraduate, who wrote a paper on it in 1982. He got a C grade for the paper, but began a letter-writing campaign to the state legislatures. Well, according to Wiki, anyway. The rest, as they say, is history. 

In relating the circumstances of the ratification of the 27th amendment, I don’t mean to suggest that the American constitution is not a serious document, that it should not be valued or respected. I do mean to point out that it is a tool that should serve the citizens of the country, and not a document that should be worshipped and revered, and held up as some unalterable ideal.

I fear that was a long digression. I hope it was of interest… It interested me.

The right to bear arms is important to my American friend, and to a lot of his countrymen. They still feel that driving out the British was a turning point in their history, and it undoubtedly was. It took a will and an army to do it. Only ninety years later, they were turning their guns on each other, and America had two armies, not one. But civil war is virtually universal. 

The right to bear arms, the second amendment, was ratified in 1791, when the infant nation was less than fifteen years old, when it didn’t yet know what it was or what it would become. The British were fresh in the collective memory of the Americans, when they needed to know that they could still fight off oppressive rule. They did not yet feel entirely confident in their hard won freedom.

The President of the United States of America, whoever he has been (and he has always been ‘He’) is referred to by his countrymen as ‘The Leader of the Free World’. Who do these gun carrying men and women of America think is going to oppress them? Who do they think they must do battle with? They talk about The American Dream, but they do not seem to believe in it. They won the battle two hundred and forty years ago. If there is an attempt to oppress them in the future, the right to bear arms, one gun at a time, one person at a time will not help them. If there is an attempt to oppress them, to take their country from them, to impose rule on them, to tax them and write their laws… Isn’t that what their defence budget is for? If they live in fear that their own government will turn against them, they’re fools. Their own government already has all the power it wants or needs and is wielding that power. If the government wanted to turn on its people… Well… there’s that defence budget again.

Of course, the single biggest reason that most Americans give in defence of the second amendment is self-protection. They want to carry guns to be safe. My friend honestly believes that he is as safe in range of his guns as he is anywhere on the planet. He might be right, in his particular case, but he is rare.

The wording of the Second Amendment is interesting, because it refers specifically to the militia. It does not expressly suggest the individual right to carry and bear arms for self-protection. Of course, I'm not an American, a lawyer or an expert on this or any other constitution.

My problem is, the evidence does not suggest that Americans are safer because of the right to bear arms. If they were safer, stories of mass shootings would be very, very different. We would not hear about the deaths and injuries of innocent people in schools and malls and other public places. We would hear about the deaths of the criminals. We would hear about the responsible gun owners who were able to shoot the culprits before they could murder and maim their friends and neighbours and countrymen. We would hear about the heroes and how their legally obtained guns protected the innocent.

Those stories are very rare.

445 people were killed and 1300 injured in 354 mass shootings over 336 days this year.
30,000 Americans die every year from gunshot wounds.
10,000 of those deaths are homicides.

75,000 gunshot wounds are treated in American hospitals every year. 

Addendum: This morning's newspapers report that the shooting in San Bernardino California is being investigated as an act of terrorism in sympathy with ISIL.

Thursday 3 December 2015

San Bernardino Mass Shooting

There has been another mass shooting in America. You will all have heard, by now about the attack in San Bernardino, California where fourteen people were killed, and about the same again were injured. You might not know that it was the second mass shooting in the USA that day.

You might not know that in the 336 days that have passed so far this year there have been 355 mass shootings in the USA, where a shooting qualifies if there are four victims or more.

Since January 1st 2015, there have been 460 deaths and around 1300 injuries as a result of those shootings.

Of those 355 shootings, forty-five occurred in schools. There has been an average of one mass shooting in a school every week of this past year in America.
UK Business Insider reports San Bernardino shooting

President Obama spoke after the San Bernardino shooting:

The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.

We should come together on a bipartisan basis at every level to make these rare as opposed to normal

I think he’s right, but the American people have failed to act in the past. We all remember the horror of Columbine, and that was way back in 1999. The first mass school shooting in the USA was in 1966 in Austin Texas where seventeen people were shot dead and thirty-one injured at the university.

Of course, America is not the only place in the World that knows this phenomenon. There have been three mass shootings in the UK since 1987, about one per decade.

In 1987, sixteen people were killed and fifteen injured in Hungerford. In 2010, twelve people were shot and killed and eleven were injured in Cumbria. And in 1996, the UK suffered its only school shooting, in Dunblane, where eighteen people died and fifteen were injured.

Dunblane came as a terrible, horrible shock, for the country, but also for me, personally. I was at the university that was local to Dunblane, and I spent time there when friends of mine shared a student house in the village. I knew it pretty well. When the shooting occurred, the older dort was also in her first year of school. When the news aired, I sat stunned for a few minutes, and then I gathered myself together and went to stand outside the school gates until it was time to collect the dort. I have never been so relieved to see anyone in my entire life.

People reacted strongly to Dunblane; they reacted with the Snowdrop Petition. There was a groundswell of opinion, and politics hit the grassroots. We were united, and action followed. Parliament under John Major, leading a Conservative government, passed two firearms amendment acts in 1997, banning the ownership of handguns. The first act didn’t include .22 calibre single-shot handguns, but the second act rectified this omission.

Gun control began, in earnest, in the UK after World War I, when soldiers were bringing firearms home from the front, and we have never looked back. Gun control is not only desirable it is entirely possible. We proved it in 1997, in the UK, with the Snowdrop Petition, and the Australians proved it in 1996 after the Port Arthur Massacre. After the the Sydney Hostage Crisis in 2014, Australia amended its gun laws once more.

Thirty thousand people a year are killed by guns in the USA, of them, about ten thousand are homicides. About seventy-five thousand gunshot wounds are treated in American hospitals every year. There might be another blog entirely devoted to the lowered cost of healthcare in the USA in the event of those numbers dropping dramatically… but I digress.

In the past fifteen years, UK gun murders have not exceeded a hundred in any given year, and average around fifty-eight deaths per year.

Total casualties for the United States in the first Iraq War numbered 146. The UK lost forty-seven. The war ran for seven months. For every British hero killed in the first Iraq War, another Britain was murdered with a gun on his own soil. For the sake of comparison, while those 146 American heroes died for their country, more than 5,800 Americans murdered Americans with guns at home, and a further 11,700 died at the end of the barrel of a gun by accident or suicide or for other reasons not related to murder. For every American hero who died in that war forty were murdered at home with guns.

We are all afraid of something. We all take risks every day, and we measure those risks. Right now, the Americans, like much of the Western World, appear to be in fear of Islam, and, in particular of the terrorists they think they see everywhere. 

Terrorists didn’t kill thirty thousand Americans on American soil last year; they did it to themselves and each other. Terrorists didn’t deliberately shoot and murder ten thousand Americans last year; Americans with guns in their hands did that. Terrorists didn’t even murder 460 Americans and injure 1300 more on American soil last year; American mass shooters did.

We are all afraid. We measure that fear, and we react. I wonder whether we should throw away the old yardsticks and find some new ones.

Addendum: As of Saturday 5th December, British newspapers are reporting that the San Bernardino mass shooting is being investigated as a terrorist attack in sympathy with ISIL.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

The Pirelli Calendar 2016

A big deal is being made about the Pirelli calendar this year. I’m not sure a year has passed, since I can remember, when a big deal wasn’t made of the Pirelli calendar. It is and has always been iconic. There are reasons for that, few of them good from a feminist viewpoint, but reasons nontheless.

Pirelli has always employed great photographers, extraordinary models and technicians, and all manner of resources to produce their annual corporate ad to its select trade customers. Of course, it was always leaked to the World. And, trust me, there’s nothing as effective as free publicity. I’ve worked in advertising and ad space costs money. It costs a lot of money. Pirelli got it right when they decided to make a calendar, create a buzz and get all that publicity for significantly less than a corporate ad buy would have cost.

They have used fancy locations, sex and talent to impress. It has been this way for forty of the last fifty years. The oil crisis in the mid-seventies put a dent in it, but the calendar was resurrected in the ‘80s and has been going strong ever since.

Terence Donovan, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon and Mario Testino have all shot the calendar.

This year, Annie Leibovitz is the photographer.

This is considered a coup for women, and an opportunity for a feminist approach. And, as a feminist, I’m all for that. Huzzah! and Brava!

Annie Leibovitz has shot the calendar before, of course. She photographed Laetitia Casta fifteen years ago. 

The Pirelli calendar has always been about young, beautiful women, generally not wearing very much, because sex sells, and, as we all know, sex sells cars, and cars need tires. Laetitia Casta was twenty-two when she posed, mostly naked, for the Pirelli calendar, and she was very beautiful. The photographs were modelled on classical works of art, which, I suppose added some grace and gravitas to the images, with my personal caveat that the art was made by white men fostered in a patriarchal society in the first instance.

I have seen a lot of fuss about the 2016 Pirelli calendar, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, I believe in her New York studio. She was, she claims, given a free hand to take the pictures she wanted to take of the women she wanted to photograph.

That should have been a great start, right there.

I wonder whether she went far enough, and I wonder whether the women in the photographs took her far enough.

As far as I can tell, all but two of the women either are American or live in America, despite the apparent ethnic diversity across the twelve. The majority of them appear to be Liebovitz’s New York neighbours. All but one of the women are in or connected to the arts, again, a world that LIebovitz understands. Yes, Mellody Hobson is listed as a businesswoman, but her business is Dreamworks, a film production company. The exception is the sportswoman Serena Williams, whose sideline is, of course, fashion. She’s worked with various sportswear companies to design her own lines, and has her own label ‘Aneres’. She’s also a consummate model, having appeared on the April 2015 cover of Vogue magazine.

The full line-up is writer Fran Lebowitz; musician and performer Yoko Ono; businesswoman Mellody Hobson; actress and writer Tavi Gevinson, who started her career as a fashion blogger; tennis champion and fashion designer Serena Williams; comedian Amy Schumer; actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen; model Natalia Vodianova; Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy; art collector Agnes Gund with her granddaughter Sadie Rain Hope-Gund; film director Ava DuVernay; Iranian visual artist and New York resident, Shirin Neshat, and singer Patti Smith.

Perhaps Annie Leibovitz wanted to take photographs of these women because she knows them and admires them, and perhaps it is wrong of me to question that. These are all accomplished women in their fields, and I applaud them. They are also uncommonly beautiful, and their beauty is made the very best of. They are not representative of women in any way that is very real to me. They are accomplished, successful, famous, wealthy, talented, and, for the most part, at least at this point in their lives, privileged. They are a rare breed.

A studio shot of me
by James K Barnett
Photographers always want to get the best images, of course they do, and there is a particular problem with portraiture. The sitter is also invested in the process, and we are all vain. We all want to be seen in the best possible light.

Lighting is important to photographers; they use it to the sitter’s advantage. They can use it to add more reality or less. They can use it to show every experience on a person’s face, or to iron things out and make the subject look simply radiant. I know which I prefer when I’m being photographed.

Annie Leibovitz also had other resources at her fingertips for the Pirelli calendar shoot for 2016. She had the skills of Vanity Fair magazine’s style director and senior photography producer on hand.

These dozen or so undoubtedly wonderful women were put through hair and make-up, and were dressed just as any group of models for any Pirelli calendar might have been. It didn’t matter that they weren’t nubile and half-naked, they were treated exactly as if they were. They were treated as product. They had to appear at their best. They had to look just so. They had to have their hair flounced and their make-up touched up, and they had to pose for the camera.

And, what’s more they did it. Who knows, they probably even enjoyed it.

Many of the extraordinary women in this calendar are wearing clothes designed to make women look wonderful and feel uncomfortable. Heels are high, angles are flattering, naked legs are shining and flawless. Yoko Ono’s legs, as beautiful as they are, are visible up to her hips. Yao Chen is looking wistfully into the distance as an off-camera wind machine teases her hair out. Amy Schmuer is naked, but for a tiny pair of knickers and fuck-me shoes. OK, I get this. I know why Schmuer has taken this picture this way; it’s part of her schtick, and good for her. It could backfire when you remember the history of this product and its customer, but I admire the woman, and I give her credit.  Serena Williams has gone the naked route, too, in sports knickers, rear view, and there’s that bloody wind-machine again.

In my opinion, one of the best pictures is of Patti Smith, tough, resolute. But, again with the wind-machine, and why does she appear to be undressing, teasing the buttons on her waistcoat? Why the nod to the nudity that the calendar’s renowned for? Why the reference? Patti doesn’t need it.

If Pirelli wanted something different, I guess they got it. If Pirelli’s customers were looking forward to something for the wank-bank, they’re going to be disappointed. 

The 'Naked Selfie' How I really look.
Do these pictures show women in a new light? I don't think they do. And, honestly, I didn’t expect that they would. Did these dozen or so women want to be shown in a new light? Politically, for the sake of feminism, some of them probably did. For themselves, for posterity, for their vanity, of course not. Just like you and me, these women wanted Annie Leibovitz to take beautiful photographs of them looking as good as they could ever look on the day they were in her studio.

Do I blame them? Of course I don’t. I imagine that’s probably what I’d want, too.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Sometimes good men do bad things

It’s something that we’ve all come to accept. We’ve all said, ‘nobody’s perfect’. We’ve all excused bad behaviour in grown adults who should know better. We do it because we know ourselves to be fallible and we need the same leeway from time to time. We need to be forgiven for our transgressions.

We need some kindness in our society. I believe that as much as anyone does. I also believe in taking responsibility.

Two of the things I hear all the time, especially from younger people, and all over the media are, ‘I just want to be loved for who I am’ and ‘I just want my opinion to count’. On the face of it these two sentences seem reasonable enough. But look a little deeper and it’s not hard to see that, actually, they’re not terribly reasonable; they’re excuses.

When I hear these things being said, or, more often, whined, I have answers for them, and, as kindly as I can, I try to say, ‘If you want to be loved for who you are, try to be the best you can be’ and ‘If you want your opinion to count then you’d better be able to defend it’.

Is that really so very harsh? In the end, we’ve all got to live in the real world, and without the chance to be better and without the encouragement to think smarter, how are we ever going to survive?

So, sometimes good men do bad things. If that’s the case, then tell me, how are we supposed to define bad men?

Once upon a time, we could tell that a bad man was bad by his actions. We could tell that he was bad because he lied and cheated, because he was disloyal and cruel. If good men do bad things then are we to expect to endure betrayal from them too?

If good men sometimes do bad things, where do we draw the line? Do we forgive the first stupid mistake? Well, of course we do. If a good man makes the same mistakes over and over again, then is he still a good man? If a good man never learns to tell the truth, when do we stop calling him a good man? If a good man never takes responsibility for his actions, but always makes the excuse that good men sometimes do bad things, is he really a good man?

Author photo by James K Barnett
If a good man doesn’t learn from his mistakes, doesn’t make amends, isn’t remorseful is he truly a good man? If a good man always has some excuse for his behaviour, if he turns the tables and blames everything else including circumstances, if he blames his victims is he a good man? 

The further we can look into the past, the more clearly we can see the future. We can’t always know whether a man is good at the outset, but time should make a difference. Some people do not change. Of course we all make mistakes, but good men grow and good men change, and good men accept responsibility, make amends, show remorse and move on.

When a good man doesn't do those things, his bad actions are not aberrations they are evidence of his character. That is when we have to make up our minds about a man. Sometimes good men do bad things. Some men are just plain bad.