I’m So Sorry, You’re From Barcelona

It has often been observed that the comments we make about people change relative to their proximity to us. What’s acceptable when talking about people half-way round the world becomes decidedly uncomfortable when they’re sitting opposite. For example, when I was teaching English in Spain I decided to show my advanced students an episode of Fawlty Towers. I thought they’d enjoy the humour and having a Spanish character in there would give it an extra dimension. But the video had not been playing five minutes when an uncomfortable atmosphere made itself felt, and after a while I began to see Manuel from their point of view; a character whose lack of fluent English made him a comic scapegoat. In the end I realised that to Spanish people the character of Manuel was somewhat offensive. What was acceptable in England became unacceptable in a room full of intelligent Madrilenos. Distance is key. It’s like one of those ‘irregular verbs’ quoted in ‘Yes Minister’ – ‘I’m eccentric, you’re mad, s/he is round the twist.’ There’s a really good explanation of these here.

One of my favourite comments of late has been from a fellow member of the Labour Party. This is a person who frequently disagrees with me, and on the subject of the leadership election they said, ‘I joined the Party to defeat entryists like you.’ I found this very amusing and with it I’ve coined another irregular verb: ‘I am a joiner, you are an entryist, s/he is an infiltrator.’

Proximity is key with insults, but I guess on the internet we’re all in close proximity to each other now. And that’s the problem with social media, that it sets out in print for all to see what was previously expressed in private and in a particular context. It used to be broadcast to a specific audience but now educated students in Madrid can watch it. And find it offensive.

Kirk out

Friday on What I Am Pleased to Call My Mind

So, as another week grinds towards its end, how is my work going? Good question. I have so many balls in the air I can barely keep track of them: aside from poems there are a slew of short stories, a radio play and of course the novel which I am in the process of editing. God, editing is hard! I’ve got first drafts sorted because I’ve got to the stage where I can I just let it rip; I don’t think about what I’m writing, just trust the process and tell the critical, analytical mind to take a flying leap. But when it comes to editing, my woes begin in earnest. My mind jumps all over the place, thinking where is this going? What sort of thing is it really? Where am I going to publish it? What is it actually about? I am tossed and buffeted by ten different winds until I hardly know which way is up, and unsurprisingly I can’t do it for very long; a couple of hours is about the limit. After that I’m exhausted.

I guess these are the questions all writers ask themselves. What kind of writer am I? Who are my readers? Where do I want to be published? to which my answers would be: no idea, anyone, and anywhere. Not helpful. Some days I’d give my eye teeth to be a writer firmly established in a genre, someone who knows her audience and what they want. Someone with a publisher and an agent. But I ain’t and I don’t.

So what is to be done? One thought I had yesterday, struggling through the choppy waters of a short story, was to be aware of these questions as they arise and record them with a view to analysing them later. This is difficult because they rush by at the speed of light, yelling something indiscernible as they go. They’re like players on a hockey field and I never got on with hockey because apart from being out in the cold and the mud trying to hit a tiny ball with a narrow strip of wood, people are rushing by you all the time shouting things like whazafalabeat! and gizzacobaball! and by the time I’d said, ‘Sorry, what was that again?’ they’d be down the other end.)

This is the story of my life. I didn’t fit anywhere so I became a writer. Then I discovered that I didn’t fit anywhere as a writer. So what’s next?

Answers on a postcard, as ever…

Kirk out

Women and Power

Browsing in Waterstone’s lately (yes I know they’ve dropped the apostrophe but on this blog standards will never slip) I came across a book by Mary Beard. I was actually looking for something political but they don’t have a politics section as such (hm) so I was directed to hover between history and philosophy. I also wanted to know when the new Hilary Mantel would be out (March) and how much it would be (£20-something, not bad for a 900-page hardback but I’m not sure I can afford it) and I ran into Mary Beard’s thoughts on Women and Power.

Like many such books it addresses the problem in all its aspects but neglects to ask why. Why do some men just want to shut women up? Why are they triggered by a woman expressing opinions in public? Why do some men get in a froth about putting Jane Austen on a bank note? Why, after you’ve expressed a complex and well thought-out view, do some men still act as if you haven’t spoken? And why does this sort of thing still happen?

https://i0.wp.com/dvvj4iu11jqpj.cloudfront.net/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/0/0/001_206.jpg
originally from Punch magazine; image removed on request

Mary Beard’s thesis is that throughout recorded history patriarchy has silenced women in the public sphere. There are exceptions to this: she may speak in order to defend her family or tribe or to speak for the interests of other women, but she may not voice opinions on any topic as though she were a man. To do so is to invite ridicule, censure or even death.

Sadly, this attitude is still prevalent. I am frequently interrupted by men in meetings where men have been heard in silence, and it spills over into the arena of mansplaining where some men become like one-way radios set to transmit but not receive. In Waterstone’s the man who served me, though perfectly helpful and informative, was deaf to my replies that I had ‘already read’ the Guardian article about Hilary Mantel or that I ‘already knew’ about Mary Beard’s work. He could hear my questions but not my speech.

Along with many women in the public sphere, Mary Beard has had a bellyful of this. Female politicians frequently get death threats and Diane Abbott, being black as well as female, gets a double dose and has to send death threats in weekly batches to the police. This is not funny, yet she does her job week in and week out and will not be silenced. Why should she?

Many men have of course taken on board the demands of feminism, and thankfully in my experience the badly-behaved misogynist is in a small minority. But why do they do this in the first place?

i have a theory – it’s no more than a theory at present – that in the minds of these men is a binary system in which people are given a value of either 1 or 0, with no space in between. Therefore, under this system, if you’re not number one you are nothing. I read once that slave owners in the Southern states feared giving up their slaves would result in their own enslavement. They feared becoming slaves! Why? It seemed a ridiculous fear – after all, if they gave up their slaves nothing would happen except that they’d be obliged to pay people to do their work. I was completely baffled by this until I saw it as a binary system. In the minds of the slave owners there were only two positions, slave or master; and if you ceased to be one you would become the other. And so I think it is with misogynists: they fear their own subordination. They fear becoming nothing instead of something because in their binary system there is no such thing as equality. It does not compute.

As for what we do about this – well, I guess we just keep talking and refuse to shut up and go away.

That’s all. Now shut up and go away.

Just kidding. Happy Thursday.

Kirk out

To Like and Like Not: My Views on Labour’s Plan for Trans Rights

A couple of weeks ago a 12-point plan emerged on the rights of transgender people. It has not yet been adopted by the Labour Party (this would presumably have to be done at Conference) but two out of the three remaining leadership candidates have endorsed it. I’d like to say why I have problems with it.

The first part of the plan is perfectly fine; it deals with protecting people from abuse and discrimination due to their ‘presentation’ or ‘identification’. That is all of a piece with general anti-discrimination policy, so for me, points one to three are fine. The problems begin with point four which asks us to ‘accept that trans women are women, that trans men are men and that non-binary people are non-binary.’

What’s my beef here? Surely people should be accepted for who and what they are? Yes, I agree – but to accept a person as a fellow human being is not the same as accepting a particular narrative about that person. I’m not sure I even understand what it means to say ‘trans women are women’ and in an environment where it is proposed that people should be simply allowed to self-identify without any kind of medical examination, this is something that requires thought. What is a woman? What does it mean for someone to have male genitalia and say I am a woman? And if we accept this narrative, what follows? There has been little or no public debate on these topics, and without free and open debate how can we achieve any kind of understanding? In the last fifty years or so we’ve had the debate about feminism, we’ve had the debate on gay and lesbian rights and as a society we have come (largely) to a consensus on these issues, one that is enshrined in law. No such debate has taken place on transgender people; the ‘T’ has simply been tacked onto the end of LGB and we are told to accept this or be labelled as haters.

We need to look at the consequences of accepting trans women as women (I’m focussing more on women but there may be problems for cis men as well in men’s groups such as Men in Sheds). We are now obliged to accept the presence of trans women in previously safe environments such as toilets, changing rooms and prisons, and this may present problems for a number of reasons. I’m not suggesting that trans women are likely to be abusers, but that the system itself is open to abuse; that in our rush to be inclusive of some we may actually be excluding others.

But my biggest problem with the plan is point nine, which describes organisations such as A Woman’s Place and the LGB Alliance as ‘transphobic and trans-exclusionary’ hate groups. This is clearly wrong and I hope they will think better of this clause if nothing else. But my plea is this: we desperately need open, tolerant and above all respectful debate. Because without it my fear is that we will be even more divided, both as a party and as a society.

Kirk out

Ballot, Ballot, Who’s Got the Ballot?

Ballots are, as they say, ‘dropping’ at the moment for Labour leader and I still don’t know who to vote for! I’ve been up and down, back and forth, side to side and round and round and I’m currently spiralling towards the outer arm of the galaxy because I just don’t know!!! Every item of news, everything I see on social media, every new thing I learn about each of the candidates, sends me spinning in a new direction like a pinball on a table, and no clear answer is emerging. Opinions are now hardening among the membership and those helpful posts asking ‘still not sure who to vote for? Read this’ are no help at all because they are just a pitch for one candidate slagging off the others.

I’ve tried writing down the pluses and minuses of all the candidates. On the one hand, Keir Starmer has backed the readmission of Alistair Campbell to the party after he voted Lib Dem (and bragged about it) and has declined to say where his funding comes from; on the other hand he has refused to sign up to the 12-point pledge on Transgender rights. (I too am opposed to some of this, for reasons I’ll probably put in another post.) Lisa Nandy has some positives; she’s Northern and down-to-earth and might win back some of the lost seats in that region: on the other hand she lacks experience and until recently most people hadn’t heard of her. The same goes for the candidate who in all other respects I like, Rebecca Long-Bailey. The fact that she is seen as the ‘Corbyn continuity’ candidate is a plus for many, but also a minus for those who see his era as discredited and tainted by huge losses at the polls. But in the end whatever else I may feel, I think RLB lacks the experience to be Leader of the Opposition. So what to do? I still don’t know and in the end a little voice keeps telling me that it won’t matter anyway because it’s probably going to be a walkover for Starmer.

Which brings us to the deputy; and here there’s a wider field to choose from. I’d like it to be a woman, but then again I like some of Richard Burgeon’s ideas and he too has expressed reservations about the 12-point Trans rights plan. Angela Rayner is favourite but she has been critical of both Corbyn and the membership and I’m not happy about that. I’m half-tempted to vote for a BAME candidate, if only because we haven’t had one in the leadership election (I don’t know why Diane Abbott didn’t stand; maybe she’s had enough of the abuse she’s already getting, but I hope it isn’t that.) So I may vote for Dawn Butler but I just don’t know.

Fortunately it’s a different system from ‘first past the post’ so we get second, third and fourth choices which are added up if at first there is no clear winner.

Oh well. My ballot hasn’t come yet so we’ll see. Who knows what I’ll do? In the meantime if you’re a member let me know what you’ve decided – and if you’re not, who you’d vote for if you were.

Kirk out

Ten Reasons to be a Blogger

I started blogging 12 years ago in the spring of 2008 because none other than the author Hanif Kureishi (Buddha of Suburbia) advised it, and I’ve never stopped. I may have paused for a short while to take a holiday but I have largely sustained the daily – or at least thrice-weekly – discipline of writing a blog post. So why is this a good idea? Let me count the reasons.

1. You get exposure. It may not be much exposure but once published your post is out there for any and all to read. Don’t be discouraged if you only get a few views because you never know who might happen upon these posts years later. I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who stumble across posts from years before. Good tagging helps with this, as does linking to social media.

2. You get practice. When you’re starting out as a writer self-discipline is the hardest thing. You can sit with a pen and pad and think till your forehead bleeds, but if you start off with a daily blog post you’ve broken your duck. You may choose to have a blog dedicated to one subject but I allow mine to list where it will. All life lies within the blogger’s scope, and although the focus is on writing, this blog can be about absolutely anything.

3. You get readers. This is the wonderful thing about blogging: whereas published authors only get contact via book readings or email, you can get comments almost as soon as you hit ‘publish’. It’s good to look at your readers’ blogs too, if they have them.

4. You get ideas. Blogging is like turning on a tap; the more you write, the more ideas come to you. Interacting with readers can also help to challenge and refine your thinking.

5. You get a sense of progress. Once you’ve been writing a while you can look back and see how far you’ve come, not only in terms of statistics and followers, but in terms of your own writing.

6. You can use it as a platform. In the early days of this blog and lacking any other audience I used to put poems and short stories up for people to read. This can be very valuable but you have to be careful as some publishers will not accept work which has been published on a blog.

7. You get to be part of a community. After a while you come across other bloggers and start to follow them. You get a sense of what is out there and develop a community of friends. Blogs I follow include Kestrelart, Brian’s blog, Taskerdunham, A Box of Chocolates, my book world 24 and the ever-popular Beetley Pete.

8. You can do fun things like offering guest blog spots or free poetry ebooks, as I recently did to my 500th follower. People really appreciate these gestures, as they appreciate replies or ‘likes’ for their comments.

Oh look, I only came up with eight reasons. Well I guess it’s over to you now… what are your reasons for blogging? And if you haven’t got a blog, when are you going to start one?

Kirk out

Em-meh

I went to the cinema by mistake yesterday; out on a blustery and rather chilly afternoon I became diverted on my way to Sainsbury’s and stopped in at the Odeon to see what was playing. At first it appeared to be wall-to-wall Sonic the Hedgehog but eventually the screen changed and lo! they were about to show Emma so I got me a ticket and I went in.

And?

Hm. The settings were great, though I don’t think they made the most of the detail; still the drawing-rooms and frontages, the landscaped gardens with ha-has and classical pediments, gave a good flavour of the period. But the contrast between this and the farm where Harriet Smith is destined to end up, is rather jarringly introduced with loud folk music, and the difference between Emma’s and Jane Fairfax’s piano playing rather too pointed. In fact the production was altogether rather blunt and obvious; the narrative was a little jerky and there was quite a bit of telling-not-showing. But my main beef was with the casting.

Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect as Emma but Mr Knightley was frankly wet and weedy, not at all the blunt, forceful figure of the novel. Gemma Whelan was not bad as Mrs Weston but didn’t get enough screen time and in any case was not up to the standard of Greta Scaachi in the Gwyneth Paltrow version.

I did not like Josh o’Connor as Mr Elton and Callum Turner was not at all my idea of Frank Churchill. I did quite enjoy Bill Nighy as the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse but the subtleties of the relationship between Emma and her sister and brother-in-law were quite lost in general bickering. There were also some completely un-Austinian moments where people shouted and banged things; where Emma drops her clothes on the floor and sits on the windowsill, knees to chest; and where – horrors! grown gentlemen actually weep! Poor Jane – I hear her turning in her grave.

There were some good moments, however; I enjoyed the visual effect of the parlour-boarder girls prancing around in unison and the comedy of Mr Woodhouse being surrounded by fire screens with only the top of his head visible. I also thought Miranda Hart much closer to the original Miss Bates than Sophie Hannah’s breathy hesitancy. But Jane Austen it wasn’t; give me the Gwyneth Paltrow version any day.

To sum up, it was enjoyable but a bit – well, meh.

Kirk out