There is a particular strangeness to the end of a year. At risk of lapsing into old vs new cliches, there is one ritual of this time of year which really puts things into perspective.
I keep a paper diary. Not one to write down all my innermost thoughts, just my appointments and chores. This is for my personal things only and it helps to mark the separation between work and leisure. At this time of year, the old diary is showing the scars of being shoved into bags through the year and the spine flops open wearily, unlike the stiffness of its successor. To mark the change, there is the ritual of moving addresses from one into another and this always becomes rather poignant.
I’ve been lucky this year and, while members of my family have been ill, we haven’t lost anyone. Unlike the previous year when two addresses didn’t need to be transferred. Some entries have one name where there used to be two and an entry has a different country from last year. What also struck me is the last time I added a new name to the list and it was a number of years ago.
This process always sets me off thinking about the relationships and usually reaching out to someone I haven’t seen for a while. Then, as the year advances, the contact falls off again. So, if the experience of 2020 has taught me anything, it’s to cherish those names and remember that people are people all year around.
Wishing you a healthy, tolerant and peaceful 2021…
‘Tis the season to buy books. Books make great presents for so many reasons. They can be informative, fun, thought-provoking and uplifting, or even all at once.
Best of all, they are the easiest things in the world to wrap, a huge consideration if, like me, you should never be allowed near sellotape without a chaperone.
In a brilliant example of what can be achieved when people get together, local bookshops have come together, a new service https://uk.bookshop.org/ lets you buy from a specific bookshop (and not forgetting Hive, which has been supporting local shops for a while https://www.hive.co.uk/). Oh, and one for yourself…
From 13 to 19 November, organisations will be making a positive noise about transgender people, culminating in the more sober reflections of transgender day of remembrance on 20 November.
After unnecessary vitriol and a missed opportunity with the Gender Recognition Act consultation, the time is ripe for a reset of views. And the good thing is, accepting people for who they are makes life so much simpler, as well as more dignified.
I agree, it’s easy to mock these designated periods. For example, did you know that November is manatee awareness month? Are you aware that manatees are endangered? Well, you are now.
But the purpose of these weeks is not so much the time, it’s what happens after. I was really struck by a remark from the author Marjorie Blackman OBE, talking about being asked to speak in Black History Month: you know I’m black all year round?
As well as writing, I take photographs. When my work ran a mindfulness session, I recognised a lot of the phrases used, of being in the moment, of shutting out everything except what is in front of you, I saw parallels with the way I can lose myself in taking pictures.
However, there are limits. I can admire the pictures of a rare animal or dawn breaking without having any urge to either sit in a hide for hours or get up that early. I may go on a walk intending to take pictures but I rely on the element of serendipity – I try to make the best picture from what is there.
I’ve always resisted the use of post-processing software to manipulate my pictures but lockdown changes everything. I’ve been trying out various manipulations and seeing what you can do with an image. And it is a revelation – I’m not talking about cloning people in or out of the shot, I’m talking about seeing what is already there but hidden. The process within the software is very simple – you have a slider which you move from one side to the other and things which were previously invisible appear from the shadows and then disappear again.
And this was when I got the lightbulb moment that what I was doing was like editing my writing. There are the words on the page but behind them is the backstory, hidden though peeking out if I move the slider. My job as the writer and photographer is to take the story as presented to me and make the best of it. Still not getting up at dawn though…
I have held back from jumping into the furore over certain comments by well-known people and the Government’s response to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) because I wanted to read the material and think before I commented.
My interest in this has come from writing fiction books featuring a trans woman main character. While researching the books, I spoke to a number of trans women and men. Listening to their stories, the statistics become people and the headlines are the personal stories who are looking to just get on with their life in a way that I, and cis het people like me, take completely for granted.
For some reason, the process of trans people acquiring equal rights has become toxic and changes to laws, such as self-ID, which have been in place without issue in other countries, have been treated as a debate, not helped by the delay in responding to the GRA consultation. In the vacuum, there has been a contest to shout loudest and, in the time-honoured way, the scum floats to the top and legitimate concerns become lost in hysterical extremes.
From my point of privilege, I have maintain hope that this is an unpleasant but short period in the process of equalising society. There have been protests about every relaxation of laws, with all sorts of outlandish consequences set out: in 2002 during the debate on extending adoption to gay couples, Baroness O’Caithan asked in the House of Lords
“is it the permanent downgrading of marriage and the family? I repeat that it is the children that I am concerned about.”
Concerned about the children? So that’s alright then. Fortunately, history has shown that the predictions of (literal) floods have not happened and we have a more equal society. So, I hope that the current storm will pass too. Unfortunately, although I’m confident of the overall direction of society, given the tone of the interactions, we all need to raise our game because while someone like JK Rowling using her platform to criticise trans equality, the response where she was threatened is not on either. It is possible to separate the creation from the creator: we don’t stop looking at Caravaggio’s paintings just because he was a misogynistic murderer.
We need to recognise what are fundamental rights: equality, safety and dignity against those which are just accepted social niceties which can be changed. Again, we all have a role here because we have to challenge ourselves whether something we object to is just because it’s always been that way? One of Caravaggio’s pictures gives an example of where someone suffers because he hasn’t adjusted his view of what individuals are capable of: he sees a mere woman but Judith uses his own prejudices against him and kills him to save her city (and in a white blouse, which is a particularly bold move).
After the initial disappointment, a petition for Parliament to restart the process of reforming the GRA https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/327108 has over 130,000 signatures. For me, I’m going to focus on being a better ally – listening to where I’m needed and speaking out when my voice is needed because Judith’s methods, although effective, are considered a tad extreme nowadays.
Today, I get to meet a bunch of people I haven’t seen since February. We are all members of a sports club and it has taken until now to come up with safe arrangements. And I am looking forward to it in the same way that a child looks forward to Christmas.
Oddly though, the action sporty bit, although huge fun, is not the thing I’m looking forward to most. It’s the conversation with real human beings. I’ve been very lucky over lockdown in that I can work from home and have good technology, so lots of on-screen contact. But what I have really missed is the interaction – it becomes a 3D experience not a 2D one, stereo rather than mono.
This has been thrown into sharp relief because I’m writing again. A big part of what makes a book work is the dialogue and I’m conscious that chatting over electronic means differs from face-to-face. I’m sure plenty of people are writing learned papers about the impacts of this but, for me, I think conversations are more concise, stripped of gestures and movement and therefore less emotional and revealing. I don’t want that narrowness to constrict my dialogue which is why I can’t wait to be part of the herd again…
Thursdays have always been my favourite day of the week, the day good things happen. My writing group is on a Thursdays, which means I get to do one of my favourite things, talking with writers about writing.
It’s a simple format. We are all writing pieces, some novels, some short stories and whoever’s turn it is that week will submit their piece to the rest of us. We read it and make comments – I like to read it a couple of times: once for the effect of the story and then again, for the more structural elements. We’ll all then share our comments with the author, who can take or leave the crit.
I would say that this process was the single most important factor in getting me to publication. Before, I had written words which no one else had read – now, I get to see the effect my words have on people. And often, this is different, depending on the person’s experience, giving a fascinating range.
The writing group gives me a discipline and perspective. And it’s not just the benefit to my own writing – by reviewing other peoples’ work and thinking about why I react in a particular way, it’s helping me to understand how to portray the images I want to get across.
For anyone who is starting out at writing, the best advice I can give is join a writing group – you can find a list here, or try your local library. Actually, just go to your local library anyway – they are amazing community resources and need all your support.
Making stuff up – it should be easy, right? You create your world and some characters to populate it and they get on with whatever you’ve told them to do. Yes, OK, there has to be some structure and the characters will generally want something and not be able to do/ get it without some conflict. And taraa – you have a book.
But, but this is exactly where writers have a disadvantage. The plot has to be believable whereas real life has no such constraints. Even leaving aside most of 2020, there are things out there which, if you put them in a book, people would laugh only for real life to come along and say ‘hold my beer’.
A simple example: the Pope. Now popes have been a useful figure in fiction because of their power, the mystery surrounding their election and, particularly historically, their all-round licentiousness. But for a pope to resign – none had ever done that. Died, possibly murdered – yes, resigned – no. And yet, in 2013, that’s exactly what one did.
Here is another example, more recent. A young woman was strangled by a man she met through a dating site. They had sex and he strangled her before dumping her body parts in suitcases. Now this killer is appealing against his conviction and sentence because (my emphasis):
“The man’s lawyers also argued the sentence passed in February of life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years for the 28-year-old was manifestly unjust, saying there there was no evidence of excessive violence.“
Ah, the plot – you spend hours slaving over it and get paranoid in case someone steals your idea or, conversely, the dread that you have (inadvertently) copied someone else. A recent example made me less worried about this…
One thing I have been doing a lot more of in lockdown is watching television, picking long-runners with lots of episodes as they make good, lazy viewing. As I watched, I was struck by the staggering similarity between two series, despite decades and a continent separating them.
Before John Thaw was Inspector Morse, the erudite, cerebral sleuth, he was Jack Regan of The Sweeney, a hard-drinkin’, lovin’ and fightin’ hunter of criminals with his faithful sidekick, Carter.
While The Sweeney has its share of fights, car chases and thuggery, there are poignant moments and a sense of continuous struggle. You may arrest one villain – of course you wanted the big man, not the minions – but another would come or their brief would find a way to get them off, to be a haunting nemesis.
Then, there is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So far, so nothing to do with each other (especially if you compare the 1970’s British teeth with their 1990 US counterparts). But, but…
At the base, the premise is exactly the same. A small team of good guys, led by a charismatic but flawed figure, battle against a ceaseless array of corruption. The team relies on each other to keep afloat but also has to deal with times when relationships fracture and characters doubt their motivation.
So what does this tell me? That we do only have a certain number of stories, true but the setting and the characters are what sets a story apart. And when you get that right, the same story can hold its own against newcomers for generations to come…
This column is nothing about writing. Instead, this is about running. Or rather, trying to run.
When lockdown came in, I stopped commuting which meant I also stopped my walk to and from the station, which included a section across a field. This has always been one of my favourite parts of the day – in the morning, having the place almost to myself, spotting rabbits, even an occasional deer and in the evening, the wonderful sense of approaching home. The simple act of walking also triggers ideas and the solution to many a tricky writing problem has come while walking.
So, in order to keep up a level of exercise while working from home, I started the NHS Couch to 5k programme (any earthquakes in the East Anglian region – that’ll be me).
This programme is designed to enable anyone to be able to run continuosly for 30 minutes in 9 weeks. I have started this programme and, indeed, am now able to run for much longer than I could (statistically, an infinite amount more, given I was starting from zero minutes). So this is good.
But, but, but – I’m waiting for the moment when I start loving running. I keep reading articles which wax lyrical about how they have taken this programme and are now addicted to running. All I can say is it ain’t happened yet. I find running tedious, partly because I’m not very good at it. You would think that something so fundamental to our species’ survival would come naturally but no. I find that my mind is concentrating so hard on getting one foot in front of the other that it doesn’t go off on the wonderful rambles which fill plot holes. Any suggestions, gratefully received but it is definitely filed under duty not pleasure…