Archive for the ‘current affairs’ Tag

A Post About Responsibility and Choices

As a precursor to this blog, I am issuing a warning that it might get political.

I don’t read newspapers anymore. They all have a political bias and I just get cross. I get most of my news from the BBC news channel (or its website) these days, which seems to have at least some semblance of objectivity. Newspapers all seem too keen to point the finger of blame at whose fault it is the world’s in a global recession. Corrupt politicians. Unscrupulous wealthy people. Or it’s all the fault of single mothers and people on benefits – depending on which paper it is.

When I was 18 I was a rampant socialist – bordering on communist, in fact. I thought it was grossly unfair that some people had money and some people did not. Then I finished high school in Canada and moved back to England. I had a plan to go to university here. I discovered that I was not entitled to any kind of financial assistance to aid with fees, as I had been out of the country for too long. Nor could I claim unemployment benefit, I discovered when I went to do so. Instead, I went out to find a job. Having no particular skills or experience, I went after any sort of job that was available. I ended up working in a book shop for a few years.

When I was 21 I qualified as a ‘mature student’ and could do a university degree part time in evening classes. So this is what I did. It took me six years, instead of the usual three. By that point I had a local office job, for a software distribution company, so after working all day I ended up taking a train and hauling all the way over to North London to attend my lectures. I got home late, and often nodded off during them. I spent most of my weekends doing course work – doing the reading, or working on essays. Several TV shows I’d previously been addicted to I stopped watching when I realised I had six weeks’ worth of episodes recorded and never had time to catch up. And at the beginning of each term I paid the fees out of my own hard-earned cash. When I finally got my degree – a 2:1 in English Literature – I felt like I’d earned it.

I was also 21 when Hubby and I, having decided we were in this relationship for the duration (though we weren’t married at that point), bought our first place together. It was 1991, and property prices in London were on a downward spiral. We bought a tiny one-bedroom flat on a brand new estate. It was all we could afford at the time. Developers were keen to sell, given the market crash. By the time we moved into the place, it was worth about half what it had been when they had started to build.

Five years later, we moved to a two-bedroom split level maisonette. We recruited friends and family and a mini van to move all our stuff. It took seven trips to move everything out, and we wondered how we managed to fit so much stuff into such a tiny place. We also ended up being in negative equity, since the flat was worth less when we sold it than it was when we bought it.

The negative equity was gone by the time we sold the maisonette in 2003, because by that point property prices had skyrocketed, and they’ve never really fallen in the same way since. Our most recent move last year took us to a four-bedroom house. I don’t apologise for that. It’s taken us 20 years to get to a house that size. We have more stuff, and more income, and can now afford a bigger mortgage. And we could also afford a removal company, to take away the stress of having to pack up and move everything ourselves.

I have been part of the British workforce for 25 years now. In all that time, I have paid my taxes and claimed maybe two months’ worth of unemployment benefit. I have never walked out of one job without having another one lined up, no matter how much I hated it (and believe me, I’ve had some jobs I really hated) and in spite of being made redundant several times, I soon discovered that as long as you can type and have some organisation skills and office experience, there are always temp jobs available while you look for permanent employment – just as long as you don’t mind where you work, or for whom.

I don’t believe that the majority of the rich are out to screw over the poor, like I don’t believe that the majority of the poor are benefit cheats. There are, of course, always bad apples in every barrel, and these are the ones the media focuses on. But it’s dangerous to make sweeping generalisations. Human nature makes people criticise those they envy, and cry, ‘not fair’ because someone else has something they don’t.

But you know what? Life isn’t fair. That’s a lesson that should be learned by everyone early in life. My politics have shifted in the 25 years I’ve been part of the working world. Everything I have in my life – including the house, the holidays and the English degree – I’ve worked for without assistance or subsidies from anywhere (well OK, apart from the mortgage, but to qualify for one of those these days you have to have a good track record of paying it back, and it gets paid every month).

We all make choices in life. And we have to live with the consequences of those decisions. I chose not to have children. Maybe I’ll be alone when I get old if Hubby goes first and I have no other relatives, but that’s the choice I’ve decided to make. I have chosen not to take the plunge and give up the day job to write full time. If I were to do that, maybe I’d have more time to write, get more done and hence make more money from the writing, but I’m not really a risk taker, and I’m not willing to take that chance. So my choice, instead, is to continue to juggle the day job with the writing, even if it means having to keep getting up at 5:30 am to find time to write.

Sometimes we are dealt a bad hand in life, through no fault of our own. These are difficult times we live in, and a lot of very well qualified people have found themselves unemployed because their companies have gone bust or have had to downsize. Some of these people have mortgages to pay and children to provide for, and life is hard. And they might think that’s unfair. I thought it was unfair all the times when I got laid off. Sometimes it was a struggle for us to pay the mortgage on one salary. But we got by. We had to cut back for a while, on everything. And we got through it.

Life is unfair. We can’t always get what we want.

Human beings have a tendency to blame their problems on someone else. Blame the rich, for exploiting the poor. Blame the poor, for cheating the benefits system. Blame the immigrants, for coming over here and taking all our jobs (and incidentally I have heard this line from locals in every single country I’ve visited). Blame the corrupt politicians for taking cash away from services to line their own pockets. I’m not saying there aren’t unscrupulous rich, or benefit cheats, or corrupt politicians, because obviously there are. But they don’t all fall in this category, and we shouldn’t be so quick to allocate blame to a particular group of people.

People I knew who were in this world a few years ago are no longer with us. Life may not be quite the way you want it to be, but every birthday you pass still breathing, is an achievement. No matter how many excuses you make, you still have control of every decision you make in your life. If you want things to change, you have to make the first move. But change is difficult – and sometimes it seems insurmountable. So it’s easier to keep on the well trodden path and come up with excuses why you can’t get off it.

I am not pulling these meaningless phrases out of the air. I am the first person to resist change. When my parents divorced I was six years old, and not only did that change shake my life up, I spent the next 25 years blaming them for everything that went wrong in my life. But I did in the end learn to forgive them and move on. Perhaps I should have been able to let go of this earlier than I did, but I was slow to learn the lesson that the experience presented to me. I’m also still learning the lesson that change is generally a good thing, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

I am now getting off the soap box. I’ve had my say. You don’t have to agree with me, and that’s OK.

Political broadcast now over. Normal service will be resumed with the next post.

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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.

What Women Want?

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I don’t get political on this blog very often. There are few issues I feel strongly enough about to be bothered to argue, frankly. But there are a few I get emotional about, and one of them seems to have been in the spotlight rather a lot of late.

I consider myself a feminist. I can’t stand the sweeping generalisations that society seems to make about how people should behave based on gender. But this is me: I am a woman, and proud to be so. I don’t know how to fix a car if it goes wrong, and I can’t put up shelves. I also can’t cook, I hate cleaning, I possess no maternal instincts whatsoever, and I have no interest in shoes or handbags. And I categorically do not know how to put up curtains, as I have discovered this week.

But my husband can’t fix the car either. When it goes wrong we take it to the garage. Neither can he put put up shelves. We pay someone to do these odd jobs for us when the need arises. We also pay someone to do the cleaning. He is perhaps a marginally better cook than me. Neither of us likes ironing, so we have an arrangement – he irons his clothes, I iron mine. Generic items like sheets and tea towels do not get ironed at all.

And Hubby hates football. Which is good with me, because so do I.

After thousands of years of evolution, we have arrived at the twenty-first century and rampant sexism still exists. It makes me very sad, because it seems the human race has learned nothing. I would like to draw your attention to this website – the Everyday Sexism Project. Though I admire what this site is trying to do, if I spend too much time on it, I just get depressed.

A lot of women whose blogs I follow have talked about their own experiences of sexual harassment. The fact that so many people have stories to tell makes me very sad. I’m going to draw your attention to two, just because they are recent. Sarah Ellender has recently blogged about sexism, drawing on her own experiences of harassment in the workplace. And earlier this year, Sonya Clark wrote an excellent post about being a girl.

Fortunately for me, I don’t really have any stories of my own to add. I have spent many years being a secretary, working for both male and female bosses. For a long time I preferred female bosses, as I saw too many men who wanted their secretary to either be a glamorous dolly-bird, so he could preen to his colleagues about having the sexiest secretary, or a mother figure who would look after him. Since I am neither a glamour girl nor a mother figure, I tend to be hired by people who just want someone to do the work.

Occasionally I get hit on, if I’m in the pub having drinks with female friends, in spite of obvious presence of wedding ring. I do not consider this a compliment, especially since the men in question are generally looking at my chest and not my face. But it has to be said I haven’t gone through life having to constantly fend off unwanted attention, and as a teenager I did not have boyfriends. Boys just weren’t very interested, and in some ways things haven’t changed much. A lot of men appear to find me too intimidating. I do not conform to what society tells us is a model of attractiveness. I do not look like a Bond girl. But I am not fat and I am not ugly, even though it’s taken me all of my life to get to a point where I can accept that. I am intelligent, I am opinionated and I can be brutally blunt, which some people think makes me a bitch. A lot of men don’t know how to deal with that. And there are some people in this world whose opinions are informed by how society dictates men and women should behave. I’m not interested in many of the things women are supposed to be interested in. Some people find that rather disconcerting, which is probably why they think I’m a bit weird.

I grew up in the 1980s, where girls were encouraged to be Superwoman – have a career and a family. Thirty years on, I think we’re going backwards. A lot of young women seem to be interested only in marrying footballers and having babies. I want to yell at them, “Where’s your ambition?” It especially annoys me when women don’t vote. Women had to fight very hard to get the right to vote. We shouldn’t take it for granted.

And now we are approaching the dreaded Festive Season, where sexism appears in abundance. Asda’s offensive ad has already been mentioned in the blog sites I pointed you at earlier. I go crazy at all the ads that assume generic ‘his’ and ‘hers’ gifts – with ‘his’ gifts being video games, and ‘her’ gifts being perfume and make up. The only thing I wanted for my birthday was Resident Evil 6. Which I got, but Hubby – who it has to be said has far better taste when it comes to picking women’s clothes than I do, in spite of being straight – took me out shopping because he thought I should have some new clothes too.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that people think I’m weird. There are plenty of people in my life who value me in spite of my weirdness. But it saddens me that as a race we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. When I was a teenager, I thought I could change the world. Now I’m older, I’m a lot more cynical.

There are a lot of countries in the world where women have a far harder time of it than we do in the West – in some places, daughters are little more than commodities, to be married off to the highest bidder as soon as they puberty. Denied education, denied the right to drive, denied the right to vote.

A few years ago on a trip to Africa, we visited a small village where one particular charity had worked very hard to set up schools, with computers, and were endeavouring to give an education to as many local youngsters as possible. One woman in particular had worked very hard with these children. We encountered a young woman who came to talk to us, to practise her English. She was 18, and in her final year of school. She told us she was in no hurry to have a husband and children. She was going to go to university. She wanted to be a lawyer, and she wanted to help women suffering domestic abuse.

That young woman, who had clearly been inspired by the woman who worked so hard so help the youngsters of that African village, gave me encouragement that maybe things are changing, slowly. But the change is coming rather too slowly, and we’ve still got a long way to go.

Riot

I wasn’t going to talk about the UK riots. I try to keep politics out of my blog. But it’s so occupied my life this week there’s nothing else to blog about.

Monday night I was late home, as I went to the Million Monkeys writing session after work. The sense of growing unease was palpable, as the rioting around London became more widespread as the evening wore on, but fortunately my train and the area where I live was unaffected, and I arrived home unscathed about 9pm. I was glued to the TV till 1am that night, watching news footage of the city I know and love burning.

I don’t know how old I was when I learned the lesson that taking something that didn’t belong to you is stealing, and Stealing Is Wrong, but I’m pretty sure I had a firm understanding of it by the time I started school. I’d also been told that wilfully damaging property was wrong. As for setting fires – well, I guess some people find this fun, but I was always terrified of fire. I’m even terrified of the aftermath of fire. The sight of London burning, and the after images, of smoking gutted buildings that used to be shops I’ve visited, will be with me for a very long time.

The footage of the looting disheartened me. People were blatantly strolling into wrecked shops and helping themselves to whatever they wanted. Are people no longer learning these inherent lessons of childhood? Or do they just not care? Because there was a third lesson here that was being ignored. Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t make it right, or mean that you have to join in.

At that point, I lost faith in humanity. If we’re all behaving this way, then we’ve learned nothing over thousands of years of evolution and we don’t deserve to survive as a species. Let’s destroy ourselves now and save the universe further inconvenience.

But then the news of the riot clean up crew began to circulate. Armies of people sporting brooms and plastic bags congregated at the riot sites, organising themselves via the same social networks that the rioters used. They called themselves the Riot Wombles. They picked up rubbish, they scrubbed, they swept, they repaired broken windows. Other volunteers brought them cups of tea, with police riot shields being used as makeshift tea trays. Shelters opened for the people who’d lost their homes in the fires. People donated food and clothes to those who’d lost everything.

Then I read Jen Campbell’s blog post here. Reading this inspired in me a shred of hope that perhaps humanity could be redeemed after all.

If you’re on Twitter, or Facebook, go look up ‘Operation Cup of Tea’. This is such a quintessentially British anti-riot campaign, encouraging people across the land to protest by staying home and drinking tea. Don’t go looting; stay home and have a cuppa instead.

Life seems to be getting back to normal now. The British seem to be very good at the art of carrying on, regardless. London was bombed in the Blitz of the second world war. It was hit by terrorism during the IRA campaign, and again by a different terrorist group in 2005. Each time it recovered. The same spirit is prevailing now.

An Unusual Diversion

Yesterday’s meeting of the T Party Writers’ Group was interrupted partway through when a procession of naked cyclists went by.

This was apparently part of the the World Naked Bike Ride, an organised event to protest about oil dependency and car culture. Whatever the politics, it made for quite an entertaining diversion, and we had to put the meeting on hold for ten minutes or so while we all watched out the window at hundreds of naked cyclists pedalling down The Strand.

Most of the cyclists were wearing nothing but shoes and back packs – which must have chafed a bit, I thought. Some of them were riding ‘Boris Bikes’ – the new transport scheme initiated by London mayor Boris Johnson, where bicycles have been placed around London for public use by anyone who wants to sign up for the scheme. I rather hope that the naked cyclists were going to wash off the seats before they put these bikes back for someone else to use…

Several bemused tourists looked on as the naked cyclists went by, and I think that those in the open-topped London tourist bus felt they got their money’s worth.

Most entertaining, though, were the two chaps who put down their bicycles and paused by the Royal Courts of Justice, which is right opposite the pub where the T Party meet. They were there several minutes posing and taking pictures of each other. As neither of them were wearing a stitch of clothing, we all got an eyeful.

Eventually I gave up trying to call the meeting back to order until all the cyclists had passed by. There are some things you just can’t compete with.

In the News Today: E-books

There was a rather interesting article in today’s Metro about e-books. It seems they are predicting that next year there will be a dramatic surge in the number of e-books available, and the number of people buying them.

They are comparing e-books to mobile phones when they first came out. When we had the huge brick things at the end of the 80s, everyone viewed them with suspicion, and as a subject of ridicule. But a few years down the line, they are slimmer, sexier and far more desirable, and everybody in the world has got one.

Well, this will be good news for me if it turns out to be true. Perhaps by the time my e-book comes out in about a year’s time, it will be right around the time electronic books are becoming the hot new thing!

Rain Revisited

The Met Office appear to have backtracked on their original prediction (back in April, I believe) that the UK is in for a hot summer. They are now admitting they were wrong. It would appear that our two-week heat wave at the beginning of July was it, and we can now expect rain for the rest of the summer.

Well, if I have to keep the raincoat and umbrella handy for the next couple of months, so be it. We can’t control the weather. And this is the point, really. We’re a decade into the 21st century and we still don’t have the ability to predict the weather. I don’t think we ever will. No matter how technologically advanced the human race gets, we can’t control nature. As nature keeps reminding us. I still have the belief that one day, nature will get tired of our species and treat us the way we might swat a bothersome fly, erasing us from existence with some spectacular natural disaster.

So as we can’t beat nature we have to learn to co-exist with it, and that includes putting up with the rain. Well, at least there’ll be no water shortages this year.

Walking on the Moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. My mother was six months pregnant with me at the time. So I suppose I was there – sort of.

At the time, it was the sort of event that changes the history of the world, and I’m sure my parents were very excited about this brave new world they were bringing their firstborn child into.

A lot can change in 40 years, though. After only a few years the fuss died down, everyone decided that the moon was just a boring dead rock and nobody sent any more astonauts there. These days the progress of technology seems to be marked by how many gadgets you have on your mobile phone, how fast you can download something over the internet and making computers ever smaller and ever more powerful.

In the grand scheme of things, I can’t help feeling that these things are hardly milestones. Perhaps I’m just getting old.

The Decline of the Book Shop

The branch of Borders book shop on Oxford Street is closing down, I found out yesterday, from a colleague who’d just returned from her lunch break with a bag of bargains from their closing down sale.

This is sad news on so many levels. First of all, it’s the only book shop left within a short walk from the office – so no more lunch time browsing for me.

Second, this seems to be the latest casualty in a long line of London book shops that are closing. This is the real tragedy. I am sure the recession is not helping, but the decline of book sales has been going on for a long time. Book shops have been losing out to online places like Amazon, who generally sell things cheaper. Amazon is fine if you know what you want, but nothing beats browsing a book shop, looking for nothing in particular, taking in the smell and the feel of new books, and maybe happening across a new writer you decide to take a chance on.

Sadly it seems those of us who are willing to take a chance on buying a book by a writer we’ve never heard of before, just because it attracts us in the book shop, are in the minority. The biggest revenue from book sales, I was quite depressed to learn recently, comes from those sold in supermarkets. Supermarkets only stock the big commercial best sellers. That probably means that most people buy only the books by people they’ve and liked in the past, picking up the latest paperback by that author with their weekly groceries.

Bad news for those of us who are unpublished novelists. With readers sticking to those they know and love, and publishers sticking to the writers who make them money, who’s left to take a chance on some new unpublished writer, on the off chance that they might do well?

The concept makes me quite depressed. RIP Borders Oxford Street. I will miss you.

Bad News is Good News?

It’s the sort of day that newspapers love – not one, but two celebrity deaths in the last 24 hours, namely Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

They’ll be filling the papers for weeks with these stories – reflections on their life events, photographs, interviews with people that knew them, and fan tributes. And I suspect that most of it will be about Michael Jackson, even though Farrah Fawcett has been famous for just as long and deserves (in my opinion) equal press coverage.

I wasn’t a fan of either of them, I have to say, but I feel a little sad nonetheless. Every day all over the world thousands of people are born and thousands of people die; it’s a part of life and we wouldn’t function if we grieved over every life lost in the world. But when someone you’ve heard of dies – even if it’s someone you don’t actually know – it makes you confront your own mortality and I, at least, always find this a sobering concept.

I know I will die one day, as we all inevitably have to. I’m just not ready to entertain the concept yet.