Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
Wild's End by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard, additional material by me, and Fiefdom are available. Out of Tune Vol 2 is out in May

Friday, 31 May 2013

I Submit


Has it really come to this?

I read this tweet on my feed the other day:

Not taking electronic submissions, today, is essentially saying you don't want foreigners on your list. 

It made me wonder where the prejudice might lie, and why. Submissions are submissions are submissions. We are writers; we spend our lives submitting our work. Every agent, every publisher, every writing competition seems to have its own set of guidelines for submissions, and the first rule of submitting is that writers submitting work follow the guidelines to the letter. If those guidelines include that the submissions must be made by post, what of it? If the writer is submitting, by mail, from overseas it only means submitting a little earlier, probably only a few days earlier, than a writer submitting by mail, locally. 

If everyone is submitting by post, surely the playing field is, for all sensible purposes, level?

I know the writer who wrote this tweet, a little. I have met him a few times. He is published, he is prolific, and I do not believe for a moment that anything would prevent him from submitting if he chose to, and certainly not the idea that he might have to walk to his local post office in order to mail his submission from his home, which, from most places, might be considered to be overseas. The minor disadvantage of a couple of days less to work on his piece would not deter him.

I wonder why he made this statement. 

Have we really come so far down the track of technology, are we really so reliant upon it that we cannot think of an alternative method of sending a document from A to B? The best writers have always been known globally, translated widely and appreciated cross-culturally. Not taking electronic submissions allows those few without access to a computer to submit work. My mother lives in the middle of the first world, but she is not computer literate. She could write a short story on her electronic typewriter and post it, and why shouldn’t she? 

I don’t know how poor you’d have to be to miss out on a wi-fi connection in some parts of the World, or how far into the third world you’d have to be to struggle to find a reliable connection from which to send a piece of work electronically, but I imagine there are still places where poverty and connectivity are an issue, but where writers still write and might just be able to post out a manuscript from.

In the late 80s and early 90s the husband was not penalised by the comics industry in the US because he is British. Editors at the big American comic book publishers could have decided employing him was too complicated. Telephone conversations were expensive and difficult because of time zones, everything had to be FedExed, which was time consuming and expensive, or, later, faxed, which wasn’t always reliable. Nevertheless, he was talented, and so he was employed, despite the logistical problems. The advent of the computer and of e-mailing made all of that easier, of course, but, at the time, nothing stopped him from working, or them from employing him.

I’m sure none of these are the reasons why some agents, publishers and competitions prefer not to take electronic submissions. Who knows, maybe their reasons are to do with the technology and security surrounding the huge volumes of incoming mail and attachments inviting submissions generates. Maybe it’s the fault of technology and our lack of understanding of how best to employ it. It’s not unreasonable to think so, is it?

The bottom line is this: When writers are given the opportunity to submit their work, however they are given that opportunity, there is seldom a good reason not to take it, and having to walk to the post office really can’t constitute a good enough reason... can it?





Thursday, 30 May 2013

Writing and the Memory Hypothesis


I have all sorts of issues with memory and the fact that mine is erratic at best. I have lost years along the way, and hundreds of people, because of my own particular brand of mind madness.

A rare photo of me as a child, with my mother
I do know one thing, though. I know that my memories go back a very long way. I know that my memories go back to sitting in my pram and to crawling, and I know that even my earliest memories contain the kind of minutiae that is rare even for remembrances of big important events. Unlike lots of other people, I also don't have photos to aid my memory, since there are very few of me as a child, or of the rest of my family.

I was reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and he too spoke of memory, and I began to wonder whether having the kind of memory that has total recall of the pattern and fringing on a pram canopy, or the shoes I wore on my first day of school is common among storytellers. I wonder if the capacity to tell stories comes partly from a wellspring of details that we happen to have in our heads. I never need to search for a child’s plaid cape, for a man’s driving gloves, for a punk hair style or a fancy brass escutcheon, because those things live in my memories. I never need to wonder what a lace petticoat feels like or a scratchy jumper or the trickle of a nosebleed or the stub of a toe. Memory serves me well. I recall the standard decor of every age since the sixties, and the advent of gas fires and then central heating, of chest freezers and then fridge freezers. I remember when Woolworths had ashtrays on stands at the ends of the aisles for the smokers. 

All these things live in my recall, and there is no effort on my part to transfer the details I need for any story into the prose I am writing, and I have five decades of this stuff. It’s mundane, I suppose, the layers of detail that make up the backdrop of our lives, but I can’t help thinking that having it all there is a great enabler for the storyteller.

The husband’s memory is not unlike mine. It goes back almost as far and is equally rich in detail. I know this, because we’ve talked about it. He has fewer gaps, and remembers more of the books he’s read and the films he’s watched, and more of the research he’s done, over the years, but he has the advantage of having a more conventional brain chemistry. I don’t often envy him, but his facility for remembering plots, scenarios, locations, scientific theories and other bits and bobs certainly shows in his work, and must make his job easier.

I often speak to my brothers and sisters about our childhoods. I’m rather fascinated by our experiences and how we have processed them. We shared life-changing episodes, which influenced our lives in very different ways, and I am still looking for answers as to why that might be, beyond the facts that we are all very different people.

I shall never have the answers, and there are several reasons for that.

We all bring our own interpretations to events in our childhoods, and that is only fair. Family relationships and the politics that surround them are endlessly complicated, and that’s fair too.

The single biggest impediment to my getting the answers to those questions, however, is that my brothers and sisters simply do not remember the events of our childhoods. Of the five of us, three remember almost nothing prior to secondary school, at which time they would have been eleven years old... Almost nothing!

I’ve tried sharing some of my memories, thinking that a little prompting might jog theirs’, but it simply doesn’t happen.

I wonder if this is why I am a storyteller and they are not. I wonder if the fact that I can remember a dress I was wearing on a particular day, or that I can remember what my sister was wearing, too, or the slide in my mother’s hair, or the pie my grandmother cooked makes me different from other people.

I also wonder whether it makes me the same as other writers.

I’d really be very interested to find out.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Number of the Beast


Some of us look around to explain ourselves any way that we can, and for some of us, our loved ones look around to explain us in any way they can, because some of us take some explaining.

I’ve always tried not to do this, because, while I’m hugely interested in the ways that people have developed to explain that which is inexplicable, I’m also a bit of a fan of good old-fashioned reflection. I can’t help believing that the mind is better at revealing a person than the lines on his hand or the bumps on his head.

I’m not above reading my horoscope for the amusement of doing it, but it was my mother who had my chart done. I’m not above making a note of which way my handwriting slopes or how generous the loops on my ‘g’s and ‘y’s are, but it was only because a friend of mine was reviewing a graphology software package, and needed subjects, that I had my handwriting analysed. I’m not above having a lucky number, but it was only because the husband bought a beautiful edition of The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish, and was fascinated by the section on numerology, that I worked out my numbers.
The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish

I wonder that I allow this stuff to happen at all.

It never ends well... not for me at least. My mother, my friends, and now the husband are rather impressed with the results, and I am left wondering why no one listened to me in the first place. 

Why is mumbo-jumbo of any stripe more convincing than my own assessments of my character?

I know why, of course.

It is because my assessments of my character suggest that I am complex, and anyone who makes any claims to be, in any way complex, must, by definition, consider herself to be more interesting and, therefore, more worth knowing than other people. It is deemed arrogant to assess oneself as complex, and if it is arrogance it is almost certainly at best an exaggeration, and, at worst a lie.

It’s a nonsense, of course. 

Being complex doesn’t make me cleverer or more interesting than anyone else; it doesn’t make me more talented, funnier, lovelier or better company; it doesn’t make me more caring or sexier, and it doesn’t make me happier.

I’m complex because my brain chemistry works outside what might be considered to be the normal ranges. That is all. 

Because of that, I have probably spent more time and energy thinking about who I am and how I work than people whose brain chemistry is more normal, not because I want to, but because I have had to in order to survive the trials and tribulations that my brain chemistry has forced upon me.

I happen to believe that gives me certain small advantages over other people, along with some quite significant disadvantages. One of those small advantages is that I am able to explain to people who I am and what I’m like, should I choose to, without the need or desire to resort to horoscopes, palm reading, numerology, graphology or any other magical or mystical wonders, whether I, or the person I’m explaining myself to, believe in them or not.

Numerology is particularly interesting since it requires the subject to know her name, and that’s something that I’ve struggled with my entire life. I’ve even written about it in this blog.

For those of you who are fans of the art, if you happen to use my birthdate, instead of my name, you might just find that I’m an eleven.

Go figure.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Control and Restraint


There are two reasons for writing this blog. 

The first is that I mentioned to another woman about my age, who is fast becoming a firm friend, that I had recently been at a very formal event with a lot of people who had shown a very great deal of restraint where I showed very little.

I pointed out that it wasn’t uncommon. I have a huge amount of control, but very little restraint. Almost everybody else, it seems to me, has the opposite. My new friend laughed, and sympathised, feeling that, while she had never quite put it in so many words, she was more like me than she was like other people. I had a lot of fun at the event, more perhaps than did other people.

The second reason for me writing this blog was that I had a conversation, recently, with a Swedish writer about words, and translation, in particular, and I wondered how this blog might be translated and whether ‘control’ and ‘restraint’ would have equivalents in other languages, whether that subtlety exists. Of course it does, perhaps not with individual words, perhaps only with phrases and even sentences. It might mean that people have to talk faster and for longer to make their points, and I talk fast enough and long enough, and stretch most people’s patience as it is, but I sincerely hope that even without half-a-dozen words that all mean subtle variations of one thing, that all languages contain colour and texture and a breadth and depth of those things that allow nuanced understanding... How else would we communicate both so well and so badly?

So... Control and restraint.

I have few filters, particularly when it comes to thinking and moving freely from one thought or idea to the next, and I am happy to change my mind or even contradict myself without feeling that I have compromised my integrity. 

The same is true of talking. I do not hold back. I do not consider what I want to say or how I want to express myself before the words have left my mouth. It means that I am honest to a fault, and, even that I can be confrontational, some would say brutal, in my approach to discourse. It is never my intention to offend, but I am also incredibly free with my apologies, and happy to backtrack when I have overstepped a mark, or to be corrected when I err.

That is what I mean when I say that I have no restraint.

I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I become agitated or excited, if I am thrilled or appalled, you will read those expressions in my face, and my words will reflect those feelings. I am an open book. I do not measure my responses... at least not more than basic decorum requires that I measure them.

Control, on the other hand, I have in spades. 

I struggle not to share thoughts and words.

Actions are something else.

It seems to me that people with restraint are generally charmed and amused by people without restraint, just as soon as they realise that those people who have no restraint do at least have control.

I was in quite a large and merry group a little while ago. We were mostly writers and academics attending a party, and some of us decided to go on for late drinks afterwards.

There is no doubt in my mind that there were people in the party with restraint, but no control. Those people only ever lose control in private, and, when they do, they are their own private affairs, and good luck to them. 

Earlier in the evening I was confronted by a younger partygoer, who had neither restraint nor control. It was a tricky situation, and one that I tried, early on, to take control of. Sadly, this was the sort of person who lacked subtlety, as people who have neither restraint nor control often do. When one of the older men suggested late drinks, I tried again to lose the partygoer, saying that ‘the grown-ups’ were moving on. Somehow, this particular person managed to latch on to the group, and the die was cast.

A smart hotel bar is not the place to quaff other people’s rather expensive cocktails, or to stumble about breaking glasses or to try to snog almost anyone of either sex. It is most certainly the place to exercise a little restraint or a little control, or a little of each.

In the end another of our number, a businessman, who, if I had to guess, probably loses control spectacularly, and with consummate style in private, sacrificed himself and escorted the unfortunate creature off the premises, to all our relief. The rest was fixed with a very generous tip.

Restraint, I think, is more common than control, and I’m not going to judge which is of greater value, except to myself. Control has kept me sane, and a lack of restraint has kept me entertained, and, to some extent, has provided me with an education of sorts.

There are times when I wish I had exercised a little restraint, but, mostly, I find others immensely forgiving of what they consider my small foibles and minor eccentricities, and I thank them for it and hold them dear to my heart because of it.

I hope for those who maintain restraint in order to lose control, that it’s worth it to them, but I can’t help thinking they live more dangerous lives than I do. Frankly, I couldn’t bear all that excitement... and I’d be bound to end up feeling guilty about something.

I do hope that most of us manage one or the other, though, and I hope that the young and restless, especially our party-going acquaintance, settle their hearts and minds; they have nothing to prove, and when that lesson is learned there is fun to be had with people who genuinely want to enjoy their company rather than dread it.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here


I was at the airport on Thursday, rooting around in the newsagent’s for newspapers and magazines to wile away the couple of hours I would have to spend in the sky to get me to Sweden. The husband and I had been invited to Gothenburg, him to open a big SF book shop and me to sign some books and sit on a panel or two.

It was the day after the hate crime in Woolwich that I cited in Thursday’s blog, There is Nothing to Say.

I am not entirely comfortable with flying. I never was. I’m not entirely comfortable with fast cars or with tunnels either; it’s all a bit of a joke in our house. I did not want to be reminded of mindless violence and of the possibility of terrorism when I was about to get on a plane, so I didn’t buy any of the newspapers with front pages that had pictures of desperate, bloody men, holding weapons. It was too sad and too terrible.

As the husband and I left the shop with some awful selection of mindless consumerist magazines that remain untouched in their plastic sleeves, because I’m not really that person, and I can’t bear to believe that I am, I noticed a sign above the walkway ahead of me.

Airports are full of signs, often in more than one language. They direct the in-transit traveller from one  check-in to another, through various barriers and checkpoints. They herd us, toilet us, clean us up and move us on. There is little room for anything but the stop and start that is our ingress and egress through the permanently revolving door of any airport.

Except this sign gave me pause. It wasn’t moving me on. It didn’t require that I check anything in or out. It didn’t direct me to yet another check point. I didn’t require money, a ticket, a passport, or anything else.

The sign above the walkway read:

MULTI-FAITH ROOM.

Of course we all know what this room is intended for. It is intended for those of us who are afraid of the unknown, the unlikely and the, frankly, frightening. It is intended for those of us who need more than a little reassurance, a prescription for valium, a lucky rabbit’s foot, or a kiss from a loved one. 

The multi-faith room is there for those of us who need a God to pray to for our safe passage, or for the safe passage of those we love, through the air to whatever destination we or they hope to reach.

The room  has no faith. Some of the people who use the room must, I suppose, have faith, and not all faiths, but, presumably one faith each... faith in one God, his or her own specific, individual god. In some cases that God will represent little more than desperation.

One man prays to his God for safe passage while another prayers for martyrdom, and they sit side-by-side in one room intended for all faiths, and perhaps that’s how it should be, and perhaps that’s what we all deserve.

Except that isn’t how it is, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll be sitting reading this and asking yourself who exactly uses this multi-faith room.

I’ll tell you who... In the World we live in... In the World where it’s possible for anyone to invoke a deity while igniting a bomb, no one uses a multi-faith room.

That’s OK. 

Right now, that’s pretty much exactly what we deserve.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

There is Nothing to Say


There is nothing left to say. 

Nothing seems to make a difference, and I am tired. 

I think many of us are tired.

I am caucasian and anglo, and nominally christian. I am liberal, educated, somewhat politically aware, and it all makes me sick and despairing.

It began, I suppose when my Scottish mother married my English father. It wasn’t a very big deal, not much of a cultural leap of faith, not very demanding to expect people to accept the union, I suppose. Nevertheless, that’s where it began, with my very middle-class, Scottish raised mother marrying my working-class, English father. They had very little in common with regard to family and background, but they’ve now been married for 57 years, so something worked.

One way or another things didn’t stop there, and, now, my children have cousins who are mixed caucasian/asian, christian/hindu and their cousins are mixed asian/west indian. They have cousins who are mixed caucasian/asian, christian/sikh. Beyond that, my niece married an Egyptian boy and my cousin married a Taiwanese girl. My younger daughter’s first boyfriend was also Mauritian.

We are a culturally rich family, and we all feel the benefits of entering into close relationships with wonderful people, whoever they might be and wherever they might hail from. 

Death is among us again, this time with a fatal attack on a soldier in Woolwich, ostensibly because of our differences of skin colour and belief systems. Death is among us again because of hatred and desperation, because of cruelty and prejudice, and because of an utter lack of understanding.

There is nothing left to say.

Nothing seems to make a difference, and I am tired.

When we failed to play nicely as children, when we fell out and fought, when we bickered and sulked, my mother would admonish us saying that she wondered how nations could be expected to live happily side by side when brothers and sisters couldn’t.

The truth is, in the end, that brothers and sisters can live happily side by side, and they can do it with a complex set of relationships with spouses and children, an extended family grown over decades with new members successfully integrated from any number of backgrounds. They can do it without diplomacy, without politics and without expert negotiators. They can do it with love and common sense, because they are people first.

There is nothing left to say.

Nothing seems to make a difference, and I am tired.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Kids, Drunks and Pissed Off People...


... are the only ones who are honest... 

Don’t you just hate it when you only have half of the information you want and you can’t track down the other half?

As a general rule, my blogs are not planned, but if I have a thought out of context that might make a decent blog, I am sensible enough to make a note of it. That’s what I did in this instance. I jotted down a note, but not an attribution, and now I can’t attribute the quote that isn’t a quote because it’s really only a summary.

I didn’t think it’d be difficult to find the information later, but some silly sod misquoted or summarised as a FaceBook status update, which spread like wildfire, and now that’s all I can find.

Hohum.

Anyway, this is how it goes, and you’ll just have to trust that I did see this, and that I am reporting it conversationally, and that I’m going to give you my opinion on it, as I always do.

You’ll have to trust that I’m being honest, and, since this is a blog about honesty, I hope that will suffice.

The quote I saw, and I’m paraphrasing, of course... The quote I saw said that kids, drunks and pissed off people are the only ones who are truly honest.

I had one of those moments... one of my many moments when I wanted to throw my hands up in horror and scream at the World.

Do people really live like this? Is this the sort of universal truth whereby someone feels they can say this with impunity, that an audience, any audience will nod along sagely as if this is the accepted norm.

Oh good grief!

Look at that again. Think about it.

To be honest in the World and the society we live in, we have to be out of control of our emotions, we have to suspend our good judgement and we have to cast aside the social niceties.

Really?

I have a number of issues with that.

Firstly, I can’t believe it isn’t possible to be honest and still be able to moderate my language, maintain my composure and appear entirely reasonable while making my point.

Secondly, I don’t believe the World or the people in it are so fragile that they can’t handle my version of the truth, or even agree with it.

Thirdly, while I might be in a minority, when did the World become so cynical and why? And what is the good of us all shutting up and not speaking the truth when we might all be thinking the very same thing?

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with being a kid, and there’s nothing wrong with talking like a kid. Kids get a bad press. They get a bad press, mostly because adults are doing a crappy job of raising them. Kids are going to school in nappies because their parents aren’t toilet training them. Kids are screaming their heads off in restaurants, upsetting other diners, because they haven’t been taught not to. Kids are running riot in shops because their parents can’t be bothered to keep a tighter rein on them. None of that is the kids’ fault. Kids tell the truth, but they also learn to lie pretty young, and the first lies they tell are hilariously funny.

There isn’t much wrong with angry people, either. Bill Hicks was angry and he had plenty of useful stuff to say. Stewart Lee is angry, and probably my favourite comedian, the most politically aware, the man with the conscience. I can’t help thinking it’s time some of our right thinking, left wing politicians got angry and started telling the truth, for crying out loud.

Of course, our politicians should always have told the truth.

Like everyone else, I’ve been afraid of the truth from time to time, but I always do my best to gird my loins and say what I think. My mother used to tell us kids to tell the truth and shame the devil. I can’t help thinking that she might have had a point. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Why Buy the Cow when you can get the Milk for Free part ii


First of all, let me say hi, it’s been a while. I’ve been madly busy, and I plan to write about that, but, today, I’ve got something to say, by way of a snark, and I plan to say it while I’m feeling exercised about it.

I’m going to pretend it’s Monday, mostly because I usually reserve Monday’s blog slot for remarks about something I’ve found in the Sunday papers. Today I want to talk about something I’ve found out about the Sunday papers, or, in this particular instance The Observer, although I’m sure the same holds true for most, if not all, of the Sundays and for many other papers, magazines, journals, and all kinds of  sites that take written material, articles and reviews.

The husband and I were sitting having a curry in Oxford last night with several graduate students, fine, talented, upstanding men, all, although I wonder if it isn’t a little odd that there wasn’t a single woman among them, but I digress... upstanding men, all, and we were discussing the fact that one of them has recently been asked to contribute occasional reviews to The Observer. He considers this to be a feather in his cap, and a foot in the door, a step on the path to becoming that which he’d like to be. That’s all good, and I was happy for him, until he said, and I quote, “Of course, I’m not getting paid for it.”

It was a casual, almost throwaway comment, and he saw no injustice in it. He said it with a shrug. It was only to be expected. 

I wanted to scream at him, and I very nearly did. I asked him whether he’d been in The Observer’s offices, which he has, and yes they are swanky, and the chairs in reception probably did cost a grand each. I asked him if he knew that the celebrity columnists were paid in the region of four figures for their weekly columns. I asked him whether he thought the staffer who subbed his reviews might expect to be paid, or the ad sales team. He pointed out that the other occasional, freelance reviewers weren’t paid. I asked him why they didn’t unionise.

Then I wondered which century we were living in for crying out loud. 

He pointed out that if he didn’t do the job someone else would. I pointed out that it wasn’t a job since HE WASN’T GETTING PAID!

You see, I got shouty.

He shrugged.

Then the bloke next to him talked about his internship on a radio show, and he named the left wing comedian who headed up the show.

Wait a minute, The Observer is reputed to be a left wing paper and this comedian is known for his left wing politics, and yet they are both exploiting kids for free labour. How does anybody sleep at night?

I very nearly called this blog “Elitism and Internships”.

There is a reason why this American model is bad for us, and it’s the same reason why it’s bad for the Americans. It’s because the best people for the job, don’t get the job... not the internship, and not the entry level job once the internship is completed.

The kids that apply for internships are the kids who can afford to work for nothing, which usually means their parents are picking up the tabs for their living expenses. The brightest and best are not necessarily applying for internships so there is a huge pool of untapped talent.

Many entry level jobs are being won by people who have internships on their cvs, because they are thought to be more experienced and more willing to work, after all, they were prepared to take an internship and work for nothing. The fact that they probably worked for nothing while suffering no hardship for their choices counts for nothing and is not even recognised, so that huge pool of untapped talent, the brightest and best that couldn’t afford to apply for an internship, is excluded from entry level jobs, and employees continue to miss out.

This system denies kids the opportunity to prove themselves and denies employers the best chance to employ the best candidates... And WORKERS DON’T GET PAID !

There used to be laws against workers not getting paid. People fought for them... centuries ago!

I don’t know if those two young men will rally. I wish they felt more militant about it. I certainly feel militant on their behalf.

When I told them I was writing this blog, their first reaction was to beg me not to use their names. All I could do was ask them what the hell they were afraid of. They are young men who ought not to be afraid of anything. How have we wrung the spirit out of our most promising, most articulate kids almost before they’ve begun? Why aren’t they politicised? Why won’t they stand up for themselves? What have we done to them?

I’ll tell you what we’ve done... We’ve lowered their expectations so far that they fail to see their own value. We do them a disservice.

I hope one day they’ll see that, and, when they do, I hope they will fight back, and I hope they win that fight, because it’s about time something changed.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Everyone’s talking about... Angelina Jolie’s Tits


Shocking, isn’t it, when I put it like that?

I was shocked, when I heard, the other day, that Angelina Jolie has had a double mastectomy as a result of her family medical history, her mother’s death, and her own dramatically increased likelihood of being a victim of breast cancer.

I was shocked that it is sixteen years since her mother’s initial diagnosis, and six years since her death, at the age of fifty-six.

I was shocked that Angelina Jolie is now within striking distance of forty!

I was not at all surprised by the media circus surrounding the announcement, nor that Ms Jolie decided to make a statement about her choices and her surgery in the press. I hope that what she has done will help to raise awareness for breast cancer and for preventive measures and care.

This is a very personal story, however, and one that affects very few women, most of whom will already be aware of their increased risks from the disease, because most of them will already have seen too many of the women they love suffer and die from this disease. The rest of us, those of us who follow the Stars, live in the first World and have all the benefits of modern medicine, including breast screening.

First World women will not be helped much by Ms Jolie exposing herself in this way, and the rest of the World’s women are unlikely to be helped at all.

I hope that Ms Jolie made good choices for herself, and that she has escaped a miserable fate. I hope that she lives a long, happy, productive life, raises her children and grandchildren, and even bounces her great-grandchildren on her slender, pretty knees in the decades to come.

I can’t help wondering, though, who advised her to go public with this very private information. I can’t help wondering which publicist sat down with what spin doctor and decided that if word ever got out that Ms Jolie had spent time in hospital and hadn’t been forthcoming about it, her reputation could be irreparably damaged. I can’t help wondering who stood up in a meeting and suggested that all hell might break loose if anyone ever found out that Ms Jolie’s perfect breasts had ever been under a surgeon’s knife, for any reason. 

Do they look a little higher or firmer or rounder, or even bigger than they used to, or should for a woman her age?

Angelina Jolie
I don’t read gossip, but it seems to endure in the World’s press and get more speculative and less pleasant with every year that passes. Who’s sleeping with who? And who’s had what work done? And is that a baby bump? And how much cellulite can one pair of thighs possibly sustain? seem to be burning questions in the minds of so-called journalists.

If I was Ms Jolie, I’m not sure I’d want the World to know what medical procedures I might have undergone, or why. I think the personal cost hugely outweighs any good she can possibly do for any potential breast cancer victim of her particular stripe, and I think her ‘people’ have done her a disservice.

Today I saw a comment on a newsfeed, suggesting that Ms Jolie couldn’t possibly know what other women in the same position go through, simply because she happens to be able to afford the best medical care and reconstructive surgery, as if that makes up for the trauma of the decision-making process or of losing her breasts, let alone her mother. Most women going through this don’t have the gaze of a hungry, bitter, cynical public on them, either.

I rather wish Ms Jolie’s ‘people’ had advised her differently... I rather fear that this is all she’ll ever be allowed to talk about from now on.

I also wonder how Hollywood will treat her. Notoriously conservative, TinselTown struggles to cast gay actors as leading men...

... It’s not a huge leap to wonder how the powers that be will deal with this, is it?

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Antisocial Behaviour


The husband and I quite often go out for a drink on a Monday night.

I know it seems odd, but the reason we do it is because we don’t very often go out at the weekend, or, at least, we didn’t. Lately, we’ve become rather more sociable, and have taken one or two forays out on a Saturday night for dinner, and have enjoyed ourselves hugely. As a rule, though, we stay home on Friday and Saturday nights, leaving our local town centre to the young and gorgeous.

We go out for a drink on Monday nights, because it’s generally very quiet out, and because the husband has taken to drinking cocktails. We can be fairly confident that our favourite cocktail bar will be quiet, and Paul, who works the bar on a Monday night will have time to mix something special, often of his own choosing.

So, that’s where we were last night, in our favourite bar, drinking, I believe, a Pisco Sour for him and a Negroni for me, when a man walked in and ordered a Whisky, a McAllen, I believe, a double with one ice cube. He introduced himself to the barman by name, shook his hand and left a tip. He sat at the table next to ours, but with his back to us, and quietly drank his drink.

I was standing talking to Paul at the bar, and to the husband, opposite, when the customer interjected. His conversational gambit was entirely appropriate, polite and perfectly seamless, so, of course, he was soon included in the conversation. Why wouldn’t he be?

We started talking books.

When I came back from the bathroom, a little while later, the husband was apologising to the man. He had inadvertently let slip that Iain Banks is seriously ill. It turns out that the chap is quite a fan. When he got up to have his glass freshened at the bar, I naturally had his next drink added to our bill. I couldn’t have the husband drop a bombshell like that and not buy the poor man a drink. One thing led to another and we had a very convivial hour or two together.

It’s not a terribly unusual story, is it?

I would think not. This sort of thing happens fairly regularly. I talk to people all the time. On the other hand, perhaps that’s just me.

This man has been living in our town for nine months, having moved from Tooting to take up a job in our local hospital. He’s a doctor, as it turns out. He’s quite a junior doctor, but nonetheless, he’s a young professional, and he moved to a strange town, alone, nine whole months ago. He told me that last night was the first time that strangers had welcomed him into their circle, even for a drink and a conversation.

How bloody miserable is that?

He was a perfectly ordinary, perfectly nice bloke. In fact, he was a little more than that, because he was more intelligent, more educated, more socially aware, and  more willing to make an effort than a great many other people might be. He had popped out for something and walked into a bar on a Monday evening on the off chance that he might meet someone, and he’s been walking into public arenas on the off chance for nine months.

It shouldn’t be as tough as that! It really shouldn’t!

We’re all only too happy to meet and talk to total strangers on-line for no better reason than because they happen to have turned up in the same forum or chat room as us. They could be anyone, and probably are. We talk to people on the web with fake names and cartoon avatars, and we think nothing of it, but we won’t shake hands with a real person in a bar and share a drink with him.

Shame on us!

I think we can do better than that, don’t you?

Leo actually thanked us for not rebuffing his conversational gambit; he needn’t have. I like to think that’s something I would never do. You might think twice before turning your back the next time a stranger is friendly to you in person, because it might be a while since they had a real conversation with a real somebody, and, who knows, one of these days, you might be the new guy in town, and, do you know what? You just might meet someone fabulous.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Big Bang Theory... For Really Reals!


It has become my practice to devote Monday’s blog to something or other of interest, to me at least, from the Sunday papers, except, yesterday, I didn’t get to look at the Sundays, because I was doing something rather more interesting... I was having a fascinating, real life conversation about extraordinary stuff, over a very good English breakfast cooked by the husband.

I haven’t seen Jules for a grillionty-ten years... He’s happy enough with that number, and he began his adult life as a mathematician... He and the husband were best friends at grammar school, back in the seventies and eighties, and, because of social networking... yes it does have its upside... Because of social network, they  rediscovered one another, reignited their relationship, and, as it happens, so did Jules and I, since we were also well acquainted, and while passing through England between his home in the US and a trade show in Germany, he came for said breakfast. I’m very glad he did.

Jules is unashamed to call himself a geek. He was a geek when we met, when computers had BBC emblazoned on the front and took 5 five inch floppy discs, when Pong was the height of sophistication in game consoles, and long before the ZX Spectrum was on the market. He studied maths at Cambridge and played long, involved, but fiercely exciting games of Traveller, which the husband refereed. 

Jules is my latest reluctant hero.

From time to time, you will hear me banging on about carbon footprints and climate change, and how we all have a responsibility to moderate our habits, to consume less, to get the ball rolling on doing something to preserve the planet we all have to live on, for our kids and their kids.

Jules talked about this very usefully, by pointing out that there are four types of people on the planet: those who have nothing, those who have a light bulb, those who have a washing machine, and those who have everything. If you’re reading this, you have everything. In any given timeframe a percentage of the population jumps from one bracket to the next, and with that jump comes a vast increase in energy consumption... And I mean VAST!

We all sit smugly talking about how we buy locally grown produce and offset air miles and use greener detergents and drive more efficient cars. We all blame the Americans for their gas guzzlers and the Chinese for their industrial development... 

... And we all consume the internet as if it were powered by fairy dust.

All those clouds run off servers that consume electricity, and they are all housed in buildings that are cooled, because those servers produce vast amounts of heat, and the air-con consumes more electricity, and the hunger for the internet, for instant global communication and networking of this kind is never going to change, and the demand is always going to be more and it is never going to go away.

Jules is working on the most extraordinary technologies. He’s all about applications, so he more or less refuses to take any credit for any of this, but I’m going to talk about him, anyway.

Here’s what’s happening in Jules’s company:

Non-silicon based technologies are being developed to build much more efficient transistors, so electricity can be used more efficiently, and produce less heat as a bi-product.

If that isn’t good news, I have no idea what is!

I use energy efficient bulbs, and have done since they were available, and I turn off appliances instead of leaving them on standby. When I replace an appliance, I also replace it with the most energy efficient option. I never wash at a temperature higher than 30 degrees, and so on...

It had never crossed my mind to think about how the electricity got off the grid and into my house, and from there into individual appliances and so on down the line, but I’m very, very glad that there are very clever people who think about those things for us.

We’re not going to turn off our appliances unless or until we have to. We’re going to have to adapt better technologies in order to reduce our carbon footprints on those things, and this seems to me like a very intelligent way to tackle one issue.

I had only heard about this technology yesterday morning, over breakfast, but, some Sunday, soon, you’ll be reading about it in your Sunday papers, and, very soon after that we’ll all be using the technologies that prove most efficient and cost effective, without even knowing that we’re doing it, because they’ll all be integral to the services and appliances we buy... Maybe, in the fulness of time, we’ll even see reductions in our fuel bills as a result.

Sometimes... you know... progress really is a good thing.

Just for fun, Jules took out a tiny little box and very carefully uncovered some of his product. These things were so small I had to look at them through a magnifying glass, and, if it wasn't enough that they're little marvels of technology, they are, also, terribly pretty.

I know it's daft, and I know that some scientist somewhere will tell me that human's perceive as beautiful the most robust or adaptive bits of nature, rather than the other way around, but, somehow, all the best bits of science always do seem to be the most beautiful, don't they?

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Doctor Who... The In-Joke

I like clever people and the in-jokes they play.

I’m not necessarily claiming to be clever, but I plant lots of little jokes in my stories, simply for my own pleasure. They often revolve around names. For example, my story Cell for the Sabbat Worlds Anthology was about resistance fighters, so I gave them all monikers derived from old French, and just to add to my own delight, I gave them all Huguenot names, because that’s where Abnett came from, originally. Yes, it takes a little longer to research, but the names have to come from somewhere and it stands to reason that people from one region might have names that share something in common, so I’d be researching them anyway, so my little whims and jokes give me a starting point.

As many of my regular readers know, I’m not a great sleeper, so I put my iPad on my nightstand and tune in to NetFlix for boring tv. I don’t, after all, want anything that’s going to keep me awake. The other night, I was watching an episode of Kingdom with Stephen Fry; it was, in fact, series 3, episode 2, and it was a storyline about crop circles and UFO enthusiasts. Among the characters was Dr Who as played by Tom Baker, or, in this case, a lookalike. 

This was all meant to be amusing, and it was, of course.

It was the sub-plot, headed up by Lyle Anderson, ably played by Karl Davies, that had the pathos with an elderly couple threatened with eviction, but it was also in the sub-plot that the most satisfying joke of the piece was played out.

It was all in the casting.

Colin Baker as Dr Who
The elderly man, the mainstay of the couple, the householder under threat from eviction and the carer of fifteen dogs was played by non-other than Colin Baker... Dr Who number Six.

I do hope lots of other people enjoyed the joke, too, but I suspect whoever indulged himself with the casting choices really didn’t care, one way or the other.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Gift part ii


Having talked about the myth of the poor artist, and how attached to it we all are, how poverty somehow feeds the artist, how he must be hungry or needy, in some way, in order to produce something of value, I was thrilled to be introduced to an opposing view while listening to Front Row last night.

Angela Gheorghiu, the singer, found that she was unable to perform when she was in a state of emotional distress. She actually left the stage and was hospitalised, during her divorce, and, quite literally, found it impossible to sing. For this artist, at least, hardship did not feed her art. To perform, this woman had to feel calm and content.

I wonder whether this holds true for other artists of other stripes. I suspect that it might. I suspect that it very well might hold true for artists who require the use of their bodies to make their work. An artist who cannot hold his pencil or paintbrush, because he’s so nervous or upset that he is shaking, an actor who cannot speak because he is so anxious he is hyperventilating, a dancer crippled by nausea resulting from grief or distress... None of these things is hard to imagine.

I wonder whether it might hold true for writers, too. I wonder whether I produce my best work when my life is easy. On the face of it, of course, my life is permanently easy.

On the other hand... I have stated, more than once, that I can work under most circumstances, that I simply sit at my computer and get on with it, because that’s what professionals do, and it’s true. What I don’t talk about much is the years that I spent editing and proofreading, and not writing, at least not much and not longform fiction. 

I write a lot, now, and I write through all sorts of difficulties. I very rarely have a day when I absolutely cannot put words or thoughts on file. They do happen, but I can reliably pick myself up and move on again, quickly, usually within a day or two and without any real fallout.

Those years spent editing and proofreading and working at the periphery, and wishing I was doing other things and wondering whether I ever really would were also the years I spent choosing not to medicate for my bi-polar.

It’s a choice that a lot of bi-polar people make for a variety of reasons.

We’re used to writers and artists and creative types being a little eccentric; we rather like them to be that way; it’s part of how we understand who they are and what they do. I have no problem being considered to be ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’ or ‘neurotic’ or even, at a pinch, ‘difficult’. In fact, during the time I’ve spent with the husband, and it’s been a bloody long time, it’s been a sort of charming aside that he rather likes ‘difficult women’.

I’m rather glad it became sufficiently unbearable for me to opt for medication in the end. I’m rather glad I decided I needed a break from all the things that I thought made me who I was and needed to be. I’m rather glad that my creativity was finally allowed to breath, that I was finally calm enough and content enough to be able to sit at a computer and put those thoughts and words down consistently and confidently, and do it often enough and for long enough to produce finished work, and to do it for... how many books is it now? Seven? With how many more in the pipelines? Well... that'd be telling.

Just like everyone else, sometimes we have to live with poverty and mental illness, but being creative shouldn’t bring with it a life sentence of either or both of those things. They don’t help us any more than they help any one else.

Poverty and mental illness are problems wherever they occur; there is no romance in them, so let’s not pretend that there is... even for creative types.