Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

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.