Opinions & Rants


Current news stories with allegations of sexual assault cropping up from Hollywood to Westminster are disturbing in many ways.

Even more so are many of the reactions.

I take issue with a whole bunch of issues.

 

Language. The terminology we use to talk about such events is part of the problem.

Here’s an example: Witch hunt.

How can exposing a selection of bullying individuals and the organisations which supported their abusive behaviour be a witch hunt? Bullying individuals and controlling powers conducted the actual witch-hunts, blaming women for anything and everything they could not explain.

Women, drowned or burned as witches, were victims of the equivalent of today’s tabloid hysteria. A witch hunt is a mob seeking to root out an innocent. The men shown up and shamed these last few weeks were anything but innocent.

Responsibility. These harassers, abusers and rapists did not act alone. Supported by their studios, companies, assistants and a culture of complicity, these men continued their arrogant, greedy search for gratification behind a protective screen. Sure, the powerful employer could fire you, which would be so much worse than backing out of a hotel room leaving a young wo/man to suffer sexual assault.

Get Over It. Anyone who states ‘Don’t claim #metoo if you only got your bum pinched’ should spend a week in a woman’s shoes. Many of us grew up with Carry On films and the Benny Hill Show and the socially accepted normalisation of ‘men just can’t help it’ and fought our way out of that uncomfortable tolerance.

Men can, and do help themselves (in both senses). Imposing yourself physically on a person who says no, whether that’s a kiss, a touch or sexual assault is all part of a sliding scale. Other people’s bodies are not your property, no matter how important you are.

Mental health. The inability to stop forcing yourself on unwilling individuals may have more to do with your unstoppable ego than some kind of addiction. Next time you lie on your therapist’s couch, take a second to think about all those people who are still dealing with the nightmare of your abuse every time they close their eyes.

Coda: I can communicate (badly) in several languages, but I get by in French, German, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. One phrase I know in every one:

Please leave me alone.

 

 

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Conversations I Did Not Have This Weekend

Me: Hello Herr Scheiber, we’d like a firewood delivery before the winter sets in.

HS: Of course. Is Monday morning OK?

Me: Perfect. By the way, we won’t be paying this time. Have a nice day.

 

Me: Could I book a hair appointment on Friday?

Hairdresser: Cut and blow dry?

Me: Yeah and quid pro quo.

HD: Quid what?

Me: Look, you cut my hair for nada and I tell all my friends how fab you are.

 

Me: Two tickets for Blade Runner 2049, please.

Cinema Employee: Where would you like to sit?

Me: Up the back and for free.

CE: Sorry?

Me: Well, I’m not sure if I’ll like it. But if I do, I’ll give it a great review. Oh and while I’m here, I’ll have the medium nachos with cheese sauce.

Conversations I Did Have This Weekend

Potential reader: Is your series available on iBooks?

Me: Sure, they’re available everywhere. Here’s the link.

PR: But these books aren’t free.

 

Website query: We’d like to read your book for our bookclub.

Me: Fantastic! Would you like me to send some bookclub questions?

WQ: That would be great! Could you also gift us 10 copies (e-books, not paperbacks, obviously!)

 

Casual acquaintance: My wife wants to read your books.

Me: OK, here’s a postcard which tells you where to buy them.

CA: You can’t just give her a copy?

You’ve all heard the Picasso quote – but if not, it’s at the end of this post.

I get slack-jawed in disbelief when people expect creatives to work for free – or more often – for the “exposure”.

I’ve done my time. University degree, years of teaching and learning, self-study and quite a few failures along the way.

Then a group of people (more on that next week) showed me how to improve and find a voice, a character and a style. I spent four years honing my first book, distilling all those years of craft and education it took to get to that stage.

So the next step is to give it away?

No.

Before I published my first book, I promised myself two things: Never free, never exclusive. If I don’t value my work, why would anyone else?

Each of my e-books costs less than a cup of coffee. My paperbacks cost less than two birthday cards. Both will last a lot longer. I appreciate I’m also asking for your time and trust.

All of us readers approach a new book with anticipation and trepidation. You’re about to give me hours of your life – use them well

But if you value the hours of effort and skill that goes into keeping readers entertained, why would you expect all that for free?

Herewith the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal Picasso anecdote:

Picasso is sketching at a park. A woman walks by, recognizes him, and begs for her portrait. A few minutes later, he hands her the sketch. She is elated, excited about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “5000 francs, madam,” says Picasso. The woman is outraged as it only took him five minutes. Picasso says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

 

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Luzern, Switzerland

A year ago today, my mother died.

Edinburgh party

When her time came, she wanted to go quickly, at home and in the arms of her husband. Which is exactly what happened.

For the rest of us, her departure was sudden and shocking. Of course it had to happen, someday. The medical profession had given her mesothelioma everything in its arsenal, but the disease was relentless. We knew we’d lose her someday, but did it have to be so soon?

One year later, after the pain and tears and grief and enormous black hole where she used to be, what remains?

Quite a lot, actually.

Her passion was always for people. She embraced strangers and treasured relationships, whether family or friends. That much was visible at her funeral where far too many guests spilled out of the crematorium.

The colourful celebration of her life

Since she’s been gone, that elastic connection which can stretch so wide has contracted and brought us all together. Close family became closer, extended relatives got in contact and friends’ gentle words of sympathy reminded us that her kindnesses affected more lives than we could have guessed.

In addition to that, her behaviour acts as a benchmark. It’s only now I realise how deep her influence goes. Her sayings, her code of honour, her willingness to leave the house uncleaned to support a friend or rescue an animal, her fierce loyalty to those she loved and equal ferocity to their opponents, all make me more positive, determined and willing to change.

Terry, Mum and Florian above Lake Zurich

She never failed to tell us how proud she was of every one of our achievements – from first pooh in the potty to first grandchild to first book. I still want to run to her when I get a great review and say, ‘Look, Mum, someone liked it!’ She also pulled no punches when she found our behaviour lacking. One phrase often sneaks into my head when I get fractious: Patience is a virtue, and you, young lady, could do with a few more virtues.

Schaffhausen Falls

Most of all, my mother’s legacy was a sense of humour. She could laugh at all kinds of things, especially herself. I would love to think she was somehow present two weeks ago at the Lake of Zug, where her daughters, sons-in-law and husband were helpless with laughter at the classic Cooty stories.

I miss her. We all do. But we have so many precious memories.

Every day she’s gone makes me appreciate what she left behind.

São João – Porto

Rome!

 

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http://amzn.to/2stfJNS (Over the weekend, I had a few surprises from readers.

One was disappointing.

Somebody returned a Beatrice Stubbs Boxset for a refund.

“Nothing in the description said it was an R rating.”

An R rating? In Europe, we understand an X rating, but what does R mean?

I checked the definition and it’s pretty vague, especially when it comes to books. R means restricted. Some sex, violence, nudity and if anyone under 17 cracks the spine*, they should be under supervision. (*not a euphemism)

If my reader didn’t like the first chapter – which does indeed involve some medium to strong language, allusions to sex and a gently twisted murder – s/he has every right to ask for his/her money back. No offence taken.

http://amzn.to/2stgTJaHow to communicate to potential readers that Beatrice Stubbs is neither cozy/cosy nor excessively violent/graphic? Is there a scale one can use to reassure the nervous while enticing the curious?

Hmm.

The second surprise was a new review from an Amazon reader called Roxann.

I hope she’ll forgive me quoting her here:

I loved the entire Beatrice Stubbs series… Great plots, wonderful endearing characters and JJ Marsh’s sense of humor is delightful. READ THEM ALL. I am very sad that the series is only six books….. I miss the characters…..!!!!! Please write more.

Now stop that. I know what you’re thinking.

Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.

But I do want to mess with Mister In-Between. How do I please both ends of the crime reading spectrum?

http://amzn.to/2rviH5nWhat kind of warnings do I add to my books? Maybe we need a new system.

  • Small x: Bad cuss-words, almost-sex and a few bloodstains
  • Small r: Medium swearing and not all dead bodies are female
  • Small c: No creatures or children injured

I started writing crime not to shock or horrify, but to entertain. I don’t want to give you nightmares. My aim is essentially to reassure that good can prevail; that human beings want to look after each other. If you’re reading a Beatrice Stubbs book before you go to sleep, I hope you’re enthralled and excited and even unnerved, but never disgusted, repulsed or upset.

http://amzn.to/2swPPKftoYes, horrible people and situations exist but beware of gratuitous shocks.

The Nasties accentuate the negative, fan fear and distort perception.

This piece by Rene Denfeld sums up why I write crime from the female perspective.

Women can be so much more than victims.

Beatrice Stubbs knows all about the negative but strives, at least, for the in-between.

If you’ve read a Beatrice book – whether you’ve loved or hated – how would you describe it?

 

 

 

 

 

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An election approaches in Britain.

The US looks back at its own choices.

Politics and opinions fill papers and posts and ears, some articulate, others mere slogans and gritted teeth. No matter, voters make up their own minds and are entitled to their own perspective.

Regardless of where they live.

A disturbing grumble popped up this week via various sources.

  1. “You don’t live here so shut up.”
  2. “Expats think they are so superior.”
  3. “Why should people living abroad tell us what to do?”

I have a view on every one of these questions, as a tax-paying, voluntary National Insurance contributor, with some family members dependent on the NHS/Social Services and an emotional investment in the country of my birth.

But this is not about me.

Nor is it about the bias peddled by the media.

I want to know why some of the most articulate and passionate perspectives on America I’ve read come from people living in Europe. British foreign and domestic policy is subjected to the sharpest analysis from intelligent minds in Romania, Sweden, Canada, Germany and Scotland.

So here are a few questions:

  1. If someone no longer lives in her/his home country, does that negate that person’s opinion on domestic politics?
  2. Is political opinion the exclusive domain of those who live under its effects?
  3. Should a person committed to living in another country apply for voting rights there and leave the homeland to itself?
  4. Do expatriates have stronger views on how a government might improve having seen other more/less effective examples?
  5. What kind of parallels are there between immigrants and emigrants? Why is there a resentment of both incomers and outgoers?

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts.

Next week, I’ll be back to boring you about my books.

 

 

 

The whole How-Dare-You row kicked off again after Anthony Horowitz revealed he’d been advised against writing a black character in his Alex Rider series.

The BBC story is here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39988992

This topic both interests me as a reader and a writer. (I’ll spare you the inevitable para where I impress you with all the varied and well-researched perspectives I include in my own books.)

Leaving aside the precise definition of exactly what a ‘black character’ is, why shouldn’t Horowitz dare to inhabit a character other than himself? The Alex Rider series features a junior version of James Bond, aged 14-15.

Taking it to the extreme, all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London. – Anthony Horowitz

The subject of who has the right to write is on my mind.

I read a Bailey’s Prize shortlister which tells the tale of a privileged white woman and a mixed race man to whom slavery is not just history, but family.

I read a film script written by a man which focuses on female sexuality, sisterhood and what women really think of a penis.

I’m reading a book from the POV of a character who is mentally ill. No, not your average ‘unreliable’ narrator, but someone with an acknowledged, controllable illness.

They’re all fascinating, informative and emotionally engaging. I don’t need the author’s CV or photograph to tell me if their qualifications are sufficient. If they fall into cliché, patronise, mock or don’t do the basic courtesy of attempting to empathise with a character’s external moulding and internal reactions, they have no right.

Last week, Words with JAM published an interview with Jason Donald. How did he approach writing his character of Dalila, a young Kenyan refugee woman, I asked.

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

For her Diversity series in the same magazine, Catriona Troth interviewed Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ 

First of all, caring about Native people is not a condition for getting it right. If you don’t know someone personally, what you hold in your head and heart is more of an abstract than a reality. In the 1990s, illustrator James Ransom was asked why he had not illustrated any books about Native people. His reply was, “because I have not held their babies.” That’s a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of trust you have to have in place before you can do justice to someone’s stories. Once you move from the abstract into the real, you pause to consider what you are going to write or teach.

And Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don’t see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That’s more of a question of the writer’s ability to do it well enough so it’s believable, than anything else.

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it – and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that’s more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I’m not sure how we qualify the authenticity – if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

Finally, Christos Tsiolkas, who sums it up perfectly.

http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2012/05/christos-tsiolkas-has-breakfast-with-jj.html

I agree.

We all have the right to write outside our own experience. So long as we understand what that means. We should work harder at getting into other skins, minds, worlds, never forgetting it’s a privilege.

 

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A phenomenon is scaring me.

No, not just SCROTUS, although he’s a big part of it.

There’s a peculiar anti-word, anti-thought movement spreading through our societies, which opposes reason and embraces slogan. Nothing new there, a blunt cudgel of opinion-bashing has its historical precedents.

Which should be terrifying by example. I’m not telling you where to look. I don’t need to.

Go check a random oppressive regime. How far down the list do you find ‘silence the thinkers’?

Here’s a mini test:

Name three regimes whose policy was to slaughter intellectuals.

Name three governments who imprison opponents without trial.

Name three countries which spread misinformation and propaganda to sway their population into supporting their own agenda.

(Hint: you probably live in one and this is why we need a free press, even if some of them are gits.)

One of the scariest phrases I heard was Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign: “Oh I think people have had enough of experts”.

These inexpert, self-interested campaigners for anything that will get them up the career ladder speak for ‘The People’. One of their base tools is arguing against argument. It’s the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting your own position over and over until ‘The People’ (or ‘Folks’ if you want the current Imbecile-in-the-White-House version) can repeat it verbatim.

This is a crass, patronising assumption on every level.

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Firstly, ‘The People’ enjoy argument, rationale or reason. Engaging and discussing issues in person often leads to a less fossilised position. Online is a different matter. Comment is as dehumanising, reductive and debasing as a scrawled cartoon of a bear shitting in the woods. But it still works. Make us yell at each other and we take our eye off the argument. Sit us in a bar to chat and it’s a whole different game.

Secondly, simple words – make, great, take, ours, us, we, sad, bigly(?), danger, wall – is a reductive and banal way to communicate. Joined-up thinking requires a sense of cause and effect. People – yes, even ‘The People’ – are aware the credit crunch and subsequent drain on the working and middle-class was not due to immigration, fake news or or the liberal elite, but rampant pocket-lining by the very same people who tell you ‘You Ne-ver Had It So Good’. (One syllable at a time, folks.)

Thirdly, attacking people who dare to show some more articulacy than bellowing ‘Lock her up!” are derided for being elitist, intellectual and not of ‘The People’. It’s much more difficult to reduce the problems inherent in destabilising the EU to a tidy ALL CAPS phrase on a banner.

Lastly, how highly do you rate your supporters when you stand up in front of them and lie? Lie loudly, repeatedly and with bombast in the conviction they will believe it. If this is your methodology, your rationale must be that ‘The People’ are truly stupid.

We are not. You, me, all of us will be remembered by our thoughts, our words and our actions.

In a time like this, words are the bridge between thought and action.

They could not be more vital.

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