It’s a running joke in our family how crap I am at sports. No, seriously, I’m not being self-deprecating. By the time Matt was five or six, he had begun to regard me with pitying condescension, and would refuse my offers to kick a ball or play cricket. My hand-eye coordination is non-existent, and I spent most of my school days huffing along behind the shrinking forms of my classmates as they raced away. I’ve come up with all sorts of excuses. I’m an intellectual (yeah right), not a physical person. I’d have been diagnosed as dyspraxic had I been born later, and would have had occupational therapy. I never crawled as a baby (I have no idea if this is true), so I lack some basic motor skills. As a result, I avoid any group physical activities like the plague – if you’re planning a game of rounders, I am not your girl – and any attempt I make to join in is met with derision by my family (Frisbee flies past my ear, I dive uselessly after it, family choruses “I didn’t crawl!”).
But then. Last November, my mother-in-law fell ill. She was diagnosed with severe heart failure, and there was nothing to be done about it. I spent a month travelling up to Wellington and Wolverhampton to visit her in a succession of cardiac wards, until she died in mid-December. In that month, I saw a lot of very sick people, and while many had conditions they could have done nothing to prevent, many too were dying of lifestyle. Smoking, obesity, inactivity. And I made a decision. I am 45 this year, and getting to a point in my life where many poor decisions become less easy to reverse. I’ve never smoked, but I have always been a little, or a lot, overweight. I have never, ever been fit and active. And right now, facing menopause and its associated delights, is pretty much my last chance to do something about it.
So in January, I began using an app called myfitnesspal.com to track what I ate, and the weight began to come off. I started walking every day to help shed the pounds. But by March, I knew I had to up my activity level, so I downloaded the Couch to 5k podcasts, a programme that takes you from zero fitness (ie slumped on the sofa), and transforms you into a lean, mean, running machine who can run five kilometres in nine weeks. Well, I thought it was a hilarious idea, and of course I knew I would never complete it. Do you have an idea how far five kilometres is? It’s more than three miles. It’s all the way from here to the Hendon Tesco (and if that means nothing to you, just trust me, it’s FAR).
But week by week, I tackled the new running challenges, and week by week, I managed to meet them. I ran in gale force winds on our holiday in Cornwall, I ran with sleet being flung in my face like handfuls of sand, I ran in the rain. There were some dodgy runs, some days I had to stop and walk, runs I had to repeat so I knew I could do them. But I kept going, and one sunny Saturday morning in April, I set out for my run, and 28 minutes later, rang my husband from Hendon “I couldn’t stop!” I said excitedly. “It felt so good, I just kept going and going. I forgot to turn back!” I had run, not effortlessly), but happily, for four and a half kilometres, so enchanted was I with the sunlight, the burgeoning blossom, and the fluffy green of the willow trees. And a week ago, I ‘graduated’ at the end of the nine-week Couch to 5k course. I can now easily run for 30 minutes. I can run a slow, non-stop five kilometres in 32 minutes and 30 seconds. It has changed my life.
That may sound like a big statement, but it has. It hasn’t only changed my life because I have lost more weight, or I’ve found muscles in my legs I didn’t know I had. It hasn’t only changed my life because I sleep better, concentrate better and experience a post-run euphoria that lasts for hours and hours. It’s changed my life because I have changed a lifelong perception of myself. I am not useless at sports, or physically unable. I can run. I am a runner. Not the fastest, not the strongest, but a runner. Someone who runs.
I recently treated myself to Alexandra Heminsley’s book Running Like a Girl
. Heminsley was, like me, an ordinary woman who decided to give running a go. Like me, she knew nothing when she began. Unlike me, she has now run five marathons. It is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a very long time, and I believe, profoundly feminist. She says “I enjoyed having my body praised for what it could do rather than how it looked… It became – and remains – a delicious pleasure to stride up the left-hand side of the escalator in a Tube station, my breathing steady and the strength of my own legs powering me faster to wherever I wanted to be. I imagine people wondering how I’ve done it and the answer is simple: I decided to be able to.”
I can’t recommend this book highly enough to any woman (or man) who thinks that they couldn’t. You can. I did. I transformed myself from a computer-bound slob to a computer-bound slob who gets out four times a week and pounds along the pavement like a demented waddling hedgehog. A runner.
And the future? Well, no marathon plans yet (but never say never). However, I am running the Race for Life to raise money for Cancer Research in Regent’s Park on 1 June. My aim is to run a sub-thirty-minute five kilometres, and if I meet that goal, I’ll personally double any donations anyone else makes. So come on, sponsor me
, the running joke. It’ll be worth a laugh.
A few weeks ago, I participated in an amateur theatre production. It was a fabulous experience – a great bunch of people, good script, good production and one of the best parts I’ve ever had the chance to play. This morning, someone posted pictures on facebook. I went through the album eagerly, looking forward to reliving such a positive time, but when I looked at the photos, I could only see one thing. I looked fat.
As I walked my son to school, a little voice in my head spoke with quiet venom. “You looked disgusting in those pictures,” it said “How could you stand on a stage looking like that? You should just hide yourself from public view until you look better.” I was horrified. Who had put those words in my head? I don’t think like that. I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist of decades’ standing. I know that my value in the world has precisely zilch to do with the way I look. But the voice was there. Is still there.
It doesn’t matter what I have achieved in my life. That I have fulfilled my dearest-held career dream and become a published writer, that I have fabulous friends and family, that I am married to a wonderful feminist man who has never once, in our eight years together, made a negative comment about the way I look. The voice which plagues so, so many women has still wormed its way into my head.
You don’t need me to tell you where that voice comes from – the cover lines on thousands upon thousands of magazines, which you see, whether you buy them or not. The right-hand column of the Daily Mail
website. Here are two examples I saw just yesterday. When Elise Andrew
who runs “I f*cking love science” on facebook (4.2 million fans), announced she was joining twitter, thousands were amazed she was a woman and made swathes of comments about her appearance. The Daily Mail
(I know, I know I shouldn’t read it), ran an article where supermodel Gisele Bundchen “showed off her post baby body” (translation, “went to the beach”). A lovely chap called Paul Lazenby appended the following comment: “All the British mothers should have this picture put up to see in the maternity wards as inspiration. Fed up off seeing saggy and lifeless new mothers parading around the local baths in bikinis, makes me feel sick. Lose some weight you disgraces.”
I do not want your voice in my head, Paul Lazenby. I do not want any of those voices in my head, or in the heads of any women or young girls trying to make their way in the world. I cannot stem the relentless tide of media, but I can do my own small part. I pledge to think about the way I speak about my own body and others’ bodies. I pledge to write female characters who, while they may wrestle with many problems and issues, are never, ever defined by the way they look. I’m going to keep on being that tiresome feminist harridan in your timeline that comments on sexist advertising
(Way to go, Weetabix!) and challenges sexist language. As several commenters on my last blog post said, “Don’t you get tired of this? Don’t you have something better to do?” The answer is yes, and yes. But as long as the Paul Lazenbys of the world are drip-dripping their poisonous voices into my head, I’ll be drip-dripping another voice into the world too. If one day there’s just one girl who hears my voice in her head instead of Paul’s, it will have been worth it.
I am a humourless, man-hating feminazi. I’m only like this because I can’t get a shag. I can’t take a joke. I need to get over myself, get back in the kitchen and make a man a sandwich. I thought I’d start this post with all the predictable responses to save people from posting them at the end.
So what’s got on my dour, un-bra-fettered tits today? Well, it’s this. I saw this billboard, driving down the A41 in Hendon yesterday and nearly rear-ended the car in front. And then I drove on, huffing and swearing, quite unable to believe what I had seen.
It’s an energy drink. Honest. Like Red Bull. Conceived by “entrepreneur” Jonnie Shearer in 2004, he came up with the idea when he was hanging about his parents’ house after leaving college. “All my friends were working in the City, and I was in my old bedroom, launching a drink called Pussy. They thought I was an idiot,” he says. Not much I can add to that. He says the idea was inspired by Richard Branson’s Virgin brand, and indeed, his project has seen investment from two of Branson’s children, Holly and Sam. Until now, the drink has been on sale in celebrity members’ clubs (I’m assuming of the type Prince Harry might visit), where posh boys get to guffaw hysterically at the amusing name. But now they’re going mass market with it, and it’s on sale in Selfridge’s (!!!), via Ocado and in Tesco. Yes, you read that right. Tesco.
Advertising agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay must have been a bit flummoxed by the brief, and I can just imagine the to-ing and fro-ing that went on, trying to find a way to sell this. In the end, they’ve gone for the tagline, “The drink’s pure, it’s your mind that’s the problem”.
Author Laura Kemp, on twitter, saw it too –“Toe-curling advertising campaign by @PussyDrinksHQ . Giant billboards featuring the word ‘pussy’ make me want to VOMIT.”. When I agreed, she said, “I hate it because it makes me feel a prude and I'm not. Partic shit as son just starting to read.”
I, like Laura, am no prude, but to say that there’s no problem other than in our minds is disingenuous in the extreme. Because the word pussy, used in its public and colloquial sense, is always degrading and negative. A man who shows less than masculine qualities is a pussy. A woman can be referred to as pussy, reducing her to the only body part the speaker considers to be of use. And don’t give me wide-eyed nonsense about the word referring to cats. No one uses it in that sense, any more than we refer to happy people as “gay”. I can’t think of a way you would say it publicly that wasn’t prurient, sniggering and demeaning.
But there is little or no point in protesting – we’re getting this product and its campaign as a fait accompli
. It’s on the shelves in our supermarkets and on 48-sheet billboards over our thoroughfares. Imagine the hundred and hundreds of people in the marketing and advertising agencies, the buyers at Tesco, Ocado and Selfdrige’s, the media salespeople who sold that billboard space, who all said that this was okay.
Well, I’m saying it’s not. It’s not okay, and it’s not funny, and here’s why. It’s not funny because Laura will have to explain to her small son why there’s a giant billboard saying “Pussy”, and what it means. It’s not funny because the vast majority of people in the drinks aisle in Tesco will be women, and often women with children. It’s not funny, because Beattie McGuinness Bungay’s “classy” advertising campaign absolves them of responsibility – but every female bar worker, till operator and waiter will have to put up with the smutty jokes, innuendo and harassment that will come from the kind of sophomoronic boys that will buy this product. That’s the reality of a drink called Pussy. It’s my problem? It surely is. This is gaslighting
on a massive scale, and it stinks to high heaven.
Today, I had a little spat on twitter. I didn’t think it was a spat at first, I thought I was asking a series of reasonable questions. But as the person I was tweeting then deleted all her tweets and refused to answer me further, I think maybe it was a spat.
I follow a lot of people in the book business on twitter: authors, publishers, book bloggers, and over the last few days, I’ve seen the following tweet several times in my timeline.
I have removed the name of the original tweeter, as she has not chosen to participate in this debate, so can’t give her permission to be quoted (please excuse my dodgy use of Paint in the tweets to come, I am no graphic designer).
I was curious, so sent the following message to her:
Someone else chipped in, and then the original poster replied, and the following exchange ensued:
At this point, she stopped replying, and deleted her tweets to me. I managed to snip images of them before they disappeared from my timeline.
Anyway, there it is. Female writers, if you’ve written a book on war, history, conflict, religion or music, you’re out. Female non-fiction readers, you’re not invited to watch this programme. If you’d all be so kind as to pick up your cookbooks and pink chick-lit tomes and head for the kitchen in an orderly fashion, we’d all be so grateful.
It seems to me that this type of thing perpetuates such unthinking sexist nonsense. We’re awash in this sort of marketing aimed at small children. My small son is three years old and has been raised in a home where we all believe in gender equality and don’t use sexist language. He started going to nursery in September. About two weeks later, we were in a shop looking at a rack of umbrellas. He pointed to a blue one and said, “I want that one, it’s for boys.” Then he pointed to a pink umbrella and said disparagingly, “This one is for girls.” I pointed out that there was no such thing as an umbrella for boys or girls and that all umbrellas were pretty much equal, but I knew I was fighting a losing battle. The views of his peers, who have been taught differently, will inevitably hold more sway than ours.
Am I overstating it to suggest that there shouldn’t be books for “boys” and books for “girls” too? As a writer of what people call “women’s fiction” when they’re being kind and “chick-lit” when they’re being a bit disparaging, I’d like to think that maybe I just write books for people.
There are still so many barriers for women, and despite what Netmums’ rather biased survey
said feminism is not dead, nor should it be. Ask Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head for going to school. Ask the 80% of Egyptian women who have suffered sexual assault. Read the endless litany of thoughtlessness, abuse and anger heaped on women that is recorded at Everyday Sexism.
I get tired and sad just thinking about it.
Let’s not perpetuate it further in the world of books – which should surely be a world where people who create and share knowledge and stories are free to meet, whatever their gender.
If you look at the picture above, you’ll see a pretty teenage girl. She’s someone I follow on twitter. She’s 18 years old and she often tweets about shopping (especially for toiletries and cosmetics – man that girl loves Boots!), and doing her nails.
If you’ve been following the news at all over the last few weeks, you may even recognise her. Her name is Zoe Smith, and she set a new British record in the women’s weightlifting at the Olympics. She lifted rather more than twice her body weight – 121kg. This 5’2” girl could pick you up and hold you above her head. Yes you.
You live in the real world, so it’ll come as no surprise that the Internet knuckleheads responded to her by saying she’s unfeminine and they don’t fancy her. Well, this sweet-faced angel then proved she not only kicks ass in the weightlifting arena, she wrote a blog post
that, as a professional writer and a woman old enough to be her mother, I would have given my right arm to write.
Among other pithy and brilliant things, she says to her detractors, “This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren’t closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?! We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.”
This bit of 2012 has seen a bizarre confluence of social and cultural influences. We’ve just had the Olympics and we’re all riding high on the joy of every wonderful story we’ve experienced in the last fortnight, and commentators
are talking about how Olympians like Zoe offers new role models for young women – and then you get on the Tube and every woman it seems (and some of the men), has their nose buried between the monochrome covers of the Book that Shall Not be Named. Now I’m not going to write a lot about it because, God knows, everyone has said everything that could be said, and while it wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m thrilled to see any book make that much of a splash. But let me just say this.
Of all the erotic scenarios that could have captured the imagination of millions and millions of women – I am surprised, and in equal measure horrified – that this was the one that did it. Because the Christian/ Ana liaison isn’t a BDSM relationship, as far as I can tell, nor is it a conventional love story. It’s a deeply unequal, quite abusive relationship between a man who holds all the cards and a woman who has none. I giggled through the book and was mildly titillated until a scene near the end where Ana and Christian go for breakfast. She offers to pay and he says in horror, “Are you trying to completely emasculate me?”
I would think most people would want a partner upon whom they could rely, especially if they see the relationship as a long term prospect which might involve joint financial affairs, a home or children. To many heterosexual women, the idea of a masterful, able man is extremely sexy – when what he’s doing is pleasuring you sexually and buying you Audi convertibles. But as many people who have entered into in an unequal relationship can tell you, it’s slightly less titillating when he’s using that power to separate you from your friends and family, control you financially or abuse you physically or emotionally.
I'm reminded of a poem I wrote when I was a broken-hearted teenager, which (thankfully, as my poetry was generally terrible) has not survived in its entirety. It ended with a pithy rhyming couplet:"To make you big, I cannot shrink myself,So grow, my man, or leave me on the shelf"
So what I’m trying to say is that Zoe Smith has it spot on... a partner who needs you to be weak, poor, uneducated, or financially dependent is not strong. He or she is very, very weak. A partner who celebrates your strengths and talents, whatever they may be, who is the chief cheerleader on your team, who offers practical and emotional support to help you reach your goals – that’s the kind of strength we should be looking for. And I should know. I married it.
Follow Zoe @ZoePabloSmith
I came across the following post on the web on a site called ebook-forums.org, a website that trumpets in its header: “Get Free eBooks!
With us, your virtual library is complete.” “Some book requets (sic)
Hello, I have been trying to find these books, with no success, would you please be able to see if you are able to find them. Many thanks:
- Not quite a fairy tale - Cee Liddy
- Babies in waiting - Rosie Fiore
- Catching Babies= Sheena Byrom
- Love ... from both sides - Nick Spalding
- Love virtually - Daniel Glattauer
- The fading - Christopher Ransom
- The 2 week wait - Sarah Rayner
Thanks a lot for this,
Stinkle x. stinkle01
This was my reply.
This is Rosie Fiore here, author of Babies in Waiting
. I occasionally google my name to see if I have missed any reviews of my book, and your post came up. I thought I would take this opportunity to introduce myself, so you could meet the person you’re planning to steal from. I think when people download illegally, they do it because they can kid themselves they’re stealing from The Man… from a faceless corporation, or from a multi-million-selling artist who wouldn’t miss the few pennies of royalties. I think it’s still stealing. My thinking is that everyone else in the world gets paid for their work, and I’d quite like to get paid for mine.
Maybe you think I’m a rich, glamorous woman who swans around my big house, then lies on a chaise longue popping choccies into my mouth, dictating to Sven, my gorgeous assistant while he types up my latest masterpiece.
From the list of books you were hoping to steal, I’m guessing you’re a mum. So am I. I’m now married but for the first half of my writing career, I was a single mum. I’ve always been a working mum too, so I have always had to write in the evenings and weekends, after I’ve worked a full day and looked after my children. I wrote four novels over nine years. It took me that much work, and all that time to get first an agent, and finally a publishing deal in the UK.
Maybe you still think I’m rich. I did a little calculation and worked out roughly how many hours I’ve spent writing, editing, revising, selling and promoting my work, and then put that against what I’ve earned from my books so far. My hourly rate is around £3 an hour. Less than half the minimum wage. Don’t worry; my children don’t starve, because I also work as a freelance copywriter. The week my book came out, I sat in a windowless office in a warehouse in Walthamstow and wrote descriptions of glue dots and Velcro strips. That’s how glamorous my author’s life is.
I think the thing that upsets me the most about your post and this whole forum is that on the whole, ebooks aren’t expensive. My book is on special on Amazon at the moment. It costs £2.99. Half a packet of fags, if you will. A third of a film ticket. A pint in a cheap pub. Or if you’re so skint you can’t afford that, you could borrow it from your local library for free, and they would pay me public lending rights.
If, after all this, you’re still after a free copy of my book, please do message me. I’d like to invite you around to my house, so you can look me in the eye as you take a copy of the book off the shelf and walk out with it. It’s what you’re asking to do here, so have the courage to do it honestly.
If you are a regular reader of this blog – or a friend, as many of you are – you will know that I was born and grew up in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, a privileged white child in a bizarre time and place. It didn’t seem strange then… as a child you don’t know that the way you live is not the way other people live. Life just is. I studied drama at Wits, a highly politicised university in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela’s alma mater. It was a tempestuous time to be a student, and though we didn’t know it at the time, we were in the dying days of apartheid.
Over the years, I’ve talked about my memories of those times with friends and family who were there. And then along came facebook. Now I’m a massive facebook fan, and I find it an invaluable way to keep in touch with people from all times and tides of my life… I’m hopelessly curious and I love to see who’s doing what, what their kids look like and what they’re up to work-wise.
What facebook has done most of all, however, is put me in touch with my past. It has led to reunions with schoolmates and university friends. There have been other reunions I couldn’t attend, but have witnessed in pictures and anecdotes others have put on facebook. And whenever these reunions take place, IRL, as they say, or virtually, we talk about the past. We say, “Remember when,” or we describe an incident we shared, or we talk about people we knew – fellow students, teachers, family – and through all of this we feel united, and we build a joint story of our pasts. On the facebook group we have for the students of Wits Drama School of our generation, we often post (half-jokingly) about the film or the book we should make that expresses that bizarre period in South African history and the way it played out in that weird and wonderful creative space. These connections are enormously seductive, and when they happen, I know I feel great rushes of affection for these people who know where I came from, who knew me then, who were there. And I find it very tempting to yearn for those days … when we were young and beautiful and certain about everything.
But the more we try together to make sense of it, the more I’m convinced that the past is a strange and changeable country. Memory is a fickle beast. Anyone who’s read different witness accounts of an incident will know that human recall is faulty, inaccurate and subjective – and so easily altered. Think about something you remember from early childhood. Now ask yourself… is it a real incident you remember, or is it a photograph? A story you were told by your parents? We also alter our own memories in the telling… when you tell that funny story about the thing you did when you were a child, it’s likely you might embellish it a little for comic effect, until eventually the amusing version of it becomes the memory, even if that isn’t quite what happened.
It’s also impossible to remember an event as it happened to the person you were then. You can only look at it with hindsight, filtered through the experiences of the more mature person you are now, with everything you now know about the situation and what happened after. That’s one of the things that makes our childhood and university memories so poignant – South Africa has changed beyond recognition in the twenty or so years since I left university. Nothing is as it was then, politically or socially, and on a personal level, I have seen more than my fair share of loss and change and death, which colours many of my memories of the distant past.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fallibility of memory and the alluring nature of reminiscence lately. I’ve been trying to work out why I feel so drawn to the people of my past, but at the same time so separate from them. I think it’s because I know that what I remember from “then” is false, or at the very least, incomplete. And I also know that my background as a writer tempts me to turn what happened into narrative – to try and make the unconnected, random and ill-remembered experiences of a silly, naïve girl into a coherent whole that casts me in a better, more thoughtful light than I deserve.
If I am honest with myself, I spent a lot of my days as a schoolgirl and as a student feeling very alone. I was desperately self-conscious, desperate to please, desperate to fit in and do well, but I didn’t have a clue how to do it. As a result, I probably did loads of stupid, attention-seeking, sometimes cruel and insensitive things to people who deserved better. I thought only about myself, how I was doing, how I looked to other people, how I could get what I wanted. So I fear I didn’t really connect with the people around me, not because of who they were, but because of who I was… selfish, shallow and unformed. And when I think back on the unkindnesses or thoughtless actions I experienced from others, I wonder if we weren’t all a bit like that… just very young people, inexperienced, and totally faking it, as you do until you grow into your own skin.
I love facebook for giving me a second chance to get to know these people, who, largely without exception, seem to have become fascinating individuals with great stories to tell. I’m so glad to have this opportunity to be a better friend, albeit often a long distance one, than I might have been then. But I would never, ever, wish to be back in those days. Our waistlines may have been smaller, but I believe our hearts and minds have grown.
I hope you won’t think less of me if I confess something to you. Both of my intensely beloved, very much wanted and cherished children began life as contraceptive slip-ups. I’ll spare you the gory details (“Oh thank god!” I hear you sigh), but in both cases, a calculated gamble was taken in the heat of a particular moment and in both cases, the ball fell, or the cherries all lined up, or some other gambling-related double entendre occurred. In short, I got knocked up by mistake. Twice.
I am not alone in this. A (completely unscientific) poll among people I know suggests that up to half of the children in our social circle may not be the result of rigorous family planning and forward thinking but are instead the result of a missed pill/ bout of tummy flu so the pill failed, or a condom that split/came off/ never quite got put on in the first place. Indeed, as we’ve recently hit the seven-billion-people-on-the-planet mark, it should come as no big surprise that it can be really, really easy to make a baby by mistake.
What’s equally clear, as ten minutes of Jeremy Kyle, or indeed a trip to our local soft-play centre on a rainy day will show you, is that many, many people really should have put that condom firmly on, and shouldn’t have procreated at all. We’ve all seen children whose lives may well be ruined by their family circumstances. These children are born into homes where at best ignorance and apathy and at worst abuse and cruelty, can close doors for them and blight their hopes and dreams before they’ve had time to have any. It’s easy to make a baby. It’s a whole other ball game to raise a child. We all know a pet is for life, not just for Christmas, but kids stick around for a whole lot longer and need a lot more house training.
But what if a family hasn’t made a baby in the traditional mummy-loves-daddy-and-they-get-married-and-have-a-special-cuddle kind of way? What if the family has fostered, or adopted, or undergone medical treatment to create the baby? What if they have invested enormous time, effort and money to get the baby they have? What if they really, really are parents on purpose?
Let me tell you about three friends of mine. Wendy* is a foster mum. Her own children are grown up, and now she takes in children, often tiny babies, and cares for them until the courts decide if they can return to their biological parents, or they can be adopted. She raised one little boy from birth until he was nearly two before he went to his “forever” family. Do you have a two-year-old, or a child that was once two? Imagine giving away your child at two. Would it tear out your heart? Of course it would. She always knew she would have to give him away, but she still raised him with all the love, attention and cuddles you or I would give our own child. She didn’t skimp on the love at all, even though she knew loss was part of the equation.
Alan* read that babies in orphanages often don’t thrive because even though they’re fed and cared for, they don’t get held and cuddled, and babies need physical contact to survive. He volunteered at his local orphanage to hold and play with the babies. Very soon after he started, he lost his heart to a tiny baby girl, and got permission to bring her home for weekends. I first saw her when she was three weeks old, a grey, unresponsive baby who lay in her pram without moving. She didn’t cry – why bother? In the orphanage, the carers would always be too busy to respond. Alan got permission to foster the baby, and ultimately, to adopt her with his partner. By the time she was a year old, she was a chubby, boisterous and adorable toddler, full of giggles and first words. She is now nearly thirteen, a breathtaking beauty, a fine athlete and a good scholar. She has a younger brother, also adopted, and they have exceedingly bright futures.
Mary* and her partner desperately wanted children, but it wasn’t going to happen the conventional way so they saved all their money to undergo IVF. The first round failed. Sadly there isn’t a money-back guarantee. They aren’t rich people, so they had to save up again, and have another go. they are now parents to a beautiful baby boy. He may only be genetically related to one of them, but there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that they’re both his parents.
These are not the only people I know who have taken the parenthood-on-purpose route: there’s the couple in South Africa running a refuge for abandoned babies of HIV-positive parents. There’s a couple who chose to adopt a child whose birth circumstances meant he was certain to have developmental delays and problems, because they believed they had the love and resources to help such a child.
Now I’m not saying that these people are paragons of virtue, or perfect, or better than more conventional parents. But it does stand to reason that someone who has put that much effort into becoming a parent will take on the role with seriousness. They will probably have a degree of preparedness, financial planning and forward thinking that is at least equal to, if not superior to those of us who –accidentally or deliberately – made a baby the usual way.
Does it surprise you that of the families I mention above, more than half are gay or lesbian couples?
There’s a growing body of research (You can see some articles here
) to suggest that gay and lesbian parents are just as good as heterosexual parents. Just as good, but not necessarily the same. They are different in that they tend to raise children who have more diverse groups of friends. Children of gay parents are often less restricted by conventional gender stereotypes in their career choices. But, incidentally, while they tend to raise more tolerant children, gay parents do
not have any more gay children than straight parents do.
The American right, the Catholic Church and various other groups argue that the only correct way to raise children is in a nuclear family unit with a heterosexual man and woman who are married to one another. I think that’s not only a myth, but a dangerous one. The nuclear family is a very recent social construct. For centuries, children have been raised by extended families, by relatives, foster families, by communities and tribes. Maternal mortality, war, social change… all of these factors mean that “family” means very different things to different people. We think we know what ‘normal’ is, but is ‘normal’ really normal? And is it the only way that is right?
Maybe I’m a bit sensitive about strict definitions of family. I was a single mother for around ten years. I even claimed Jobseekers Allowance for six weeks in 2002, which (briefly) made me one of those benefit-scrounging layabout single mothers the right-wing press loves to hate. According to many people, I should have raised one of those NEET/ ASBO/ acronym kids, but instead, I raised a fine young man who does well academically, holds down a job and is a capable, contributing member of society. Whether the child is yours by blood, whether there’s a mum and dad, just a mum, a mum
and a mum, a dad and a dad, a loving grandma, foster parent or sibling, what makes successful children is love, care and purpose.
* Names changed.
I made two new friends this weekend. The first is Angela Joba, a bespectacled and very religious Nigerian lady of strong opinions. She’ll tell you what you’re feeling about pretty much anything, and it’s best not to argue. My second new friend is a rather elegant man of about seventy called Christopher Benton. He’s always smartly dressed, very polite and quite reticent, but he’s carrying a torch for a lady called Judith, and between you and me, I think he’d do anything for her.
When I say I made these friends, I literally did, and I employ the overused adjective “literally” advisedly. I literated
them. That is to say, I made them up, in the course of writing my new book, Now and Then
. Until yesterday, Angela and Mr Benton (I can’t call him Christopher, it wouldn’t be appropriate), didn’t exist outside my imagination. Now they also exist in a word document on my computer, and, please God, in my back-up. If all goes to plan, sometime in 2013, they’ll exist inside copies of a print and electronic book, published by Quercus and sold by booksellers everywhere.
This may seem like a strange thing to say, but when I’m writing, I don’t really think about the fact that the people I make up will be going out into the world to meet others. I live with them very intimately for months at a time. My husband jokes that I talk about my main characters as if they were close friends of ours who might pop by at any time. He likes to read what I’m writing, even in the early stages, so he knows who our new mates are.
I lived with the characters from Babies in Waiting
for ages, mainly because the book took such a long time to write. It wasn’t because I was lazy, but because I began when I was pregnant, and when Ted was born, my brain turned to mush and I couldn’t have written a shopping list. I finally finished the first draft when Ted was about eighteen months old, then spent another year revising it and editing it before it came out. That’s a long time to spend in the company of friends no one else knows, and it was the scariest thing in the world to wake up on 1 March and realise that Toni, Louise and Gemma were out in the world, meeting people who would judge them and have opinions about their actions. So far, everyone who has met them has been extraordinarily nice to them (and to me), and I can only hope that it continues in the same way.
I started writing this blog post because I wanted to express how writing a novel is the single most satisfying and thrilling work project I have ever undertaken, but for once, words almost fail me. You see, I believe (for me at least), it’s a mysterious process that happens almost outside my control. If I am disciplined and write my prescribed number of words each day, then my sub-conscious, or God, or the great creative river, or whatever you want to call it, does the rest. The characters arrive and tell me their names, what they look like, what they like, how they speak, and we go on a journey together. If I wanted to be pedantic, I could unpick every moment in everything I write and trace it back to the incidents, people and inspirations that led me to it. But it’s much more fun just to let it happen. It’s as much a process of discovery writing it as, I hope, reading it will be for someone else. I can’t wait to find out what I’m going to say.
Of everything l’ve ever written, I’m enjoying writing this new book best of all. I feel free, and I feel as if anything could happen.
I suspect that this is what sportsmen and women feel when they’ve practised and practised and practised something, and for the first time the motion becomes fluid and easy, second nature. it doesn't mean I'm any good at it yet, just that after four books,I feel I've practised enough now to feel a little more sure-footed.
If you’ve always wanted to write, and write something big, I can’t urge you strongly enough, Go for it. There’ll be times when it’s hard. There’ll be times when it feels impossible, and boring, and when you think every word you’ve written is shite. But there’ll also be times when your fingers can’t fly over the keyboard fast enough, when you make new friends and they spring up, fully formed, vivid and real, and speak to you in a voice you know will ring true to a reader. And when that happens… well, it’s a bit like magic.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
– Carl Sagan (with thanks to Alyn Adams, who posted this quotation on facebook and made me think about the whole writing thing)
A snapshot of the first page of my Dickens magazine
This piece was first published in our parish magazine in November 2011. Today, Dickens's bicentenary, this project was completed.
The life of a freelance writer is a varied one. This week, for example, I’ve devised a script for a corporate video on bad management practices, written some copy for a craft catalogue, worked on a charity website, and told Charles Dickens where he was going wrong.
Yes, you read that last part right. I spent a chunk of my time this week editing the words of Dickens himself. In 2006, The University of Buckingham
embarked on a frankly barmy quest: to make every issue of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazines available to the world via the Internet. Dickens edited two magazines, first Household Words
, from 1850-1859, then All the Year Round
, from 1859 until his death in 1870. He wrote extensively for both on the widest possible range of subjects, but also serialised some of his novels as well as works by other prominent Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins. Upon his death, his son Charles Dickens the younger, took over the editing of All the Year Round
, and the magazine was still published weekly until 1890.
The University of Buckingham project is concerned with the issues from 1850-1870, and their aim was to have an image of every page online, with a text version alongside, by Dickens’ bicentenary in February 2012. Twenty years’ worth of weekly magazines, at 24 pages each makes for a total of nearly 25,000 pages, so it’s not surprising that earlier this year, they realised that there was no way they could complete all the editing in-house by the February deadline. As a result, the university team appealed through an article in the Guardian
for volunteer editors to take on individual magazines. So any Tom, Dick or Rosie who fancied themselves a copy editor would get a chance to check the text version of the pages alongside Dickens’ original.
Well, I couldn’t register fast enough, and I was allocated the 31 January 1857 edition of Household Words
. The team has scanned each page, and then used a system called Optical Character Recognition, which “reads” the text and then creates a file you can edit. Unfortunately, sometimes it misreads a letter or word, especially if there is a shadow or smudge, and for some reason it can’t see dashes, so any dashes In the original were omitted in the text and had to be inserted There are also many hyphenated words, and paragraphs split across columns. As an editor, it was my job to go through every line and check for errors, and reunite split words and paragraphs. It was fiddly and precise work, but the trickiest part was staying focused on the editing. The articles and stories were so fascinating, it was all too easy to get caught up in them, and forget to insert the commas and cross the ts, as it were. None of the volunteer editors will earn a penny from helping the University of Buckingham meet their 2102 deadline, but it’s an experience I, and I’m sure any others, would happily have paid for.
The first article in my magazine concerned the extraordinary efficiency and cost-effectiveness of British manufacturing. The article showed how the rise of specialised machinery in manufacturing had changed the face of both the industry, but the type and skill-level of work labourers would be expected to do. Indeed, the English factories were the cheapest and most efficient in the world. Witness this extraordinary example: “…a single steam engine,continually working with the power of five thousand men, moves one hundred and fifty thousand spindles, and delivers thirty thousand miles of thread per hour. The Hindoo spinner [In India, where cotton would originate], earning bare subsistence,can produce only a mile of thread for four pence;nineteen miles can be produced in England for three-halfpence, and the yarn or cloth spun from the Indian cotton can be delivered back to the Hindoo by rail and ship and road, employing labour to and fro, and be, after the double journey, still a cheaper article than the Hindoo can make.”
How times have changed!
There is also a very detailed article about the coco plant (coconut to you and me), its use around the world, and the animals and humans who depend upon it for food. This contains some extraordinarily racist conjecture about the people of the coastal countries in Africa, and is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of the time.
The magazine also contains an uncredited poem, a chapter of a Wilkie Collins novel called The Dead Secret
, an essay on the poetic nature of rail travel and an extract from A Journey Due North
, by George Augustus Sala. In just 24 pages, my randomly selected magazine offered a snapshot of economics, politics, culture and travel in 1857.
I’m extremely proud to have been a small part of this astonishing project. At the time of writing, 90% of the magazines were corrected or in the process of being corrected, and the team is on course to meet their deadline (edit: and indeed they did!). Hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers have worked together so that this wonderful record of Victorian life will be accessible to scholars and the curious forever.
It’s just extraordinary that a writer as prolific as Dickens also found time to produce an edition of these magazines every week for twenty years, while still generating some of the greatest writing in the English language (and being a father to ten children!). Like me, do you feel maybe you could have got a bit more done today?