Being a Horrible Person is Not the Same as Being Mentally Ill

Came across this tweet in following up on yesterday’s post about Hopkins:

Let me say this loud and clear.

Katie Hopkins has not been diagnosed as mentally ill.

But even if she were, this would not excuse her behaviour.

Being a bitch is not the same as being sick.

Being a horrible person is not the same as being sick.

Being cruel to others is not the same as being sick.

When I was 20, my best friend – who suffered from some of the most intensive bouts of depression I have ever seen – gave me a small and simple mantra to follow when judging his behaviour. He said:

Having a mental illness is not an excuse for behaving like a douchebag.
Although, if you could wait until I’m having a better day before bringing up the times I fall down on this, that would be appreciated.

That has been my guiding approach, throughout life, when dealing with people who are mentally ill and judging my own behaviour during my relapses. Being mentally ill is not an excuse for behaving like a douchebag.

This misattribution is one of the reasons why I wanted to run the call for submissions for Mental Health Awareness Week.

People who suffer from mental illness do NOT deserve (or need!) to be tarred with the same brush as Hopkins.

Stop calling her mentally ill. She has no doctor’s diagnosis, and the only thing that suggests she is mentally ill is (quite frankly) the fact that you don’t like her behaviour very much and you’re searching for a convenient box to put her in to account for the fact that you don’t understand it.

It produces the idea that someone who is mentally ill must be a horrible person. And we are battling enough of that discrimination shit already.

The vast VAST majority of us are good people, doing our best to live good lives and be good to the people around us, while at the same time struggling with the fact that parts of our brains don’t work at optimum levels. Sometimes we need drugs to replace those chemicals that are missing, boost those that are low or tamp down the ones that are in overdrive. Sometimes we see counsellors to learn coping mechanisms, or re-learn things we have forgotten that you take for granted.

We are not like her. We do not want innocent people to die just because they are a different colour, or speak another language, or happen to have been born in a different corner of the world.

The minute a doctor diagnoses her as mentally ill, I will listen to such claims. And still continue to hold her to account for the appalling and disgusting things she says. Because being mentally ill is not an excuse for behaving like a douchebag.

But stop slapping that label on her just because you find her distasteful and need something to blame for that.

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Challenging Offensive Views and Katie Hopkins

I read a particularly disgusting little piece of hate-filled media yesterday, written by Katie Hopkins (I resent even writing her name in my blog, she’s such a non-entity with ideas about her station, but needs must on this occasion). It was brought to my attention by Media Diversified:

KATIE HOPKINS

In short – a dead migrant is better than a migrant living in Britain, according to Hopkins

 

The full column is available to read at The Sun (if you agree to join, natch!) and they describe it as ‘brilliant‘.

The content of the piece is disgusting. I had a whole column planned to write on this yesterday, but Simon Usborne at The Independent beat me to it. However, there’s no harm in having two voices singing from the same hymn sheet.

Katie Hopkins spouts offensive views. Whether we like it or not, this is her right under free speech. However, it’s time that we started questioning the people who are publishing and endorsing her views, by giving her a platform and backing sufficient to be taken seriously. We can’t just ignore her as someone who is stupid. A bigot perhaps, but not stupid. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, but I like to see some positive in everyone, and there’s no doubting that Hopkins is intelligent. She had a crash course in publicity after appearing on The Apprentice and she knows full well that a 50/50 split in public opinion is the best way to generate attention. Make one half of the country agree with you, make the other half so mad that they can’t form a coherent argument against you. Her views are indeed despicable, but she’s an expert at getting attention for them.

If we are going to tackle the public prevalence and spread of these ideas, the people we need to focus on are not the Katie Hopkins of this world. They are just the mouth piece, the focal point. They are thrust into the spotlight by those who are far more powerful and who want these ideas to be spread without collecting any of the shit that will be slung in the aftermath of publication. Media Diversified had the right idea – the editors must be called to account for why they allow this piece of filth into their publication.

 

There are calls to silence Katie Hopkins – have her removed from twitter, stop her posting online. This isn’t the answer.

Silencing those you disagree with is an extremist thing to do.

 

I know that her views are awful. In this article alone, she refers to living human beings as ‘plagues’ and ‘swarms’, calls them ‘feral’, ‘cockroaches’, says that they have been ‘built’, a subtle effort at dehumanising entire nations. Those little references to ‘Sharia’ stoning never let us forget who she is really talking about here – Muslims. She likens them to a spread of norovirus.

I know someone else who considers humans to be a disease, a virus.
He was despicable too. But at least he was fictional. 

“Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.
You’re a plague and we are the cure.”

Is Katie Hopkins actually an unfeeling machine construction sent to wipe out humanity? When you think about it, that would explain a lot.

However, disgusting as her views are, there is room for everyone in a society of free speech, but their entitlement to space light and air is not equal if we decide otherwise. Like plants placed in shady stony spots of a garden with no sun or water to nourish them, the views which are most offensive will wither and die if we focus on the opposites, giving all of our time and attention to messages of fairness, inclusion, equality, diversity and decent basic human kindness.

Removing Katie Hopkins from national media and television is another matter though, and it is something I will begin campaigning for as of today. If I were in London, I would have been at the protest outside the radio station which was featuring Hopkins today. We have to drown her out and get her off the air. But we have to do it by targeting the people who put her on the air.

This act against her exposure and publicity will not violate her right to free speech. She already has a website, and a twitter account. She can continue to express herself as much as she wants without fear of arrest or incarceration. THAT is the meaning of Freedom of Speech.

But what we can’t allow is for these views to be published and endorsed by the media at large. We can’t allow the idea to continue to circulate that this little piece of failed humanity might actually be right. Hopkins might claim that she has to earn a living – so do I, but I don’t resort to writing shit like this in order to do it. I’d rather go back to being a prison cleaner first. At least that was both honest and useful, unlike this travesty of journalism.

Ironically we need to take her advice from this article. Remove the emotion. Getting mad at Hopkins won’t solve anything, it will only add fuel to every little fire that she starts. It only increases her cult of personality and detracts attention from those who put her front and centre. Hating her gives her power, infuriating as that is. If we can respond logically and deconstruct her, show that these views are fundamentally wrong and highlight all of the places where she manipulates people, we can give her readers a wake up call. We need to give publicity and attention to the opposing side of the argument, we might have a chance of getting somewhere.In short – lets stop making it about her and focus on the issues that she is trampling all over.

Here are a few things Hopkins might not have thought of (or, by her own admission, cared about) when she wrote this … thing:

  • Not all migrants choose to be here. Human trafficking is at its height. Rescuing people in these boats heading for Europe might save these people from a lifetime of misery if they DO make it to the mainland.
  • Not all migrants claim benefits. I’ve taught many of them in the care sector – they work long hours, work hard, accept every opportunity for training and education and rarely if ever complain.
  • She advises them to go back to their own countries and ‘get creative’ if they want a better life. More like ‘get dead’. These people are not lazy, they are faced with war, starvation, oppressive religious law, deprivation of education and zero legal rights. Especially the women and children. If Hopkins and her children were faced with a life like that, she’d be on the first dinghy out of Dover – she wouldn’t be sticking around to ‘get creative’.
  • Oh and – ‘send them back to improve their country’? What a beautiful piece of hypocrisy from the woman who threatened to emigrate if Miliband won the election.  Not sticking around the improve the UK after all then Hopkins?

I guess your own rules don’t apply to you, dear. But then – you’re white, so why would these rules apply to you? Sorry Hopkins, but if you were a student in one of my classes, my response would be “Well dear, at least you tried. Now, who else in the class has a different point of view?”

Hopkins is routinely employed to write columns for The Sun. If you would like to protest against her being allowed to publish her views in a national newspaper, you can write to the editor here:

The Sun
1 London Bridge Street,
London,
SE1 9GF

*EDIT* OR YOU CAN SIGN THIS PETITION HERE

She also appears frequently on This Morning. If you would like to protest against her being featured on the show, you can write to the show here:

thismorning@itv.com

Or write to the producers here:

viewerservices@itv.com

ITV
Viewer Services
Gas Street
Birmingham
B1 2JT

It’s time to shout back. Shout louder. And shout often. Let’s drown her out.

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SMC Review: The Imitation Game

I wanted to watch this film when it was out in the cinema, but I just missed it which was gutting. I was delighted when Mr Shandy picked it up over Easter and we watched it together last night.

Alan Turing’s story is very dear to my heart. A few years ago, I was working in Manchester full time in a building just off Piccadilly. I got the train in every day, because it was cheaper than driving and having to park, and I used to spend my lunch times wandering around the area surrounding the building, which included Canal Street (part of Manchester’s infamous gay village) and some of the buildings of Manchester University.

When weather permitted, I used to sit and have my lunch next to Alan.

Alan Turing

Alan’s memorial is in Sackville Park, sat right between Manchester University and Manchester’s gay village. If you’re in town, I suggest you go say hello.

I got to be quite fond of him. I didn’t know his story beforehand, but during my time working in Manchester I was deeply unhappy, very lonely and having somewhere to go where I didn’t feel totally alone was a little bit of sanctuary. I was working in an administration based role for a higher education research committee and I was trapped making tea and coffee and taking minutes for meetings that I longed to be taking part in. I had the intellect and knowledge to understand and put into context everything that these people were saying and I was stuck in the kitchen doing the washing up and unable to contribute the things I wanted to say. I felt like I was being wasted and under-appreciated. Alan was a great listener when I was going through all of that crap.

When I read up on his story, that respect I had for the real Alan Turing only increased. So when The Imitation Game came out, it was put straight onto my ‘must watch’ list.

There have been other films about the breaking of the Enigma code, but this one was heartbreaking in its honesty and affection, not stinting in showing the darkness of Alan’s story and experiences, but also celebrating his achievements as the acts of genius that they undoubtedly were.

What I loved about The Imitation Game though, is that there were two heroes who appealed to me greatly. The other being Joan Clarke.

Joan studied at Cambridge, like Alan, and was awarded a double first in Mathematics (the equivalent of two first class honours degrees in one qualification). Not only that, but she was that year’s Wrangler (highest scoring third year candidate in Mathematics).

However, because of Cambridge’s policies she was not allowed to actually graduate because she was a woman.

My feelings on such notions shouldn’t really need explaining. Joan was a genius, quite possibly on a level with Alan, but her abilities and potential were even more squashed on account of her sex. While Alan was forced to undergo a chemical castration on account of his sexuality towards the end of his tragically short life, he was given a precious handful of years where his abilities and inspirations were given a full stretch of encouragement and room to grow. It wasn’t enough for either of them though. Not nearly enough.

The Imitation Game shows a little of how hard it would have been for Joan to overcome societal embedded prejudice to even get to Bletchley Park, let alone be taken seriously in her work.

It is fitting that Alan is shown as the hero who opens the door for her. Because he saw and respected her intellect and abilities and saw past her status as ‘woman’, not recognising it as a barrier to the work she could do, and most importantly not helping her just because he was trading on being a ‘nice guy’ who expected a personal pay off for his help and assistance somewhere down the line.

In reality, Joan was recruited by her former academic supervisor, but she was a close friend of Alan’s and he routinely switched the shifts around so that he could work with her and they spent a lot of time together and enjoyed many hobbies and shared interests, even after their engagement was broken off. I am not surprised that Joan was not ‘fazed’ by Alan’s confession of homosexuality to her. It must have been such a relief to find a man solely interested in the contents of her mind rather than the shape of her body. How few and far between those must have been at that time.

Joan excelled ‘for a woman’ at Bletchley Park. She became deputy head of Hut 8. But she was paid less than the men and felt that she was prevented from progressing in her career, even though Hugh Alexander described her as one of the best cryptanalysts he had ever worked with.

She was awarded the MBE in 1947. How she wasn’t made a Dame for the depth, quality and importance of her work, I will never understand. Dinner Ladies and Lollipop Men get made MBEs for faithful service, and fully deserving of the honour they are. Joan’s work saved millions of lives. It’s not in the same category. Joan returned to work at Government Communications HQ ten years after she married, despite her failing health, and only fully retired when she reached the age of 60.

Joan and Alan were both heroes of Bletchley Park and neither of them truly received the credit they deserved for their work while they were in their prime. Joan’s work was stifled by the heavy secrecy around the Bletchley Park activities until shortly before her death, and Alan was dead from cyanide poisoning by the age of 41. While widely believed to be a suicide, I give some credence to a theory that it might have been accidental death, and so I can’t blatantly call it as such, whatever the coroner’s report says. The theory does state that the hormonal treatment Alan was undergoing, his chemical castration, might have increased his confusion and lead to him making the error, however. So I still see him as a victim of the prejudices of his time.

I loved this film. Yes it is dramatised and sentimentalised, but it captures the essence of both Alan and Joan’s stories, in one simple phrase.

“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.”

How would these two people have changed the world even more, even further, if they hadn’t been reduced in the eyes of their peers to their sexuality and gender? What leaps might this world have made if they had been allowed to stretch and challenge themselves, unimpeded, for the whole of their natural lives and to the limits of their outstanding intellects and thirst for learning and experimentation?

If anyone ever asks me again why Equality and Diversity are important issues still in this world, this film will be on my prescribed ‘Watch This’ list. If anyone ever asks me why feminism is important, or why campaigning for equal rights for the LGBT* community is important, I will show them this film.

Under extreme pressure, with a narrow brief, working in huts, during a war time filled with deprivation, fear, danger and hunger – these two scientists, who nobody imagined very much of, changed the world. What more might they have accomplished if they had been supported and truly allowed to accomplish the things which no one else could imagine?

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SMC: I signed the Media Diversified open letter. So should you.

Last year, I did some blogging in response to the #thisbook hashtag started by  from the Baileys Prize on twitter. It was nice to be involved in their conversations and feel like I was getting noticed.

Shortly after the winner was announced I got an email from their press office enquiring about my website and the reach of my articles. This was pretty exciting for me, because I would love to start getting my writing more noticed. So I was really hyped for this year’s shortlist, nominations and judges announcements and what might follow in terms of further involvement.

I recognised Laura Bates (who wrote Everyday Sexism, which I reviewed last year) and was all set to get even more excited.

But then I recognised Cathy Newman and Grace Dent. I couldn’t place the names immediately in the crazy media shitstorms of the last 12 months, but Media Diversified put them into context immediately for me – and even better? They had a plan.

When Media Diversified announced they were writing an open letter in protest at the appointment of these two women as judges on the panel, my first instinct was to support them. Absolutely. To sign the letter and throw my support behind them, such as it was. I didn’t really think twice about it.

This morning, I was filling out my comment on the site and that nasty little self-serving voice spoke up in the back of my head.

‘You do realise that if you sign this, if you throw your name behind this, you can kiss goodbye to ever hearing from their Press Office about doing writing for them again…’

I won’t deny, I stopped for a minute. I mean, I’m one voice. Would one signature matter that much?

Then my common sense and sense of self decency kicked in.

OF COURSE IT MATTERS.

It’s crap like this which stops intesectionality getting off the ground. Which keeps feminism from engaging with race issues and sexuality issues. Oh of course I’m a feminism, I support the rights of white cis-gendered straight women. What bullshit. This is exactly the sort of crap I want to be speaking out on, and here I am being tempted by the devil to stay silent.

Fuck that shit.

I signed the letter. As should all of you by the way, regardless of what race, colour or creed you are. Giving an extra spotlight to the views and opinions of two racists is not a good idea. Not even a little bit.

I also made another decision. If the Bailey’s Press Office do get in touch, I won’t be reviewing any of their short list this year in connection with the prize while these two are on the panel. Come back next year and ask when you’ve picked some new judges. If the books are good, I will read them and review them on their own merits. But I don’t really want to be linked with the opinions of this year’s judges. At the end of all things – I don’t want to be writing articles for an organisation which promotes and respects the views of racists.

Now yeah, Ok, I’m small fry. I have a reach of hardly anyone in terms of my website stats, and certainly few people who matter in the grand scheme of media things. This won’t really matter to anyone but me, in the long run. But it matters to me. And if we don’t stand for something, we fall for anything. I refuse to fall for this. I’ve spoken out on the inherent racism in the media before, as well as sexism, and I would be a hypocrite of the highest order if I fell in line over this to further my own ends.

Sorry, no. This is more important than that. Standing up for important principles and doing what I believe is right has always been more important than furthering my own personal ends.

One of my favourite fiction characters taught me that. (click to play)

output_qQP7gL

So if I do this I may never ‘sit in the Captain’s Chair’ again. But I will be able to live with myself. Warp Speed. Warp speed indeed.

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SMC: #womeninfiction – a tale of two Katys

I first read ‘What Katy Did’ when I was in primary school. The last time I read it was about two years ago, shortly before I got married. It’ been one of the books that I can go back to and back to again and again, along with the sequels, in particular ‘What Katy Did At School’ and ‘Clover’.

Katy Carr was my namesake. A bright girl, intelligent and fond of books, full of energy. An ungainly and uncoordinated miss, more concerned with fun that her appearance and liable to leave breakages, ripped frocks and destruction in her wake. A writer, a fairy tale enthusiast, a leader to her siblings and friends. She was filled with plans to do something great and worthy in her life.

It all comes to a shuddering halt once she is injured in an horrific accident, and it takes her four years to recover her health and the use of her legs. Katy learned a lot of lessons in those years – about patience and hope and the value of the love people around you bear for you. They were all lessons I needed to learn in my own youth. I’m still learning them now.

I read ‘What Katy Did At School’ in my teens, and then again in my University years, and then again as an adult. And each time I found another lesson in it, something new that influenced my life. I admired Katy’s sense of propriety and decorum, about having self respect and dignity. Not just in her establishment of the SSUC though, but in her dealing with an unjust accusation and the negative opinions of the people around her when she has done nothing to deserve them.

“I can’t bear it,” sighed Clover, with tears in her eyes. “It is so cruel that they should say such things about you.”

“I mean that they shall say something quite different before we go away,” replied Katie, stroking her hair.

Once you lose someone’s respect and good opinion, even if it is through unjust or inaccurate means, it is very difficult to get it back. It’s not like a prize in a war. You can’t go to war for it, or fight for it. The act of doing so often lends weight to the false assumption. All you can do is to live things down. To carry on being the best that you can be and to hope that people will realise their mistakes, that they were wrong about you and that they should view you differently.

One of Katy’s friends writes in her book ‘The better part of valour is discretion’. That was a phrase which it took me a long time to understand the meaning of. The better part of bravery and honour is sometimes the silence with which you greet it. The refusal to say ‘I told you so’ or ‘see, I was right!’. The grace with which you accept people’s apologies and move forward. The grace with which you carry on living even without those apologies.

None of us can control how we will be treated in this world. But we can control how we react to those treatments, whether just or unjust, and how we move forward.

By the end of the story, Katy has managed to live down her false accusations:

“We had ‘lived it down,’ just as I hope we should. That is much better than having it contradicted.”

Just before I married, I discovered the ‘Clover’ and ‘In The High Valley’ books and enjoyed making the acquaintance of Katy Carr, just before she became Katy Worthington. To re-encounter Katy, just before her wedding and just as I was getting married, felt a little like fate. In the end a large chunk of Katy’s discussion with her sister Clover about her hopes for her wedding formed part of my own wedding speech:

” ‘Please not be vexed Clover; but I always have hated the ordinary kind of wedding, with its fuss and worry and so much of everything, and just like all the other weddings, and the bride looking tired to death, and nobody enjoying it a bit. I’d like mine to be different, and more —more— real. I don’t want any show or processing about, but just to have things nice and pretty, and all the people I love and who love me to come to it, and nothing cut and dried , and nobody tired, and to make it a dear, loving occasion with leisure to realise how dear it is, and what it all means. Don’t you think it would really be nicer in that way? ‘

‘Well, yes, as you put it, and ‘viewed from a higher standard’ perhaps it would. Still, fuss and all that is very pretty to look at; and folks will be surprised if you don’t have it.

‘Never mind folks,’ remarked the irreverent Katy. ‘I don’t care a button for that argument. Yes; bridesmaids and going up the aisle in a long procession and all the rest are pretty to look at, or were before they got to be so hackneyed. …I would like my little wedding to be something especially my own. There was a poetical meaning in those old customs; but now that the custom has swallowed up so much of the meaning, it would please me better to retain the meaning and drop the custom.‘ “

Once again, I felt like Katy had gotten straight to the heart of the matter, understanding that what is felt and KNOWN is more important than what is seen. My wedding was beautiful but it was the people there who made it so, both by their help and by their presence and the knowledge that they loved both me and Mr Shandy, and had been willing to travel such long distances to be there for our one chosen day of celebration.

We made it ours, with our own choice of music, readings, our speeches and the help of so many people that we truly loved. We dropped a lot of the old customs because they had swallowed up so much of the meaning. We invented our own, which retained our meanings and expressed our love for each other so much more clearly.

I despair of reading ‘chick lit’ at times, especially the wedding-themed variety. Because so much of the story seems to have gotten caught up in the customs of a wedding and dropped all the meaning behind it. This was the first book I read in the run up to the wedding, alongside my other old favourite Little Women, where the real meaning of what a wedding and indeed a *marriage* should be formed the bigger part of the story rather than the trappings and trimmings. What message are we giving to young women through the fiction market? That your vintage dress and trimmings and keeping your bridesmaids happy are more important than the person you are choosing to bind yourself to legally and in love? What truly makes a wedding, and afterwards a marriage, are the people involved, first and foremost the people getting married. In the days of the Kardashian wedding debacles and tabloid fodder stories of on-again-off-again engagements and online articles about the size/value of people’s engagement rings, it’s easy to lose sight of that.

‘Clover’ offered a nice and timely reminder of what’s important in all this stuff, a back to earth bump of the pleasant variety.

So if I am to recommend someone for the #womeninfiction hastag, then of course it has to be Katy Carr. For her grace and patience during her childhood, her quiet strength of character in her adolescence and her sense of perspective in her early adult life. Not bad aims for any little Katy to keep in mind as she grows up. I know they did me some good, and will continue to do so. After all – I am still growing up.

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SMC: The Fault In Our Stars by @realjohngreen

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

I almost missed out on reading this book. Mostly because I get put off reading things when they have been overhyped in my hearing, and sadly this tends to cover most books which become film adaptations. However, as I do private tutoring for teenagers, I decided it was time to get over myself a bit and engage with some stuff which was actually popular. This, along with the Hunger Games trilogy, was my first purchase towards this ends.

I had chosen wisely.

This is the first book of Green’s that I have read, but I very much doubt that it will be the last. His humour, wit and commentary on Tumblr had already made him a familiar presence in my little corner of the internet. His writing did not disappoint, and neither did his subject matter. This story was quite simply beautiful and inspiring. Not because it was about two teenagers battling illness, but because it was about two teenagers who were determined to LIVE. In so many ways. By reading books, talking about them, discussing them and loving them, but also by going off on a grand adventure way outside of their own comfort zone or what anybody thinks about their limits and abilities. I love the sheer life in these characters and their refusal to let anything get in the way of them living, because that’s what living should be about for anyone.

For my money, Hazel Grace and Augustus are inspirational not because of the way they meet with their diseases but because of the way they meet with life. They are so determined to go out and experience the world, for themselves as well as through literature, and their sense of urgency and immediacy, as well as their way of squeezing every last drop of happiness out of the existence they have together, is wonderful to read and heartbreaking for its tragic inevitable conclusion.

Young love and young sex, positively approached with responsibility and genuine love and passion, is always a pleasure to encounter in YA fiction. Without fear, mistakes, drink or drugs or any form of coercion clouding the issues, these two characters enter into a very sweet and poignient and yet still physical relationship. I still remember Judy Blume explaining why she deserved to write ‘Forever’, after her daughter begged her to write a story about two young people in love who decide to have sex, do it responsibly and safely and sensibly and who don’t meet with any life derailing tragedies, infections, unwanted pregnancies or judgement from their families and friends. Hazel Grace and Augustus claim all the same rights as teenagers, regardless of their circumstances, and in this they are wonderful role models to young readers, for reasons which have nothing to do with their battles against cancer.

I cannot recommend this book enough, no matter your age. Hazel and Augustus are the modern star crossed lovers, cursed by something far more tragic than a family feud and yet still overcoming those barriers to be together for all the time they can wrestle from fate’s grasp. It resonates with the immediacy, urgency and strength of all young love and for that reason, it holds what I consider to be a universal appeal.

*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*

SMC: Review of One Man Crusade by @ClitheroePM

Review of One Man Crusade

Having been so pleasantly surprised by Steven Suttie’s humour in his first book, the Clitheroe Prime Minister, I decided to pick up his second release and give it a whirl. I wasn’t disappointed. Light and fluffy this was not, with some really grim and gritty subject matter underpinning the plot. But his characters still had that light touch which made them warm and friendly to the reader.

Focussing on a small police task force who are trying, with limited resources, interest or support, to track down someone who is assassinating convicted child sex offenders, the plot builds slowly at first but takes off like a rocket once ‘Pop’, the assassin with a conscience, makes contact with the national media and begins winning hearts and minds.

Suttie has created another clutch of characters who plough their way through inconceivable and yet also utterly believable circumstances, as relentless in pursuit of their goals as they are in their distinctive Northern brand of humour. The reader can’t help but connect with Miller, Karen and the rest of their team, as they continue their hunt for the identity and location of Pop. Pop however is an engaging character in his own right and part of the compelling nature of this story is generated by the consistent pressure on the reader to root for both sides of this conflict. I found myself cheering on Pop throughout his crusade with the same vigour as I supported Andy and Karen’s efforts to stop him. Up until the last few minutes of reading, I couldn’t tell which way the plot was going to resolve itself, and I almost didn’t want to know.

The writing is compelling and the plots certainly fresh and intriguing. Sutton occasionally makes heavy weather of his descriptive passages, but his fluent usage of affectionate insults, long discussions and quick bursts of humour combine to create believable dialogue, instantly recognisable to anyone who has lived and worked in the working class areas of north western England.

If you’ve not given Suttie’s works a try, and could do with a light quick and compelling read, you could do far worse than give this new northern writer a try!

*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*

SMC: World Book Night 2015 – It’ll Be All White On The Night!

It’s a massive relief, after the debacle that was World Bollocks Night 2014, to be able to talk more positively about World Book Night 2015.  Applications for volunteers are closed for this year, but you can still take part by giving out copies of your own favourite book it you want to.

For those who aren’t familiar with World Book Night, the whole point of the project is to get more people reading for pleasure. Each year, a short list of books is assembled and teams of volunteers distribute them. WBN try to target people who are not as active in reading for pleasure, so they give away copies of books to encourage reluctant readers. This year they have chosen some absolute corkers! A good mix and a fairly even split of male/female authors. Some fantasy, some crime, some comedy, some real life, some historical, a couple aimed at children/younger readers (I remember teaching Skellig in school) and also an anthology of poetry! What riches!

I am delighted beyond measure to see Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb on the list. I was lucky enough to win an advanced copy of this last year on Twitter and I could not put it down. My husband laughed at me trying to steer a canal boat one handed while keeping my place in the book with the other. I’m also really pleased to see Street Cat Bob on the list too, as this one has been on my to-read list for a while. I have higher hopes for WBN2015 than last year’s because they seem, at first glance, to have accepted that all writers and all genres have an equal appeal and that reluctant readers can be snagged and turned into avid readers by the widest choice of books imaginable.

The full list of books to be given out in 2015 are as follows:

1. After the Fall by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)
2. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M C Beaton (Constable, Little, Brown)
3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (HarperCollins)
4. Chickenfeed by Minette Walters (Quick Read) (Pan Macmillan)
5. Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts by Mary Gibson (Head of Zeus)
6. Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle (Quick Read) (Vintage, Penguin Random House)
7. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Pan Macmillan)
8. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, Neil Astley (ed.) (Bloodaxe)
9. Honour by Elif Shafak (Penguin General, Penguin Random House)
10. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (Orion / Hachette Children’s)
11. Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante (Simon & Schuster)
12. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle (Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House)
13. Skellig by David Almond (Hachette Children’s)
14. Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind (Hesperus)
15. Street Cat Bob by James Bowen (Quick Read) (Hodder)
16. The Martian by Andy Weir (Ebury, Penguin Random House)
17. The Moaning of Life by Karl Pilkington (Canongate)
18. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Transworld, Penguin Random House)
19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Two Roads, John Murray)
20. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline)

However…

There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there.

However… I was disappointed to see one thing that all of the authors on this year’s list have in common. Without exception – they are all white.

Now yes, admittedly, UK government research has found that White teenagers have a less positive attitude toward reading for pleasure that teenagers from Black or Asian backgrounds, so that might provide some context for the uniformity of the authors’ racial profile this year. But, assuming that white readers will only read, or be more likely to read, works by white authors as a blanket judgement is a little stupid and short sighted. In fact,it’s almost as stupid and short sighted as the assumption that men will be more likely to read books written by other men.

Race and cultural difference are hot topics in the UK today. The subjects of immigration and integration of communities from different faiths and racial backgrounds will be a prime campaigning factor in the General Election this year – not least because of the rising popularity of UKIP, who want to close the UK borders, leave the EU, cut benefits for migrants and reduce overall immigration to the UK, not to mention refusing to offer any amnesty to illegal immigrants who are already in the UK.

If we continue the assumption that white people only want to read books by white people and about white people, then we continue to foster an atmosphere of exclusion and segregation. We continue to imply that people should stick to their own experiences. Or, even worse, that people should only be satisfied with a white cultural experience. The importance of providing a platform for diversity in terms of authors and characters has been highlighted beautifully by the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, which I support 100%. Why is this not being picked up by the biggest ‘free book’ literary event of the year in order to encourage not only reading for pleasure, but wider reading for  pleasure?

People of colour are surrounded by books by and about white people. Our school curriculum is dominated by exactly that ilk of books. When are we going to start encouraging white people to read more books by and about people of colour? The best way to tackle ignorance and fear is through education. Through exposure to new ideas, new information and new knowledge. There are a wealth of fabulous authors writing excellent books which capture and define experiences of those who are not white, which more white people would do well to read!

White authors are still defining the experience of living as a person of colour in literature. Here’s a little thought experiment that I tried – the results of which I am not proud of.

I think of a book about what it is to be a black person in America and the book that comes to mind is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Who is white. (admittedly that association might have been fuelled by this week’s news, but still – the fact that Harper Lee comes to mind before Toni Morrison or Alice Walker dismays me).

I think of a book about an Indian protagonist and the first book that comes to mind is Life of Pi, by Yan Martel. Who is white.

I think of a book about Japanese culture and the first book that comes to mind is Memoirs of a Geisha, written by Arthur Golden. Who is white.

In addition to this, off the top of my head, without resorting to Google to make myself appear more widely read than I am, I cannot name you a single book by a Chinese Author. Or a Brazilian Author. Or a Mexican Author. I hold a 2:1 degree in English, a masters in literary studies and am qualified to teach English literature. I am woefully embarrassed about the gaps in my knowledge of international literature, or at the very least, literature which was written by non-white authors. And I’ve had access to a higher education in the arts. What chance does a reluctant reader, who is non-academic, have of encountering and experiencing literature written by authors who are not white? Dismally small, would be my bet.

 

The works of white people are not to be dismissed, the standard of writing is excellent in many of them and they are on various curricula for a reason. But it is telling that those curricula are selected and judged by white standards of excellence and they’re not the whole of the story. Not the whole of ANY story.

There’s more that we can do to promote and encourage the reading of authors who tackle the non-white human experience from a first hand perspective rather than a place of outside observation. So my next challenge to World Book Night has to be to include a greater variety of authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds. We’re not short of examples of excellence. A short prodding of my brain has brought to mind examples such as Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Malorie Blackman, Meera Syal, Toni Morrison, Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard, Imtiaz Dharker, Grace Nichols… I can’t bring myself to stop the list. There are hundreds more. Thousands more. And they need to be given equal promotion in terms of reaching out to reluctant readers, if we are ever going to successfully foster a society which is truly multicultural and integrated.

For the record, my current choice of novel is Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I welcome all recommendations for other books of note by non-white authors. I clearly have some catchup reading of my own to do. Better still, write me a review of your recommendations for The Shandy Media Club and let’s give these books the attention and publicity that they thoroughly deserve, and obviously need, outside of the standard literary circles.

 

 

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SMC: 50 Shades Of Grey? No Thanks!!

This was written in 2012 when 50 Shades Of Grey was at the height of its popularity. The thoughts that drove me to write it are still relevant now, regarding both the book and the movie.

However, as a known advocate of free speech I refuse to call for it to be banned. Instead I will suggest that people who object to the film/book and its presentation of the subject matter (there is nothing wrong with BDSM, but there is everything wrong with presenting an abusive relationship as being the same thing as BDSM) check out the $50 not 50 Shades campaign.

Continue reading

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SMC: In Defense Of Alcott’s ‘Little Men’

It came as a shock to read Beulah Maud Devaney’s article for the Guardian about Little Men and her insistence that Jo March had been betrayed in terms of feminist principles. Days later, the shock still endures and I feel compelled to respond to defend my heroines; not only Louisa M Alcott but her wonderful character Jo March and Jo’s protégé, Nan Harding, who is introduced in Little Men and yet went unmentioned Devaney’s article.

It is true that it was a surprise to see Jo March happily settled as the head of a family. I read the combined version of Little Women and Good Wives at a young age, and Jo’s spirit, thirst for independence and her creative urge to write resonated with me from the outset. However, Jo’s marriage was not a betrayal of principle in my eyes, either by Jo or by Alcott. If Jo was going to be happy with anyone it would have to be a well read Professor with a love of books to equal her own, someone who would encourage her writing and push her to better herself rather than to be content with the sensational stories of her youth. Indeed, Jo does go on to have her own very successful career as an established author in her own right by the time of ‘Jo’s Boys’.

It also came as no surprise to me that Laurie assumed Jo would take responsibility for her boys’ medical care and physical needs, asking her to cure Nat’s ‘overtasked body’ while Fritz helped his ‘neglected mind’. Jo may have wanted to be a writer, but she was not blessed with a full formal education. Indeed at fifteen years old she was working full time as a companion to Aunt March. Fritz meanwhile is a Professor, an educated man and an educator himself. The assumption that Jo will care for Nat’s health should not come as a surprise, as Jo has always been inclined towards nursing. After all, when Beth fell sick Meg noted that ‘she did not like nursing, but Jo did’ and Jo proceeded to carefully and willingly tend to her sister Beth for many years, refusing to leave her side towards the end of her young life. Of course Laurie would assume that Jo would tend to her neglected boys, having supported her throughout her long vigil during Beth’s scarlet fever.

In fact, medical knowledge and the provision of medical care is the secret to unlocking the restraints placed on women in ‘Little Men’ and later in ‘Jo’s Boys’; not for Jo perhaps, but certainly for another headstrong young lady under her charge – Nan Harding.

Nan is introduced in Chapter 7 of ‘Little Men’, invited to come and live at Plumfield School by Jo who is keen to ‘bring up little men and women together’ and provide a companion for Daisy who ‘needs stirring up a bit’. Full of spirits, nicknamed Naughty Nan and described as a bright child who is running wild, Nan is one of the biggest handfuls that Jo inducts into the school and proceeds to cause havoc and mayhem throughout her stay. Determined to join in with every ounce of fun that the boys undertake, Nan asserts her childlike claim to equality and independence at a very early age, as she ‘attempted all sorts of things, undaunted by direful failures and clamored fiercely to be allowed to do every thing that the boys did … she would not be quenched and she would be heard, for her will was strong and she had the spirit of a rampant reformer.’

It’s interesting to note that Nan’s father had not sent her away to school, but would have been willing to if, according to Jo, ‘he could find as good a school for girls as ours was for boys’. Once enrolled at Plumfield, Nan has access to an egalitarian education, studying all of the subjects that the boys do, which she would not necessarily have had access to at an all girl’s school in the 1870s (Little Men being published in 1871). When she turns her efforts towards her studies, she shows the boys that ‘girls could do most things as well as boys, and some things better’.

Impatient, impetuous, and often feeling restrained and trapped by the expectations of femininity, Nan is a breath of fresh air. Frequently described by Jo as similar to her in her own youth, Nan picks up the cause for feminism where Jo left off, a delightful counterpoint to the docile and domestic Daisy who is destined to follow in her mother Meg’s shoes as a wife and homemaker. While Nan does attempt to imitate feminine ways in order to gain approval and even love, she has to ‘slip out to stretch her wings, or to sing at the top of her voice’ once in a while, rather than submitting with docility to the expectations of her gender.

Nan’s instincts are towards care and love, but not towards motherhood. Her willingness to abandon her dolls shocks her friend Daisy, while Nan declares that she will have ‘an office, with lots of bottles and drawers and pestle things in, and I shall drive around in a horse and chaise and cure sick people. That will be such fun!’ Just like her grandfather, Nan is drawn towards medicine as a career, something which Jo does nothing but encourage: “Fritz, I see what we can do for that child….Don’t let us snub her restless little nature…but by and by persuade her father to let her study medicine. She will make a capital doctor, for she has courage, strong nerves, a tender heart and an intense love and pity for the weak and suffering.’ Nan is given a herb garden to grow her cures and apprenticed to the nursemaid to learn plastering, bandaging and formenting and upon being accepted to Lawrence College for her medical studies at the age of just sixteen in ‘Jo’s Boys’, she becomes ‘the pride of the community’.

Nan’s desires for the practice of medicine grow with her, and her focus on this aim outlasts even her childish romance with Tommy Bangs, scrapegrace of Plumfield School. Tommy’s efforts to win Nan’s consent to marriage dwarf even Laurie’s pursuit of Jo in terms of patience and effort, and in ‘Jo’s Boys’ Tommy remains devoted to Nan in adulthood, and follows her to medical school against his inclinations in an effort to win her heart, saying to her “You know why I chose [medicine] and I shall stick to it even if it kills me. I may not look delicate, but I’ve a deep-seated heart complaint…only one doctor in the world can cure it, and she won’t”.

Nan remains devoted to her career aspirations and her studies. While she is sympathetic to Tommy’s affection, she regards it as an affliction rather than something to indulge. She offers him her own prescription, including a visit to a ball and a dance with ‘pretty Miss West’ and an instruction to ‘repeat the dose as often as possible’. She is still practical rather than submissive in her attitude towards femininity, recommending that a sick female patient of hers should take off her corsets, stop drinking coffee and dancing all night and begin to eat, sleep, walk and live regularly. ‘Common sense versus custom’, is Nan’s only comment. She is still supported thoroughly by the old March girls, including Meg and Amy and of course Jo, who maintains that ‘it is all nonsense about girls not being able to study as well as boys.’

Eventually Nan does outlast Tommy’s professions of love. He announces his engagement to ‘pretty Miss West’, just as Nan had predicted. Upon hearing the news of Tommy’s engagement, but not the identify of his fiancé, Jo is heard to exclaim ‘If Nan has yielded, I’ll never forgive her!’. Quite the feminist reaction against marriage and in favour of study and career, even if not for her own sake. Nan’s reaction, meanwhile, is as fair and understanding as Jo’s was to the news of Laurie and Amy’s marriage toward the end of ‘Good Wives’. Nan declares ‘it will be a relief to me and better for him; dangling is bad for a boy. Now he will go into business with his father and do well, and everybody will be happy.’ Nan’s diagnosis proves once again to be correct, when Tom resigns from his medical studies and joins his father in business.

Free from expectations and distractions, Nan excels and by the end of the book ‘remained a busy, cheerful, independent spinster, and dedicated her life to her suffering sisters and their children, in which true woman’s work she found abiding happiness.’

While Jo may not have spurned marriage in favour of a career, her role in Plumfield school as a guide and encouragement to her own little women, as well as her little men, paves the way for the next feminist revolution, for the equal expectations of both men and women, as held by men and women. Alcott may not have lead the rallying cry with Jo March, but she has provided a character who speaks loudly and often about the merits of girls’ education and the equality of expectation between men and women in terms of achievement. In doing so, Jo has lit the way forward for her own ‘little women’, in particular Nan Harding. It might be said that in this aim and outcome, Jo March is actually the most true feminist character of all, willing to encourage her protégés to go on to achieve even greater heights of independence and success than were available to her in her own youth.

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