Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A brief word from our sponsors (ie, me)

Recently, Martin Amis provided the universe with this bizarre little quotation:
"When we say that we love a writer's work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it."
Indeed, he adds:
"I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are."
As both a cultist and an academic, the Alysdragon's response is predictable, and began with a little bit of firebreathing, followed by a small scale character assassination*. She would now like to give this statement:

Mr Amis is clearly suffering from a misapprehension regarding the meaning of the word, 'love'. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines love as "an intense feeling of deep affection", or "a great interest or pleasure in something", definitions which seem to run counter Mr Amis' rather unforgiving attitude. Shakespeare, both a more reliable source and a recipient of Mr Amis' vitriol, declares that, "love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, not bends with the remover to remove." Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it "looks on tempests and is never shaken", a far cry from the idea that we love only half of what we profess. This latter attitude seems as strange to me claiming that, "when I say I love my husband, what I mean is really I can only stand him about half of the time, and for the rest he is both sub-par and uninteresting."
So, to use the word love in it's true sense, let me clarify: to love something - whether that be a place, a writer, a person, or Shakespeare's Comedies, is to feel a sudden and primal urge to mutilate anyone so foolhardy as to criticise that object of affection.
 In conclusion, Mr Amis, be a bit more careful what you say about Jane Austen. Especially if it's Northanger Abbey that you're talking about.

*I shan't go into detail, but the words 'that odious little man' were used with a reasonable degree of frequency.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Some tips on coping with Dyslexia

In this post I will be moving away from my usual fare and giving some advice to any writers out there who, while not dyslexic themselves, consider putting a dyslexic character in their work. Even if you're not a writer, how about giving it a read? Because my advice is this:

Yes, I am dyslexic. What I am not is a fucking imbecile.

Most of us, actually, aren't. Most of us can, in fact, read and write to a level commensurable with non-dyslexic individuals. Bear in mind, please, that recent figures suggest that one in ten people are dyslexic, or suffer from a dyslexic type disability. I suspect someone would have noticed by now if over 10% of the population were functionally illiterate.

And no, dyslexia is not being used as a catch all term for what we used to call 'slow' children - that contradicts my initial statement about how dyslexic people are not bloody idiots.  Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty, meaning it impacts upon certain aspects of an individual's performance. It is assessed by a series of tests which resemble the common IQ test and take in all areas of ability; spatial reasoning, numerical reasoning, alpha-numeric problem solving, verbal reasoning, reading accuracy, that sort of thing. The results from these tests are then stratified, locating any areas of specific underperformance in relation to the individual's overall ability. If a certain pattern of underperformance is noted, the individual is diagnosed with the relevant learning difficulty.

Clear? It locates specific areas where there is weakness compared with the individual's average.

"Well, of course," you say, straw man as you are, oh hypothetical reader, "I'm not saying that dyslexic people can't be good at certain areas of conventional academia, but you've said it yourself, they have specific areas of underperformance. They aren't readers."

I'll admit, some dyslexics are not readers, but then so are some people who have no relation to the disability; some people just don't like reading very much. It may even be true that there are some cliche dyslexics out in the world, people who after many arduous attempts at school, learned functional reading very late, and, after having left school with a palpable sigh of relief, have never troubled themselves with a book again - despite being very creative and possibly extremely good at things like drama, and dance. Some may even still be functionally illiterate. I would hazard, however, that these people are the minority.

Because, once again, these views overlook the complexity of the thing, of reading itself, in fact. Reading utilises many skills, and among these are areas affected by dyslexia: the ability to process, store and retrieve information, or sequencing, that kind of thing. But these are only part of what one needs in order to read, so, rather than sinking under inertia, people with dyslexia do as people with disabilities have done since the dawn of time: they have developed coping strategies, heightening the surrounding areas of ability effectively to 'mask' the disability. This is why many people are not diagnosed with dyslexia until later life when greater demands are made from the weaker aspects of their abilities and their accustomed coping strategies cease to provide a 'level the playing field'.*  Suddenly struggling, the dyslexic adult will seek to know why.

The biggest irony of learning difficulties is that the dip in ability need not actually bring the individual below the average skill set of someone without that disability; it is merely a drop in IQ relevant to that individual. Someone with mild-to-medium dyslexia and an IQ in the average range may reveal a noticeable handicap, but one easily overlooked. Someone with the same level of the condition and an IQ in the 110-120 range could drift through life totally undiagnosed because even their weaker areas perform slightly better than the average while and their most severe lapses are masked by coping strategies.

But this is not to understate the frustration, the sheer bloody irritation, the occasional weeping despair that having a learning difficulty can bring to an otherwise bright child. Understanding a text perfectly, but, when called upon to read it aloud, stumbling over familiar words, stringing sentences together in an awkward fashion. Knowing how a word is spelled, getting it right week after week on a series of idiot spelling tests, but still, when faced with it in the conditions of actually writing something facing a total bloody mind blank and writing something a four year old would know was incorrect.

It hurts, that; and what hurts more is then being called lazy, careless, or inattentive for getting it wrong, even though you had been beating your brain against the right answer, while your brain has refused to co-operate.

And what hurts even more is going through education like that, getting more than decent grades, going to University, studying English to a post graduate level, trawling through all those god-awful PDF files and academic books that are laid out in a way intended to give dyslexic people migraines**, and passing anyway because you care and are good at your subject and you love books too much to give a damn that sometimes it's really hard work. What hurts is doing all that and then having to read some writer - or listen to some random, ill-informed person - telling you that dyslexic people aren't academic, that dyslexic people can't read.

So, before you think about creating a dyslexic character, or just saying something that bloody thoughtless, remember: Albert Einstein was dyslexic and so is the almost disgustingly well-read Stephen Fry.***

We're not stupid, we're not lazy, and, this dyslexic at least, is really quite pissed off.

*as the assessor from the Dean of Student's office put it to me.
** visual distortion being another symptom, one exacerbated by certain layouts, contrast levels and fonts.
*** For more examples, see: http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/famous-dyslexics.html

(For more information on dyslexia, see http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/. Don't get me started on dyspraxia or we'll be here all day. Must dash, novels to write, books to read.)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Semiotics has no 'off' switch:

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the original 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books, but I will assume that the number is fairly low. Below, I shall detail one of the dangers attendant upon being an ex-Lit student.

A couple of nights ago, I was reading my daughter 'Troublesome Engines', which, as stated above, is a Thomas book. I had got to the third story in the book when I suddenly found myself unable to continue reading with a clean conscience, and the rest of that bedtime story was attended by a certain degree of gloss. This is because, from jaded, adult eyes, eyes well schooled literary criticism, 'Troublesome Engines', goes a little like this:

Having redeployed his key worker, Thomas, to the running of the Branch Line, the Fat Controller attempts to economise and distributes Thomas' workload among his existing work force. Other engines are asked to perform non-contractual tasks which are below their skill-level in addition to their usual workload. In the course of these extra duties, Henry is sent to investigate a blockage which turns out to be an elephant, subjecting him to no little personal danger and humiliation. Furthermore, the Fat Controller refuses to modernise his equipment so that the turntable fails to turn one Tender engine (Gordon) meaning he is forced to run along the Main Line backwards - causing danger to himself and to the Fat Controller's customers.

Angry at these repeated breaches of contract (tender engines do not shunt) and the dangerous experiences in the execution thereof, Henry, James and Gordon go on strike. The Fat Controller takes a confrontational attitude towards his workers, refusing to recognise the validity of the complaint (engines on My Railway do as they are told) and instead goes to the only tender engine not on strike, Edward - hereafter called the Scab. The Scab, it appears, is quite happy to take on extra work in order to gratify his boss, but is quickly disheartened when the other engines remind him his work is non-contractual and, presumably, call him a Scab for good measure.

At this, the Fat Controller begins to see that his position is untenable, and hires from among the readily available workforce a naive, arselick of an engine, an enthusiastic young engine named Percy. Then, he calls Thomas back from his new job, and imprisons the three striking engines. The tank engines (and the Scab) are only too happy to break picket lines in order to undertake skilled labour, presumably at no extra wage, in order to show the tender engines that 'Common Tank Engines' can do the task as well the tender engines can.

After a few days of this, the Fat Controller releases Henry, James and Gordon on the proviso that they return to their old jobs and take no more industrial action. They do so and Thomas, Percy and the Scab are sent to 'play' on the Branch line for a few days. Now, Thomas immediately goes for a ride with his girlfriends, but Percy and the Scab 'play' with some trucks. This following section is a minor incident and is not really essential to the plot. However, if one bears in mind that all these trucks – also often called troublesome – are all female, it is not without relevance.

'“Stop! Stop! Stop!” screamed the trucks as they were pushed into their proper sidings, but the two engines laughed and went on shunting till the trucks were tidily arranged.'

 Letting off steam, indeed.

Everything, you see, has returned to normal. Those willing to undertake unskilled labour (Thomas, Percy, the Scab) have been put to work on the Branch line; less skilled labour, perhaps, but with ample opportunity of harassing, even assaulting, the female workforce. It is, after all, a position of power. Meanwhile, a 'compromise' has been struck with the tender engines; their place at the top of the engine hierarchy has been assured – they are asked only to work upon the Main Line – but they are still required to shunt, even though such work is not in their job description and below their skill set.

The moral of the story, therefore, can be read in one of two ways. It is either divide and conquer, or else it is unionise effectively. Either way, the reading stands; had the tender engines forgotten their snobbery and brought the lower status tank engines into their demand for better working conditions, had the tank engines relinquished their power over the trucks and all three grades shown solidarity, the Fat Controller would have been well and truly shafted.

Which, if I'm honest, is no more than he deserves.

Monday, 19 September 2011

'Little, Big' - John Crowley: Dangers of forgetting, pleasures of remembrance:

Sometimes, we forget things. Most of the time, the things that we forget are small enough; I forget to put my mobile in my pocket, or to attend a meeting, or to bring along that vital piece of paper... The world makes its predictable, irritating fuss and then we forget all about it because these things do not truly matter. Other things that we forget have more impact, and the worst of this is that we seldom notice that the memory is gone – one forgets the tiny, silver finger ring given by an elderly relative, the words to a once beloved song, or an afternoon spent picking blackberries as a child. Little by little, as we lose these things, it is as though our very selves are melting into forgetfulness.

But the truth of the matter is, these things are not gone – one will find the finger ring, buried in the jewellery box, catch the strands of a familiar melody or see that break of brambles in the autumn light with the breeze coming from the west and we will recall. Not simply the event that had slipped away, but a whole host of circumstances, emotions, people who we believed had vanished from the world, or, at the very least, our minds.

Even though working with texts is my main occupation, sometimes – as a writer and a reader – I forget things too. It is easy, too easy, to forget how rare good writing is; I don't mean reasonable writing, the 'enjoyable with a few moments of sparkling prose' kind of good, I mean the good that stops you and makes you think and makes you live again. I'm talking about the kind of good that gives the reader that strange, soaring, swooping sensation; the kind of good where one word, one phrase, one expression can be so totally and irrefutably beautiful, that we just have to stop and read it again, aloud, for the benefit of the entire room.

John Crowley writes like that.

Right now, I am re-reading Little, Big. I re-read a lot and I am familiar with all the different ways of doing it. There are the re-reads where you seek new understanding, re-reads where you pick over familiar ground to support arguments and find answers. There are re-reads where one does it merely for pleasure, the joy of seeing again familiar words, of sinking into the prose like hot bathwater, or warmed chocolate. Then there are the re-reads that matter, the ones that are our touchstones for remembering the things we readers and writers forget. A list like that is a personal thing – books that are read many times and lent often, books that are never thrown away: Holdstock, Gaiman, Crowley...

Reading Little, Big again for the sixth (or is it seventh?) time is like drinking Chartreuse for the first time after months where only an empty bottle reminded me of pleasures past. It's too good, too fine an experience to rush; I'll drink it neat, of course I'll drink it neat, but I'll let it singe my tongue a little, I try to work it out sip by tiny sip. Fennel of course, or maybe aniseed. Mint, yes, always mint – is that angelica? Did I notice that last time? And, ah, that fierce, familiar burn and it's time for another sip... Would you like a glass? Come, you must try some. Too good, after all, to be enjoyed alone.

My Gods, John Crowley can write. And there was me, almost forgetting how it was done.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

What I've been reading: Preacher: Gone to Texas - Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon

Dragon Rating: Couple of houses alight, over here...

 Yes, okay. Watch me sacrifice the last of my tenuous geek credentials as I admit that, no, I've not read any Preacher before. And, I know I've said in the past that I'm a stories girl, but what first struck me about this was - wow. This artwork is beautiful.

Not beautiful in the "ooh, pretty," kind of way - although with their subject matter it would have been easy to slip into eye-candy mode (brooding, almost anti-hero, trigger happy ex-girlfriend, angels...) but no. Even in the gross bits, this is beautiful; truly, fascinatingly, horribly beautiful. So it was the art kept me fixed, at least for the first arc of the story.

But still, over and above it all, I'm a stories girl. And, apologies to any rabid fans, but the earlier sections just didn't do it for me, first time round. A slow burner, it took a while for it... not to get going, but for it to capture my interest.

Actually, if you're curious, I can tell you the exact moment that I got hooked. It's just into the second story arc: Jesse and Cassidy are standing at the top of the Empire State Building, talking about responsibility. The artwork, again, is lovely - aesthetically pleasing as well as brilliant - and Jesse is being every inch the brooding anti-hero. This is the most high-blown and preachy we've seen him in the whole course of the book as he talks about absolute power, absolute corruption, sin and hellfire. This is a momentous moment, for the reader, as well as the characters when we find out, proud little redneck that he is, our MC is a pretty decent bloke and his sleazy vampire sidekick is really alright, too.

And, because he's a blood good writer, Ennis is not afraid to puncture the mood with a bathetic comment about penises. And, because he's a bloody good artist, Dillon let's us know it's okay to find it funny.

After that, I wasn't just reading for a vague sense of interest as to what happened next, after that, I gave a damn. Because suddenly, I knew I wasn't dealing with a bunch of straw men with superpowers who just happened to be drawn by an excellent artist. No, after that, I was dealing with real people  who - however much they screw up or act like arseholes - have got me on their side.

I admit, there is probably some kind of formula for winning readers like me. It goes along the lines of  'tough guy bullshit, followed by displayed decency, followed by humour.' I might go so far as to say that this kind of formula is being exploited here. But without skill a formula like that is stale and transparent and this... No. I only notice this while writing about it.

Good show, gentlemen, and an excellent beginning. Can't wait to see what happens next....

Friday, 22 July 2011

No book reviews or mini-essays for the moment. Ill and labouring under a misguided and jaded attitude which makes me see the flaws in everything. A review that just says 'disappointing' is not the intention of this blog.

I'll try again when I'm feeling better. For the moment, I'll just read the flawless Dianna Wynne Jones.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

What I've been reading: Iron Man: War of the Iron Men - Fred van Lente & Steve Kurth

Dragon Rating: Steady Hearth Fire

I'm not actually going to review this much beyond the fact that I read it and I enjoyed it. Before it goes back to the library, I'm going to read it again to look over the art-work in more depth - the way that I always do with comic books - although the general impression it left was favourable if not remarkable. Anyway, I'm not an art critic, I'm a stories person. And I can't really justify much comment on the story. 

Sure, the political aspects interested me, although I did feel that the presentation of Stark's dilemmas were... not perfectly realised. But that's all I'll say.

The reasons for this reticence are to do with relationship it Marvel Comics and the honest admission that I am not a proper geek. I like Marvel Comics, and always have liked Marvel Comics, in the same way that I will assert that I have always liked, say, dolphins because, well... who can have a problem with dolphins? Dolphins are cool.

But my contact with them has been fleeting.

As a kid, I would read anything that came my way. This included the odd Avengers, or Spiderman comic. Between these and the animated series they showed on Saturday mornings, I gathered the basics of who most of the characters were. Then, when I was a young teen, a lot of the films were coming out. I've always preferred books to films so, as well as seeing them, I read a little bit more deeply into the Marvel canon, but still, I barely scratched the surface. I only really became a comic fan in my late teens, mostly through the DC Vertigo titles. I've always been uncomfortably aware of this gap in my knowledge but... trade paperbacks are expensive, and there's just so much I didn't even know where to start.

Then, about six months ago, the universe started leaving Marvel titles in my way. Yesterday, as I took the toddler to a pre-school group at the local library, I found this on a chair in the kids section. I borrowed it and I read it and it was good. Not mind-blowing, but solid and well told. I think the time has come to close the Marvel gap.

So, where next?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

What I've been reading: Garden Spells - Sarah Addison Allen

Okay, the main idea of this blog was to be book reviews. Thus far I've done two quasi literary political rants and nothing else. For this, good people, my apologies. I shall endeavour to shape up in future.

So. Garden Spells:

Dragon Rating: Fair sized conflagration:

I got round to reading this book after much nagging from my sister. My first thought was that both the setting and easy sense of wonder were reminiscent of Poppy Z. Brite's work, although Allen (Addison Allen? Um. Yeah, anyway) lacks something of Brite's darkness. On reflection, Allen's handling of her themes - family, home, identity, female relationships - reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver and Fannie Flag, but once again it was these writers minus something; the stark portrayal of poverty, the political awareness, and, as ever - those moral grey areas.

That was my main problem with the book really. No darkness and no moral grey. The main threat that drives the novel - Sidney's abusive ex-partner - lacks depth. He is the only character not given any interiority by the author. I'm not saying I wanted any sympathy for him, but we learn nothing of his drives - other than that he is a bully - his history, anything. It's as one of the characters says: his life has no purpose of its own - he had no purpose other than to drive Sidney back to her childhood home.

And, by making him a figure of sheer, almost faceless, malice Allen creates less of a character than an authorial cipher for 'bad masculinity'.Which I could forgive, except the 'good men' are also without real depth. David is a bad man ... because... just because. And the good men are good men because... they were raised by good people? Um... Or if they weren't, then they're gay because we're open minded and that's alright. 

As I say. Not fully convinced.

But parts of the book are lovely. Highlights, for me, were troubled, 5 year old Bay- whose voice was admirably convincing; and Evanelle - the lecherous, crazy magic lady. Both of them had such a delightful blend of tragedy, joie de vivre and outright humour to them that they alone would have made this a worthwhile read.

What's more, those aren't the only strong points. The microcosm of small-town life with its wealth of  family mythologies and feuds is wonderfully portrayed, as were the manifold depictions of love. The sections which dealt with 'food as magic' was a sheer delight. Less impressive were some sections of dialogue, especially when emotion was being discussed (surely no-one is that open), and I found the resolution of the Emma/ Hunter John story arch a little forced. But generally, if you're not wanting anything too heavy, it's a grand little read.

Verdict: I think I will read Addison's latest The Sugar Queen although it will be a borrow, not a buy. And, I'm really going to have to  make my sister read Lost Souls.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

'Mobilis in Mobili': A Historical Perspective on Submarines, Swashbuckling and Rodents

Hello, my name is Alys and I like 19th Century trash fiction.

There, it's out in the open. My shameful little secret. They say admitting it's the first step.

“But what do you mean by 19th Century trash?” I hear you cry. Well, what I'm doing there is making a statement about 'high' and 'low' art and I'm being deliberately provocative. After all, tell someone you're reading a comic book, and there is a good chance they will look at you as if you are illiterate scum. Tell someone you're reading a novel by Dumas they will probably nod as if it's the most natural thing in the world. Some of them will even say, “how brave of you”.


As a culture, we seem to have a fear of the weighty tomes produced in the last century. Some people say it's the length that intimidates us, others the diction. I'm going to go out on a limb and say the defining factor is time. Give it a century or two and any old 'trash' can become 'literature'.

My intention here is not to criticise the 'trash', but to mock the people drawing the line. There is nothing inferior about a good comic, just as there is nothing inferior about Dumas. It is very easy to forget that, in Shakespeare's day, theatre was considered 'low' art. It is very easy to forget that 'novel' used to be an insult. The reason we forget is that the establishment appropriates these things because they are good. But some of us refuse to forget that, in their day, these things were scorned as appealing to the lowest common denominator.

And that's just what they do. It's why they are so bloody good. In order to grab attention they are fast paced, rip-roaring good yarns. They have wild adventures and exotic locations. They are full of witty dialogue and cheap laughs. They are immensely enjoyable. And, all too often, they have what the current Literary establishment would consider flaws. All the heroes are handsome and strong willed, all the heroines are beautiful, occasionally feisty and generally prone to fainting. These are not novels for the pompous - if you have a problem with so-called Mary-Sues, I might advise avoiding them. They are escapism. Truth be told, they are trash. But that's not an insult; it's one of the best things about them.

So, from an repentant AA type beginning, I find myself becoming an enabler. It's pretty easy to get hold of 19th Century trash – charity shops and second hand book stores are good sources. Do check and see that they're unabridged, though. If you have an e-reader, there is also the wonderful Project Gutenburg (http://www.gutenberg.org) which will give them to you for free.1

But... well. Before you begin, a couple of warnings.

19th Century trash requires a certain selective cultural blindness. There will be words and attitudes espoused by otherwise progressive authors that make any liberal reader wince. The trick is to whisper again and again, “they didn't know it was wrong.” In time, with willpower, the effect diminishes.

Then there's the problem of science. As we are often assured, hindsight is 20/20, and you would not have known any better then but... well, it can get a little tiresome to be assured that the properties of magnets, or electricity, or steam will lead to this, that or the other in the foreseeable future. Likewise, hearing phrenology and physiology described as 'sciences' without a 'pseudo' prefacing it, can strike one as odd. There will also probably be an endless stream of slightly dubious information underlying the plot. Abandon your pedantry all ye who enter here.

Perhaps from my tone you can tell I consider myself an old hand at this game. Still, it's possible to be taken by surprise.

In line with my addiction, I've just read '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (Jules Verne.) I had been meaning to read it for a while and I enjoyed it immensely. It had everything I could have desired: some seriously outlandish science (but check out that Nautilus, man!), more slightly dubious info on marine biology than I could ever hope to use, and the kind of anti-hero who can make girls like me go a little bit silly.

What's more, by the standards of the time, it's really quite enlightened. The narrator laments the greed which has endangered the whale, or that viciousness which clubs innocent sea-cubs. In the latter half of the book, Nemo consistently draws attention to mankind's hypocrisy, cruelty and tyranny. But the good Captain cannot stop man's man Ned Land from spending most of his time killing (or thinking about killing) things, nor the narrator for admiring that very characteristic.

Now, as I've said, I'm a seasoned reader of these things. Just as I did not let the word “endangered!” cloud my enjoyment of Hector de Sainte-Hermaine's tiger hunt in 'The Last Cavalier'. I tried not to get too discouraged when stout Ned shoots a sea otter for sport even though the narrator has admitted that they are practically extinct. And so, of course, I tended to read parts that involved Ned Land – or, indeed, any other human interaction with nature - with a fixed, but wry, smile upon my face. “It's just the time it was written” I reminded myself. “They didn't know any better.”

Then I read this:

“for Nature's creative power is far beyond man's instinct for destruction.”

After I'd read it, I stopped, blinked and read it again.

Nope, it was still there. That assertion, no matter what we do to nature, it can always repair itself. Verne's narrator states it as a matter of simple fact, as if it were obvious. Such innocence. Such naïvety.

And I, in my 21st Century way, had been quite cheerfully assigning the label of 'arrogant bloody Victorians' (well, okay, Verne was French and, Victoria only came to the throne in... oh, you know what I mean!) Essentially, I had condemned them as being wilfully wrong-headed and ignorant rather than just lacking the dubious benefit of my experience (over fishing, mass extinction, climate change.)

Essentially, I had become the kind of person that I hate.

Because I get so annoyed when people start talking about the past as though it's not only a foreign country, but another planet. I get fed up of wannabe historians describing all life before the Industrial Revolution as an endless stream of fear, sickness and poverty. Fed up of descriptions of the whole populace huddled around meagre fires in leaking hovels or draughty castles, dressed in rags and warding off starvation with a few handfuls of barley. Fed up of the idea that for whole centuries everyone was mad with superstitious fear and terrified of being burned for saying one wrong word. I'm fed up with people telling me life in the past was so totally different that we can have no conception of the inner life of our ancestors. In short, I'm fed up with stories of Poor Starving Peasants.

Because I read. And the thing is, when you read the literature of these people, hear what survives of their stories and their songs, look at their public buildings (mostly churches, I admit), they stop looking like poor, miserable waifs hanging on for the Enlightenment (and failing that, the Renaissance). They strike you as people, just like you and me, making the most of their time on this planet and asking the kind of questions we would ask about morality, religion and sex.

Still, it's easy to forget how much your environment shapes your assumptions. Still, it's easy to be taken by surprise.

Another thing I've read recently is the reissued first volume of 'The Pan Book of Horror Stories' (2010, Pan Books, first published 1959.)

Horror is another one of my things, and it was another brilliant read. It also illustrates my point perfectly. Most of the stories in there are still so fresh, so contemporary, that it seems implausible they were written over fifty years ago and many of them are earlier than that. One of my favourites was Hazel Heard's Lovecraftian The Horror in the Museum.

By this point, I had forgotten the age of the book, had forgotten the relative age of the story. This, to me, was set in the bustling metropolis of the early 21st Century. The characters were people I might know, the tone was contemporary, ironic, powerful. Then, once again, it happens:

“Rogers had once boasted that – for 'certain reasons' as he said – no mice or insects ever came near the place. That was very curious yet it seemed to be true.”

What? No mice? I should bloody hope not.

Now, I've not been sheltered as far as rodents are concerned. I've known of plenty of people who have mice in their lofts, or rats in their compost heaps, but, correct me if I'm wrong, is it not commonly accepted that most people no longer have rodents living in their wall space? Is not the Tom and Jerry style mouse hole a thing of the past?

The past. Yes.

We share so much common ground but, who, now, would think of mentioning that, “Oh by the way, I live in a rodent free house.” And who, two hundred, a hundred, even sixty years ago, would have bothered to comment upon a few mice. No, it is their absence - “very curious yet it seemed to be true.”

It doesn't occur to us to question our assumptions until someone faces us with something like that, something that seems to be an outright contradiction of good sense – not from the standpoint of bigotry or morality but of normality. Of expectation, even.

Because things have changed, and they continue to change. A couple of weeks ago Ian Birrell, former deputy editor of 'The Independent' described Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame as “despotic and deluded” on Twitter. As he included the necessary @, Kagame was able to reply and did so. In text speak.

In 1999, who could have predicted this? Text speak was a thing known only to those with mobile phones, and the internet was not even that prevalent (at least in my social milieu). Anyway, we were all far too worried that the Millennium bug was going to destroy computers forever to be thinking about such advanced communications technology. That was only twelve years ago. Yet when we think about it, don't we think of ourselves as the same people? Our world as, essentially, the same? Doesn't some part of us insist that nothing has really changed?

But it has done, and society with it. Rather more scary is the thought that, if we succeed in not wiping ourselves out, it will continue to change and that all the vaunted cultural assumptions we have will lose their force. “It was 21st Century” they will whisper. “They didn't know any better.” Perhaps Jules Verne was being more insightful than he knew. It is only by abandoning society and all its trappings that we can see its constructs as beliefs rather than truths. And it is only Captain Nemo who can turn his mirror upon humanity and show us what we are.
1Local copyright laws permitting...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Semiotics of Hysteria: Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender" and Cameron's gaffe.

To start with some bald facts: on 27th April 2011, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, (Conservative) told Angela Eagles, an MP from the opposition (Labour,) to “calm down, dear” during Prime Minister's Question Time. The resulting furore was predictable. In the midst of this, Samantha Cameron – David's wife – laughed off the criticism saying that she often told her husband to “calm down, dear.”

Now, if we can ignore for a moment the difference in register required by (respectively) a personal tiff and the kind of professional, political contact which is broadcast on national television, we can, perhaps, let the word “dear” fall by the analytical wayside. No, what I want to examine is the assumption that Mrs Cameron makes: that, when a woman say “calm down” to a man, it means the same as when a man says “calm down” to a woman.

What can she mean? Surely this is Political Correctness gone mad? Words are words, whoever says them. The gender of the speakers can't make that much difference, can it? Hmmm. Well. If I may digress for a moment.

A couple of weeks back, I read a very interesting book called Delusions of Gender, (Cordelia Fine, Icon Books, 2010.) In the introduction she quoted one Thomas Gisborne, an 18th Century clergyman, writing on the gender difference as it is called. He describes at length the female virtues and especial abilities “to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse, throughout the family circle, the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.”

Why, we might even imagine such a paragon saying – to an overwrought husband or rumbustious child, “calm down, dear.”

But surely, times have changed? Women are no longer confined to the family circle, nor, indeed to the caring professions. But, as Fine explores, we still have the lingering spectre of gender difference which lets us know that women aren't better or worse than men just... well, suited to different things. Men, for example, are still considered to have the advantage in maths, sciences and technology – they are still the critical, analytical thinkers, but women have something else. Something called, to use a cultural buzz word, 'emotional intelligence'.

Well, yippee! What is this strange and wonderful thing? I no longer care that my brain is totally unsuited to position of power or responsibility! I have emotional intelligence which allows me to feel empathy. It allows me to interact well with people. It makes me a good communicator. It gives me nigh on telepathic powers of intuition into other people's feelings. This is great! I feel so empowered! What does this great, newly discovered facility allow me to do?

Actually, as Fine points out, it makes me ideally suited to interpersonal engagement, dealing with people – especially the young or the vulnerable. It equips me perfectly for the... er, the caring professions. Or, better still diffusing throughout the family circle the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness. Calm down, dear. Quite.

But who am I to argue with neuroscience? (I'll leave that to Cordelia Fine – and a damned fine job she does of it, too.) What I want to do is come back to is the fact that this idea of emotional intelligence is not new. Fine traces it back to the 18th Century, but I recognise it from my days spent studying Medieval Literature. However far back you go into this Christian patriarchy of ours you will find facts which are intended to uphold the established order. You will be told that men are the thinkers, the reasoners, and that women are handed, as a consolation prize, the ability to feel. We are the mothers (just like the BVM,) we are the listeners (just like Mary Magdalane,) we are the mourners (who knew about the resurrection first?) and we are intuitively faithful. In fact, when we stay in line, listen, don't question authority and are content to feel rather than analyse we become so spiritually enlightened that some of those great theologians sought to emulate femininity in their souls because it was such a privileged position.

Thanks, Bernard of Clairvaux, but all the same, I'd rather have the vote.

Because there is a drawback to this privilege. It is all very well and good to be emotional – to be enlightened by a direct and uncritical interaction with spirituality, but it always leaves the patriarchy with a very powerful weapon. Because when we take it too far, when a woman starts to show what would, in a man, be seen as masculine anger, well, that's just our phlegmatic temperament making us hysterical. You see, that's the problem with emotional spirituality. It makes these poor girls a little bit unstable, prone to the old wandering womb1. Nothing else for it. Calm down, dear.

Which is exactly what happened in during Prime Minister's Question Time on 27th April 2011. Angela Eagles was doing her job, was making her point and arguing as well as she could and David Cameron – consciously or otherwise – felt his masculinity threatened. So he snapped into that old control mechanism which has been reinforced by centuries of theories, from ideas of the humors to neuroscience – that women are better at emotion. And because they are better at emotion, they can get emotional. And, as a fine, upstanding member of that patriarchy what else could David Cameron have said when out manoeuvred by a woman?

1The root of hysteria being womb, as any good dictionary will tell you...