Good Red Herring

"Neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring."

Tories, troubles and trolleys


Here’s how it looks from my corner of the sofa:

In 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, called a referendum for the people of the UK to vote whether to remain in the EU or to leave it. This was an election promise he’d made to appease the Eurosceptic element of his own party (plus, I reckon, he was hoping that a sizeable Remain majority would force those same Eurosceptics to finally shut the fuck up).

It was a referendum that should never have been called. The UK is a representative democracy, not a plebiscite. These are difficult issues and that is precisely why we have MPs – to work through them on our behalf and try to do the best thing. We are not supposed to have these things dumped summarily on our heads. 

However, dumped they were so we had to make the best of it. I am a natural Remainer but the EU is not perfect and there are probably some very strong and reasonable arguments in favour of leaving it. But we were given none of those arguments. 

Instead, the Leave campaign bombarded us with jingoistic claptrap of the most lurid (and dishonest) sort, in the face of which, Remain’s only response appeared to be muttering protective incantations under its breath. Which didn’t work. 

The first unthinkable happened and we voted to Leave. In a display of jaw-dropping irresponsibility, the party who had started all this admitted it had no plan for Leave, other than David Cameron resigning. This he did with all due speed, unleashing a bloody bunfight for his succession. 

From the strewn debris and piled-up corpses of this bunfight, Theresa May eventually emerged as Tory leader and unelected Prime Minister. She presented herself as the still centre of a chaotic world and promised to get us safely through Brexit with no more upheaval until the next General Election in 2020.

Then, eight weeks ago, in a u-turn of breath-taking cynicism, May (and the vested interests, policy wonks and spin doctors who undoubtedly control..sorry, advise her) decided to cash in on the Tories’ huge and seemingly unassailable lead in the polls by calling a totally unnecessary snap General Election. The assumption appeared to be that they could use their strong position and the Labour Party’s disarray to deliver the sort of terminal body blow to the opposition that would keep the Tories in power for years to come and might even kill off the Labour Party altogether. 

But thanks to an utterly shambolic election campaign by the Tories, a joyously galvanising one from Corbyn et al and a British electorate that knows when it’s being used and doesn’t like it one little bit, the second unthinkable has happened. Far from a landslide victory, the Tories – for the moment – have just about managed to scrape together a Government from a very well-hung parliament. For the moment.

All this in 25 months since the 2015 General Election. All this before we’ve even mentioned ideology or policies or manifestos or personalities. On the evidence of their performance of the last two years, the Tories couldn’t safely steer a wheely-shopper around Lidl, let alone an entire nation out of Europe. 

No-one is too big to fail. 

An apostrophe to the apostrophe

 

You’ll have heard about him, no doubt. The anonymous gentleman in Bristol who has been correcting grocers’* apostrophes throughout the city with neatly-cut strips of masking tape. There has been a drearily predictable upsurge of approval for this man and his actions. “At last!” people everywhere are crying, “Someone is taking a stand against the disgraceful lowering of our standards. It’s about time all this dreadful dumbing-down was brought to a halt.” There has been a nationwide soothing of existential anxiety, at least for a day or two. “Look at me! I understand the rules of punctuation! I must be a good person – or, at least, I’m definitely better than you. Phew!”

Well, I disagree. Not with the actions of the Bristol vandal (for vandalism it is). He has found a creative, amusing and non-hostile way of addressing an issue that clearly irritates him. He, at least, does not just mouth off about how dreadful it all is and then do precisely nothing.

No, my argument is with the rules of punctuation themselves. It seems to me that the rules pertaining to the possessive apostrophe, specifically, are not fit for purpose. I am no anarchist, believe me. I can see that a workable set of rules is a useful thing. It would be time-consuming, tedious and chaotic if everyone had to make every decision for themselves about everything, rather than following a sensible and agreed-upon set of guidelines. But the guidelines do have to work. Otherwise, we serve the rules, rather than the rules serving us.

In the case of the possessive apostrophe (and certainly in the case of the temporal apostrophe – hadn’t thought about that one, had you?), I would argue that the rules no longer serve. In theory, I agree, it all seems simple enough. But when so many perfectly normal people of perfectly normal intelligence who have a perfectly decent education get them wrong so often, the evidence suggests that these rules are too cumbersome for easy and automatic everyday use. Does punctuation really have to be difficult to use? That rather defeats the point of it.

Should the rules serve the people – or should the people serve the rules? Surely it’s the former? Or – and I have a horrible, swelling, nagging feeling that this is correct – do we just like being told what to do? Do we like it enough that we never stop to consider whether the orders given are reasonable and right?

Before you all start on me, of course I am not suggesting that we simply abandon every little rule that doesn’t suit everyone. That’s a reductio ad absurdem and yes, would lead all the way down to anarchy. Rules aside, there are also such things as right and wrong, tricky though they can be to pin down. But this is the apostrophe we’re talking about. Not the moral backbone of western civilisation.

The apostrophe is no more fit for modern use than the quill or the slate. And nobody seriously misses those, do they?

(*I really had to think about that one.)

Ambiverts and where to find them


If you spend any time at all in the Myers-Briggs community, then you’ve probably noticed – as have I – that a frequent complaint about this otherwise fairly robust system is from people who find themselves categorised as either Extraverted or Introverted whilst feeling like they’re actually a mixture of both. These people often style themselves as Ambiverts.

On the face of it, they have good reason to moan. MBTI purists assert that people are either Introverted or Extraverted and there can be no half way house. This seems stupid since people frequently, obviously, behave in ways that are somewhere in the middle. It’s annoying to be forced into a pigeon-hole at the best of times, let alone the wrong pigeon-hole.

However,  I *think* I’ve got this sussed.

As I understand it, the “either/or” assertion is based upon actual structural, genetic and biochemical differences between the two groups. Introverts favour their parasympathetic, cholinergic nervous system whereas Extraverts favour their sympathetic, adrenergic nervous system (“favour” seems to mean “are more comfortable when using”). As such, it can be easily seen that you have to be one or the other. There is no half way.

However, the I-E axis is not the only determinant of behaviour. Let us also consider the Judging-Perceiving axis. J-people are naturally interested in their community and how they fit within it. P-people are more concerned with how they themselves are functioning and are less interested in group dynamics.

From here, it’s not a great stretch to see that J-people are likely to enjoy interaction with their community more than P-people. So the behaviour of J-Introverts is much more sociable than that of P-Introverts, even though both groups preferentially use the cholinergic rather than the adrenergic nervous system. A J-Introvert will nonetheless be “peopled-out” far sooner than a genuine, adrenergic Extravert.

Still with me?!

My own empirical observations suggest that most people who either behave as or regard themselves as Ambiverts are indeed I**Js. I’m wary of making too much of this observation since I live in England where it often feels like every second person you meet is an IS*J. I sometimes wonder where everybody else goes. However, my opposite observation also holds. The most solitude-loving Introverts I know are obvious I**Ps. Oh, except for one INTJ. But then, INTJs are a law unto themselves.

I hope this helps. 😀

Farewell, then, to Ines and Bob

 

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Ines O’Halloran and Bob Rattigan. Protagonist and antagonist respectively and both very dear to me, despite their egregious character flaws. In my head, they’ve always looked like Jennifer Lopez and John Cusak. I expect they always will. There’s no reason, now, why that should alter.

Today is Monday 9th January 2017. You know that, of course (at least, you’ve probably got a rough idea). More pertinently, today is the day that the current BBC Writersroom Drama window bangs shut. Which means that today, I formally lay to rest one of my longest-standing projects.

I started If Blood Be The Price, hmm, three years ago, maybe a little over. It’s a full length spec screenplay, loosely based on real naughty Big Pharma behaviour in the US in the nineteen-nineties. In those three years, it’s gone through at least three total rewrites (plus persistent tinkerings too numerous and small to count separately) and had four different names.

In its first iteration and under its first name, I submitted it to the BBC in 2014. It came bouncing back, pretty much by return of email. Since then, I’ve transformed it and last month, I submitted it again. You’re not suppose to send the same screenplay twice but this has been so completely reworked that I don’t think it counts as the same piece of work. I do, however, think it will be rejected again.

Why? Partly, I’ve arbitrarily decided that it’s going to tank. That makes it easier to roll with the blow when it does come. But mainly, it’s because the bones of the piece aren’t strong enough, I don’t think. Yes, I could do it again. Write it again, write it better. But now, the only way to improve upon what I’ve got would be literally to tear the whole thing up and start absolutely from scratch. And I don’t want to do that.

As I said, it’s based on real events. To restructure the bones fundamentally might improve the story but it would move it further away from the facts. I’m reluctant to do that with this particular work. At least, at the moment. Furthermore, the work as it is stands as a reminder of where I started and how far I moved in the first couple of years. It may not be perfect, but there are plenty of good things about this screenplay – and a whole lot of improvement. It’s good to have a record of that.

So, as of today, that’s that for If Blood Be The Price. It’s good-bye and good riddance to Ines, good-bye and good luck to Bob.

Now what? Onwards and – I sincerely hope – upwards to the next. Starting tomorrow.

Watch this space.

This little piggy’s going to market (part 1)

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It has seemed to me for a while that, if I’m serious about this writing malarkey, then I’m going to have to jump into marketing. It’s no use at all just whispering into the darkness and expecting everyone, somehow, to find me. When I used Createspace to produce Three Caterpillars, it was with the intention of starting to explore that whole area.

I do, however, have some misgivings.

First of all, I cannot get past the fact that promoting myself to friends and family – the obvious place to start – feels incredibly wanky. There really is no other word for it. I, like many other writers, have enormous difficulty saying “Look at me, look at me, you must look me!” That is, after all, why we’re writers rather than performers. And since my people are mainly techy or sporty and have no particular interest in writing of any sort, let alone my feeble little attempts, the wanky feeling is intensified ten-fold.

The second problem I have is that, despite “everyone” saying that you “must” do it, I’m not yet convinced that all this marketing actually works. Which makes me very loathe to spend a significant amount of time or money on it. A woman of my acquaintance produced a YA fantasy trilogy via a vanity publishing deal. It wasn’t the best written set of books in the world but it wasn’t dreadful and she certainly knew her genre. It firmly ticked all the YA fantasy boxes.

As is ever her way, she threw money and resources at this trilogy in a way that makes Donald Trump’s presidential campaign look like an exemplar of modest restraint. There were three beautiful paperbacks, ebooks and audiobooks, a professionally-designed website about her whole particular world, Facebook and Amazon advertising, friends writing five star reviews. It was a masterclass in marketing. Whatever she could do, she did. By my reckoning, she must have spent – seriously – about fifteen thousand quid.

It didn’t work.

She sold a few hundred. But, as far as I can see, no more than that and – more significantly – I’d be prepared to bet that at least 95% were bought by people she knew. The only Amazon review that wasn’t by a friend of hers was distinctly lacklustre.

So it seems that even exemplary self-promotion won’t work if your content isn’t up to scratch. I’m left wondering whether any kind of marketing is worth its expense.

As of right now, I don’t have the answers to any of this. If I did, maybe I would already be a best-selling author. I have, however, at least come up with a working, if vague, plan.

My first problem is relatively simple to address. It finally dawned on me – doh! – that I can simply leave my own circle out of it. Set out my stall and tell the general public. If anyone I know happens to find me and is interested enough to follow, then that’s lovely. But I’m not going to push myself onto my friends and family and expect them to run with it.

The second issue, well, that’s going to be a matter of trial and error, I think. I’ve set myself a meagre budget and have started with the obvious things. Here’s where you’ll find me:

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram

Come on over, you’ll be very welcome.

Merry Christmas

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To paraphrase the immortal Dave Allen, enjoy the holiday season and may your Gods go with you – whatever flavour they happen to be.

 

Normal service will be resumed in the New Year.

Anna x

Selling out

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So, I’ve been exploring the murky depths of the self-publishing world this last two weeks or so. Whether you’re a traditional author or a committed self-pubber, you can’t ignore the phenomenon. It makes sense to find out about it, as far as you can. It makes particularly good sense during this month of December when I will find it difficult to get much “proper” creative work done (dahling). Mucking around with my Scrivener formatting presets, createspace’s book cover generator and Singapore’s tax system (I kid you not) is valuable work that I can nonetheless pick up and put down whenever I need to, without discombobulating (or, indeed, involving) the Muse at all.

In order to self-publish, you do, of course, have to have something to publish. T’ain’t gonna work otherwise. So I revised the collection of fables I wrote a couple of years back for my sister-in-law. Rewrote them a bit and added a whole new one.  Et voila! Three Caterpillars (and other stories) was born.

Next question: print book or e-book? To which the obvious answer is – both. Print On Demand services mean that you no longer have to risk your own money on a print run that you may or may not sell. You make the book electronically and when someone orders one, it gets printed off especially for them. Nice!

Then comes distribution. There must be literally millions of words on the internet written about the various pros and cons of Amazon-createspace-Kindle versus Smashwords, bookbaby and the like. I’m not going to add to those millions, I’m not even sure I get it yet. For someone like me (who is new to this and, frankly, has no real idea what they’re doing), the Amazon services pretty much have you by the short and curlies. So despite the fact that I have reservations about Amazon, currently Three Caterpillars.. is available as a paperback from Amazon and as an ebook for Kindle. Selling out – doesn’t take long, does it? As I become more familiar with this entire world, I may try and find alternative outlets.

You can find them on my author page; they’re available worldwide through Amazon’s international websites. Neither of them seem to cost any money at all, which is just fine. Get hold of one (for nothing, if you like), read it and leave me a review. I’d be ever so grateful. I might even send you a free signed copy, if you let me know who and where you are. Because the next thing I have to do is the bit I’ve been really dreading..

..learn how to market the damn thing.

 

 

Three Caterpillars

Caterpillar

(with apologies to Roz. She knows why.)

In the Spring, three little caterpillars hatched out onto the dark, glossy leaves of a laurel bush. They took a good look around.

“Where are we?” asked Green.

“This must be a mistake,” said Red. “There’s nothing here.”

Blue was sniffing leaves, prodding them with a tentative foot.

“Um, maybe..” she began.

“What?” asked Red.

“These leaves smell really good. Maybe we’re supposed to..”

“What?” asked Green.

“..eat them.”

The other two stared at her.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Red. “We’ve never done that before.”

“We’ve never done anything before,” countered Blue.

Meanwhile, Green was giving the leaves a good sniff herself.

“They do smell good, I must say.”

She and Blue looked at one another for a moment.

“You start,” said Green.

Blue grinned. “OK,” she said. She stretched forth her neck and took a teeny..weeny..bite. The other two watched closely and when Blue started to smile, Red shot forwards and started munching the biggest leaf she could grab.

“Delicious!” she shouted. “Come on, slowcoaches. What are you waiting for?”

They spent the next couple of days eating. Red soon got really good at it. She could strip a twig perfectly in less than a minute. She challenged the other two to munching races that she always won.

On the third morning, they were startled by a noise overhead. They looked up to see a Painted Lady flapping away.

“How beautiful,” sighed Green.

“I’m definitely going to be one of those,” said Red.

Green disagreed. “That’s not for me,” she said. ‘I don’t want to fly, I’m going to carry on right here.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Blue, thoughtfully, “but I wonder how you get there?”

“I’m definitely going to be one of those,” said Red again. She went back to a half-stripped twig. “Let’s have another race.”

“Nah,” said Blue. “I’ve eaten enough leaves. I’m going for a wander.”

Red tutted.

“No staying power,“ she said. “What about you, Green? Fancy a race?”

“OK, but give us a head start for once, would you?”

Green and Red carried on munching and after a while, Blue returned.

“I think I’ve got it,” she announced.

The other two looked puzzled.

“Got what?” asked Green.

“How to be a butterfly. You spin a sleeping bag, crawl in, change into a butterfly and then – hey presto – out you fly!”

Green was adamant. “I definitely don’t want to do that.”

“What about you, Red?”

Red looked at the leaves around her. “Yes, yes, absolutely – just as soon as I’ve dealt with all these. I do hate to leave any loose ends.”

Over the coming days, Red and Green carried on munching while Blue tried to spin a cocoon. It wasn’t easy. For a while, she couldn’t do it at all. She wriggled over to the others.

“This is tricky,” she said. “Anyone got any ideas?”

Red didn’t hear, she was head down in her pile of leaves. Green could only offer encouragement.

Finally, Blue cracked it.

“That’s it!” she cried. “I can do it.”

“Oh, well done!” said Green. “I knew you’d get there. Is it difficult?”

“Not once you work it out,” answered Blue. She wiggled her back end. “You just have to..anyway, I’m off for a sleep – and a whole new life. Red, you coming? I can easily show you how to spin.”

Red had her mouth full. She chewed ostentatiously and waved her head in the direction of another branch. She shrugged her shoulders, turned her back.

“How many leaves does she want to eat?” asked Blue.

“You know Red,” said Green. “She does like to do things properly.”

“Well, I’m not sure I can see the point,” said Blue. “You eat one leaf, you’ve eaten them all.”

“I know,” said Green, blissfully. “Delicious, aren’t they?”

Blue smiled at the other caterpillar.

“Sure you won’t come?”

“Ooh, not me,” said Green, with conviction. “I don’t want to flap around getting cold. I’m happiest here. But go on, off you go.”

“See you soon,” said Blue. She started to spin.

For a while, Blue’s cocoon hung lifeless. But eventually, Red and Green heard a telltale rustling overhead. It was Blue, with wet drooping wings, trying to fly. She lurched around them, laughing and gasping in turn.

“Hello you two, how’s it going?” she cried.

“What’s it like, Blue? Is it grand?” asked Green.

“Looks distinctly average to me,” muttered Red.

“It’s – oops – it’s really weird. I’m still getting the hang of it.”

For the rest of that morning, Blue plunged erratically around the laurel bush. By midday, her dazzling wings had dried and spread and she soared around the heads of the other two.

“This is wonderful. You should try it.”

Green was delighted at her friend’s success.

“Blue, you’re beautiful. That Painted Lady had nothing on you.”

“It’s amazing! Come on Red, come and join me. You’ll be the best butterfly ever.”

Red nodded her head.

“Hang on, just let me get this branch stripped.”

“I thought you wanted to be a butterfly.”

“I do, I really do. Just..just let me get this done first.”

So it went on. Red never did find the right moment to transform. Blue flew away and eventually Green wandered off to try a different sort of bush. Red, alone, remained exactly where she was.

Apples and Oranges

Apples and Oranges

If you squeeze an apple, it will not give you orange juice. You can squeeze it harder, it will not give you orange juice. You can keep on squeezing as hard as you can, you will never get orange juice.

But you will destroy the apple.

 

Just sayin’

 

Good hosts

 

Good hosts caption

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Descartes and the Killer Bees

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(The original, much longer, version of this post first appeared on luckyottershaven.com a couple of weeks ago. My heartfelt thanks to Lauren for publishing it.)

René Descartes is regarded by many as the father of modern western philosophy. For most of us, he boils down to a single, famous phrase:

Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

A whole bunch people, however, seem to operate on a variation of this theme. Let’s call them – humour me on this – the Killer Bees. They don’t think, they really don’t want to think. That’s the last thing they want to do. No, their being depends upon something else:

Videor, ergo sum (I am seen, therefore I am).

Equally important to them is the flip side:

Non videor, ergo non sum (I am not seen, therefore I am not).

One of the hallmarks of dysfunctional people is “splitting” – the simplistic belief that things are either completely wonderful or completely dreadful. Anything more ambivalent than that is just too difficult to deal with.

For our Killer Bees, this habit of splitting combines with the above dictum in a catastrophic way. They can admit only two possibilities – either the whole world is watching them and thus they are alive or no-one at all is watching them so, arrrrgh!, they cease to exist.

Given that very terrifying choice, which one would you go for? A Killer Bee sees no real option but to cling desperately to the belief that every single person in the world is watching them for every second of the day. It’s either that or existential obliteration.

This belief requires that – consciously or not – they beat down any aptitude for empathy that they may have. Iris Murdoch (who was a philosopher before she was a novelist) nailed this when she said, “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

The writer and actor, Jessica Hynes, recently said the much same thing in a slightly different way. In a Guardian interview, she was asked what love feels like. Her answer? “Like being seen.”

I take some issue with Murdoch’s statement as a definition of love. As a definition of empathy, however, it’s absolutely bang on.

The proper acknowledgement of other people’s autonomy and identity is a highly evolved function – one that many seem unwilling to develop, on the very understandable grounds that it would deprive them of a great deal of secondary gain.

A Killer Bee cannot afford to acknowledge that anyone else is real. Even those – especially those – they purport to love the most. Other people are merely robots whose only function is to watch the Bee and thereby preserve them from extinction.

What the watch-bots simply cannot be allowed, is any independent thought or action or troubles of their own. That would mean they might stop watching the Bee for a while and then the Bee would cease to exist.

For a Killer Bee, it really is that simple – and that important.

The trouble is, of course, that while they are basking in your unwavering regard, they manage never to realise that it’s supposed to work both ways – there’s that lack of empathy again. So if love is being seen, then the partner or child or significant other of a Killer Bee never gets any.

Non videor, ergo non sum.

 

High Society


I was asked today what I thought would be the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes for a “Society” genre story. It was something of an epiphany to me to learn that every story (even the vaguest, noodliest, high-falutin’-est literary work) can be fitted, more or less accurately into a genre. And that each genre has elements that need to be present, or the story won’t work. You’d have to be some writer to pull off a Western that doesn’t have any cowboys. That’s a sledgehammer of an example, but it illustrates my point. (I learnt this genre stuff from Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid, by the way. But any decent text about writing will probably give you much the same sort of information.)

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So I sat down and had a think and this is what I came up with:

CONVENTIONS

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– the hero has to be in a well-defined, even rigid place in society. That’s why it’s often a woman, men are generally allowed more freedom of movement. But it absolutely doesn’t have to be.

– they don’t like their place in this society or even the society itself. Maybe it’s frivolous or hypocritical or excludes outsiders on stupid grounds or it makes you marry the richest man and not the one you actually want.

– they endeavour to change their place in society and..

– ..they have a specific goal in mind –  a career, a “proper” marriage, a place in a better part of society. I think this counts as the MacGuffin of the story, the prize.

– society absolutely does not want change, either of the hero or of itself.

– the hero has enough intellect and drive to make a credible attempt to change their place..

– ..but they also have a Fatal Flaw that will scupper their attempt to change, unless they overcome it. Perhaps a desire for respectability or acceptance that is too strong to ignore. Or a need always to be in the right.

– there’s a friend and/or a mentor to talk to (who often turns out to have feet of clay)

– obviously, they have to come up against multiple resistances to their attempt to change (this is a great genre for piling up the complications).

– the prize may turn out to be just what they were always hoping for..or it may not, e.g. our heroine eventually marries the free-thinking Bohemian and runs off to Paris where she discovers he expects her to skivvy for him while he paints his masterpieces OR the idealistic young man defies his parents’ orders to go into the family business and strives to get into politics instead. Whereupon he discovers that you have to be a crook to succeed. It depends what sort of ending you’re gunning for. Personally, I have a real problem writing unequivocally happy endings.

OBLIGATORY SCENES (these often seem to be much the same for all genres, just adapted to fit)

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– a convincing portrayal of the society involved, showing the issues the hero is railing against.

– an equally-convincing portrayal of the ideal the hero is trying to attain.

– (if appropriate) scenes that show why that ideal is tarnished.

– a hero-at-mercy-of-villain scene (there may be a specific villain or Society itself may be the villain).

– an all-is-lost scene.

– definitely betrayal at some point by somebody important, possibly the sidekick.

– a lose-to-win scene. I find these tricky. I think it means you have to give up something (or someone) really important. But later, it turns out that the very act of giving up has consequences that leads on to the prize – or even a better prize.

In addition to all this, you do, as usual have to be acutely aware of the “Wants vs Need” conflict of your hero. For instance, our heroine thinks she wants to marry for love but when she does, she finds its not all hearts and flowers after all. Then, it becomes obvious that what she really needed was a degree of financial and personal autonomy, not just wedlock to the first handsome buck who made her ovaries quiver.

Does this generally make sense? When I hear “society”, I immediately think of High Society stuff like Edith Wharton or Thackeray. But of course, society applies to any time and any level.  Every era has its own society, its own strata and its own pricks to kick against.

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Is there anything I’ve left out or, indeed, anything here that you flatly disagree with? Do tell..

Forming Fractals

 

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A change of tack, for this blog post.

I’ve spent much of the last two, three years writing two full-length works of fiction – one screenplay, one novel. Both have their virtues, neither is perfect. Neither has had any discernible success and both need lengthy rewrites.

I have plans for these rewrites but, for the moment, I have lost the mood to do long-form work and I have especially lost the mood to continue wrangling with these two particular pieces.

What I feel I need – OK, OK, what I feel I want. It might be the same thing – right now is lots and lots of short, sharp practice. I think I need to spend a period of time banging out piece after piece after piece, sending all these babies out into the world and seeing what happens. That sounds casual and heedless. It’s not. Each piece will be crafted to the best of my current ability. But my current ability needs to evolve and for that, I need more interaction with the outside world. A regular turnover of short pieces is better suited to that goal than the time-consuming construction of long ones.

It’s practically scientific, really. Repetitive circuits of testing, feedback, reflecting and then testing again, testing better. Literary PDSA cycles.

The other value of this approach is that it should, I hope, teach me to create better fractals. I have recently become seized by the notion that every story is constructed of fractals.

A story has a shape, does it not? A Beginning, Middle and End, more or less. Well, that Beginning also needs a shape (its own beginning, middle and end). So does the Middle and so does the End. Similarly, the middle of the Beginning will need its own shape and so on and so forth, down through each chapter, each scene, each little moment.

Au fond, the whole story is constructed of tiny moments – each, ideally, with its own perfect shape. See? Fractals – sort of. For the story as a whole to work, a significant proportion of its individual fractals must be well-enough formed. How many do you have to get right for the story to work? Where’s the tipping point? I don’t know – I wish I did. And what does “getting it right” even mean? Again, I don’t know. I’m hoping that this time of short, sharp practice will help me work it out.

So, since New Year, I have let fly a veritable swathe of short submissions (all of which are available to read on this website). Two have been ignored outright. I’m still waiting to hear about five others. And still, I have a few more planned. I might try for one a month. I’ll record the yays and nays on the Balance Sheet. If I’m in a good enough mood, that is.

 

Being and Nothingness*

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Take a painting. Or a tapestry. Or a sculpture, an intricate glass chalice or a wood carving.

Any of these may be fabulously, uniquely beautiful, iconoclastic, inspiring and thought-provoking. A lot of their desirable quality must surely come from the way they command our physical senses. The look, yes of course the look, but the feel, and even the smell must also count? Otherwise, a photograph of the object would be just as satisfactory as the object itself, wouldn’t it? Is there also something about the possession of (or, at least, engagement with) a real, solid object? Otherwise, again, the photo would suffice. And it just doesn’t, does it?

This makes such wonderful objects vulnerable. If they are destroyed or even just damaged, then that’s that. Boof! They’re gone. They cannot simply be replicated, even by the artist themselves, should the original be lost. Their rarity value, therefore, is inbuilt and absolute.

Take a string of words, a rhythm or a melody.

These too can be beautiful, iconoclastic, inspiring and thought-provoking. They may be embedded in a sensually-engaging object (a beautiful book, a show-stopping performance), but it is the arrangement of the beats, notes or words that is the essence of the work. So the rarity thing does not apply here. These arrangements can be easily, perfectly replicated in their thousands, with no diminishment of their inherent value.

In the same way, they cannot be destroyed. If a book or a sheet of music is deliberately burnt, another copy yet holds the idea safe. Even if all physical copies are gone, it still doesn’t destroy the idea. The idea is, I suppose, susceptible to being forgotten but even that doesn’t really destroy it. It just makes it impossible to find.

So, on the one hand, there are unique, solid objects – rare, precious and perishable. On the other, there are strings of ideas – easily and cheaply reproduced and disseminated but, effectively, immortal.

Which would you rather?

*with apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre. This is all his fault.  

Sympathy vs Empathy

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Sympathy and Empathy arrive at Sui’s house to stay for Christmas. Shortly after their arrival, Sympathy says to Empathy, “I’m just popping out to the shops for a second. Do you want anything?”

Empathy grins. “Did you forget her Christmas present?”

“No,” laughs Sympathy, “but there’s no air freshener in the bathroom.”

“Yes, I spotted that too,” agrees Empathy.

Sympathy is keen to help. She can’t understand why Empathy doesn’t seem bothered.

“Poor Sui, she’s been so busy, she must have forgotten to get some. I’ll nip out now, save her a job.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” cautions Empathy.

“Oh, it’s no bother, not at all. The least I can do.”

Empathy starts to get a little frustrated.

“No, really, don’t do that.”

Sympathy is insistent. She can’t understand her friend’s inactivity.

“Honestly, I don’t mind. It’s no trouble, I’ll just nip out now.”

Empathy has no choice but to get high-handed.

“No. DON’T. She hasn’t forgotten.”

“She must have done,” insists Sympathy. “There definitely isn’t any there.”

“No, I know,” says Empathy. “but she hates artificial scents, doesn’t she? I bet she never buys air freshener.”

“Oh,” says Sympathy, a little crestfallen. “I never thought of that.”

Fair trade

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This week I’ve had Milo Minderbinder on my mind. Minderbinder is Joseph Heller’s magnificent creation – an entrepreneurial genius of a mess officer who bought fresh eggs in Sicily for one cent, sold them to Malta for four and a half cents, bought them back for seven cents, and finally sold them on for five cents, somehow making a profit as he did so.

Enterprising he may have been, but Minderbinder has nothing on the people who organise our school Christmas Fair. It’s that time of year again. For the next three weeks or so, the guilt and the extortion will be ramped up and up as the committee-minded try to get the rest of us excited about the prospect of raffles, cake bakes, tombolas, hand-decorated toiletries, Santa grottos and knit your own Christmas presents.

My daughter, as she has done for the previous two years, has come home with a plastic pint pot. I have instructions to fill it full of lovely trinkets that other small girls will like – hair slides, mini lego figures, packets of Haribo, green plastic puppies in small pink tins. That sort of thing. I then have to pop this pot into a gift bag or cover it in wrapping paper (so everything inside remains a surprise) and take it back to school. It will be sold at the Christmas Fair for a couple of quid, as a sort of colourful lucky dip.

It’s a good idea. Fifty or sixty of these garishly-decorated pots piled up on a table makes a surprisingly appealing display. The fact that you can’t see what’s inside is a masterly touch. The duff one that’s full of custard creams and a scratched Matchbox car with no windscreen gets sold along with the rest.

But the economics of it is, well, mind-binding. It costs me, I dunno, about a fiver to fill and decorate the pot, which is then sold for two pounds. Not only that, but I will inevitably have to spend another two quid to buy one of the pots myself. So I end up spending seven pounds on horrible plastic tat that no-one in the house actually likes.

Once the fun of opening the pot and discovering the hidden treasures is done, my girl won’t want much of it. She doesn’t even like Haribo – apart from the love hearts. And the school makes two pounds on each pot. I should just give them the seven quid and be done with it. It’s more profit for the school plus I would hold back – if only for an instant – the ever-rising tide of non-recyclable pink plastic tat in my cupboards.

But, I suppose, where’s the fun in that?

Face paint and foot drop

 

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My husband has a faint memory of being taken to see The Black and White Minstrel Show at Margate’s Winter Gardens°. It would have been 1970, or thereabouts. I can remember the same show on BBC1 during my childhood. It aired until 1978.

It’s hard to imagine now, isn’t it? The very concept is so weird and out-of-kilter. The only instances of blackface on UK television in recent years are complex, subversive portrayals that are clearly intended to provoke discomfort, in programmes such as Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen.

Thankfully, blacking up has disappeared from our 21st century television schedules.

Or has it?

The very wonderful Mat Fraser – performer, writer and thalidomider – has widened the term “blacking up” to include instances when able-bodied actors play disabled roles. Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot is perhaps the most oft-cited example. Andy Serkis in Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, the Ian Dury biopic, would be another.

A raft of recent television programmes appears to bite down on this potentially sore tooth in a whole new way. Sherlock, The Bridge, The Code, Chasing Shadows, even The Big Bang Theory. These are all high quality, highly successful programmes that work only because one of their central characters resides somewhere on the autistic spectrum. To the best of my knowledge, neither Benedict Cumberbatch, nor Sofia Helin nor Ashley Zukerman nor Reece Shearsmith nor Jim Parsons is in any way neurodiverse.

Are there any autistic-spectrum actors? Wikipedia immediately tells me about Dan Aykroyd, Daryl Hannah and Paddy Considine so clearly, they’re out there.

Let’s go one step further.

House – who didn’t love House? Who, particularly, didn’t love Hugh Laurie as Gregory House? Laurie is an English actor with two good legs who had a phenomenal success playing an American who uses a walking stick.* I’m aware that when he tried out for the role, those auditioning him had no idea he was English. His accent was that good. Nonetheless, he’s an English actor, playing an American. Don’t try and tell me there were no American actors available.

Does that also count as “blacking up”? The concept seems the same, to me. Should American roles go only to American actors? Geordie roles only to Geordie actors? Strict application of this rule would deprive us of the mesmerising Cilian Murphy in Peaky Blinders. On the other hand, it would also have saved us from Dick van Dyke’s cock-er-nee accent.

Is there a line to be drawn? I don’t know. Is blackface beyond the pale but it’s OK to fake a foot drop? I don’t know. These are tangled issues of availability vs opportunity, of cultural comfort and convenience, of the best person for the job.

But I suspect this discussion would peter out naturally, should we ever actually achieve a level playing field.

 

*which, incidentally, he always used in the wrong hand. I assume this was a deliberate decision by either the actor or director as it looks so much more dramatic. But it’s no good for your bad leg.

°I stand corrected. Apparently, it was Paignton, not Margate.

Fuzzbeed quizzes

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Do you find most Facebook quizzes a little challenging? Do you think that they are just that bit too complicated to be really useful? We think so too. So we asked our own personal expert to write some better ones, especially for us – and you! Deceptively simple, these will get straight to the heart of your intellect, your personality and your lifestyle.

1) Are you Toe-tastic?
Everyone has toes on the end of their feet but how much notice does the average person really take of their ten little piggies? Answer these sixteen straightforward questions to see if you can tell your stays-at-home from your goes-to-market.

Your score: you scored 12!! Definitely in our top ten percent, you are truly Toe-tastic! There’s nothing anyone can teach you about the arrangement of the phalanges on the end of your metatarsals. Have you considered re-training as an Orthopaedic Surgeon?

 


2) Which Watch With Mother character are you?

Remember those wonderful days of your childhood? When you would sit with your nose jammed up against a flickering, black-and-white screen, peering at the blurry figures and trying to work out what was going on? Now and again, your mum might even have watched with you. But which much-loved blurry figure do you most resemble?

Your character: you got Humpty from Play School!! Your well-rounded personality means you are the life and soul of the party while, at the same time, being capable of intense reflection. You care deeply about other people which, combined with your astonishing ability to pick up on the tiny things that everyone else misses, makes you irresistibly attractive to your friends and your lovers. Plus, you rock a natty green velvet and pink collar combo like no-one else!

 


3) Are you and your bedside light made for each other?


Or are you stuck with the Lamp from Hell? The relationship you have with your bedside light should last for decades. Pick the right one and you can look forward to a lifetime of blissfully seeing things properly in a dark room. But if you’ve chosen badly, you may have to face the physical and emotional challenges of inadequate lighting night after night after night.

Your score: oh-oh! You and your bedside light are only forty three percent compatible!! While you may muddle through on an average night, your wee small hours should be so much more illuminating. There are signs that both you and your light are not entirely happy with things. We suggest you get yourself to Ikea at the first possible opportunity – this relationship may be about to blow a bulb!

 

You’re very welcome!
The Fuzzbeed Team

 

 

The perfection paradox

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Too many people make a virtue of their perfectionism (often along with their assertion that they always finish what they start, which is another symptom of the same disease, I think). They sometimes try to be self-deprecating about it but you can bet that a perfectionist never doubts that they hold the moral high ground. How can it be otherwise?

The temptation to chase perfection is easily understood. Said chase provides a wonderful, if artificial, certainty of purpose. For those people – and there are plenty of ’em – who are not only driven to be doing all the bloody time but who also have a powerful need to be seen to do what they do terribly well, then the pursuit of perfection is the ideal modus operandi. You can do it forever and no-one can possibly fault you for it.

But a wise man once said that perfectionism is a vice that masquerades as a virtue (it was Albert Bernstein, in fact, in his book Emotional Vampires) and, for me, he has it right.

I’m not talking about its more obvious drawbacks (“The enemy of good..” and all that) but about the seemingly-paradoxical fact that chasing perfection is actually the easy option. You will never hear anyone admit it, but more often than not, it’s a cop-out.

Perfection is not merely hard to attain. It is, as near as makes no difference, impossible. Its pursuit is therefore never-ending and would seem to be completely pointless. The point of this futile chase, however, is to avoid all those difficult questions:

  • Is this good enough? Shall I stop now?
  • This is not what I had in mind. Is it good, even though different?
  • What, exactly, is good enough anyway?
  • If this isn’t good enough, can I do anything more about it?
  • This isn’t working. Do I try harder, try something different or is it time to let go?

These are difficult questions. There is no guarantee that you will hit upon the right answer. Their consideration requires clarity, flexibility, resilience and an uncomfortable degree of self-awareness.

It is so very much easier just to keep chasing, to keep giving it that one hundred and ten percent. That way you’re far too busy to worry about challenging your own thinking or making a tricky judgement call.

I have a hunch (as yet, not properly tested. So far, n=2) that perfectionism often goes along with a hoarding tendency, for much the same reason. It is much simpler just to keep everything than to try and work out what is important to you and what isn’t.

In the end, this perpetual chase will stunt your growth. How can you evolve at all when you begin with a fixed idea and reject any other possibility? You will simply run, forever, towards a dead-end. It may be a beautifully crafted dead-end but it is still a dead-end.

The new opium

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Ain’t today’s technology marvellous? It makes things so easy. I mean, did you ever try recording a cassette to another cassette? Double-ended DIN plugs and Sellotape over the punched-out bits – pur-lease. Cassettes may be having a bit of a moment (Vinyl Revival? Don’t Forgette the Cassette!) but, let’s face it, it’s a dead cat bounce. No-one in their right mind is using them as anything other than a styling tool.

Naturally, there’s a price for this ease of use. Social media, for example, may give a grumpy introvert like me an effortless way to pay my social dues but it also, relentlessly, forces me to see things about people which I would really rather not. There are the unwitting racists, for a start. There are the many who would clearly rather talk to their dog than their children. Most of all, in my own particular community, there are those who feel compelled to share the Stories Of All The Good There Is In The World.

It’s not the stories themselves. Good people do good things – that’s good. What I loathe is the mass hypocrisy with its attendant stasis that the stories prop up. So often, something is pushed at me with the exhortation to “Read this. It’s totally inspirational.”

Inspirational? Really? Tell me, Facebook Friend, what has it inspired you to do? Are you now spending a few hours every week visiting the long-term lonely in hospital? Have you resolved to face your next setback with stoicism and persistence rather than your usual passive-aggressive meltdown?

No, no and thrice no. Almost without exception, no. All you’ve done is spend a few moments bathed in a glow of fake empathy and then clicked “share”.

What’s wrong with that? You know what’s wrong with it. It lets you off. It lets you feel that because you’ve passed around a YouTube clip, you’ve done your bit, nothing else is needed.

We all know that there are enormous problems in the world which, generally, we’ve been lucky enough to dodge. It would be more honest to say “I acknowledge all this appalling suffering and injustice but it’s extremely difficult to do anything effective about it and, right now, I don’t have the energy to try.”

But my community contains many who are hard-wired with the viciously addictive need to believe that they live to help others. Such honesty doesn’t feed that need. Instead, they toke a quick emotional buzz from watching someone else’s effort and then pass around the digital joint. Like all drug highs, it feels good and – ephemerally – fosters the delusion that everything is OK. Like all drug highs, it’s a dead end.

Well, my Facebook Friend, carry on toking if you must but don’t kid yourself that you’ve actually done anything useful.

The boys from Brazil

 

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I love data*. Whether it’s important Big Data that helps us improve the way we care for the seriously ill or tiny pieces of data that tell me how my diet’s going, I love it all.

Data keeps you engaged during times when engagement can be hard to maintain. On the return school run, I start the car at 08.38, go past The Stanley Arms at 08.49 and turn onto Macclesfield Old Road at 08.54. If there is deviation from this, then I know the day is going just a little better or a little worse than usual. During your eighteenth school run of the week, this sort of minute observation prevents your brain imploding from the mundanity of it all. Call me a geek, if you like…oh no, too late, I’m out and I’m proud.

Industry, of course, has known this for donkeys’ years. What do you think your Tesco Clubcard’s about? Or your Strava app? Even the medical profession (driven, for centuries, almost totally by cult of personality) is waking up to the value of decent data.

I’ve recently discovered what many of you will already know – that running a website produces great seams of the stuff. Suddenly, you’re faced with tantalising partial portraits of who is clicking your site and where they are.

It’s fascinating, if entirely solipsistic. In the three weeks since this website went live, it’s had four hundred and ninety eight hits. That’s less impressive than it sounds. I can rack up fifteen hits in two minutes, just checking my spelling. Three hundred and eighty one of these originated in the UK. There has been a handful from Italy (family) and another from Iceland (friends). There have also been sporadic visits from places scattered all over the world. This morning, I got my first viewing from someone in Macedonia. Yay Macedonia! You have a nice flag.

Occasionally, you glimpse a slightly bigger picture. Someone from Canada found my site using the search term “good herring”. I strongly suspect I was not what he was looking for. Usually, the most you are shown is the country of origin plus the pages viewed.

This is where Brazil starts to loom rather large. I’ve had forty six views from Brazil. Every day, I get at least one hit from Brazil. What’s that about?

I have no way of knowing if it’s always the same person or forty six different people or one person twenty times and another person twenty six…you get my drift. Is there a teenager in Rio with exquisite taste deriving inspiration from my literary meanderings? Is a very shy internet troll trying to amass the courage to abuse me?

Probably neither. I suspect, rather, some sort of automated system scrolling through websites in order to post pictures of scantily-dressed women complete with synthetic, sympathetic comment. So far, I seem to have escaped.

Meanwhile, if you’re a teenager in Rio, I applaud you. Keep on watching.

(*Yes, I know. “Data” is technically plural and “datum” is the correct singular. I don’t care.)

Bitcoin FAQs

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I’m hearing a lot about bitcoins. What are they?

That depends who you ask. There is debate as to whether bitcoin is a currency or a payment protocol.

Wikipedia says it’s a software-based online payment system. The US Treasury calls it a decentralised virtual currency while the People’s Bank of China has decided that it’s not a currency at all but an investment target.

That’s nice and clear then. Let’s move on. Where can I get bitcoins from?

The same place as you get any money – cash machines. There are bitcoin ATMs, although not in Buxton. Yet.

What’s that? You can actually hold bitcoins in your hand? That doesn’t sound like a virtual currency.

Ah, no. Sorry.

At a bitcoin ATM, you use cash or plastic to top up your online supplies. The world’s first bitcoin ATM was installed in a coffee shop in Vancouver last year. London has three – one in Holborn, two in Shoreditch. So no surprises there. You can also buy and sell bitcoins at physical or online locations analogous to bureaux de change or share dealers.

But where do the bitcoins actually come from? Who issues them? Is there a People’s Bank of Bitcoin?

Good questions. Bitcoins are generated – or “mined” – by an online community of people who work for the system and who are also paid in bitcoin.

Paid by whom?

I don’t know. The Japanese guy who came up with the idea in the first place, I suppose.

What do these online workers actually do?

They offer computing power to solve puzzles and to record all bitcoin transactions into the bitcoin public ledger. Successful puzzle-solving – or mining – releases new bitcoins. Recording transactions earns already-existing bitcoins.

You’re telling me that bitcoins are generated by people who work to record the use of bitcoins?

Yup.

Sounds a bit solipsistic to me.

You mean up its own bum? Yup.

OK, enough with the technical stuff. What can I get with my bitcoins?

A hotel room or tickets to see the Sacramento Kings.

I’m not a basketball fan. How about a loaf of bread? Or a pint?

Ah, no. Sorry.

This all seems very confusing. Am I particularly stupid?

Not at all. This autumn, undergraduates at MIT are being given a hundred dollars in bitcoin in order to further their understanding of the concept.

So you need a degree from MIT to understand this stuff and then you can’t even use it to buy your lunch anyway. Why is anybody bothering?

There appear to be some well-defined groups of people attracted to it:

Financial speculators
Those with severe FOMO* (more politely called “early adopters”)
Conspiracy-wonks who like the idea of a currency free from any Government control
Techies who love the challenges of mining.

At least if it’s a virtual currency, you can’t lose it or get robbed, I suppose.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaa!

And, of course, it would never occur to anyone to use the system for money-laundering?

No, no. Heaven forfend.

Well, thank you very much. You’ve been most helpful.

You’re welcome. Any time.

(*Fear of missing out. Yes, it’s a thing.)

All that jazz

Wikipedia defines jazz thus: “a genre of music that originated in the Southern United States as a combination of European harmony and forms with African musical elements such as blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation and the swung note.”

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It would be hard to beat that as a description of a world sprung from inclusiveness and diversity. But as the scope and influence of jazz broadened, so its mainstream image seemed concomitantly to narrow. Soul, disco, swing, blues – all these have a clear (if not exclusive) black identity. But jazz? To many, the word conjures up visions of thin white men wearing Van Dyke beards and black rollnecks who play ever-decreasing variations on the same theme through spirals of their own cigarette smoke and engage no-one but themselves.

However, the recent evidence of my own eyes suggests that this über-nerd image is itself an outdated and inaccurate cliché. It may have its origins in the fact that it often takes white men to catch the attention of other white men. It’s not hard to see how a positive feedback loop could develop.

July saw the coming of the annual Manchester Jazz Festival. I spent two sunny afternoons lounging around Albert Square armed with a nice cocktail, some graph paper and a bunch of my daughter’s crayons. My aim was to conduct some basic demographic research about who is playing and who is watching jazz in 21st century Manchester. If I happened to hear some darned fine music at the same time, well, it was a dirty job but I powered through.

Extensive preliminary fact-finding (i.e. a couple of quick google searches) told me that the Greater Manchester area has an approximate white to non-white ratio of 9:1 and a pretty even male-female split. Over the course of two afternoons, I saw four bands comprising a total of twenty musicians. I also sampled the audience. Every time I moved from pavilion to bar to general-milling-about-area, I looked at the ten people nearest me.

The audience was joyfully diverse. Of the seventy people I surveyed, just over half were women and a quarter were not white. There was also a surprising number of children who didn’t even seem to have been dragged there under sufferance. It seems that appreciation of jazz is certainly not restricted to any one group. I was also not the only person taking notes.

The musicians presented a slightly different aspect though. Of the twenty, all were white and nineteen were men.

This was not the result I expected (nor, frankly, wanted). I can’t draw any hard conclusions from it, of course I can’t. It’s a single tiny set of very crude data, still thoroughly enmeshed in all its confounding factors. I’m well aware that the Festival involved men and women from all sorts of different backgrounds that I didn’t happen to come across.

Nonetheless, one begins to see, perhaps, how the image of the thin white jazzman endures.

Estival Festivals

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We were at a bijou festival last month. We live in the Peak District so we do a lot of this over summer. This one was the L’Eroica Britannia, the inaugural British version of the Italian cycle race, where everything (be it technical or sartorial) must date from 1987 or earlier.

These cyclists looked molto dapper compared to the modern lot. No obscene Lycra cycling pants or pec-hugging Team Sky racewear. The dress code was cotton Bermuda shorts in muted pastels, Lacoste or Fred Perry shirts and slimline fabric baseball caps. There was a scattering of discreet Italia-striping throughout. All very elegant. A lot of the bikes had no visible brakes which seemed overly purist to me. But what do I know? I couldn’t ride a two-wheeler at all until I was thirty six.

A miniature festival had brought itself together around the finishing line – food, drink, clothing, a brass band playing the theme to Doctor Who. As usual, the prevailing aesthetic was “steampunk”. That’s a sort of quasi-Victorian-wrought-iron-industrial-with-red-velvet, if you’re unfamiliar with the genre.

It’s understandable. The look is extremely picturesque and somewhat sharper than traditional festival hippy-chic. By definition, it’s inherently eclectic so it’s easier to throw together (and more forgiving of inconsistency and tattiness) than would be, say, a sleek futuristic vibe.

But it has held total sway for at least the last five years. As far as the monocle can see, luxuriantly-moustachioed gentlemen in blue-striped long johns ride penny-farthings whilst formidable matrons in chrome breastplates press cocktails on you. The end, surely, must be nigh.

The burning question is, what will supplant it?

I offer three possible suggestions.

1. Cholera-punk: the reductio ad absurdum of steampunk which may emerge as an inevitable backlash. It requires appalling sewerage, dodgy drinking water and for everybody to be thoroughly covered in shit. Some festivals are already way ahead of the curve on this one.

2. The Creeping Onesie: it started with teenagers wandering around campsites in this comfortable but oh-so-disturbing piece of clothing. Already, whole families can be seen dressed as miniature herds of zebra. Ultimately, bands will implode as lead singer and axe man fight over the only flamingo suit the exact shade of flushed pink to suggest unstoppable sexual prowess.

3. The New Elizabethan: if the current monarch lasts another eight years (and would you bet against her?), the nation will be forced to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee. A corresponding zeitgeist could easily surface. The boys will discover the sweaty hell that is wearing tights in summer (call it doublet and hose if you must, but we all know it’s just fancy-schmancy tights) whilst the girls will be imprisoned inside whale bone and farthingale. On the plus side, that seasoned festival-girl’s trick of a sneaky pee whilst sitting and smiling in a maxi dress will become a piece of, er, cake.

I’ll be reporting back.

Swear it isn’t so

 

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I love to swear. At least, I thought I did but I have recently realised that all I really do is use a limited number of brisk, age-appropriate adjectives.

Wikipedia defines a swear word as one that “is generally considered in society to be strongly impolite, rude, or offensive.” Clearly, this is not an absolute but will depend upon prevailing mores and attitudes.

I can remember the first time I mentally used the word “fuck”. I was fourteen years old (I’m a convent girl. Some things we do sooner, some things we do later). At the time, the mere thought made me blush and it was to be another good few years before I said the word out loud. Now, of course, I use it to punctuate. I’m far from alone. “Fuck” has become the new “flip”. My Saturday newspaper is peppered with it, most weeks.

I have a bit more trouble with the word “cunt” but even that is fast losing its bite, even if it’s not yet exactly socially acceptable. “Cunt” is also reclaiming its original anatomical meaning. That’s probably a good thing although there are misogyny issues here that I don’t have room to explore in this article.

Religious epithets are interesting. As an atheist in a mainly secular society, there is no reason at all why I should find their use bothersome. And yet, I do – but only sometimes. For me, I think it’s more a matter of aesthetics. Religious swearing can sound wholly appropriate but, often, it sounds just vulgar, in a way that “proper” swearing somehow doesn’t. I don’t mind being a little brisk but I hate to be vulgar.

So I was always inclined to regard as over-sensitive those gentle souls who are unable to vent their feelings via a pithy, well-chosen clause or two.

But earlier this year, Jeremy Clarkson dropped the n-bomb. My world immediately divided into two. Most people thought that his use of the word was obviously provocative and definitely abhorrent. A few couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I spent a memorable half hour explaining to my seventy seven year old father that Clarkson may not have been actively discriminating against anyone, but in today’s society, the word “nigger”, in and of itself, has become “strongly impolite, rude or offensive” except under very specific circumstances that are beyond my cultural reach.

It made me think. I cannot say the word “nigger”. Can’t actually utter it at any price. I’m acutely uncomfortable now, just typing it once or twice. While I was checking the Clarkson story, I found that respectable websites won’t even print it, they use “n*****”. Who, today, would bother to astericise “fuck”? So, for me (and it seems for many others), “nigger” is now a swear word whereas “fuck”, perhaps, is not. Not any more.

So it turns out, I don’t love to swear at all. Bugger! What do I do now?

Caught on the horns of a cupcake

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Personally, I blame The Great British Bake Off. I may be wrong; one must remember that association does not necessarily imply causation. But in my world, at least, there has been a veritable surge of people hurling themselves onto the home-baking band wagon. The one does seem to have followed the other. I suppose it’s possible that they are parallel but separate streams emanating from the same distant sociocultural source of which I know nothing. Who can say?

It’s difficult to be sneery about this. I do see that it’s better to eat food you’ve made yourself rather than stuff down boxes of Mr Kipling’s exceedingly empty calories. I also see that it’s A Good Thing to spend time acquiring or honing a genuine skill.

So yes, difficult to be sneery but I’ll give it a go. The problem is the cupcakes. It’s always bloody cupcakes. Oh, I understand the attraction, believe me. They’re not so tricky to make as to be discouraging, they don’t require any fancy kit other than a bun tin and there’s all the fun to be had with the icing and the themes and the sprinkles. It’s like being four years old again.

But they seem to come only in batches of twelve. In an office of, say, five people, if two have spent the weekend baking (which is well within the bounds of possibility), then that’s twenty four cupcakes to get rid of come Monday. That’s nearly five each. Far too many even if you like the damn things. Which I don’t.

They’re extremely difficult to refuse. The negotiation between cupcaker and cupcakee is as layered, dark and treacherous as a triple-decker Black Forest gâteau.

The top layer is obvious enough:

“I’ve made these cupcakes for you. To thank me, you must eat them.”

This may be easily understood but it’s perfidious in all directions. The middle layer is more truthful but rarely articulated:

“I made these cupcakes because I wanted to. Now please validate my actions by eating them. Otherwise, I have wasted my time, effort and money.”

The dense and claggy bottom layer is taboo and never, ever said out loud:

“I don’t actually give a monkey’s nipple whether you want them or not.”

The poor cupcakee (who would probably much rather spend the calories on lovely, lovely gin) doesn’t really stand a chance. They may very well ending up having one for elevenses, one at lunch time and still another with their afternoon cup of tea. Without quite knowing how it happened, they will go home that afternoon, clutching a couple more of the crumby creations, precariously wrapped in a swathe of blue kitchen roll.

I’ve only just thought of all this. Next time, I may try simply stating:

“No thanks, I don’t want one.”

I’m a little worried that the very fabric of society will unravel at this point but at least I’ll get my gin.

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