Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Tuesday 16 February 2016

From Each according to his Ability, to Each according to his Need

Yes, that’s socialism, and you all know that I’m a socialist. I’m probably what a lot of Americans would refer to as a Liberal Intellectual, but I’d add Socialist Feminist to that.

It’s a mouthful, isn’t it?

It makes me sound like an idealist, too, and I suppose that I am, but not necessarily in the way that you think.

More than I believe in anything else, I believe in being responsible. And, like charity, responsibility begins at home. I believe that the first person we need to be responsible for is ourself. I believe strongly that the first thing we must do is admit to our failures and our mistakes. I believe strongly in honesty.

Because who could resist a portrait of
Karl Marx
You’ll all remember from each according to his ability, to each according to his need from studying Karl Marx, or from not studying him, but simply from knowing the little we all know about Communism, but the fact is that few of us know very much, and we all know just enough to be ignorant.

This idea is older than memory. It is borrowed from the New Testament. The idea of community, of shared responsibility, of this kind of socialism can be found in Acts of the Apostles 4, 32-35:

32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

The French utopian √Čtienne-Gabriel Morelly took up the idea in 1775 when he outlined his ideas for his Code of Nature, which included:

Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws.

In 1851, the socialist, Louis Blanc also adopted the idea, and was among the first to use the word ‘capitalism’, in this particular context:

...what i call 'capitalism' that is to say the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others.

Redistribution of wealth is something that we all live with, even in the Capitalist society that we all live in and subscribe to, and it has to be a good thing. It surely behoves us to look after the least of us, to ensure that our children are cared for and educated, that our sick are hospitalised and that our old are comfortable.

You know that I’m going somewhere with this, don’t you?

This is my first blog of the week, so you know that I’m going to refer to a news article that I read in the weekend papers.

The article I read was about social housing. I’m in favour of social housing. I never lived in a council house, but I know people who have. As a child, I did live in tied housing. My father was allocated housing as part remuneration for his job. While he was in that job our housing was secure at a stipulated rent. The houses weren’t furnished, but they were maintained. My parents were also allowed to buy their home under a similar scheme to the council house sales scheme in the late eighties.

As an adult, I haven’t lived in council housing, but I have rented privately. Again, I know people who have been in the unfortunate position of having to rely on social housing.

Capitalism, by its very nature, creates an economic system that is cyclical. There are boom times and there are depressions. During those times of depression, there are large increases in unemployment, and where there is unemployment there is poverty. Of course there is never a time of full employment. The latest figures, June to August 2015, show unemployment at about 1.8 million and falling in the UK. 

But unemployment isn’t the only thing responsible for poverty. According to the Poverty and Social Exclusion Research team 45% of people in the UK live in households that could not pay an unexpected expense, and 35% struggle to make ends meet. There’s plenty of poverty out there. The minimum wage keeps a lot of families on the poverty line, the cost of living is high with housing a big part of that, and the standard of living is dropping.

Some would argue that social housing is as important as it has ever been. Families need homes, and the poorest families need the most help. It’s tough to argue any of that.

The minimum wage is currently about £12,000 per year. Assuming that a young couple are living together and that both are working full-time at the minimum wage, that’s £24,000 between them. The average cost of a two bed flat in the town where I live is £950 per month. So one entire income must be reserved for rent. The average cost of full-time childcare for a toddler in the UK is £450 per month. So, this couple could not afford to have a child and continue to maintain two full-time incomes and their home. If they happened to live in Southwark, their rent would be £1700 per month, and they wouldn’t stand a chance.

What, then, of the 58 year old single woman, earning £55,000 a year, who is only paying £650 per month for her flat in Bloomsbury, Central London? She’s been renting her flat from social housing for six years. She doesn’t save. Private rents in her area are £2,000 per month. She could afford to pay it. She would be a single person, responsible only for herself with earnings after rent of over £30,000 per year.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

The point is that there are plans afoot to cap the amount that council tenants can earn before their rents go up in line with the private rental market.

I am a socialist, but part of the point of being a socialist is that we believe in personal responsibility. Part of the point is that we contribute when we are able.

Social housing must be available for those who need it, and there should probably be more of it. Of course, more social housing would be available if those who no longer needed it gave it up when their circumstances improved.

Someone close to me once needed and secured social housing. He worked hard, saved, did better, and, when he was able, he bought his own home. It was a struggle, and his mortgage payments were significantly more than his council rent, but he saw social housing as a stepping stone not a lifestyle choice. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

There will always be people who need continued help and support, and I want to support those people on a longterm basis. 

A couple was cited in the article. They earn £56,000 between them, and pay only £550 per month rent. To rent privately in their area would cost around £1700 per month, and they could afford it, but they have chosen to stay in their council flat. Of course they would be less well off if they rented privately or bought, but how many of their neighbours, friends and co-workers earn less than they do, but find a way to pay those rents? They say they want to remain in their community and they say they value their friends and neighbours, and yet they set themselves apart from them by doing what they are doing. They only want to stay in their community if they can maintain their lifestyle at a cost to the rest of us, and some of that cost falls on the poorest. All the time they remain in their social housing flat they are depriving someone who has a greater need. They are not taking responsibility for themselves and they are not contributing. They are appalled that their rent could rise. If it did, that money might be used for more social housing. They got the help they needed when they needed it; why should they deprive others of that help now that they are in a secure financial position?

The problem with socialism is that it makes these kinds of people feel entitled. If they were ever taught humility, they have long since forgotten what it is to be humble.

Being given the use of something doesn’t mean it belongs to you.

Social housing is about the loan of a home, and, like anything else that is on loan, when you no longer need it, you hand it back in the condition that it was loaned to you. Just because it was loaned by the council and not an individual doesn’t change the rules. Where is the humility and the gratitude? We are lucky to live in a society in which there is the opportunity for us to care for each other and to be cared for by each other. This can only happen when people understand responsibility.

There should be no need to cap the amount that council tenants earn and then raise their rents to match the private rental market. If we all learnt a bit of responsibility, council tenants would take it upon themselves to find alternative accommodation when their finances allowed it and simply hand back the keys to their social housing properties with smiles on their faces and songs in their hearts.

These might not be my favourite people to hate. In the end, the financial gains from raising council rents will be small, and there are very much bigger fish to fry when it comes to social injustice. Let’s go after the corporations for massive tax evasion, shall we? That would be a decent step in the right direction, and would more than fulfil the main tenet of Socialism that I outlined so painstakingly at the start of this blog.

I can’t help feeling a certain amount of contempt for these people, though. They can’t have their cake and eat it. Either they’re socialists, in which case they should contribute to the system when they can, since they’ve been so content to reap its benefits; or, they’re capitalist, in which case they had no business applying for social housing in the first place, since doing so clearly flies in the face of everything they believe.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Six Degrees of Separation… by Accident

OK, in this particular case, not quite six degrees.

Once in a while, I’m reminded of someone from my distant past, someone from school or university, and I wonder whatever might have happened to him or her. It’s often difficult to find those people now, especially the women. Time moves on; it’s three decades since I left university for goodness sake.

Nevertheless, we have the internet, so I always do a quick google search, just, you know, out of curiosity.

Last evening, sitting around, watching television and catching up with each other, the husband, the dort and I were talking about names. There is some confusion about our names; it’s something I’ve talked about before.

You all know that I’ve never felt very comfortable with my given name, and that I generally go by Nik. This confuses people. It confuses them because it’s not a standard feminine abbreviation, and there are still people who insist on calling me Nicky (or is it Nikki?). Some of those people get away with it, others I gently correct. Formally, I occasionally use Nicola, and overseas, too, but otherwise, only members of my very immediate family ever refer to me by that name.

I should probably have changed my name a very long time ago; I have thought of it often.

I deed-polled my surname, and both of my children chose to deed-poll theirs. They don’t have the names that they were born with. It was a family thing, and it didn’t change anything or cause stress or anxiety when it happened.

The dort also goes by a first name that isn’t her given name, although it is a recognised first name. This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and it’s very common in my family. Neither of my parents called each other by their given names, and none of my mother’s siblings used their given names. Several of my father’s relatives were also known by names that didn’t appear on their birth certificates. I have a brother who doesn’t use his given name, either… It rather makes me wonder how I got stuck with mine.

I mentioned that the dort might change her given name, by deed poll to the name that she goes by, but she’s perfectly content to leave things as they are. Questions are raised from time to time, but she says that it’s easier than having to produce additional proofs of identity every time she fills in a form, and, of course, she’s right.

We started to talk about what I might change my name to. It’s a tricky business, choosing a name, and many were mooted, but nothing stuck. The name I would choose for myself is, apparently, the name of the dullest woman on Earth. I rather like that. I rather hope that it might mean, in person, I’d confound expectations.

The dort came up with a string of options, and I only halted when she landed on Vivien.

I have no special fondness for the name Vivien, and it’s probably not one I would have come up with on my own, except that when the dort mentioned it I remembered something.

I remembered a girl that I was at school with. She was extraordinarily beautiful, and, although I didn’t know her well, I remember her telling me once that her name, in full, meant lovely lily, little bay. It sounded rather romantic to me then, and I can’t help thinking that it still does.

There wasn’t a huge amount of ethnic diversity in the grammar school that I attended in Kent, except that, in a way, there was. De Cala, Vivien’s name, isn’t terribly Anglo-Saxon, is it? I imagine she must have been Spanish or Portuguese, but if I ever knew I’ve since forgotten. I do know that I went to school with one girl who was Polish and another who was Armenian. The girl who sat next to me in Chemistry was Iranian and the tall, striking blonde in my form was Icelandic. There were Smiths and Browns, but there was also a DuQuesne and an Adjentetti.

Anyway, I’m wandering horribly off the point.

I was reminded of Vivien De Cala, and of what she told me about her name, because the lily is meaningful to me.

I talked about the name and it’s meaning, and I talked about the beautiful girl I was at school with. The dort suggested I google her, and so I did; who knows, I might have anyway. I didn’t hold out much hope of finding her, because women of my generation married, and when we married we took our husbands’ names.

Douglas Booth and his Wiki page
Google search did, however, come up with a hit for a woman called Vivien de Cala. There wasn't a photograph, and even if there were I haven’t seen the girl I was at school with for thirty-five years, so I don’t know whether I’d recognise her.

Vivien de Cala’s name popped up on a Wikipedia page… it popped up on somebody else’s Wikipedia page, because if this is the girl I was at school with then she’s a mother now, and she’s the mother of somebody who has made a name for himself. Given how beautiful this young man is, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the girl I was at school with did happen to be his mother, but what a very strange person to be separated from by a single degree of Kevin Bacon.

I might, just might have been at school with Douglas Booth’s mum… If her name had been Jane Smith or even Alison Tate, I’d be a little less confident, but how many women do you suppose there are out there with a name that translates as lovely lily, little bay.

Friday 12 February 2016

Little Things that Mean a Lot

I don’t think of myself as a terribly materialistic person, or an acquisitive one, either.

I do like shoes, but I also have a pair of boots that I bought more than three decades ago, and I still wear them. I don’t change my clothes on a seasonal basis, either. I’ve got favourites that I’ve been wearing for decades, and a smaller wardrobe than the husband. I like jewellery and art, too, but that’s not spending, that’s simply a transfer of wealth. 

We all have little things, though, don’t we?

I have little things.

I have pens, for example. I don’t like cheap pens. Cheap pens are horrible to use and they’re disposable, so we lend them and lose them and treat them with little or no regard. Over the years I have bought a number of good pens. I keep one in my handbag, another on my desk and one on my bedside table. I have five in total and I know where all of them are at any given time. I look after them. I look after them because I like them as tools, but also because I know what they cost and I value them.

As a consequence of buying and using good pens, I haven’t bought a cheap pen for a number of years, and so my over all outlay on pens is now virtually zero. Of course, I do have to buy refills for my good pens from time to time, but a refill still lasts significantly longer than a cheap pen, not least because I won’t lose it, break it or give it away. The upside is that I always have a beautiful, reliable writing tool… always! I have five of them and one of them lives in my handbag, so I’m covered.

I generally don’t become very attached to objects. Twice, I have left everything behind; I have shut the door on a home and left, more-or-less, in the clothes on my back. It is hugely liberating. I might not recommend it, because I guess it takes a particular type of person to have the nerve to walk away from the trappings of a life, but I’m certainly glad that I was able to do it when push came to shove. I didn’t look back on either occasion, and both experiences taught me valuable lessons, about myself and about life.

There’s always something, though… There are always one or two objects that matter. Some things matter because they are familiar, some because of associations, some because they have been around for a long time… Some for reasons that are simply beyond explanation. But, there’s always something that matters.

Once in a while, in one of those quick-fire interviews, a celebrity might be asked what possession he would rescue from a burning building. I don’t have many things that would fit into that category, and in the end, I guess there isn’t anything that I honestly couldn’t live without if the need arose.

I’m all about the people I love… Trust me when I tell you that losing a person is the only time for grief. That’s when hearts are broken.

A big occasion, but the dress was a decade old and in my
bag was a good pen and that object
There are a couple of objects that I carry everywhere with me. One of those objects was bought for me by the husband a decade or more ago. We were in Paris and it was a small but extravagant and useful gift. I loved it then and I love it now.

Several days ago, I lost that object. We were at home, and it was one of those strange occasions when one moment I had the object and the next it was gone. In the first minutes I took no notice, because I knew it had to be in the vicinity of where I was sitting in the drawing room. It couldn’t simply have disappeared. An hour passed and I felt the need to look around for it. I couldn’t see it.

Before I went to bed that night, I looked for it for several minutes, but couldn’t find it. It was late and the drawing room isn’t terribly well-lit, so I decided to look again in the morning. The object is small, but not perishable, so I decided that it would turn up.

The husband was first up the next morning and he looked for it without success. I looked for it too.

That little object became our main topic of conversation over the following days. I dragged out all the furniture, lifted the rug, checked all of my clothes and began to retrace my steps and check the rest of the house. 

The husband and I went over and over what I had been doing that evening when I had lost it. We talked about where we had been and what we had been doing. We talked about where our pets had been… We talked endlessly.

I began to fret.

I had been carrying my useful little souvenir of Paris for a long time. I used it every day. It went into every pocket and every handbag and was my constant companion. It was strange not to have it, not to use it. I didn’t like that it was missing, even though I knew that it had to be in the house, in the drawing room, somewhere close to where I always sit when I’m in that room.

At this time of the year, it is my custom to build a fire in the stove before we settle in for the evening… At least on the evenings when we spend some time together in the drawing room. I don’t know why the stove is my job, but since we put it in, I have always tended to it, except when the dort’s boyff is with us, in which case, he builds the fire.

This evening, I poured myself a glass of wine and prepped the fire. I made faggots out of newspaper and I reached a hand into the bag of kindling that sits to one side of the hearth. I had to dig deep for the last handful of wood chips because the bag was almost empty. I put the kindling on top of the faggots and reached in again, thinking there was one last piece of wood in the bottom of the bag, even though it seemed too small, too hard and too heavy. It was elusive, too, sliding around the bottom of the bag as I tried to scoop it up.

Then I got my hand around it, and I smiled. 

I had found it.

I knew before I pulled my hand out of the kindling bag to take a look that I had finally found what had been missing for almost a week. I cannot tell you how pleased I was.

I don’t know how it got there, except that the bag of kindling stands on the floor behind and to the left of the table that stands at my elbow as I sit in my usual place on the sofa in the drawing room. I can only assume that I fumbled as I placed the object on the table and that, somehow, it bounced or fell into the bag of kindling. Being small and heavy, it fell between the wood chips to the bottom of the bag, and I only found it when the kindling was used up.

It’s a small thing, but it was bought with love and I use it every day. I missed it when it wasn’t to hand, I moved everything within several feet of its last known location to find it, and I spent valuable time thinking about it.

Sometimes, objects have meaning far beyond their value or usefulness, sometimes they have associations to time and place and to people, and that’s OK.

I wouldn’t want to be bogged down by a lot of stuff. I hate getting to the point at which I feel that stuff is owning me rather than the other way around (remind me to tell you about the condiment shelf one of these days), but souvenirs, mementos, reminders… they’re rather lovely things, and I was very happy to be reunited with one of mine.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Writing Software

Bibbling through my Twitter feed yesterday, I came across something extraordinary, so I thought I’d write about it.

Someone had retweeted something that I didn’t quite understand, so I went to the original conversation and ended up reading through lots of comments from lots of writers about tools, and in particular apps that they use when they're working.

I’ve talked about my writing process before. It involves sitting in front of a black screen with a white page on it, and writing. I happen to use Pages, because that’s what my Mac comes with. I choose fonts and layouts according to the genre I’m writing in, but I like the page to look the way it will look in its final incarnation, more-or-less. 

There are exceptions to this. If I’m writing in the first person, for example, I might choose a font to suit a character; that font is often Courier. If I’m writing fantasy, I often use a font with a serif, and for SF, sans serif. I never use line breaks for paragraphing, but always indent, and I always use page breaks for chapters. You get the idea.

I don’t use word processing packages, except for Final Draft, which I use when scripting in collaboration with the husband. I also don’t use software designed to help me to write. I don’t need help to write. I have a process that I’ve developed over time. When I write, I write. I use displacement activities, as I’m sure we all do, and sometimes I just sit and think. I also meet my deadlines. I just do.

I know that other writers do use software packages and apps to help them in various ways, and I know there are some good ones on the market. They use things that help them with practicalities like formatting. There are bits of software that calculate numbers of words and paragraphs, reading ages of the material a writer is producing, and even whether a writer might overuse a word or phrase. Some of this stuff is useful or reassuring to writers. That’s fine. I have no problem with any of it. I don’t use this kind of software, but I do understand why writers like to have it.

There are also apps that keep writers motivated.

I don’t suffer from writer’s block, or at least I never have yet. When it’s time to write, I sit down and I write. If something needs to be done then I do it. Sometimes, it’s tough. Sometimes, I struggle. I believe that’s true of anyone doing anything. Sometimes, it’s a struggle just to get out of bed in the morning.

I’m lucky. I have a job that I love. I’m extraordinarily lucky to share my life with someone who understands what I do. Sometimes, I think that’s the biggest difference between the husband and me, and other writers. We have each other; most writers are doing this alone.

Anyway, my point was that there is software and there are apps that are designed to keep a writer in his seat, writing. Of course, none of them guarantee the quality of the words.
The LA Times reviews Write or Die

Write or Die has been around for a while. The idea is that the writer sets a timeframe and word count. Then she chooses how severe the program will be. If she proceeds gently, the program will simply remind her to keep typing. In regular mode, the program will sound an alarm when the writer stops typing, until the keyboard is active again. In severe mode, however, the program will begin to delete what has already been typed if the writer doesn’t add more words.

Of course, any writer worth his salt will find cheats for the system, typing in nonsense, or adding buffer material to the end of a piece of work so that when deletion begins none of the good stuff is wasted. But who needs that kind of pressure? Well... It turns out that some people like the pressure.

Flowstate is the latest app of this kind, and it too offers timed writing sessions. Text is deleted automatically if a writer’s hands are still for more than seven seconds. SEVEN SECONDS!

It sounds like torture to me.

A lot of people think they can write, and a lot of people think they can be writers, and for some people it’s true. Some of us are writers. I wonder what it is about a person that prevents him from doing what he wants to do and what he is fit for. I wonder what it is about a person that makes him feel the need for this kind of punishment.

Writing was never meant to be easy. No creative pursuit is meant to be easy, but I simply don’t understand the addition of this kind of masochism. It seems miserable to me, and it seems wasteful. What of the words that are lost in this process? What if for half an hour of a forty minute session the words flow and are beautiful and then are lost because the writing ends there, and the final ten minutes are redundant?

Of course, I speak only for myself

I have often had conversations with the husband about carrots and sticks. Most of us need a little of each in our lives to work well and to thrive. Some people need more carrots and some more sticks. When it comes to nurturing and encouraging and getting the best out of people, some of us are better at it than others, and some of us are natural wielders of sticks and some better at offering carrots.

As a writer, I've been on the receiving end of my share of rejection, and perhaps that's why I tend to be a carrot person. I offer encouragement when it’s needed and I praise when a job is well-done. Others shout, believing that to be motivation, and then they nitpick when a job is finished.

If you’re a writer who needs a stick then by all means try Write or Die or Flowstate, because they might just help you to succeed. Who knows, this kind of punishment might even prepare you for the inevitable rejection to come.

I think I’ll stick to my black screen and my white page, and I’ll keep thinking pleasant thoughts and losing myself in the words.

We all have a process, and it might take a little time to work out what that process is, but whatever it is there’s always another weapon in the armoury, and if one of these apps becomes your weapon of choice, I'm not going to be the person that argues with that.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

It’s Not What You Know It’s Who You Know - Brooklyn Beckham Shoots for Burberry

Personally, I've never suffered from nepotism.

There are times when I wish that I had.

The husband always considered it to be a very dirty word, so he decided very early in my career that he was never going to talk about me to editors or publishers, or very much at all. He kept his word.

Ironically, he was instrumental in furthering the careers of many writers and artists, and of other people too. He got kids work experience and he forwarded the names of various people who approached him, putting a word in for those he met along the way, liked and believed to be talented.

He liked me, too, and he thought I was talented, but I was his lover and then his wife, and for him nepotism was and is a dirty word. If I’d been an acquaintance, a colleague or a friend, I would have benefited from knowing the husband. In the end, not only did I not benefit, I regularly gave my resources, time, skills and abilities for free in the furtherance of his career and to improve product that he was associated with, so companies got my services for free, too.

No, this is not me being bitter. If nothing else, I had a long and valuable apprenticeship, but I also got to enjoy working without many of the pressures that other writers have.

A couple of years ago, it crossed my mind that if anything happened to the husband, I would not be able to work, and it seemed ludicrous. The husband and I had a conversation… or three. I stood up for myself, and, now, the husband does talk about me, and he does acknowledge my skills and some of the work that I’ve done over the years. 

I did also get a toe-hold in the industry on my own, eventually. I submitted a novel for the Mslexia prize and took a runner-up spot. And it was I, and not the husband, who first secured the services of an agent. I didn’t think nepotism was a dirty word when I subsequently introduced her to the husband and he was also signed up with the agency.

The thing is, I always took his point, and I was always content being a backroom person. I didn’t want the glory or the pressure of being out front, particularly when I was still raising our family. I wanted to work, but mostly on my own terms. I also lacked confidence, and, to some degree, having one writer in the family, especially one as hardworking as the husband, was more than enough.

Nepotism is uncomfortable, because it so often puts people in positions that they neither deserve nor are prepared or qualified for. There are exceptions to this rule, though.

Isn’t it natural, for example, that the husband should be drawn to a woman who shares some of his creativity? Isn’t it also natural that a brother should grow up with intimate knowledge of his family’s business? Or that a child might inherit his parent’s talent? We’ve all seen extraordinary dynasties over the centuries, of industrialists, inventors, artists, writers, actors and scientists: The Redgraves, the Fondas, The Amises, The McCarthys and Wainwrights; Iris Murdoch was married to John Bailey, and Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath.

Brooklyn Beckham behind his camera from an article inThe Guardian
Last week, it was announced that Burberry had hired Brooklyn Beckham to shoot their latest fragrance campaign. Brooklyn Beckham is, of course, the son of the footballer David Beckham and the dress designer Victoria Beckham. He is also a sixteen year old schoolboy.

Brooklyn Beckham might have a talent for photography; I couldn’t comment. I know that he doesn’t have a fully developed skill set in the craft, because he’s a sixteen year old boy. I also know that he isn’t experienced, because he’s a sixteen year old boy. Most photographers go to art schools and universities to learn their craft and then into studios as assistants and technicians to hone their skills. Brooklyn Beckham hasn’t had the opportunity or the time to do those things, not yet.

What Brooklyn Beckham does have is six million followers on instagram, because… well… he’s Brooklyn Beckham in a World where celebrity counts. 

What Brooklyn Beckham no doubt has when he is shooting for Burberry is a highly trained and experienced team of photographers and photographic assistants advising and working with him to take the pictures that Burberry needs for the campaign.

There has been an outcry in the media about Brooklyn Beckham being hired by Burberry to shoot their latest campaign, and if I was a photographer I think I’d probably be up in arms too. The fact is, though, this happens all the time in all the creative industries. Katie Price is invited to write books, Gemma Collins designs clothes, and every pop diva is responsible for a perfume… Except that Ms Price isn’t a writer, Ms Collins doesn’t, as far as I know, have a degree in fashion design, and your average celebrity chanteuse doesn’t have a highly developed nose.

Burberry made a business decision based not on Brooklyn Beckham’s talent, but on his popularity with young people. 

I’m not sure this is really nepotism at all. This is a celebrity endorsement.

Celebrity has a down side, and the down side to celebrity can be so extraordinarily damaging that I wouldn’t wish the kind of celebrity that the young Beckhams are stuck with on anyone, certainly not on a sixteen year old school boy.

If Brooklyn Beckham loses his following, if he trips and falls from the precipice that is modern celebrity by whatever means, and some of the falls we've seen have been utterly tragic, this foray into fashion photography won't save him. It will be business as usual at Burberry, who will go back to employing professional photographers for their shoots, and act as if nothing ever happened.

Most really talented photographers will work, and they’ll work steadily and make a living at the job they love to do. Some of them will be highly acclaimed and still be able to walk down the street unnoticed and certainly unaccosted. I’m confident that in most situations David Bailey, Mario Testino and Annie Leibowitz can still buy a coffee and read a paper without having to worry about being approached by the public. I wonder if Brooklyn Beckham will ever have that luxury.

Monday 8 February 2016

A Night Out with the Girls

OK.. Well, to begin with there were only two of us, but this was a rare event for me.

It’s been a long time, a very long time since I did this, and how times have changed.

It’s not that I’m anti-social, but I don’t really do crowds and I don’t really do strangers, and I have virtually no smalltalk.

I do like people, though… I really like people. People don’t always like me. They often find me a bit odd and confusing. I think that’s to do with my interest, my engagement with almost any subject, and I think it’s to do with my almost total lack of filters. I’ve tried to do something about these things as I’ve got older, and I’ve succeeded to some small degree, but I can still be a little daunting to strangers… I daunt people; I know that I do, and I try very hard not to.

Anyway, I’m not exactly a social butterfly, and I don’t know a lot of people, so the whole big night out thing isn’t something I ever really do, and it’s not something I’ve done since I left university… not really.

I had my kids in my twenties and big chunks of my life have been pretty complicated, and then there’s the husband. It’s worth remembering that we both work alone, from home, so we don’t, as other people do, have colleagues, and we don’t have a work place, and we don’t meet people in the general course of our lives. Add to that the fact that we work a lot, and you’ll begin to get the picture that we’re veritable hermits. Even the people we actively count as friends we don’t actually see on a regular basis. 

Frankly, when it comes to being sociable, we’re pretty pathetic.

I do, however, have one or two women friends. I see them mostly intermittently, but I do enjoy their company when I get to spend time with them, even though it tends to be infrequently.

One of those friends is single, and her social life is massively compromised because her work takes her all over the World. She’s never still, rarely home, and never in one place for long enough to meet anyone. She lives out of a suitcase, except that she lives about a mile from me. Keen to do better socially, to do something regular and normal, she asked if I’d go for a drink with her on Friday night. Of course, I agreed.

My friend chose a pub restaurant in a local village. I’ve eaten lunch there a few times and it’s very civilised. I quite expected that we’d buy drinks, perhaps exchange a few words with other drinkers at the bar. Find somewhere to sit down, have a convivial evening and probably meet some new people.

The '80s when going out meant meeting people
What I didn’t expect was largish groups of very young people, traipsing from the bar to the outside space every half an hour for a smoke. What I didn’t expect was standing room only. What I didn’t expect was backs turned, closed groups and no one to pass the time with. What I didn’t expect was girls in leather skirts and thigh boots hanging on skinny boys’ conversations. What I didn’t expect was to be the oldest person in the place by a couple of decades, particularly as we’d deliberately gone out of town and to a very up-market area.

I’m married, and I’m content. I don't have a lot of friends or acquaintances, because my life isn’t set up for that, but I’m perfectly happy. On the other hand, if I wanted to make friends or meet people, I’d assumed that I’d be able to do it. I assumed that my friend was making a sensible move when she invited me to the pub with her on a Friday night.

We perched at the end of a fully occupied table on a couple of stools that we managed to commandeer, drank a glass of wine each and talked about the situation. This clearly wasn’t a good way to meet people, but we weren’t ready to give up. There was another pub on the other side of the village green, so we wandered across to it, bought another glass of wine each, and managed to get a table by the door.

The situation wasn’t very different at the new location. Most of the patrons were couples and groups. They’d come out together and were sticking together. There was no room in their lives for anyone new. Casual social interaction doesn’t happen in pubs on the weekend anymore, at least not these pubs.

I’m pretty easy going… That’s not actually true. I’m moderately socially anxious. I overcome that, though. I simply remind myself that no one’s very good at meeting new people, but the worst that can happen is a rejection, so I smile and I speak anyway. A simple hello isn’t the end of the World. In a more formal situation, I’m fairly confident about sticking out my hand and giving someone my name.

I’ve been in rooms with John Noble, Sir Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon and been the first to step up and smile with my hand sticking out while others have shied away from contact, simply because they didn’t have the confidence. I can be bold or at least friendly when I feel there’s no harm in making an approach. I don’t remember an occasion when I wasn’t met with warmth.

Drinkers in a local pub on a Friday night in Kent can pretty well freeze a person out. I don’t think it’s deliberate, exactly, there simply was no opportunity to speak to anyone. Everyone was ensconced in an established social group and there was no room for interlopers. Besides, there were no groups that it would have been appropriate to interact with.

The internet is a wonderful thing. I approve of it. I use it all the time, for everything. I’m exploiting it now to get my thoughts across to you.

I wonder, though, how much it has changed how we interact socially. 

My friend and I discussed how we might strategise her social life, and we had to come to the conclusion that she needed the internet. It seems to be how single people organise their lives now.

Over the years, I made friends and met boyfriends through my social groups, by going out and through work, when I had a place of work. I met my husband through my brother. I met one boyfriend in a laundrette for goodness sake. Does that ever happen any more?

I met one good friend because we were in the same art class and another because she’s the wife of one of the husband’s friends. I met another through my sister-in-law. I still have a couple of friends from university. One of my women friends is the sister of a man I met in a pub, because we both happened to be regulars on the same quiet night, and I’m friends with him too. I particularly like a woman I met at a mutual friend’s birthday party and another who’s the wife of a writer I met at a convention. Some of these connections take a little effort, of course, but they have to be worth it.

Tinder and Grinder take no effort at all, and they’re based on appearance. And then, of course, there’s FaceBook and the other social networks that keep kids attached to the people that they would otherwise naturally shed and move on from as they make their way through their lives. But maybe there are other things, too. Maybe there are better ways to meet people our age, people that share our interests and our ideologies. I hope so, because I have a friend who is in want of a more fulfilling social life.

I expect to take part of this journey with her. It’s going to be interesting, and, who knows, maybe I’ll find some interesting people along the way too, maybe I’ll make a friend or two, because I’d bet my life there are an awful lot of people out there who’d be more than willing to share more of their lives with people like them and like my friend.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

How to Buy a Desk

I’ve been putting my office together for over a year, now.

2015 was a bit strange. The office was all set at the end of ’14, but not decorated. I had planned to decorate, and then life with all its stuff and things took over, so it didn’t happen. It is about to happen.

I’ve bought paint… Twice. I’ve switched out a bed for a sofa-bed and I’ve had a stove fitted. All good things.

My desk is actually an old table. It’s round and two leaves of the top fold down if I don’t want to use the entire surface. It would comfortably seat four for a meal, if it was used for its conventional purpose, and six if the diners were close friends. It’s a good and attractive table. I like it, but I decided that it was a little too large for my purposes.

The husband has a slightly smaller, square table in his office that I’ve always rather liked. Furniture is community property in our house, and it’s not uncommon for it to be moved around from room to room for all kinds of reasons. So, I wandered into the office with a cup of tea on Sunday and asked the husband about the table. 

I’m not quite sure why I expected a two minute conversation, because it never happens that way. I’m not sure how long the conversation actually lasted, but I do know it involved a careful study of his room and quite a lot of measuring.

By the time we’d finished, the room had undergone a fairly radical redesign.

The husband had decided that he’d like to move some furniture and add a new piece, if I was to have the little table, and then came the big one… The husband had decided he was in want of a new desk.
The husband, elbows comfortably on the old desk

The current desk has been in operation for about fifteen years. It’s seen a lot of use, he’s spent a great many hours sitting at it… I’m not sure I could or would want to work out just how many. But the husband decided it was time for a change, and he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to replace the old desk with.

So, yesterday, we went table hunting.

As a writer, I’m peripatetic. I have a writing room, of sorts, an office, and I use it, but it’s a room where all kinds of things happen. I call it my office, because it’s used almost exclusively by me, but it isn’t exclusively my writing room and it certainly isn’t the only place that I write. This is less true of the husband.

The husband’s office isn’t the only place that he works. If he needs to do research, he might watch something or read anywhere in the house, he might take handwritten notes wherever he happens to be, and we can talk work in the car, on a train, in restaurants… you name it. The husband writes almost exclusively in his office, and almost exclusively at his desk. The chair he sits at and the table he writes at are pretty important to him.

Did I mention that the husband had a pretty good idea what he wanted to replace his desk with?

Did I mention that we’re also not actually talking about a desk?

What the husband actually wanted was a table, and he didn’t want new.

We don’t buy a great deal of new furniture. We live in an old house and we buy a lot of pre-owned stuff, especially when it comes to cupboards, cabinets and tables. I’m a sucker for old chairs, too, and I’m lucky enough to have a good upholsterer working locally.

So, the husband knew the size and shape of table he wanted, but he also wanted something old.

You can’t just walk into an office supplier and pick out what you want when that’s what you want.

You could, of course, check out eBay, but with furniture it’s nice to see it, and to touch it.

Let me make it clear that we’re not talking about antiques here. The husband needs a good, solid, strong piece of furniture that will take daily use. He needs to be able to stand electronics on it, piles of books and other research materials, some of which might impact on its surface, dozens of beverages in the average week, and, of course, desk breakfasts and lunches most days. He really didn’t want anything precious that he would be afraid to mark or dink. He also didn’t want anything that would buckle under the weight, wobble at the joints or be uncomfortable to sit at. EBay wasn’t going to cut it.

I expected we might find a table in six months, or that it might take a year. It didn’t matter, we’d find a table when we found a table.

We don’t take holidays, but we do try very  hard to take time off on the first Monday of the month. It doesn’t happen every month, but we try. Yesterday, Tuesday, after a long run without a break, the husband declared that we were going to begin desk shopping. There are several places local to us where we begin this kind of search. So, we jumped in the car and drove to the first location.

Inside Hendersons.
See more on their FaceBook page
The shop in Rochester hasn’t been open for long, probably about a year, but we were one of its first customers and we return regularly. We always come home from Hendersons with something, often something small, but always something. The couple that runs the place has a good eye and they buy well; they’re also lovely to deal with. I wandered into the shop first, as something in the window had caught the husband’s eye.

As I walked into the shop, something caught my eye, too, and I turned. Inside the shop, the window display had been arranged on a table. It was gorgeous.

“I’ve found it!” I said as the husband walked through the door.

The tape measure duly came out, a chair was pulled up to it, so that the husband could check the sitting position, and we oohed and aahed for ten minutes.

We couldn’t quite believe that we had found the husband’s new writing desk, so we asked the owner not to sell the table for an hour while we thought about it, and went for a cup of coffee.

We drank our coffee and talked about the table, and another piece of furniture that the husband liked for his office. I decided what I wanted to pay, because Hendersons are always comfortable doing a deal, and we returned to the shop to make our purchases.

I thought that replacing the husband’s desk after fifteen years, thousands of comics, dozens of novels, several computer games and a movie would probably prove challenging, that it might take six months or a year to accomplish. It took an hour on a Tuesday morning. Go figure.