Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

Saturday 30 December 2017

I’m not impressed by my Yorkshire Puddings…

 Why would I be? I make them regularly. Having said that, I’m regularly disappointed by other people’s Yorkshire Puddings.

Often, people seem to take their cooking skills, or the lack thereof, for granted.

I cannot tell you how often people have been hugely impressed by the Yorkshires, which to me are simply my Yorkshires. My guests have expressed wonder at their size, their lightness, their crispness; to some, they appear to be the quintessence of Pudding.

When this happens, and it happens regularly, I simply pass on my Yorkshires recipe, which is hardly a recipe at all.

I’ve been making these puddings my entire adult life. I know not from whom I got the recipe, although I’m confident it was an older woman of my acquaintance when I was still very young.

My Yorkshires were being discussed in the week running up to Christmas. I was visiting my favourite boutique with the husband, and food became a topic of conversation. The shop is family owned and run, and the son is a friend of ours who has partaken of my puddings. He eulogised them to his father. The son has the recipe, but hasn’t used it yet.

I gave the recipe to the father. He is a grown man, distinguished by his snow-white hair and beard, and his fabulous grooming. I’m told that he’s also a very good cook. On the strength of his son’s recommendation, this lovely man used my Pudding recipe to accompany his seasonal meal… And later proclaimed that it had made his Christmas.

I feel that this is a grand claim, but it delights me that something so simple as a reliable Yorkshire Pudding recipe could revolutionise anyone’s Sunday or celebration lunch.

I’m not going to urge anyone to reproduce my Yorkshires, but I can tell you that this recipe is utterly foolproof; I sometimes wonder why there is more than one pudding recipe on the planet… I can only presume it’s because this kind of cooking is about family recipes and good instincts, and those things get handed on. I’m handing on this recipe, and for those of you who try it, I hope you enjoy the results.

Take a small vessel… I use my favourite tumbler.
Fill it first with plain flour
Fill it again with milk
Fill it, once more, with eggs

Whisk these ingredients with a good pinch of salt, and, if you like it, a dash of English mustard powder. I do this early in the day and let the batter sit.

Pour the batter into very hot pans with a good slosh of oil, lard or dripping in them.

Bake in a hot oven for anything up to half an hour.

A note of warning: If you put the shelf too high up in the oven, your Yorkshires, or at least mine, will stick to the oven’s ceiling. Smiles.

We like Yorkshire Puddings so much that we don’t just serve them with beef, we serve them with any roast dinner we happening to be making.

my latest batch of Yorkshire Puddings

Friday 29 December 2017

The Father of my Feminism

And the Corresponding Website
The very clued-up Dort bought me a copy of the fabulous Laura Bates’s ‘Everyday Sexism’ for Christmas, and I’ve been reading it.

This book should be mandatory. Everyone should read it.

Laura Bates isn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know; I’m a middle-aged woman with grown daughters of my own. But, her arguments are beautifully articulated, in her own words and the words of many other women, and she brought greater focus to my Feminism.

I have always been a feminist. I grew up in the ‘70s with the examples of women as diverse as Germaine Greer and Erin Pizzey, with the Greenham Common women, with the Women’s Liberation Movement, and even with the examples of women leaders like Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

This book helps me to understand why the older I get, the more Feminist I become, just as my observations of society at large and the financial straits of friends, family, neighbours and young people make me more Socialist the older I grow.

Early in her book, Laura Bates says that some women manage to cope with the nonsense the patriarchy shovels at them and even fight back, but the point is that no one should have to. She’s right, of course.

I count myself among those women. It isn’t about strength of character, and I am insecure about all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, but, the bottom line is that I do stand up for myself, both in individual situations with men, and when I speak out on my blog. I use my voice for myself, for my own good, but I like to think that I also do it for the young women coming behind me, who, I strongly believe, have an even harder time than the women of my generation have had.

Pops, taken maybe a dozen years ago at a family wedding
My father would probably never have called himself a Feminist, and, in some ways he was deeply flawed. I know that my relationship with him was sometimes complex, difficult and even unsatisfactory, to me, at least. I also remember what it was to be his child when I was simply that.

My father had five children, three of them girls. He was born before World War II, and was, in many ways, a product of his own times and upbringing. He was also the father who bathed us and put us to bed. He was the father who encouraged my endeavours and was proud of me. He was so proud that when I was reluctant to pick up my A level results at school, in person, he collected the envelope for me. He was the father who cooked meals, dried tears, kissed cuts and grazes, bought sanitary protection and administered analgesics for period pains. He was the father who treated me like his child.

It was my father that I ran to when another man, a neighbour, asked why a little boy was knitting. I was sitting at the top of the stairs with my cropped hair, in my shorts, fearfully upset that a man should mistake me for a boy when I clearly and resolutely identified as a girl, at the age of only four or five. It was my father who had taught me to knit. He also taught me to bleed the brakes on his car and make a temporary fan belt out a pair of tights. It was he who bought me my first record and my first Airfix kit, and it was he who discussed maths and science with me.

He wasn’t always perfect… He wasn’t ever perfect… It was natural, or, I suppose conditioned in me to want my father to think I was beautiful. I know that he did, despite him not saying so. He didn’t judge my appearance, my actions or my choices. He was delighted when I was his first child to go to university, despite being the fourth, and a girl.

He knew that I was smart, and he liked it. He knew that I needed a shoulder to cry on at times, and he was sympathetic. When I wanted to put a shelf up in my room, he showed me how, rather than doing it for me. His expectations of me were well-founded, realistic, cheerful.

Yes, he made gentle fun of me at times, but he also respected me when I stood my ground with him or with anybody.

As flawed, as imperfect as he was, my father was a kind, thoughtful, funny, often perspicacious man, the first man to love me, and the first to make that love count.

I haven’t talked about my father very much, about his life, or about his death, almost exactly three years ago, but he, as much as anyone, made me capable of standing up for myself and for other women in a World that doesn’t like, respect or understand us... or care that it doesn't.

His influence and his love was also, at least in part, responsible for the choices I have made in my relationships with men. The confidence in myself, in who I was and could be made me choose to know a lot of very smart, very clued up men, some of whom I still know and cherish. That confidence also made me strong when it came time to questions mens’ behaviour towards me, and to leave the relationships that were detrimental to my physical, mental or emotional health.

I hope that there are many men in the World like my father; men who love their daughters, see them for the people they are and can be, and offer them the strength that the patriarchy so often denies them.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Here I Go Again part ii

I guess I thought I had it covered, yesterday, and then I read this on my Twitter feed.

So understood this. I sometimes feel that I am an "honorary male" because of my spouse. The gods forbid I ever come into my own or stand on my two feet.

I didn’t have to think about it for long.

I think this is true, possibly too true, and certainly true of me. The husband casts a very big shadow when it comes to the work. There are reasons for this, of course, and they are many and complex. The biggest single reason is probably that he has a lot more confidence than I do, so he’s able to work more and question less what he is doing.

If you could bottle his confidence and share it around, we’d all do better, I think. Of course, he has talent, and, of course, he works hard… No one I know in this industry works harder than the husband does. But he trusts his work, that he can do anything, and that it will be good.

I don’t know where this kind of confidence comes from. No doubt, it helps that he’s a white male living in a patriarchal society. I suspect it might also help that he’s an only child with loving, creative parents.

watching his back
It’s hard to quantify talent, so I have no idea which of the two of us has more of it. The difference is that it takes infinitely longer for me to sit down and do the work. I second guess myself, wonder if things are good enough, and, like many of us, I wonder when I’m going to be found out.

Of course, the husband couldn’t do what he does without me… Well, he could, but would it be the same? I enable the husband, in so far as if he wants or needs to work, I’m fine with that. One year, that meant he worked a total of 359 days. Not many spouses would be OK with that.

I also enable him by being his first reader and editor. He always has a sounding board for ideas, and he’s free to use mine when they suit his needs. I also take care of accounts and admin, and, of course there’s the domestic stuff to think about. He’s good at that stuff, too, so he cooks regularly, and he’s naturally tidy, but he never has to do laundry or make a bed… That isn’t because I’m somehow a little wife, it’s because it’s a sensible division of labour.

If I walked into a gaming situation alone, without the husband, would I be accepted in the same way?

I doubt it.

As a woman, are there jobs that I have done that I would not have had the opportunity to do if the husband hadn’t been part of the plan?

Of course there are.

None of this is directly the husband’s responsibility. He is, however, aware of the gulf between us, and he responds positively to it. He gives me credit where it is due, and he he-peats on my behalf.

For those of you who have met me, or who know me, you know there’s another element to this.

Apparently, and I’ve been told this since I was a kid… Apparently, I can be very intimidating.

I may not have the advantages the husband has of being male and having professional confidence, but the one thing I did somehow learn as a child was to speak out.

If it’s necessary, I will talk over other people (and yes, they are often men). I will hammer home a point. I do use higher heels or darker lipstick as a kind of  armour to make myself bigger or more prominent in all those situations I find myself in with men. I do not back down.

All of this can be exhausting, and there are times when I go home and wonder whether I ought to have acted the way I did in some professional situations. The bottom line is, though, if I don’t stand up for myself, I will never be seen. If I don’t stand up for myself, why should the husband bother to back me up?

Of course, if I was a man, nothing I say or do would be considered intimidating; it’s because I’m a woman who is prepared to go toe to toe with any man that I am seen in this light. The fact is, I’m a pussy-cat.

We are all individuals, some more talented than others, some more conscientious, some more confident. Men have the advantage of their gender; it imbues them with traits they may not naturally possess. I know men who, despite lacking confidence are listened to and taken seriously. I know men who, despite lacking talent are given work for other reasons: because they can talk the talk, because they appear confident, because they are reliable, or simply because they are liked.

Women are given work only when they excel at what they do, when they are confident enough to take the hard road, working with men; only when they are thick-skinned, capable and prepared to be intimidating if that’s what it takes. And, for the most part, only when they fit a mould that men understand, which usually includes being physically well-proportioned, and attractive. All of these women are labeled with negatives. They are all considered intimidating in some way.

How much genuine talent is lost because women don’t have all of these qualities, all of the time, no matter how talented they are?

The truth is that I am also less ambitious than the husband. I am happy to be his backroom boy, to fit around him, and to do my own work as and when I really feel the need. Much of this is to do with the personal relationship we have, and the fact that we work together as equals in our domestic life and in our professional life. I do not feel less-than in my partnership or my marriage.

Are there benefits to being married to the husband? Do I become an honorary man in certain  situations? The answer to both of those questions is: Probably.

What many don’t understand is what I bring to my relationship, both personally and professionally. But will I ever tell?

Of course not. I’m a woman.

Monday 18 December 2017

Here I Go Again

Yes, you guessed it, I’m off on one of my rants.

The thing is, we put up with a lot… I’m talking about women in this particular instance, because this post relates to women, but lots of groups put up with a lot. Being a woman isn’t much fun a lot of the time, neither is being any “minority” race, creed or orientation.

We put up with a lot, so, for the most part, we only really talk bout the big stuff. When it comes to being a woman, we’re talking a lot at the moment, and, I might add, loudly, about serious sexual harrassment. It’s a terrible thing, and I’m very happy it’s being talked about, and that men are being called out on this stuff.

My problem, today, is that the big stuff happens because of the small, daily, grinding stuff.

The husband has been on a bit of a signing tour the last couple of weekends. I generally go with him, and we have a bit of fun and a bit of down time, which, at this time of year, has included some drives in the snow, and a bit of Christmas shopping.

The husband has quite a following, and the signings have been well-attended, apart from the one in Leicester, because the city was under three or four inches of snow. Lots of customers of the shop phoned in to have books signed and reserved, which was lovely, but actually present was a small, select group. We all sat around with cups of coffee, and talked about stuff. I had a good time, and there was no differentiation between me and the others, who all happened to be white and male. I was completely comfortable.

Sadly, I was rather less comfortable at one of the other signings.

We arrived with take-out coffees in our hands, and met the staff, who were all very sweet. I didn’t plan to stay, because we were in a city that I know well, and I wanted to have a walk around, but I did want to stay for long enough to drink the coffee. I stood beside the husband as he sat and got himself ready, rummaging around for sharpies, and whatnot.

A man engaged the husband, and started asking questions. This is normal, it’s good, it’s why he’s there, and me too. I joined in the conversation, and the husband broke off to deal with the first person in his queue.

That person spoke. When I looked up, he was smiling; he clearly believed that what he said was charming, matey, even funny. I don’t remember his words verbatim, and I wish I did, because his language wasn’t offensive, even if, when put together, the sentiment was.

He said something like - Does that always happen when you bring her? 

I was having a conversation that he clearly thought I shouldn’t be having, and that’s after the implication that I was there on sufferance.

The husband didn’t miss a beat, he simply said something like - Nik’s my first reader and editor; she knows more about this stuff than I do.

If I’d opened my mouth first, I hope I would have said something like - Well, that’s offensive!

It’s the casual, matey way that men say these things to each other, as if they can form some kind of bond by disrespecting women, including those they should show the most respect to, and I don’t mean I deserve respect because I happen to be married to the husband, but because this man would say the same thing about his wife, his sister, his mother or his daughter.

He also felt completely comfortable saying it in front of me, as if even I, the target, might find it endearing, as if, like women have been trained to do, I might demure, I might smile.

He was wrong.

I left my half-finished coffee, wound up the conversation, and I left… quietly seething.

The husband had answered his comment succinctly, and without any agenda. I don’t know how that man felt about that, and, honestly, I’m not sure I care. I might hope that it would change his behaviour, make him think twice before making a comment like that again. But, it won’t. This shit, as silly as it might seem to you, to anyone, even to women, is so embedded in our society that there is, essentially, no recourse against it.

Had I spoken first, had I actually said - Well, that’s offensive - I would no doubt have been labelled a scold or a shrew, or that terrible word a Feminazi.

Do they know what they’re calling us? And, if they do, what the hell is wrong with them?

We are people. We are all people, and to prove it, here’s another example from the same day out.

We were looking at the sound track album for Twin Peaks. We were discussing the show, and asked one of the staff if he’d seen it. His reply was - I don’t watch David Lynch. None of his characters are Brothers.

He was a Brother who had a point.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Coconut Lime Hallowe'en Cake

This is by special request, and it’s fun to do something a little light-hearted after all the serious and snarky stuff I tend to write about.

Coconut Lime Cake
I made a coconut lime cake for Hallowe’en, and it was much admired on FaceBook and Twitter. I was asked for the recipe.

I’ve been baking for decades, so I don’t really use recipes, I just adapt the stuff I’ve remembered, and give it a go. Honestly, this cake was rather nice, so I might come back to this post to make it again some time.

Here we go:


for the cake:
6oz flour
2oz desiccated coconut
8oz caster sugar
4oz soft butter
4oz coconut oil (the solid stuff in the jar)
5 or 6 eggs

for the drizzle:
juice of 3 limes
3 tablespoons icing sugar

the jam:
2 generous tablespoons lime marmalade (I like the one Roses makes)

for the frosting:
8oz icing sugar
2oz soft butter
2oz coconut oil (as before)
2/3 tablespoons double cream
1oz desiccated coconut

I mixed the sponge using the creaming method, and baked it in two 8 inch round cake tins at about 165/175C for 25 mins (every oven’s different, and that’s about 375F)

I made the drizzle by mixing the lime juice and icing sugar in a pan and heating it until it was syrupy

the marmalade was straight out of the jar

the icing was a simple mix of the fats and icing sugar, adding cream to get the right consistency and then whisking in the coconut.

pour the drizzle over the surfaces of the cakes that will meet in the middle. I do this while both are still warm to get maximum penetration.

when the cakes are cool, spread one with the marmalade and the other with about a third of the frosting, and sandwich them together.

Spread the remaining frosting on top of the cake, and sprinkle with the grated zest of one of the limes.

This cake would have been much prettier, but my icing bag burst, so I resorted to the sort of fork-fluffing that some people reserve for mashed potatoes.

Some people have a bit of a fear of baking, and it’s true that ingredients should be measured to get a good result, but almost every basic cake is a combination of equal parts flour, butter and sugar and a bunch of eggs. Half as many eggs as there are ounces of flour is a minimum, so for 8oz of flour I might use half a dozen eggs, some bakers would stick to four.

Take out flour if you want to add another dry ingredient: the desiccated coconut in this case, but the same applies to ground almonds, cocoa powder… whatever.

For a less sweet cake, I might switch caster sugar for light brown muscovado, which is particularly good in chocolate cake. I tend to use butter, but coconut oil works well, as does splitting the butter with peanut butter, or anything else fatty. Margarine is the devil’s work, but use it if you prefer… What you do in your own kitchen isn’t my call. Smiles.

frosting works well at a one part butter to two parts icing sugar. Switch out a quarter to a third of the sugar for good cocoa powder and you have a pretty decent chocolate frosting.

These are all cakes that can be made every day without too much time or effort. I like good jams for fillings, but, by all means, use a jar of anything you happen to like.

There’s no reason baking should seem more difficult or complicated than it actually is. I watch GBBO, and I enjoy it, but I’d rarely go to the lengths that the contestants aim for when it comes to baking a cake for elevenses or tea with the family. Mostly, my cakes go down pretty well, and this one was no exception.

Try this recipe, or buy a slice of homemade cake in a good, independent coffee shop. a little something sweet doesn’t do anyone any harm once in a while, but junk food… all food… should be made in a kitchen not a factory.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Humility… Or an old-fashioned sense of responsibility

A selection of my ugly, wonky pots

I made a gaff this week… I am only human after all.

People make mistakes all the time, and I, for one, like to think that I’m moderately forgiving and tolerant. Of course, there are people who simply crash through life like bulls in china shops. That’s OK, just so long as they have a little humility and take responsibility for their actions. Some do… Some don’t.

Have I mentioned that I throw pots? By which, of course, I mean on a potter’s wheel, and not at the wall. I’m not very good at it… yet. Practice makes perfect, and, like everything else, it could take ten thousand hours to become really proficient. Read Malcom Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ on the subject, if you haven’t already. I’m a little less able than some of the other students in my class, because of some physical stuff I deal with. This physical stuff also tends to make me clumsier than I would like. I try to ameliorate the problems with a little extra patience and concentration.

By the end of our class this week, my concentration was at a low ebb. I dropped a trimming tool. On it’s own, that’s fine; they don’t break, and it’s just a question of picking the thing up and putting it away. On this particular occasion, I dropped the tool on some newly-made pots. I’d sat at the wheel next to the student who made the pots, and she did it diligently and carefully, and it mattered to her to get it right. It didn’t matter how right she’d got it when I’d dinked up three of her lovely pots, because I was too stupid not to drop a tool.

I looked around and couldn’t see the student. Someone said not to worry about it; she wasn’t there, so she’d never know what I’d done. He might have been kidding, but lots of people would have taken this course of action.

 A member of staff walked in, and I asked her to look at the pots. Fortunately, she was able to reassure me that the dinks could be sponged out. I was relieved, but still upset at my clumsiness, and guilty, too. She mentioned that she’d seen the student outside.

Now, I was concerned that the student get back to the pots quickly enough to fix them before they dried. I was due to leave, but I hung around on the off-chance that she’d be back sooner rather than later.

The pot-maker came back into the studio a few minutes later. I told her what had happened, and apologised. I also said that she should be able to sponge out the dinks if she did it straight away. She couldn’t have been nicer. I’d messed up her morning’s work, and she simply smiled and told me not to worry about it. She was genuine, and my guilt was assuaged. My remorse clearly showed, and everything was fine.

I wonder how differently she might have felt if she’d come back to spoilt pots and no one wanted to take responsibility. I didn’t think twice about what I should do, and I wasn’t afraid of her reaction. I couldn’t have walked away with that guilt… I’d have felt it for days afterwards.

On the other hand, if someone dinked one of my pots, I would’ve chucked it in the recycling bin and made another one… There’s always more clay, and throwing pots is positively addictive, so the chance to make another is always welcome.

It’s easy to say that manners cost nothing. I’ll do anything for anyone, but it’s always lovely to get a thank you. The dort is particularly good at being grateful for the little things that I do for her, and it always makes it a greater pleasure to do them. I like to be thanked, and I like to thank those people who do things for me, however small they might seem. I always thank the husband if he makes a cup of tea, cooks a meal, or drives me somewhere. Why wouldn’t I? I’m happy to feel the gratitude for small acts of kindness, and a little appreciation makes him feel valued. It’s a simple, but elegant equation.

The same applies to those gaffs. I feel better for owning up and apologising, and it gives the person sinned against the opportunity to feel good about their magnanimity.

This social to and fro generally works extremely well, and keeps us all happy.

Once in a while, someone will stay angry when we transgress. Sometimes, it’s worth repeating the apology, or ramping it up with a guilt-gift, and sometimes it just takes time for forgiveness to happen. Once in a very long while, a transgression might never be forgiven, and that’s sad, but it shouldn’t be a regular occurrence.

Once in a while, someone won’t feel gratitude for an act of kindness. It might be worth reminding them to say thank you, because gratitude isn’t always automatic, and just because it isn’t automatic doesn’t mean it isn’t felt. Of course, there are occasions when gratitude isn’t felt, when people take things for granted, or when the kind act was unwanted. We don’t all feel the same way about everything. This kind of rejection shouldn’t be taken personally, and shouldn’t prevent future acts of kindness, but we might choose on whom we bestow our kindnesses.

The point is: Be nice to each other, be kind, be grateful and be humble. It’s the thoughtful little things that make the World go around.

Monday 30 October 2017

Sex and Power and the difference between them

Kevin Spacey's alleged abuse as reported in the Guardian
A couple of months ago it was Harvey Weinstein, and today it’s Kevin Spacey, and yet again, I fail to be surprised.

I’m not surprised by sex scandals involving politicians or by abuse perpetrated by men of power in any industry. There’s no less-bad and there’s no worse. All of these men, and, let’s face it, it is almost always men who perpetrate these horrors, are abusers. They all deserve our opprobrium. Is there really any difference between Jimmy Savile and Roman Polanski? Probably not much.

This whole thing doesn't surprise me, and the people involved don’t surprise me, for the simple reason that I don’t confuse sex with power.

Some consensual sex is about sex, but a lot of sex in all its forms, and certainly when it is exploitative and non-consensual, is about power. Sex between participants of unequal status, or age… or any of a number of inequalities is almost always about power. Almost all participants in many casual sexual encounters are unequal. Women are never equal to the men they engage with, simply because they are women. Inequality is perceived in race, age, intellect, wealth, talent… and on and on.

When an established actor in his twenties grabs at a juvenile actor he’s working with, it’s about power. When a  movie exec in his forties or fifties exposes himself to a starlet, it’s about power. When the President gropes anybody, it’s about power. When a consensual act follows, it’s still about power. Some people, and they’re mostly women, will consent to a sexual encounter based on a more powerful person’s promises. It’s a compromise, and it’s an unpleasant one, but some people do deal with these kinds of situations by seeing the main chance, by compartmentalising, or by being socialised to accept that this kind of behaviour by those they consider superior is somehow normal. Many people who are attacked in this way feel the attack both personally, as abuse, and even as criminal, and they’d be right. When kids are attacked it’s always abuse, and it’s always criminal.

If we accept that sexual attacks are about power, we can begin to see things differently. There are myths attached to all kinds of people, but the results are invariably the same. Artists are often portrayed as having more scope for transgression, and there might be something in that. We all know about Picasso, Hemingway, Schiele and others, and, too often we forgive them. Artists might be wired differently, but they could still be disciplined in how they choose to transgress. It’s simply about not causing others pain.

Politicians are an interesting case. Personally, I don’t believe that anyone who has responsibility for running a country is going to be the kind of person who goes home to a pipe and slippers, and to the kind of banal domesticity that so many live with.

Of course, Bill Clinton groped Monica Lewinsky, and of course there was a disparity in their personal and professional power. Monica Lewinsky exerted whatever power she could muster to expose him. Clinton is known for many things, but Lewinsky is known for having sex with the president. The power continues to be unequal. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton managed to maintain a relationship with her husband. Perhaps her power was to understand her husband’s nature, and to accept it. I think there’s something to admire in that, but I know there is no excuse for exploitation.

With great power comes great responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to be a person… not to use that power to abuse, coerce or compromise others. Often that abuse, coercion and compromise comes in the form of sex.

I am never surprised when I hear about yet another powerful man using that power to sexually abuse anyone: woman, child or another man. It’s a legacy of the patriarchy, and it’s a story as old as time.

Perhaps now is the time to change all of that.

It’s easy to condemn those we don’t know, or don’t have an opinion about. Harvey Weinstein isn’t known to us in the same way that a politician or actor has a very public persona. It makes it easier to despise Weinstein. We already have an opinion about a man like Clinton or Spacey, and often that public image is very positive. It’s harder to despise Spacey if we have admired his career, if we have liked the characters he has played, if we have been drawn to him because of a clever or funny interview. We have to despise him anyway. We have to strip these men of their power and their status. We have to cut them off from their abuse. It might be the only way to change the kind of power structures that have made the abuse, coercion and compromise of innocents part of the status quo.

Saturday 28 October 2017

Leadership and the end of Abuse

A few days ago, I wrote a blog about #metoo. It garnered some response, and led me down new paths.

First, I was pointed in the direction of a hashtag that has been adopted by some men, not unlike the one that I suggested. Have a look at #HowIWillChange on Twitter. It was a lovely idea, and many men are taking it seriously. A lot of women are using it, too, to cement their solidarity with other women. Some men are laughing it off or using it to proclaim that they’re perfectly good and righteous as they are, and that there’s no reason for them to change. One or two are abusing it.

This kind of individual reaction is inevitable.

Interestingly, it was the stuff I said about language that took me on a very real journey. An old college friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Rebecca Hains’s Facebook page. The writer had quoted an educator at some length, talking about a lesson plan on how differently men and women perceive their own safety. She was quoting Jackson Katz, and here’s what he had to say:

"I draw a line down the middle of a chalkboard, sketching a male symbol on one side and a female symbol on the other. Then I ask just the men: What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? At first there is a kind of awkward silence as the men try to figure out if they've been asked a trick question. The silence gives way to a smattering of nervous laughter. Occasionally, a young a guy will raise his hand and say, 'I stay out of prison.' This is typically followed by another moment of laughter, before someone finally raises his hand and soberly states, 'Nothing. I don't think about it.' Then I ask women the same question. What steps do you take on a daily basis to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted?
“Women throughout the audience immediately start raising their hands. As the men sit in stunned silence, the women recount safety precautions they take as part of their daily routine. Here are some of their answers: Hold my keys as a potential weapon. Look in the back seat of the car before getting in. Carry a cell phone. Don't go jogging at night. Lock all the windows when I sleep, even on hot summer nights. Be careful not to drink too much. Don't put my drink down and come back to it; make sure I see it being poured. Own a big dog. Carry Mace or pepper spray. Have an unlisted phone number. Have a man's voice on my answering machine. Park in well-lit areas. Don't use parking garages. Don't get on elevators with only one man, or with a group of men. Vary my route home from work. Watch what I wear. Don't use highway rest areas. Use a home alarm system. Don't wear headphones when jogging. Avoid forests or wooded areas, even in the daytime. Don't take a first-floor apartment. Go out in groups. Own a firearm. Meet men on first dates in public places. Make sure to have a car or cab fare. Don't make eye contact with men on the street. Make assertive eye contact with men on the street.”

Of course, this is no surprise to women, although it might be to men. I agreed with it, and thought the lesson could easily go further, so I looked up Dr Katz to see what else he had done, and how he talked about the problems of violence in our society.

I found a TED talk from November 2012, although Katz has been working in his field since the early nineties. This clip is five years old, and has had about 1.8 million views. Some people are devotees of TED. I’m not one of them, but it’s not unusual for the talks to have viewings in the millions. Not for nothing, 15 of the 20 most popular talks are delivered by men. Go figure.

Jackson Katz has the advantage of being an ally to us all. He talks about violence. He talks about passive language, in much the same way that I talked about it in my blog, but he goes further. He talks about leadership, and he advocates for change. He advocates for the type of change that seems entirely possible and absolutely desirable, to me. Watch the talk, or read the transcripts. It’s so simple, I don’t know why Katz’s teaching hasn’t spread further and faster.

In the end, it’s about the will to change, and Katz also demonstrates how and why that will can be universal, even in the patriarchal society in which we still live.

Jackson Katz is my hero today… It’s always good to have one of those on the horizon.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

How to Run a Convention

At our best when we're relaxed
It’s fine, I’m not going to tell anyone how to do this. I thought it might be interesting, though, to talk about what it’s like to be a guest at a convention, and the impact that small things can have on our comfort and ease.

Conventions are fun, but they can also be quite hard work. It’s important that guests are at their bests; they’re at the sharp end when it comes to the public. If a convention is to succeed over long periods of time, it has to be well-attended. Different convention-goers want different things. Some are more interested in shopping, some in meeting other convention-goers, but many are drawn in by the guest list.

One of our favourite things is to meet convention-goers and fans, and to have the opportunity for a chat. We’re happy to do signings and panels, and we will always spend a lot of time wandering around and sitting in the communal areas, by which, of course, we mean the bar. We are more than happy for anyone to approach us at any time. Sometimes, we can spend an entire weekend talking to people, many of them strangers. That might not seem like much of a strain, and it’s certainly a pleasure, but it can also be exhausting.

We generally attend conventions, not only because we are invited, but because we want to. We don’t expect remuneration, except, perhaps for travel expenses and a hotel room. Conventions don’t provide us with an income. Of course, it’s only right that artists charge for their work, so a well-attended convention can boost their incomes. We don’t charge to meet people or to sign stuff. It’s simply payback for all the support our readers give us. The least we can do is scribble a signature on a fly-leaf.

For convention organisers, the simplest thing you can do to make us comfortable is to be pleasant and organised. And, honestly, many convention organisers are also fans, so they’re almost always extremely lovely.

It’s great to have a schedule ahead of time, so that we have some clue what we’re doing. We’ve been doing this for a long time, so we rarely need to do a great deal of preparation to sit on a panel, but it’s nice to have the time to think about a panel if it’s a little outside our wheelhouse, or if it’s very specific.

A simple map is very useful, so that we know where we need to be, and so that we can find the things we want to look at. Scheduled breaks are good. We rarely leave a convention for any reason, but we do need to eat from time to time. We don’t mind finding our own food, and we’ll eat anything and pretty much anywhere. We invariably eat on the convention premises, and we can live on sandwiches and chips almost indefinitely. Some guests might have dietary requirements, so the time to find suitable food and to eat it makes life easier for all of us.

Have product. Honestly, we will sign anything, and we have signed anything, including train tickets, caps, homemade replica stick grenades, bosoms… you name it! Lots of convention goers are quite keen to buy their favourite writer’s latest book, so it’s a good idea to have that stuff on-hand, and besides, someone can actually make some money out of that.

If the room is large, or the panel/signing is long, working microphones and chairs are useful. As far as I’m concerned, the less tech the better, because it’s never very reliable. If you’re going to do slideshows or computer graphics, make sure they work at the outset.

Most panels are chaired, and a well-prepared chairperson is always a joy. It’s a tough job, but those who do it well have a list of good questions, but also allow panelists to riff. Some of the best panelists can hold their own for an hour at a time without a huge amount of effort, but it’s worth remembering that panelists don’t speak for a living, many of them are writers and have solitary existences. Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, Diane Duane, Nancy Kress and even the husband have amused and interested me on panels, apparently without breaking a sweat, but it’s much harder for less experienced speakers. Don’t forget, some of these guests might never have spoken in front of people before, so keep control, help them out, and have the next good question ready.

In the end, though, it’s about being organised. Walking into confusion can be pretty stressful. We don’t want to see your panic if you’re supposed to be guiding us through a convention.

I realise that organising an event is bloody hard work, but if you panic, we’ll get tense, and if we’re tense we won’t be at our best. The best convention organisers look like swans: calm on the surface, even if they’re paddling like crazy underneath.

Nothing ever runs perfectly. But we’d rather not hear things like ‘Circumstances outside anyone’s control’… It just makes us wonder why no one could be bothered to take control.

We’ve been to conventions where there has been little on-site publicity, no order, and where organisers and marshals have been flying around like paper kites. We’ve been to conventions where the right hand hasn’t had a clue what the left was doing. We’ve been around organisers who have been harassed, panicked, cross and generally out of control. It makes life harder for guests, and often the convention-goers who have paid an entry fee don’t get to see or do the things that they planned.

When conventions work well, they’re an absolute joy. We guested at Aviles a couple of years ago, and we simply couldn’t have had a better time. At another convention, getting anything to eat or drink took far too long, because the bar and kitchen simply couldn’t deal with the numbers at the convention, and guests weren’t given priority. We weren't actually late for any of our events, but we ate on the run, took drinks into panels, and generally struggled with some pretty basic needs. At another event it took me forty minutes to take a loo break, because we had to use the public facilities, which were rammed with convention-goers and long queues. On the other hand, at Octocon this year, I broke the heel of one of my boots. An organiser took them from me, and in no time at all they were returned to me as good as new. One of the marshals had popped to the nearest cobbler… That’s some pretty impressive organising.

Friday 20 October 2017


when I looked this good I was clearly considered fair game
For the past week or so, many women have used the me too hashtag. I’ve used it myself, as a status update on my FaceBook page.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who hasn’t been cat-called, touched or talked to inappropriately, or generally harassed by men. I know many who have been sexually assaulted or raped.

These women are standing together, and I stand with them. Some men seem shocked by the numbers of their family members, friends and acquaintances who are using this hashtag. It’s as if they just don’t see it. Of course, many of them do see it, they simply see it as a normal part of the society we live in. "Boys will be boys"

I’m not as young as once I was, so I’m not grabbed, touched and catcalled as often as I was in my teens, twenties and thirties. That doesn’t mean that I’m not still made uncomfortable by some men’s behaviour.

I’ve been out and about twice this week. On the first occasion, a man I hardly know, and who hardly knows me, decided that it was OK to discuss phalluses with me. Hmmm… a little odd, not distressing, or even particularly discomforting, but, you know, not a subject I would have chosen to discuss with him

The second time I went out, I needed to take a taxi. Firstly, the driver got out of the car and opened the front passenger door. Oh dear… I said I’d get in the back, opening the rear passenger door myself. Because I was already a little uncertain, I didn’t start a conversation. He did. He paid me a compliment, and I steered the conversation away. When we’d arrived at our destination, the driver got out of the car and opened my door before I had a chance to do it myself. I would normally pay a driver while still in the car; he didn’t give me that choice. He also didn’t open the car door as widely as he might have, so he was standing close as I stepped out, with my bags held firmly in front of me.

As I got out of the car, the driver told me that he’d noticed me walking past his taxi office on a number of occasions. I live on the same street as the office… Not for nothing, he now knows my address.

The driver was in late middle-age, well-presented and probably harmless. He might have thought he was being helpful, companionable or even charming. He really wasn’t. Mostly, he was just being creepy.

I won’t use his company again, and I’ll make sure I’m picked up in a public place, and not at my home. I’ll make the adjustments. I shouldn’t have to.

If silly shit like this happens every time I cross my own threshold, I wonder how truly horrible it must be for my younger, more beautiful sisters, when every text could be a dick-pic and every interaction might be grabby and threatening, or worse.

As a young woman, I mostly shrugged the whole thing off. I wish I’d put more of those young, and honest-to-goodness not so young men in their places, but nice, bright, polite women didn’t do that. We smiled and got away… mostly.

In the end, women aren’t safe around men, and until the good men begin to censure their grubby brothers, we will never be safe around them.

Honestly, if it weren’t for #metoo, I wouldn’t even have registered these two incidents; this stuff is just part of my everyday life.

We cope. We have always coped. We shouldn’t have to.

Neither should it be up to us to be counted. Think about it… How often do we see the headline

                                                     MAN RAPED WOMAN!

That’s right… Never! We take the passive form,

                                                         WOMAN RAPED!

I think there’s a lot to be said for the active form, but the patriarchy is so embedded in our culture and our language that we just don’t think twice about it. We don’t even notice it.

I’ve used the me too hashtag, but why isn't there an equivalent hashtag for men, taking responsibility. Sometimes perfectly decent men make mistakes, get carried away or simply don’t realise what they’re doing. Seeing so many women post the me too hashtag might have had more of an impact if men adopted a hashtag too. #ididthat, maybe.

In a better world, wouldn’t men admit that they’d done something stupid, apologise for it and decide not to make the same mistake again. Some might simply want to admit that they hadn’t censured another man for harassing a woman.

The Daily Star published a still of the incident
I was watching Strictly: It Takes Two the other night, because I’m only human and I do like some crap tv. Ian Waite, who clearly has a longstanding relationship with Zoe Ball, lifted her skirt. They were laughing and chatting and he wanted to demonstrate her leg shape in a dancing demonstration. I was horrified when he lifted her skirt, and, frankly, so was she, but she laughed it off.

The following day, I watched again, and Ian apologised for his inappropriate behaviour. He could have apologised in private, but it was a public act and he apologised in public. I thought it ironic that the incident should happen at the very same time that the me too hashtag was growing. I also wondered whether Auntie Beeb had received a number of calls and e-mails about the incident.

The me too hashtag is great for women, and for our solidarity. It’s time for men to stand up, too, to take responsibility for themselves and for their brothers.

I guess we just have to watch this space, and hope for change.