Sunday, 21 May 2017

What Kind Of Society Do You Want To Live In?

There are certain times of the year which lend themselves to optimism and spring for me is one of them. The nights are light and while we may not be basking in sunshine the potential is there. Don’t get me wrong, by the time September comes around I’ll be gazing longingly towards autumn but, for now, it feels like we’ve got it all to play for.

My excitement is heightened even further by the up-coming general election, although I feel hopeful and terrified in equal measures. I genuinely believe that this could be our last chance to create a fairer society. I have no control over the future however and am preparing myself for a major disappointment.

On the whole I’m quite a positive person who likes to think well of my fellow humans but whenever there’s a general election I often feel completely alienated from what seems to be the mood of the nation. I recognise that a lot of this is down to media manipulation and the Tory bias means that there’s a focus on people whose views are at odds with my own. This time around however there seems to be a generational split like never before.

Apparently I belong to the Generation X, preceded by the Baby Boomers and in turn preceding the Millennium Generation. This is all news to me but the divide between these generations is becoming all too real. The media at the moment is giving the greatest voice to the so-called Baby Boomers, probably because this is where much of Theresa May’s support lies. If I hear one more silver haired pensioner talking about ‘girl power’ I swear I’ll put the television screen through.

The fact is the Baby Boomers like to claim that they have worked hard and deserve their long retirements and pensions and I agree with them but why can’t they afford the people coming up behind them the same opportunities. After all they are not the only people who have worked hard, young people are staring down the barrel of working until they’re 70, never being able to afford their own homes no matter how hard they work and paying off student loans well into middle-age. Let’s not forget that those of us who studied pre-1990 not only got our education for free but received maintenance grants as well.

What to do then if the Tories get the landslide win that the media is predicting? Short of emigrating or throwing myself into the nearest river I’m going to need a strategy to get me past the realisation that I’m living in a country surrounded by people that I don’t understand. I once read somewhere that the best way to achieve something is to behave as if you already have it so I’m going to have to behave as if I’m living in a society where community matters and people care about each other, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

I believe passionately in education as the antidote to poverty and, as we edge ever closer to the return of educating only those who can afford it, I think those of us who benefitted from an education owe a debt to all young people. I’m fortunate enough to work with both children and adults who are striving to learn and hopefully realise their ambitions. Not everyone succeeds the first time around and I don’t want to be part of a system that closes the door on people after just one chance. It’s becoming harder and harder for adult learners who want to return to education because of cuts in funding and that’s where the voluntary sector comes in. If we don’t like what’s happening within education we can always volunteer our time to counteract the attacks on life-long inclusive learning.

Likewise with poverty, which is surely the most corrosive problem a society can have. Food banks have become a lifeline for record numbers of people and Sheffield can’t be the only city that seems to have returned to the levels of homelessness last seen in the 80s. We should all be ashamed of the fact that 30% of our children are now classed as living in poverty and 254,000 people were registered as homeless in England in 2016.  Rather than ranting about the unfairness of it all maybe it’s time that those of us who do feel shame at the way our country is shaping up became proactive. Food banks are crying out for donations and volunteers as are homeless charities. There is a way of countering everything that we feel angry or upset about, it just requires that we put ourselves out and consider other people’s needs. This is the kind of society I want to live in, where kindness is valued more than affluence or status.

Taking my cue then from all the new beginnings that abound in spring, instead of worrying about the things I can’t control, I’m going to surround myself with people who I admire. People who value everyone regardless of their situation and understand that lending someone a helping hand benefits everyone in the long run. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Is There Such A Thing As The Perfect Childhood?

I’ve just finished reading a great book (The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat, if you’re interested) and part of the reason I enjoyed it was the fact that it was set in the early 1970s. The narrator was a year older than me and despite it being set in a small Australian town, a million miles from my own experience, her childhood really resonated with me. More than anything it highlighted the way the world has changed and got me thinking whether this was for the better or worse.

Like most things in life, there is no easy answer. Hopefully as human beings we have evolved as the world has become smaller through technology. Prejudice is no longer as widespread as it was and although racism and sexism do still exist it’s nowhere near as limiting as it was in the 70s. This in itself has to be a good thing but what about the other changes?

The most striking changes have taken place in the way we view our children. I am not a parent but work with young people who have been reared in a child-centred society. From birth they have been encouraged to believe that they are deserving of respect and validation regardless of their behaviour. There is no hint of children being seen but not heard or respecting their elders. In fact they are often quite shocked to discover that the world does not actually revolve around them.

It’s easy to point out the negatives of this kind of child-rearing. We have lots of young people who are not very resilient. The world is a tough place, perhaps more than ever before, and yet children are fed the idea that they can achieve anything they want to achieve. In an ideal world this might be true and hard work would pay off but in reality life is not necessarily fair. Big dreams are all well and good but you are never going to be a doctor or vet if you aren’t academically inclined nor are you going to be a successful singer even if you can carry a tune and have been in a couple of school shows. Why then do we constantly peddle the myth that children can be whoever they want to be and then wonder why they grow up into disappointed, unemployable adults? Shouldn’t we all be questioning why lots of big businesses would rather employ pensioners than young people?

I’m not viewing the 70s through rose tinted glasses, however. I grew up in a world where children were kept firmly in their place. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were not on equal footing with adults who warranted our respect for no other reason than good manners. We didn’t join in adult conversations, we gave up our seats if an adult was standing and we never questioned authority. Basically we were encouraged to be passive and accepting. Assertiveness is something that most of us have had to learn in adulthood and it’s often a steep learning curve.

Young people today tend to have a positive body image despite the statistics telling us that obesity is on the increase. In contrast I remember greed being viewed as something to be ashamed of and nobody beat around the bush where weight gain was concerned. I had a friend whose mother made her wear a panty girdle throughout her early teens due to her “running to fat.” There was no letting it all hang out and acceptance, being fat was undesirable and showed a weakness of character. We may have kept our weight in check and been less of a drain on the NHS but it can’t be a coincidence that every woman I know who is of my generation has a neurotic, unhealthy relationship with food. Is this any less damaging than the new eat all you can, junk food generation?

A notable positive change that I’ve seen is the way that young people have embraced inclusiveness. I often feel ashamed as I’m choking back laughter watching singers who can’t sing or dancers who can’t dance whilst young people encourage and support each other. We are all told that bullying is on the increase especially online but in my experience young people are kinder than I remember. Kids were brutal when I was at school and if you lacked skill there was no giving it your best shot, you were roundly mocked. I was beyond useless at PE and consequently never got picked for any teams; even my own friends viewed me as a handicap. To this day the idea of team games fill me with horror as I think back to shivering on the school field as the sporty girls deliberated who would be the least damaging to their success – an obese girl called Lesley, Nicola a chronic asthmatic or me.

I don’t suppose it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that our modern child-centric society is probably a direct result of the confidence crippling childhood of the 70s. Most of my friends who like me had to cope with low self-esteem and people pleasing disorders swore their own children would not be subject to the harsh child-rearing they endured. And as often happens they over compensated with their own offspring to try and rectify what happened to them. Consequently we are seeing different but just as damaging results from their own efforts.

Is there ever going to be an ideal childhood then? My own parents would scoff at my assertions that they were too strict as they recalled being given the belt and having to go out to work at fourteen. I suppose in comparison we seemed spoilt and pathetic. Their criticisms were just as limiting though as their own parents’ discipline had been to them and later generations may have chosen a more liberal approach but succeeded only in unleashing a whole set of new problems on their progeny. Maybe growing up should just come with a government health warning. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Do What Makes You Happy

Despite Storm Doris and the fact that it’s lashing down outside, I can feel spring in the air. There’s light at the end of the dark, dreary tunnel of winter and suddenly I’m full of inspiration and ideas.

I’ve got to admit I’ve been a bit of a misery for the last couple of years and as a result everything seems to have gone by the wayside. Particularly my writing which, for as long as I can remember has been a source of much pleasure. Thinking about it, what knocked me for six was getting caught up in the idea that writing had to be about something other than personal fulfilment.

I’d found myself in a position where I was able to take extended periods of unemployment and any bits of work I did were all about funding my pre-occupation with writing. I wrote like a demon for a couple of years and life felt pretty much perfect. But then somewhere along the way I lost sight of my own feelings and began looking outward for external validation. Anybody who self-publishers will tell you that getting a readership is brutally hard work – a full time job in itself. Most books languish on Amazon unread by anyone other than a handful of people and the realisation of this stung.

Not only did I have to abandon the idea that I wasn’t going to be able to abandon the day job, I simultaneously entered the time of life that people like to flippantly refer to as a mid-life crisis. The understanding that (unless I’m going to be in the Guinness Book of Records) I’m well past the half way stage – it should really be called a three quarter life crisis although I concur it doesn’t sound very catchy. Anyway, I became consumed by what I hadn’t done and the ever decreasing road that lay ahead of me.

Fortunately, as with all things human, these things pass and I now find myself inspired by the very same things that had felt so limiting. I don’t need to prove myself because at 54 I’m never going to be the next ‘bright young thing’. No, I’m old enough to appreciate that anything that brings us pleasure should be grasped firmly by both hands.

During my writing adventure, I didn’t spend my days locked away in the attic living like a church mouse. Instead I lived beyond my means, crashing and burning rather spectacularly. I was forced to re-evaluate my relationship with the workplace and now work considerably more than I’d like to which has had an impact on how much time I can dedicate to writing.

So what’s changed? Simply my outlook on life. Whilst I’m never going to be able to retire completely, in a couple of years I will be in a position to cash in my pension which will afford me a financial cushion – albeit a flimsy one. I feel lucky to be coming to the end of my career and contemplating a time of indulging in whatever takes my fancy. Hopefully that will mean writing a whole host of novels that can be read or not.

Because what difference does it really make? The pleasure I get from writing is in no way connected to the number of people who read it. Yes, as I write there’s an audience in mind and I imagine what kind of reaction my words might inspire but once I press publish all that becomes irrelevant. I’ve no idea what happens to my words as they loaf about in cyber space in much the same style I loaf my way through life.

So my advice to you my dear potential reader is do what makes you happy for its own sake and not for anything it may bring you. If you are a fellow scribe it doesn’t matter if you write for you alone or an audience of many, the power is in the joy of expressing your words onto the page. If it’s some other pastime that makes you smile then my message stands the same. I love dancing and singing and the fact that I’m never going to be Beyonce doesn’t diminish that joy one little bit so why should not being Jane Austen stop me from putting pen to paper?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Power of the Review

How important are reviews? It seems in the 21st century they are the way most small businesses are validated. The only experience of reviews that I have is via book reviews and even that is limited but how reliable is the review system?

It’s inevitable that if you have a small customer base your reviews aren’t going to be plentiful but does a wide customer base guarantee more reviews? It seems the answer to this is yes and no. If you Google big companies they seem to have less reviews than small independent companies and the same is true of writers. For example I wanted to buy a copy of a play by Sam Shepard and when I went to Amazon was stunned to see it had only one 2 star review. We are talking about arguably one of the greatest living American playwrights here and yet if you Google any writer of commercial, disposable fiction you can find anywhere up to several hundred 5 star reviews. I’m in no way trying to detract from the pleasure derived from reading light hearted romance or vampire books but there does seem to be a bit of a discrepancy here.

Does this discrepancy invalidate the review system then? I don’t know. Before I wrote my own novels I never reviewed anything. In fact, up until that point I had no idea that the world of reviews even existed. If I wanted to buy a book I would just go to my local book shop and buy one. The advent of self publishing however has blown the market wide open and lots of novels are now only available online, which is the home of the review. I would imagine that most reviews are readers’ natural responses to the books they’ve read. It would seem though that this may not always be the case.

Self publishing a book is about so much more than writing and lots of effort goes into garnering a readership and reviews and as the world of self publishing has blossomed so too have blog sites dedicated to reviewing books. Most of these sites are great, set up by book lovers who offer honest reviews. However, alongside these sites are other reviewers who have set up businesses where they review books in exchange for a fee. Likewise there are companies who employ people to write reviews for small businesses despite never having used their services. The world of reviewing like most things is vulnerable to corruption.

Having said that I have found that I really like reviewing books. I feel in no way qualified to set myself up as an expert critic but enjoy offering my opinion on what I’ve read. It’s a bit like being back at school doing English Lit – I mean when as an adult do you ever get to write your response to ideas or writing techniques anymore? Review writing clearly feeds my inner swot.

Even with the best of intentions though reviewing is a thorny business. I personally don’t like the idea of marking someone’s work out of 5 and would far rather simply express my own response. After all, who is to say my response will be the same as someone else’s and reducing a review to a score just seems so definite. I struggled for days recently over a book I didn’t feel connected to because it wasn’t my kind of thing despite the fact that it was well written, brave and original. Do your score on your own feelings towards a book or how another potential reader might enjoy it. There’s no way of knowing and if readers look at the score rather than the review then they are missing all of the nuances a reviewer may want to express.

So what’s the point of this rambling post I hear you ask? In all honesty, I don’t know. I was provoked into thinking about reviews by two things. One was my surprise at Sam Shepard’s lack of them and the other was a small plumbing company who my mother paid to install a bathroom after reading glowing review after review about them online. The truth turned out to be a little bit different and we’ve since learnt that none of the reviews are genuine and there are lots of dissatisfied customers trying to get their money back.

The power of the review then can be a mighty thing. In the age of the internet it has replaced the old recommendation system of word of mouth. This need not be a bad thing but how can we check the authenticity of reviewers and how can we take seriously a system where a reader scores To Catch a Texas Cowboy 5 stars but Jane Eyre 1.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Is The World Really As Bad As We Think?

Everywhere I go at the moment the one phrase that I keep hearing over and over again is – the world has gone mad. It seems as if every day there’s some new horror for us as world citizens to deal with and it’s little wonder that anxiety levels are at an all time high.

Before we all retreat to a darkened room or start popping valium however, let’s consider how real our fears actually are. There have been lots of political changes this year what with Brexit and now Donald Trump. Changes, that according to lots of people mark the start of our decline into something unimaginably dark but haven’t we been here before? I for one can remember dark times in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher took us to war, whilst decimating industry and plunging millions into mass unemployment. We don’t really know what impact Brexit or Trump are going to have yet but whatever happens we’ve survived tough times before and so surely we can do it again.

For obvious reasons, war and terrorism are another source of fear and worry. We are bombarded with pictures of war torn Syria every day. Clearly we need to be reminded of what’s happening in the world but rather than fretting and feeling depressed, would it not be better to try and do something about it? How many people wringing their hands in sadness actually support charities such as The Red Cross, Save the Children or Oxfam who are on the front line trying to help? As a person who is prone to anxiety I know how being proactive can help us feel empowered in times of uncertainty.

As we all know, technology has made the world a smaller place and brought the drama of international tensions into our living rooms like never before. The problem with this is bad news is big business and so that’s all the media likes to focus on. We all get our daily fix of fear but what about the positive stories that are being played out the world over with hardly a mention? Does this imbalance of reporting lead to a disproportionate level of anxiety in response?

For young people one of the biggest courses of concern is reported to be terrorist attacks and we behave as though this is a new phenomenon. Without a doubt we need to be aware of what’s going on around us when we’re in highly populated areas like airports or busy train stations but again, haven’t we seen it all before with the IRA in the 80s? I remember all the posters warning us to watch out for suspicious looking bags and when London was like a ghost town following a spate of terrorism alerts. I’m in no way trying to diminish the seriousness of terrorism but simply trying to highlight that they are nothing new. We have lived through these times before.

I worry that if we all become entrenched in fear and worry, anticipating the fall of civilisation as we know it, we may inadvertently hasten its arrival. Fear often leads us to demonise the unknown, be that people, places or ideas. I vividly remember being terrified in the 80s when everyone was convinced the Russians were going to kill us all. I’ve never been a massive fan of Sting but hearing his song Russians where he hoped that “Russians love their children too” was a massive wake up call for me in understanding that even though it might sometimes seem as if we’re on opposite sides of the fence we’re all connected as human beings none the less.

Call me Pollyanna if you like but I’m not wasting my energy worrying about world affairs because I don’t think things are as hopeless as we fear. Most people are kind and decent and the more we get to know each other on a human level the more we realise we’re all the same. So stop fretting and start acting. You could join an anti-war campaign group, support charities that help people in war-torn countries or, if you want to be more hands on why not volunteer at your local food bank or charity shop. I promise you once you start playing your part in counteracting the poison of characters like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, you’ll feel a whole lot better about the world.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Don't Hide Your Light

Why is it so much easier to believe in other people than it is in ourselves? I can’t be the only person who is able to see the merits in other people’s achievements but crippled with doubt about my own?

This was really brought home to me this week when I was involved in a literary festival, both as a writer and a punter. A wonderful writing group invited me and a poet to be their guest speakers. Delighted as I was, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d got me muddled up with someone else. In fact I checked but no, the invitation was most definitely for me.

I spent the weeks building up to the event fully expecting to be exposed as an imposter. When the day finally arrived, despite being surrounded by lovely, supportive people, I felt totally ridiculous speaking about my writing journey and reading an extract from one of my books. So much so the whole event passed in a blurry out of body experience.

Sharing a post event latte with the very talented and articulate poet, I swore off public engagements for life. However, I was somewhat reassured the following evening as I sat in an audience listening to The Undertones bassist, Michael Bradley, talk about his book. He was witty, engaging and the book sounded great but he was also self effacing, constantly apologising for “going on” or “being boring” despite the fact that he was categorically not guilty of either of those things.

It got me thinking about whether my own lack of confidence is in fact representative of how most people feel. Are some people simply better at hiding their insecurities than others or are there actually people out there chomping at the bit to share and basking in the glow of their accomplishments? I’ve no idea, having only my own crippling self-doubt reference point to go by.

It’s not hard to see why so many of us might be wary of self- promotion, particularly in the UK where being confident goes hand in hand with arrogance and big headedness. I think as Brits we are hardwired to cringe in discomfort the second anyone starts to talk about themselves in a positive way. It’s much easier to deal with people who laugh off their achievements as nothing special.

I was brought up to the refrain, “Nobody likes a big head.” In keeping with this philosophy my mother was happy to extol the virtues of other people’s children whilst focusing on the ordinariness of her own. Any flashes of grandeur in my family were met with ridicule and mirth. I was the kid at school who never put their hand up and dreaded the thought of being called upon to “share”. Looking back there were always kids desperate to read out their work and ironically they were usually the ones who would have perhaps been wiser to keep quiet. They no doubt grew up into people happy to audition for shows like the X factor, despite being tone deaf with two left feet.

Interestingly the poet and I discussed this and he relayed how he finds British publications to be the most cruel and dismissive of anywhere in the world. He has been published worldwide and noted that only Brits find it necessary to reject work in a savagely critical rather than supportive style. Is self-doubt a cultural thing then, a natural result of our so called wit that sees us happy to pull others to shreds? Who knows?

I studied at university in Texas and one of the biggest culture shocks for me was how much value was placed on the ability to speak engagingly. In the UK it would have been possible for me to survive my entire educational life without once opening my mouth. Suddenly though I was thrust into a world of presentations where sharing your ideas and work was the norm. To be fair I was probably no less inarticulate when I graduated but it made me see the merit of teaching public speaking skills.

I could be generalising here but I think Americans are much better at valuing themselves and their achievements and this possibly comes from an education system where sharing ideas and work orally is respected just as much as written work. Most of my friends hate public speaking as much as I do. In fact some have even declined promotions at work as to accept would mean addressing large audiences. For me public speaking and the ability to promote yourself go hand in hand and the trouble is, while many of us shy away from the glare of attention, there’s always someone else ready to snatch the limelight. The reality is no one cares that you may be hiding your light under a bushel they just assume you have nothing to offer.

What can we do then to reverse this debilitating lack of self-confidence? I think there should be more emphasis on performing and group work in schools from a young age. Sadly as exams increasingly take precedence over everything else, schools have once again become places where written work is all that matters and this does not reflect real life. In our modern world most jobs demand the ability to be a good communicator and so our young people are going to be at as big a disadvantage as me and all the other public speaking haters out there.

It sounds clich├ęd and I’ll admit it makes me feel slightly nauseous but pick up any self improvement book and somewhere you’ll find the old adage that you have to love yourself. I think the real message behind this is that we need to treat ourselves with the same kindness that we treat others. As I said at the beginning, I am always happy to admire the quality of other people’s achievements so maybe it’s time to stop focussing on the shortcomings of my own.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Bad Week To Be A Woman

My anger has been steadily brewing all week and now it’s at boiling point. It’s not been a good week for women and, regardless of your gender, you should be steaming mad too. The week started with Donald Trump justifying groping women as basically a bit of fun and ended with a professional footballer having his conviction for rape overturned.

Now before I continue let me confess I know nothing about the said footballer. I wasn’t there on the night of the alleged incident nor was I privy to the evidence that was revealed in court. What has pushed me over into full-blown Hulk mode however is the rhetoric surrounding the case and the way in which his legal team were allowed to use the victim’s sexual history as evidence against her and potentially undo any progress that has been made in prosecuting sex crimes.

Despite having zero interest in the game I remember clearly when the rape allegation was first levelled at the footballer and he was suspended from his club, which happened to be in my home town. It’s seared in my memory as I was working in a school and shocked to the core by the attitudes of many boys and some girls towards the allegation. Words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slag’ were bandied about with venom and the general consensus seemed to be that football was more important than an intoxicated, vulnerable young woman who may or may not have been raped.

On Saturday night, twenty four hours after he had been exonerated by an appeals court, I foolishly clicked on the footballer’s name as he trended on Twitter. The level of abuse aimed at women made me feel physically sick. Anyone who questioned the legalities of what had taken place was called (and you can take your pick here) – feminist lesbian/ ugly cunt/ slag/ bitch/ whore. Given that the defence team used not only the woman’s sexual history but the idea that the footballer was so in demand by women that he didn’t have to rape one seems to suggest that rape is only a crime when committed against particularly attractive virgins.

The damage this has done to women I believe is inestimable. Already many rape victims don’t come forward for fear of being blamed, not believed or being put on trial themselves. What kind of message then do these legal proceedings send? I read an article this week about a man who was running an assertiveness course for women and how shocked he had been to learn that every woman in the class had suffered some degree of sexual abuse. He may have been shocked but I’m not.

I don’t know any woman in my own circle of friends who hasn’t been touched in some way by sexual abuse. My sister and I were always urged to be wary of men by our mother who at the age of fourteen had been groped by her much older brother-in-law. She told her mother who didn’t believe her and warned her not to make trouble. My mother’s solution was to never be alone with him again and to make sure neither my sister nor I ever were either. That early awareness that people weren’t always what they appear to be didn’t always keep us safe though.

My first encounter with the thorny issue of tell/don’t tell came in primary school aged about eight. I was chosen along with two other girls to be a biscuit monitor at play time and as we were getting the biscuits from the stockroom one of the girls revealed that her grandfather was abusing her. Conscious only of the gravity of the situation we all went hand in hand to tell the teacher who listened carefully and sent us on our way. Before the day was up we were all called into the headmaster’s office and given the scolding of our lives for telling ‘nasty lies’. I for one never spoke of it again and I have no idea what became of the other two girls.

Later on in my teens we all knew who the ‘pervy’ dads were, the ones you had to avoid being left on your own with. A couple of friends who weren’t quick enough on their feet found themselves fending off unwanted touches but despite it being openly discussed none of us did anything about it. Likewise with ‘handjob gennel’ so named because of the local boy who would trap lone girls in the gennel and only let them pass once they’d performed a handjob.

The astonishing fact that the boy got away with this for years can only be explained in the context of the level of fear he struck into every teenager’s heart. He was a vicious thug, eventually expelled from school and dispatched to a ‘special’ school for almost beating a boy to death. Trapped in that gennel I and I’m sure every other girl on my estate, felt in genuine fear for our lives.

Once you mature into adulthood it becomes easier to avoid unwanted attention but even then I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been grabbed, slapped and slobbered on all in the name of friendly fun. Your intellect screams that you should be speaking out but some ingrained fear of causing a scene or rocking the boat makes you keep quiet and simply warn your friends to avoid the ‘lech’.

I had hoped that for young women the sexual minefield had perhaps become easier to navigate but it appears not. There are always going to be men who take advantage and now it seems the legal system is collaborating in making sure that women still won’t feel able to speak out.