Archive for the ‘1980s’ Tag

My Life in Music: 1981

At the beginning of 1981, my family moved to a different part of Kitchener, which meant I changed schools. Partway through the school year, I found myself in Mr Hennig’s grade 6 class at Smithson Public School.

Mr Hennig has the dubious honour of being the worst teacher I ever had. When we left Canada, I had been in the very early stages of learning cursive handwriting. Canadian kids, at least at that time, learned this in grade 2. So the first assignment I handed in to Mr Hennig, he asked me why it wasn’t in cursive script, why was I still printing? I explained that I hadn’t learned that at school in England. He said, “you ought to know this by now. I don’t have time to teach you. The letters are on the classroom wall. Figure it out for yourself.”

So at age 11 I had to teach myself how to write cursive script. It’s one reason why my handwriting is so appalling even I can’t read it. Being left-handed doesn’t help either.

Me in 1981

Then we were given an assignment to write a story – always my favourite thing to do in school. I scribbled away with my story, and at the end of the lesson handed in ten pages. “What’s this?” Mr Hennig asked. So I explained it was my story. He said, “this is way too long. I don’t have time to read this. You need to write shorter stories.”

I don’t know what Mr Hennig was doing with his time, but evidently he wasn’t spending it teaching. I was glad to leave his class at the end of the school year, and move to Stanley Park Junior High to start grade 7.

The picture included here is the standard school photo for grade 6.

The other thing that happened in 1981 is that my youngest sister was born. So we were now three sisters – oldest, middle, youngest. The 11-year gap between me and my youngest sister means I have very clear memories of being woken up in the middle of the night by the baby crying, and it was this that first made me think that babies were hard work and I didn’t really fancy any of my own. My opinion did not change over the years. At least now, at age 50, I no longer get people telling me I’ll change my mind. I never did.

Our little record player looked rather like this

The two-year gap between me and Middle Sister meant that, at that point at least, we didn’t mind spending time together. That changed as we moved into teenage years. But back in the very early 80s we were both getting interested enough in music to buy singles of our favourite songs. And in those days, we had similar enough tastes in music to pool our allowances and buy records jointly (that, again, would change in later years).

One Christmas – and I think it was Christmas 1981, but it could have been the following year – we were given as a joint Christmas present a portable record player, the kind that folded up into a carrying case. The plastic turntable was just big enough for a ’45 (for those of you old enough to remember those). In addition, this little record player had coloured lights on the front that used to flash in time to the music. I went looking online for a picture, and I think the one I have included here was pretty close. My sister and I used to turn out the lights and dance to our records, pretending we were in a disco. One of the singles that we bought together, that we particularly enjoyed dancing to, was “Mickey” by Toni Basil.

I present it here, with the original video, as the song for 1981.

Girl Power

Growing up in the 1970s, I was acutely aware of gender stereotypes. I was a very ‘girly’ girl as a child – fond of dresses and dolls. I didn’t climb trees, I didn’t like getting dirty. Then I moved into the 1980s, and adolescence, and I became more aware of the imbalance between girls and boys. And it seemed unfair. I figured out very early on that I didn’t want to have kids, and I liked doing things that girls weren’t supposed to like doing. I started writing horror stories at age 14. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at 15. I was the only girl in the group for much of the year, and I have already talked about how all the boys ganged up on me in a previous post.

Fortunately for me, when I want to do something, the fact that other girls don’t do it has never put me off. But this isn’t always the case. A lot of girls are put off pursuing an activity or career they enjoy, because being the only girl can be off-putting, especially if you get picked on, as was the case in my first D&D group.

This is why it’s crucial to have role models, especially for girls. Why are there not more women playing lead guitar, or bass guitar, or driving race cars? Why are there not more women pilots, or women fire fighters? There are, of course, women doing these things, but they are still very much in the minority, and they need to be a lot more visible in order to inspire the next generation of young women to follow in their wake.

My inspiration for playing bass guitar was Suzie Quatro, who I remember seeing on ‘Top of the Pops’ in the 1970s and I thought she was a cool rocking chick. My inspiration for writing horror was Stephen King, who of course is male but he writes sympathetic female characters – something some male writers aren’t able to do – and it never occurred to me, as a teenager, that writing horror was something women weren’t supposed to do. Over the years there have been a number of people who have said to me something along the lines of ‘what’s a nice girl like you doing writing horror stories?’ but it does happen less frequently these days, and I hope people are more enlightened. After all, in the view of many people the first modern horror novel was FRANKENSTEIN – written not only by a woman, but one that was only seventeen years old at the time.

Mary Shelly. Image (c) National Portrait Gallery

I’ve considered myself a feminist since the 1980s. Although we have made some inroads since then, it seems we’ve still got a long way to go. I was touched recently by a news article about four-year-old Esme, who told her mother she needed to be a boy because she wanted to be a fire fighter, and she’d only ever seen male fire fighters in books and she ‘didn’t want to be the only girl.’ This prompted fire crews all over the UK to post tweets and videos from their female fire fighters, to prove to Esme that you can be a fire fighter if you are a girl. The story is encouraging, but also highlights how important it is for female role models to get more coverage.

We also seem to be making some inroads in sports. The women’s football league got national TV coverage on terrestrial TV for the first time this year, and had the best viewing figures ever. And the England team did quite well, I note – getting to the semi-final. I am not a follower of football, but this made even me happy.

I am also happy that there is a series of races for women drivers, again on terrestrial TV, for the first time this year. I have been a fan of Formula 1 for over 25 years, and I’ve been banging on for just as long that there aren’t enough opportunities for women racing drivers. This year we have the Formula W. OK there are only six races, of only half an hour each, which is nowhere near equivalent to Formula 1, but they don’t have anywhere near the investment, and it is a start. If people watch the Formula W races, and support them, they might get more investment and most importantly these young women (and they are all young, but so are the male drivers), will pave the way for little girls who dream of becoming racing drivers to understand that this is a dream within reach.

We need these trailblazers. We need women of courage, battling against the preconception that women can’t do these things to prove that they can, and the fact that they are doing these things needs to be publicised so that young girls can see that they can do these things and they won’t be ‘the only girl’.

The final Formula W race takes place at Brands Hatch in the UK next weekend, and I have tickets. I will be there in the stands, cheering on these trailblazing women.

In a small way I hope I am also encouraging a new generation of women bass players. When I have my bass guitar lesson, there is a young girl – maybe about 12 – who watches me through the door for the last few minutes while she waits for her own lesson to start. She seems to genuinely enjoy watching me play, and always gives me a ‘thumbs up’ at the end of my lesson.

I feel that at last we are taking steps towards gender equality. They are very small steps, but at least they are being taken. Which is why it’s so important to support trailblazing women when they come along, forging a path for others to follow in their wake. And it’s why I am so excited about going to Brands Hatch next weekend for the final race in the Formula W series. It doesn’t really matter who wins the championship. In my opinion, all of these women are winners.

I’m finishing this post with a video of the trailblazing woman I still see as an inspiration: Suzie Quatro, performing ‘Devil Gate Drive’ in 1974.

My Life in Music: 1980

On 31 January 1980, I left England to move to Canada, with my mother, my stepfather and my younger sister. I was ten years old and it was the biggest upheaval I had ever experienced in my life.

Four days before the move, my dad and my stepmother got married, because they wanted my sister and me to be at the wedding. My dad is passionate about the American West, and they had a western-themed wedding – at the local Salvation Army Hall, where he was a member. It was such an unusual wedding it made the local paper. The attached photo is the four of us, on that day, near my dad’s house in Ashton-under-Lyne. This is another photo taken by my grandfather.

Life in Lancashire at the end of the 1970s was somewhat depressed. We were living in an area where factories provided the main source of employment, and when they all started to close down the result was mass unemployment. At that time, emigration to Canada required a sponsor. My stepfather’s sister and her family were living in Canada and they were prepared to sponsor us, which made the move possible. But I was not happy with such a major change in my life, and I didn’t want to go. At age ten, you have opinions of your own, but you are not mature enough to express them in a way that will make people listen.

In those days, we were all regular visitors to the library. I enjoyed picking books, and then taking them back a few weeks later to pick out new ones to read. My mother was an avid reader as well, but she also used the library to borrow albums and discover new music. One of the albums she found in the run-up to our move to Canada was a ‘best of’ album by Roger Whittaker, which included a song called “Canada Is”, a patriotic anthem to the country. My mother played this song constantly in the weeks before our move, possibly trying to convince us all what a wonderful place we were moving to.

The first year in Canada was very difficult. Everything changed and I was expected to adapt, and I struggled with that. Everyone dressed differently, spoke differently, did things differently. There is a mindset shared by the people of a country that differs from other countries, and you don’t realise until you spend time there how different that mindset is from your own. I had never been ice skating before we moved to Canada. Canadian kids are put on ice skates the moment they learn how to walk. The first time I went ice skating with my class, I spent the session clutching the side of the rink, while all my classmates sailed by in disbelief, because they had never met anyone who didn’t know how to ice skate before.

I got very homesick. I missed my friends, I missed my family: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. But most of all I missed my dad. In those days there was no email or internet. The only way of staying in touch with people was to write letters, or speak on the phone, and international calls were so expensive they were infrequent and limited to three minutes, and really what can you say to people in three minutes?

Ironically enough, the song that made me feel the most homesick was a song about Canada, because it reminded me of those last few months in England when I was sick with dread about the move.

This year’s song is a bit of a cheat, because it was actually released in 1974, but it became so integral to the changes in my life that year that it’s really the only choice for 1980. So here’s Roger Whittaker’s “Canada Is”, accompanied by a patriotic video with images from across Canada.


D&D Girls

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-1980s. It was September 1984, the beginning of the school year and I had just started Grade 10. There were various announcements at the start of the year about all the clubs that the school ran, and if you were interested you had to turn up to a particular room after school that day. I was persuaded to go along to the first D&D meet by a friend of mine who was keen to try it out. She did not carry on through the year, having been persuaded by her church that anyone who played D&D was doomed to everlasting fire (we had to contend with a lot of that sort of stuff, in those days). But I enjoyed it, and continued playing. The group met in one of the science rooms, and we played once a week, after classes. We were playing version 2, and I rolled up a thief called Tera.

The cover of the Version 2 Player’s Handbook

For most of the year, I was the only girl in this group of teenage boys, who seemed to treat me, on the whole, as some kind of alien species. In the final game of the year, before we all finished school for the long summer break, all the boys in the group decided it would be fun to gang up on the only girl. They attacked my character, intending to kill her so that they could steal her stuff. Fortunately for me, the DM decided that this really wasn’t fair and he stacked the dice rolls allowing my character to escape and run away.

In those days, girls apparently didn’t play D&D. Is it any surprise, frankly, given the way we were treated? Fortunately I am made of sterner stuff. As a teenager I never really bothered too much about what girls were supposed to do and not do. I enjoyed playing this game, and I was going to continue. When the school year started again after the summer break, I joined the D&D club once more. This time I was one of three girls. We decided to break away from the boys and run our own all-female game.

Thirty-four years on, and I’m still playing D&D regularly. In 1989 I met my husband playing D&D. Not only do we still play together, but we now have three different groups. They all feature different players, but he runs them all, and I play them all. We normally manage to play each game once a month. For us, this means we’re playing three out of four weekends a month and I have to remember which character I’m playing. I make notes for each game. It helps me to remember, at the start of each game, where we were for the last one.

In the years since I started playing, things have changed a bit. For starters, it’s apparently now socially acceptable to admit to playing D&D, or at least it is according to this article. In the 80s it was very much the domain of nerds (or sinners, apparently).

It’s also acceptable now to be a woman who plays D&D. Of our three groups, there are two in which women out-number men. One of the female-dominated groups also consists entirely of people under the age of 35 (except for Hubby and I, who bring the average age up quite considerably). This makes me happy, too. The generation that has never known life without computers, mobile phones and social media, are enjoying the interaction of face-to-face tabletop role-playing games, and the unique thrill of rolling dice and recording character stats on a crumpled piece of paper covered in coffee stains.

There are still arseholes out there – mostly online, it seems, hiding behind the anonymity of digital alter egos – who seem to feel the need to give women role-players abuse. But on the whole, I think women who game have an easier time of it than they did when I started playing. And that does make me feel like we’re making a bit of progress.

High School Reunion

I spent eight years of my life living in Canada. I moved out there with my mother, stepfather and sister in 1980. I was ten years old at the time. I resented having to move countries. I moved back in 1988, at eighteen years old, after finishing high school.

The high school I attended was Grand River Collegiate, in Kitchener, Ontario. I spent five years there because in those days Ontario had a grade 13 – now long gone, I understand. The school opened in 1966. Last year, 2016, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it decided to have a ‘reunion weekend’ to celebrate fifty years of ‘Renegades’.

I have a lot of bittersweet memories of my teenage years. Does anyone ever have a good time during puberty? But in high school, at least, there were some good experiences, and it was a big improvement on junior high. It was in high school I began to have confidence in my writing – that this was, at least, something that I was good at, and I had some very encouraging English teachers. I made some good friends in high school, friends I am still in contact with. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons. And I was finally able to drop that most hated of classes, Physical Education. The Canadian education system – at least when I went through it – did not seem to comprehend that some people will never, ever, be any good at sports, no matter how hard you push them. But that is a post for another time.

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Me (L) and my sister, haunting the old school corridors 30 years on

Ultimately the most important lessons you learn are those you discover after school. I was bullied in school. I suppose most people are. Perhaps we had it easier, in the days before social media and the internet when your bullies had to come face to face with you instead of hiding behind Twitter accounts. Bullying is always tough. But you grow up, you learn to love yourself and you learn to put the hurtful things the bullies said behind you.

Anyway, the school opened its doors for an open house weekend as part of its reunion celebrations, and I decided to go. My sister, who still lives in Canada, came along. We were both, briefly, at the same high school. But she was three grades below me and at the time she found me terminally embarrassing, so we were rarely in the same place at the same time.

It was a strange experience, going back into my old high school after nearly thirty years. I think back to those times and sometimes it feels like it wasn’t me – like it all happened to someone else. And the school has changed quite a lot since I attended. There’s a proper drama room with a stage now. We just had a room with a carpet and no desks – we had to sit on the floor. There’s a really high-tech music room, with soundproof practise booths. But as I walked around, every so often a memory would hit me. We went up the stairs to explore the upper floor and I suddenly remembered clattering up and down those stairs every day, between classes. I went into the girls’ toilets and remembered that these were the ones I used every day, at school, because they were conveniently placed between corridors. I’m pretty sure the decor, or the facilities, hadn’t changed in 30 years either.

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Exhibit A: Evidence of Sara’s terrible dress sense during adolescence?

In the corridor that used to be where all the French and business studies (ie: typing) were, ‘decade rooms’ had been set up. So of course I headed straight for the 1980s room. Photographs of the time were hung up every where, and who should I see in that room but my old typing teacher. While I was talking to her telling her how in all honesty her typing class was the single most useful class I ever took in my life, my sister was prowling the room looking at the photographs. I was in quite a lot of them. I threw myself enthusiastically into high school and joined all the clubs. I was trying to get people to notice me. My sister was making a point of trying not to be noticed. She kept bringing me pictures I featured in. Most of them I remembered – I bought all the yearbooks, and most of the pictures were there somewhere. But then she brought me one I hadn’t seen before. “How do you know that’s me?” I said. “The face is turned away.”

She gave me a look and pointed at the picture. “Look at that outfit! Of course it’s you. And socks with sandals? Who else would wear that?”

Perhaps she had a point. I am attaching the picture as Exhibit A. I am the person with long brown hair in the foreground, lookng away from the camera. You can judge for yourself whether or not my dress sense was as terrible as my sister perceived it to be.

On the whole it was fun, revisiting my high school for a day, and it brought back some good memories that I had forgotten all about. But I think the most important thing about reminiscing on high school days is to remind yourself how far you’ve come since then.

Dr Who

It’s the 50th anniversary of the TV show ‘Dr Who’, and the UK has Who mania.  The anniversary episode airs here tomorrow night, and it has been much hyped.

So I thought a post about this unique TV show was appropriate.

‘Dr Who’ first aired on British TV in 1963.  The story goes that this little quirky science fiction show about an eccentric alien time traveller became so popular, that when its star William Hartnell decided he wanted to leave the show, the producers were so reluctant to finish the series they came up with the idea that since the character wasn’t human, he could regenerate into someone else so they could carry on with the series.   They subsequently cast Patrick Troughton as The Doctor.

Every British kid has grown up with Dr Who since 1963.  I know my dad has watched every episode.  My earliest memory of the show is the episode in which Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker.  That was 1974 – I would have been four years old.  I remember it nonetheless.  Tom Baker is the Doctor I grew up with – he played the part from 1974 to 1981.  Sometimes it scared me silly (“The Hand of Fear” gave me nightmares for weeks), but I watched it every week anyway.

At the end of January 1980, we moved to Canada.  At that time, ‘Dr Who’ wasn’t on over there.  I pretty much missed everything between Peter Davidson and Sylvester McCoy, until I moved back to England in 1988 – until the early 1990s, when we got cable TV, and UK Gold repeated them all, and I was able to catch up.

Then there was a one-off TV movie, featuring Paul McGann as The Doctor, released in 1996 but set in 1999.  It had American backing, was heavily Americanised and a lot of fans think it took too much creative licence to be true to the series.

Then in 2005 the series was relaunched again, internationally.  Suddenly Americans and Canadians were big fans of ‘Dr Who’.  Following Christopher Eccleston’s departure David Tennant played the role for five years, and when he left it was Matt Smith.

In my opinion, there are two types of Dr Who fans.  There are those who have been following the series since its early days.  And there are those who have been following it since its 21st century relaunch.  This latter category of fans were a bit floored in a David Tennant episode when he made passing reference to having been a dad – the reaction was, “What?  Where’s that come from?  You can’t leave it there!”  Those of us who have been with the show since the early days know that The Doctor’s first companion was his granddaughter Susan, and therefore we already know he must have been a dad once.

The fans who have only been watching it in the last eight years are getting a different sort of experience.  The 21st century ‘Dr Who’ has a bigger budget, more spectacular special effects and far more complex story lines.  The last couple of years have been even more complex.  Once upon a time, you could sum up ‘Dr Who’ in one sentence:  “Eccentric 900-year-old alien travels through space and time in a space ship that looks like a police box”.  Try and sum up the last two seasons of ‘Dr Who’ in one sentence, and you’ll struggle.

There has also been a precedent, in recent years, to cast young good-looking men in the role of The Doctor, and have attractive female companions who he gets to snog.  This is, as I understand it, to attract more young women into watching the show, but it has given it a whole new dimension that just wasn’t present in the old days.  Could you imagine Tom Baker’s Doctor snogging Sarah Jane Smith?  It was unthinkable.  He just wasn’t that sort of Doctor.

In the UK, you can generally tell people’s age by which Doctor they grew up with.  Tom Baker remains my favourite – he was constant throughout my childhood.  David Tennant is a close second, but it’s a different league because he is one of the new incarnations of The Doctor.

The much-anticipated 50th anniversary episode is on tomorrow night, and sneak previews have been promising.  I remain optimistic that this show will marry the old series with the new – and therefore unite all fans.  That’s a tall order, I know, for a TV show.  Whether or not it will deliver, remains to be seen.  Every ‘Dr Who’ fan in the UK will be glued to the TV tomorrow night.

As a further homage to ‘Dr Who’, it seems appropriate to end on this Youtube video, which merges every single sequence of opening credits, from 1963 to 2013.  You can tell from this how the show has changed over the years.  At some point in the 1970s, it changed to colour.  The sequence from the Paul McGann film has a definite ‘Hollywood’ influence.  Sylvester McCoy’s opening sequence has a suspiciously 1980s flavour.  And the practice of including the current face of The Doctor in the credits, which was dropped in the 21st century series, returns for the last season of Matt Smith’s run – hinting of a return to the original storyline.

So, fellow, Who fans, I want to hear from you.  What’s your earliest memory of  The Doctor?  Though I ask you not to comment on the 50th anniversary episode for the time being, at least – let’s avoid spoilers for those who will be catching up with it later!

The Winchester Mystery House

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I’ve been wanting to go to the Winchester Mystery House for nearly 30 years – ever since I saw it featured on TV. It was on either “That’s Incredible” or “Ripley’s Believe it or not”, I can’t remember which – both featured the bizarre and the strange, and were on TV in the early 1980s when I lived in Canada.

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Somehow we never got there on our previous two trips to San Francisco. I was very glad that on our third and recent trip there, we were able to hire a car and get to San Jose to pay a visit to this fascinating house.

Chances are, you’ve heard of this place already. It’s the house built by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Sarah and her husband had only one child, Annie, who died of a rare childhood disease when she was six weeks old. A few years after that, Sarah’s husband died of tuberculosis. Some say she was driven mad with grief, and never got over the death of her baby. Whatever the case, Sarah got it into her head that she was cursed by the vengeful spirits of all of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifles her husband’s family had produced, and the only way to break the curse was to buy an unfinished house and keep on building.

She moved from her home in Connecticut and bought an unfinished eight-room farmhouse in California. She hired servants, gardeners, and a crew of carpenters, who kept building. In fact they didn’t stop. These carpenters worked in shifts, and the work carried on continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until Sarah’s death 38 years later.

It’s a bizarre house.  It has 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms. There are stairs that go nowhere, doors that open onto blank walls, other doors that lead to two-storey drops, secret passages, rooms with no floors, windows that look out onto brick walls. Sarah Winchester designed most of the house herself.  Some say she built the house the way she did to confuse the spirits. I think she was likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – she thought spirits were speaking to her, and the servants were conspiring against her. But she was also stupidly rich, and therefore it didn’t matter how mad she was, people would do what she said. Apparently she paid all her staff twice the going rate, but she paid them daily in cash, so that if she had the whim to fire anyone, she could do so on the spot. Arguing with her about her illogical building plans was apparently a cause for instant dismissal.

Me standing at the front of the house - note lack of symmetry...

Me standing at the front of the house – note lack of symmetry…

Sarah WInchester was obsessed with the number 13, which is a recurring motif throughout the house. Windows have 13 panes of glass.  Ceilings have 13 panels. There is even a chandelier with 13 light fittings. Apparently it originally came with 12, but Sarah wasn’t having that and she added the thirteenth herself – and you can tell which one she added, because it’s wonky and obviously stuck on.

Naturally there are many stories about the Winchester house being haunted. It does have a decidedly creepy appearance. With so much building work the house is not symmetrical, and viewing it from the outside it looks odd. Inside, there are so many rooms many of them don’t have any windows or natural light, so it is rather dark and dim. But we saw it on an exceptionally hot and sunny day – positively balmy for the time of year – and it was full of tourists, so it didn’t seem particularly creepy. Then again, I have no psychic sensitivities whatsoever. I’d like to remain open minded about the existence of ghosts, but if there are any, I’m unlikely to ever see any. I don’t get easily creeped out. So saying, I rather wish we could have gone at Hallowe’en, when they do a ‘ghost tour’ by torch light. The place might be a whole lot creepier then.

I did feel rather sorry for Sarah Winchester. She lived alone in this house apart from her staff, and apparently never had visitors – the rest of the family thought she was nuts and stayed away. So she rattled around alone in this immense house, working her way around the 40 bedrooms – never sleeping in the same room more than one night in a row, allegedly to confuse the spirits she was convinced were out to get her.

Outside view of 'door to nowhere' - leads to 15-foot drop

Outside view of ‘door to nowhere’ – leads to 15-foot drop

You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Winchester Mystery House, and any that are on the internet are copyright and not able to be used without permission. Which I don’t have. So I can only include here pictures of the outside. But a Google search of the Winchester Mystery House will take you to plenty of websites that do include images of some of the bizarre features of the house.

If you are ever in the San Jose area of California, do visit the Winchester Mystery House if you can.  It’s a fascinating tour. And is the house really full of vengeful ghosts, or was Sarah Winchester as mad as a box of frogs? Well, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

When we first moved to Canada from England in 1980, I was ten years old.  There was no email, in those days.  The World Wide Web was not available to all.  In order to stay in touch with all the people I’d left behind, I’d started writing letters.  There were a lot of people I wanted to stay in contact with.  School friends.  Aunts, uncles and cousins.  Grandparents.  My father and step-mother, who were still back in England.

Most people wrote back.  I would look forward to getting home from school and checking the mail, to see if any letters had arrived for me.  I made a point of replying to every one.  I became very good at writing letters, and the process became a ritual.  I kept every letter I received in a letter rack, stacked in order of receipt with the oldest in front.  When I sat down to write a reply, I would reply to the person whose letter I’d had the longest.  If the person had asked any questions in their letter, I would make a point of replying to them, whether it was something generic like “how is school?”, or as specific as, “how did that play go you were rehearsing for last time?”  I would also write about any news that had occurred since last time I wrote to the person.

My letters were long, generally running to at least six pages, sometimes more.  A lot of people gave me stationery sets when we moved to Canada.   Generally they contained a number of decorated front sheets, the same number of envelopes, and half as many continuation sheets.  I never understood this, because it wasn’t enough.  I used up all the continuation sheets within two or three letters and then either had to use more than one of the front sheets, or carry on with pieces of ordinary lined notepaper.  I always wondered why there were never more continuation sheets than front sheets.  How could anyone possibly have so little to say they could do it in a letter only a page long?

Somewhere in the last 20 years, the art of letter writing has been lost.  I admit I don’t write letters any more.  Many of the people I used to write letters to are now on Facebook, so I keep up with their news that way.  Pretty much all of them are on email, and I will occasionally send people newsy emails.

I write emails the way I write letters – in fact, the way I write anything.  Sentences are complete, with all the punctuation in the correct place.  They tend to be very long.  Sometimes I miss writing letters, but it occurs to me that writing this blog is, for me, the modern equivalent of writing letters.  I can relay my news via the World Wide Web, and I don’t have to repeat myself – something of an advantage over letter writing, I must admit, as in my letter-writing heyday I was repeating the same news in every letter.

Nobody writes letters anymore, and not many people write long emails, either.  I can’t decide if this is down to laziness, to the fact that life has just got so busy, or that people’s attention span has got shorter in the last 20 years.  We are used to being fed instantaneous information, in short bursts – Tweets; texts; 30 second commercials.  Now nobody wants to be bothered to read to the end of a lengthy email.  A lot of people seem to write emails the way they write text messages – devoid of grammatical structure, and full of crass abbreviations (“u” instead of “you”) and erroneous spellings.

Most people do not communicate via lengthy emails.  Some people communicate entirely by mobile phone.  I have always been a person who prefers written communication to verbal.  There are very few people I have long telephone conversations with.  If I’ve not seen you in a while and I want to chat, I am more likely to send you a long chatty email than I am to pick up the phone.  But, I am a writer.  Written communication is and always has been my strength.

Sometimes I mourn the lost art of letter writing.  I sometimes regret we can’t go back to those long-gone days when I used to look forward to getting home and reading a letter that had arrived in the post for me.

I also mourn the correct use of English.  I don’t know if grammar has been removed from the school curriculum these days – the appalling state of some people’s Facebook statuses makes me suspect it has been – but certainly letter writing has been.

It may be that people have no need to write letters any more, but kids should still be taught how to form a sentence.  Effective written communication, even by email, is an essential life skill.  What chance have you got of getting the job if the cover email that accompanies your CV is written in text-speak?  If I received a job application like this I would delete the email without even bothering to look at the CV.  If I get an advertising brochure from anyone featuring a misplaced apostrophe in the word “its”, I will make a point of avoiding whatever product it is advertising.  There is no excuse for poor grammar, and no excuse for not knowing how to form a correct sentence.

If we were all taught how to write letters, we’d all be aware of that.

Sara Paretsky, Shara Summers and Feminism

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I read a great many books – on average, just over one a week.  I have read so many books that I find it impossible to pick out just one favourite.

I do, however, have several favourite authors.  Authors whose books I constantly go back to, and it feels like visiting an old friend.  Books which affect me in such a way I have to choose carefully what I read following them, because everything else will just seem inferior.

One such author is Sara Paretsky.  I discovered her V I Warshawski series in the early 1990s, back when I was first aware of enthusiastically embracing feminism.  It was a revelation.  Here for the first time I encountered a heroine who represented everything I wanted to be.  A fiercely independent woman who was brave, resourceful, unafraid to speak her mind and without need of a man to define her existence.  Single and childless, V I is sarcastic, blunt and able to hold her own in a fight.  I thought then, and still think now, that she is a fantastic role model for young women.

And even in the 21st century, there are few heroines like her.  Sue Grafton has a similar independent minded, single and childless heroine in Kinsey Milhone.   Kathy Reichs, another writer I admire, has a strong woman in Temperance Brennan, but unlike V I Tempe is a mother, and does occasionally need rescuing by men.

Not everyone shares my adoration of V I, as reviews on Goodreads and Amazon testify.  Some readers – among them women, I was surprised to note – find her too unlikeable.  They don’t like her sarcasm and confrontational manner.

I do not deny that my amateur sleuth Shara Summers was inspired by V I Warshawski.  When I set out to write a crime series, I wanted a heroine like V I – someone courageous and independent minded, who was not afraid to speak her mind.  But I wasn’t brave enough to write a police procedural, so I went for an amateur sleuth.  And in many ways Shara is very different from V I.  She’s not as brave.  She’s not the champion of the underdog the way that V I is.  And she does occasionally get rescued by men.  And because I’m just not as good a writer as Sara Paretsky, sometimes I don’t pull off what I’m trying to do.  Maybe Shara just comes across sometimes as being bitchy instead of courageous.

It’s also clear that Shara is not everyone’s cup of tea.  DEATH SCENE racked up 31 rejections before it was published by Lyrical Press.  One of the most common reasons for the book being rejected was the character not being likeable enough to take through a series.

The revelation that not everyone loves V I Warshawski – because I’ve been enthusiastically recommending these books to everyone for the last 20 years – was a bit of a surprise, and I’ve recently been ruminating on that.  V I is sarcastic, snarky, and blunt.  She can be downright rude – especially to arrogant and patronising men.  In the early books, which seem to be set in the early 1980s, V I is unusual in being a woman P I, and she encounters a hostile reaction to this by many people.  Especially men.

Women are not supposed to embody these qualities.  Even in these times, they are generally expected to be soft, caring and nurturing, and I think this is the main reason that women who don’t possess these qualities are regarded with suspicion.  They are considered to be not ‘normal’ women.

I like the fact that V I is snarky, blunt and rude.  But there are some people out there who might say I embody similar qualities.  And the same people who wouldn’t like V I for these qualities probably don’t like me much, either.

I must confess that now I’m the wrong side of 40 I’ve got to a point in life where I don’t really care if people don’t like me for being me.  As a woman gamer, role-player, and horror writer, I’ve encountered a number of men over the years who don’t know what to make of me.  The fact that I’m deliberately childless also causes resentment in certain people – it’s surprising (and depressing) how many people, even in this day and age, who assume that all women want children and any who don’t are instantly labelled as being abnormal and not to be trusted.

None of these things matter that much to me these days, but I’m pretty sure that the people that fall into the aforementioned categories are not my target readership.

For the length of time that human beings have existed on this planet, we’ve proved to be depressingly stagnant in moving on with our thinking.  I will go on recommending Sara Paretsky’s books to everyone I have a conversation about crime books with – particularly women.  I would like every young women to read at least one V I Warshawski book.  For every one who comes away thinking, “this is the sort of woman I want to be,” then a battle will be won.

There’s a long way to go before we win the war, though.

RIP James Herbert

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Today’s post was going to be an update on current WIPs. But on the way home from work today, I learned news that rocked my world. The news came to me via my Twitter feed, which I was checking on my phone on the train home, as I usually do. Say what you like about Twitter, it’s the best place to go for the real news. The important news.

And the important news today – more important than trials and political scandals, more important than the fact that it was Budget Day – is that James Herbert has died. It is not an exaggeration to say I was shocked by this news. It is not even an exaggeration to say I was devastated.

James Herbert was Master of British Horror. In the 80s, when I first got into horror in a serious way, he dominated the shelves along with Stephen King. I have read many of his books. I have an entire shelf of them in my library.

I am not the only person affected by this news. Looking at my Twitter and Facebook feeds this evening, many people I follow are all saying the same thing. James Herbert informed their adolescent reading habits. James Herbert turned them on to reading, and writing, horror. James Herbert is among the greats, and the world will not be the same without him. Most people, it seemed, started off with THE RATS. I have to say I didn’t get on with this particular book, which as I understand it was his first published novel. It wasn’t the first James Herbert novel I read, and by the time I got to that one I was in my early 20s. It seemed to me to be a book largely preoccupied with describing – in graphic detail – people having sex, followed by said people being eaten by rats while they were cozying in the afterglow, and not much to the novel beyond that. I’ve said before that I’m the sort of person who skips the sex scenes, in search of something more interesting. In this case people being horribly eaten by rats was more interesting, but after three or four scenes of this it started to feel a bit ‘samey’. So, no, THE RATS was not my favourite Herbert book. There are plenty of others, though, that I would rate up there as amongst the best horror novels every written. HAUNTED. THE GHOSTS OF SLEATH. THE MAGIC COTTAGE. CREED.

And then last year I read a James Herbert book that blew the rest of them out of the water. That book was NOBODY TRUE, and if you’ve been reading my blog for a while you may recall I wrote a glowing review (found here in case you haven’t been).

I have never met James Herbert personally, in spite of going to two Cons in recent years where he was Guest of Honour – generally someting else interesting was happening, or the queue was just too long. I’m now rather regretting that I didn’t take the time to stand in that queue, to get a book signed and get the chance to tell him how he inspired me as a horror writer, and how I devoured his books when I was just discovering my calling as a horror writer.

In spite of that, I still feel that I’ve read so many books of his that I knew him. And news of his death feels like a personal loss – a bit like losing an old friend.

Only yesterday I was contemplating buying his newest book. ASH. I decided against it at the time, my TBR pile being already so vast I shouldn’t add to it until I’ve managed to get through some of the books in it. Now I feel the need to re-read all the James Herbert books on my shelf, and go out and buy all the ones I haven’t read yet. I might even re-read THE RATS. Maybe the passage of time will make me like it more.

Goodbye, Mr Herbert. The world will not be the same without you, and you leave behind a hole in British horror fiction that no one could ever fill.