Dear Regretful Leave Voter,

I want to open this letter firstly by apologising to you for the way that the UK has let you down. You were openly and repeatedly lied to by the Leave campaign and by the right-wing media, and no one seemed to have the will or the authority to do anything about it.

If an advertiser lies, the Advertising Standards Agency can penalise them and stop them from doing it again. But the ASA does not cover political campaigning, so they were unable to stop the Leave campaign from lying to you.

When the media lies, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which took over from the Press Complaints Commission, can force a news organisation to publish a retraction or correction, but by the time they do the damage has been done. The press can pretty much lie as much as they like without having to worry about it.

Many of the Leave politicians lied to you too, and they are now walking back their claims about giving £350m per week to the NHS or stopping immigration. There are more lies, but we’ll stop with just those two because they are big ones, the pants-on-fire-sized lies.

No one had the political will to stop the lies. People did try to counter them, but that’s not the same as stopping them being made, repeatedly, even after they had been shown clearly to be lies. And I’m sorry for that. It’s a dreadful state of affairs when our national civil discourse is peppered with lies and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

I’m also sorry that it wasn’t made clear enough to you that your vote really counted. Really, really counted. We are so used to our votes being useless, no matter which side of the aisle we inhabit. I vote in a safe  Tory seat, so I am used to being in a minority of non-Tory voters. I vote all the same, but I can understand the urge to not bother, because what’s the point?

I haven’t read every single news article or watched every single bit of Brexit TV. Who could? But I don’t think that enough of a fuss was made that this was a vote where every single person’s opinion counted, and where all that was needed was a simple majority.

You voted to Leave, even though you didn’t really want to, and maybe that was a protest vote. Again, I understand why you would do that. I mean, who wouldn’t be ticked off at the nasty financial repercussions of the 2008 financial crash, a disaster for which no one was punished and, worse, after which there were no meaningful reforms. Could it happen again? Well, we have to hope it doesn’t, but the banks are no better regulated now than they were then.

And, of course, we can’t forget the years of Tory austerity, which hit people hard. Austerity was never the right way forward, and indeed, economists and financial institutions begged the Tories not to continue with austerity, but they carried on. We could discuss why, and that would be a useful discussion, but all we need to point out here is that austerity hurt people. It hurt them badly. It made them financially insecure, it made them struggle. Maybe it made you struggle. I certainly felt the pinch, as did many of my friends.

So I can understand why you felt that you wanted to protest. And I understand why you are now mortified at what has happened. And I am sorry that you are in this situation. But…

It’s not over. You can still fight. You can still be heard, you can still have an impact. We, together, can still turn this nightmare around. If I may, I’d like to make some suggestions:

1. Sign this petition asking for a second referendum. Whether or not the horse has already scarpered from this particular stable is not the point. This petition is a symbol of how unhappy we are about what has happened. Sign it, share it with your friends, ask them to sign it. It’s already well past 2 million signatories at the time of writing, and rising rapidly.

2. Contact your MP and tell them you regret your vote, and that you now want to remain. You don’t have to go into any detail about what happened, but just be brave, be strong, and tell your MP that you were lied to and that you want their help to make sure that we stay in the EU. It’s really easy to do — just go to Write To Them and that will help you get in touch with the right person.

3. Complain to your MP as well that the lies told by the Leave campaign amount to electoral fraud. You can also complain to the Electoral Commission. Even though they have no power to deal with political advertising, it is important that they understand the depth of feeling that this referendum was held under false pretences.

4. Talk to your friends about what happened, especially other people who voted Leave, or who were so unsure that they didn’t vote at all. See if you can persuade them that they have been lied to and that it is OK for someone to change their mind when they realise that something they thought was true is actually false. See if you can get them to engage with the political process, and help us to make sure that the UK doesn’t make this huge mistake.

Why bother doing any of this? Because if we come together to give our MPs, most of whom want to remain in the EU, a new political mandate to stay, then we might just get out of this mess before it’s too late. Article 50 has not been triggered (and don’t believe the scaremongering about it being done over our heads or whatever), and we have a short window of opportunity to make sure it never is triggered. But we have to act now. We have to lobby, and persuade, and make our voices heard above the lies.

I know that people like you are scared of being abused by some folks who voted Remain and are very angry about what happened. I can only, again, apologise if you have been on the receiving end of that kind of abuse. It’s not nice, and it’s not right, and it shouldn’t be happening. I shall make no excuses for it: I fundamentally disagree with any sort of abuse, no matter who it’s directed at or why.

But if you know people who voted Remain, and who are being civil, talk to them. Try to mend some bridges, as I will try to mend bridges myself with those Leavers who are civil. This referendum has created some deep divides and we all need to work hard to try to mend what has been broken. Do not give up hope. Do not feel useless or overwhelmed. Together, we can make things better, if we act now.

Finally, if you want some context about just how many people in the UK really voted to leave, this chart might be useful.

As you can see, there isn’t really a majority in favour of Leaving, not least because a lot of people couldn’t vote, either because they were not registered, not eligible to register, or not old enough to register. We cannot go forward with such a major change to our country, which will affect not just us but all future generations, but which only a quarter of the population actively supports.

Thank you for reading this, and thank you for being open enough to consider that your Leave vote was mistaken. That takes guts, and I admire you for being willing to rethink your position.

Best regards,

Suw

PS. Comments are closed, because I know that a lot of people feel very strongly, and that some of those people are unable to remain polite.

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If there’s anything writers love more than having written, it seems, it’s giving advice on how to write. It’s a nice way to feel helpful and useful and, for those who sell consultancy or editorial services, it’s a good way to build relationships with your future clients and be seen to be relevant.

But so much writing advice on the internet is facile nonsense. If I have a rule about reading writing advice, it’s that if the author lays out a set of rules without talking about exceptions to those rules, you may as well not bother reading on. The vast majority of writing advice is stylistic advice, and style, like everything else, is a tool and its proper use depends on context.

The latest piece to annoy me is “10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them”, by Josh Bernoff, which at first blush seems like a great list, but really isn’t. Now, I have to say up front that there’s no particular reason why I got cross about this list in particular. Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m sure Bernoff is a lovely chap who’s very good at his job, but this list has really very little to commend it.

1 Write shorter.

The author here conflates several issues: length, concision and burying the lead.

If you’ve been commissioned to write 750 words, then the correct length for your piece is 750 words. Submitting 500 words because you’re “writing shorter” will not endear you to your editor. If you can’t make your piece fit 750 words either because there’s not enough to talk about or too much, then you need to go back and talk to your editor.

If you’re writing a blog post, or have no word limit, then your piece needs to be as long as it needs to be. That’s hard to judge when you’re a beginner, but this is where the concept of concision comes in. Is your writing economical? Do you make the best use of your words? Are there any extraneous details you could cut?

Sometimes, of course, you will choose not to be concise. You will choose to use repetition for effect, because it is a useful rhetorical device that can serve an important function. But it should always be a deliberate choice that you make, knowing why you’ve made it and how it will read.

In his advice on how to fix this problem — “Delete your ‘warming up’ text and start with the main point” — Bernoff is actually talking about burying the lead (or lede if you’re American). In news journalism especially, it’s important not to ‘back into’ your story. Start with the most important point that you want to make, and add detail as you go.

This is the basis of the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure, about which many books have already been written. The purpose of this structure is not just to get to the point rapidly, and to thus hook the reader, but also to ensure that all the important stuff is up top and the copy editor can cut sentences, or even paragraphs, from the bottom with impunity.

However, there are times when you don’t want to get to the point in the first paragraph. Certain styles of feature writing, for example, prize a long and intricate set-up before getting to a big reveal much later in the article. So whether you reveal or obscure your point depends entirely on what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.

So don’t write short: Write to length. You should also write concisely, and don’t bury the lede, except when you consciously choose otherwise.

2 Shorten your sentences.

This should really read, “Shorten your sentences, except for when you need to use longer sentences.”

Sentence length is tool for controlling how readers react to your words. Short sentences are fast. Sharp. Active. But longer sentences slow readers down, giving them time to digest and reflect, and to perhaps tie two concepts together into something new and exciting.

Writing only in short sentences robs you of dynamic range, and leaves the reader feeling a bit stressed and breathless. Mixing long and short sentences gives you the opportunity to play with your pacing and to give the reader breathers, so use the sentence length that works for the effect that you are trying to create.

See also:


3 Rewrite passive voice.

There is a general loathing of the passive voice these days which is rather unwarranted. Bernoff says “Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create uneasiness”, without recognising that sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.

Again, the passive voice has a specific impact on the reader, and it’s your choice as a writer to use it where it is appropriate. Sometimes, you’re going to want to conceal the identity of an actor, perhaps because you don’t know it, or it’s not important, or to reveal it would be to put the emphasis on the wrong thing.

“The car was stolen” puts the emphasis on the car, not on the person who stole it. Perhaps who stole it is irrelevant to the wider story that you’re trying to tell. Perhaps it’s an unknowable fact, the car was stolen so long ago we can no longer find out who stole it. Perhaps you want to keep your powder dry and reveal who stole the car later on in a climactic scene.

Do not be afraid of the passive voice. Learn to recognise it, and use it when it is appropriate.

4 Eliminate weasel words.

“Words like ‘generally’ and ‘most’ make your writing sound weak and equivocal.”

This seems like a hard one to argue with, except I have a science background, and scientists hate absolutes, even if they have the evidence to back things up. Sometimes, so-called ‘weasel words’ are actually honest words that define the limitations of our knowledge. Bernoff says:

For example, this Wall Street Journal native ad piece includes the sentence “Most companies with traditional business models probably have a few radical developers on staff.” Rewrite as “Every company has a radical developer or two.”

But does he have evidence that every single company has a radical developer in their ranks? Really? The WSJ hedges their bets because they cannot claim to know the types of developers employed by every company, and neither can Bernoff. Instead, he has provided the reader with a sweeping generalisation that he cannot back up with data. Indeed, as an editor I’d reject such certainty without a solid reference to back it up.

When you find yourself using hedging words, and you will, ask yourself why. Such words and phrases can be used to cover up the insecurity of the writer, to moderate overconfident claims, or to indicate uncertainty in the data. If your data is uncertain, for example you have two data sources that give different figures, then say so. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t work and it’s best to hedge, but at least explain why you’re hedging. It’s OK to be uncertain, as long as you explain why.

If you’re moderating an overconfident claim, then you should reconsider whether you want to make that claim at all. Find a different way to make your point which does not rely on making a sweeping generalisation that you can’t stand up.

If you’re trying to cover up your own insecurities, that’s when you need to eradicate hedging words. You do not serve yourself well by prefacing everything with “I think” or “generally” or “the tendency is.”

Again, sometimes hedging is necessary, but you should always be on the look out for equivocation and ask yourself whether it is performing a useful function, or whether it is just making you look insecure or weaselly.

5 Replace jargon with clarity.

Another favourite bug bear of pretty much every non-fiction writer is jargon. And yes, jargon can sometimes be meaningless drivel, but not always. One man’s jargon can be another man’s technical language, so before you toss out all the jargon, consider your audience: Will they understand technical language, or are you writing for a generalist audience? If the latter, does the jargon merely need to provide a clear definition before you go on to use it throughout the piece, or is it incomprehensible even with a definition?

Consider the word ‘murine’. It means ‘relating to or affecting mice or related rodents’, so when biologists talk about ‘the murine model’, they are talking about a biological model that uses mice and/or related rodents to stand in for humans. But you can’t just swap in the phrase ‘the mouse model’, because house rats are also used in the murine model. Using ‘the mouse and rat model’ is more accurate, but clunky. All you need to do as a writer is define ’murine’ and then away you go.

It’s also important to remember that converting jargon to non-jargon is often a lossy process; you might actually lose information if you’re not very careful. Take Bernoff’s example, where he replaces SAP’s

“As the digital transformation revolution reaches maturity, companies have the opportunity to shift business models within their industry disruptively to create new sources of defensible competitive advantage”

with

“New technology creates new ways to do business”.

Well, Bernoff’s might be shorter, and the originally might be a mess, but it contains information Bernoff misses out. “Digital transformation” is not just about technology per se, it’s not about robots or self-driving cars, it’s about digital information. “Maturity” is a key concept too, telling the reader either that they’re late taking the digital transformation seriously or that they can feel safe knowing that it’s not a fad, depending on their existing mindset. “Within their industry” is also important, as this is saying that it’s not about moving sectors but about getting one up on your existing competitors… and so on.

Now I’m not saying SAP’s quote could not have been worded better. It absolutely could have. But Bernoff’s version gains little and loses much.

To use or not use technical language is a choice that needs to be made every time you come across a technical term, and is entirely dependent on your audience and their existing level of knowledge. Indeed, dumbing down technical content for a technical audience will achieve nothing more than make you look inept and make them feel that you are talking down to them.

6 Cite numbers effectively. 

Probably the only bit of advice I can fully agree with. If you are going to use statistics, do it properly. And if you don’t understand statistics, either get some training or find someone who knows their numbers.

7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.”

Again, a simplistic rule that’s not actually a hard and fast rule, but a decision that’s highly contextual. Whilst there is a move towards informality in business communications, it is not something to be assumed. Whether you use personal pronouns or not depends entirely on your client’s brand voice, what you’re writing, who your audience is, and all the other things you should be taking into account as a professional writer.

Again, Bernoff’s rewritten example loses information. “No bag or item larger than 16” x 16” x 8” will be permitted inside the Park” gives you the exact dimensions for the bag you’re allowed to carry with you, so you can make a judgement as to whether your bag is too big or not. Bernoff’s version, “Security staff won’t let you in the park if your bag is too big” not only omits that essential information, it also makes an impartial rule into a personal decision made by security staff against you.

Sometimes, omitting pronouns serves a purpose. In this case, it depersonalises a rule and defuses potentially confrontational situation by not bringing the security staff’s decision making process into the frame at all.

8 Move key insights up.

See 1, burying the lead.

9 Cite examples.

Well, yes, examples can make text “come alive”, but only use them if they are relevant and fit in with your brief. Don’t be cramming them in for the sake of it.

10 Give us some signposts. 

Bernoff recommends that “After you’ve stated your main thesis, write this: ‘Here’s how I’ll explain this.’ Then include a few short sentences or a numbered list. It’s that easy!”

If you’re writing a long piece, use an intro to set up your main thesis, and then use subheadings to break up the text into sensible sections. People can and do easily scan subheadings to see what they’re in for. It’s not hard.

A well structured article doesn’t need an index, which is what a numbered list is. And if you do find yourself creating an index, then you have to ask whether you’re writing an article or a report, and whether your article might benefit from being split out into a series of pieces instead.

What you really need to do

It’s always very tempting to look for shortcuts in the process of learning to write, especially if you want to get paid to write. But the best way to learn your craft is to do it, to work with a good editor who has more experience than you do, and to read extensively in whatever oeuvre or genre you’re writing in. When you stumble on lists of rules like this, the first thing you should do is ask when they don’t apply. Think about how you would decide whether or not you are going to apply a rule, and what would happen if you did the opposite.

Your job as a writer is not to slavishly adhere to random lists of rules on the internet, but to understand your commission or brief, to write clearly and elegantly, and to think for yourself.

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The winter that will not die

by Suw on April 10, 2016

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Technically, it is Spring. The Spring Equinox was Sunday 20 March, so there can be no doubt about it. But meteorologically, here in the Midwest, it’s definitely still winter. It snowed all day yesterday, and although the pavement (sidewalk) and road (pavement) were too warm for the snow to accumulate, the grass and the roofs and the bushes and the trees were not. It feels like November out there. It feels like Christmas is just around the corner.

I was warned. I really can’t say that I wasn’t warned. I was warned quite clearly, by a friend over dinner.

Years before Kevin and I moved here, we knew that we wanted to. Kevin had spent a long time away from his family, London housing prices were unreasonable, and city living was disagreeing with us both. We didn’t know when or where or how we would move back, but we were pretty sure that we would.

My friend had lived in the Midwest for some considerable time and, over an all too rare dinner, I broached the subject with him. Did he have any advice for me, were Kevin and I to move? Visit in the winter, he said. Makes sure you understand just how cold it gets. Because it gets really, really cold. I nodded. Probably made some sort of noise about, no really, I do understand. And, up to a point, I did.

I’ve felt cold. Not British cold, dank and bone-swelling and sullen. British cold is unpleasant. Spiteful. Niggardly. But there is worse.

~~

I am in Boston for a business meeting, and to hang out for a while with my then boyfriend, a long-distance relationship carved out of joint nerdiness and IRC. I am spectacularly unprepared for the weather. I own only a light jacket and court shoes which, at that time of year — February or March — would have been fine in the UK, but not Boston. And not with a winter storm dumping three feet of snow on us overnight.

My then boyfriend & I stay with mutual friends, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the lounge of a lovely Victorian house made of matchsticks and paper and spit. I don’t know what the temperature falls to, but the air in the mattress sucks all the heat out from under us. We have nothing but a sheet and a thin quilt (comforter) to keep us warm, and it is insufficient protection against the cascade of cold air tumbling down from the bay window to drive the warmth out from above. I remember getting up and piling all of the coats from the coat stand on top of us, and as many of my clothes from my suitcase as I can. It isn’t enough. Once back in bed, I don’t dare move, because the slightest shift means discovering a new bitterly cold patch, or worse, letting a frigid blast of freezing air under the quilt.

I am cold. I am so cold that I hurt. My joints ache. My muscles ache. I don’t sleep at all. I just lie there, freezing, miserable, and wondering how the hell anyone could live in a place where the cause of death might not even be “Went outside”, but “Slept on air mattress in front room”.

I think I understand cold.

~~

Woodstock, Illinois. That’s where they filmed Groundhog Day, and that’s where Kevin and I are going to move to. We’ve been over a few times, fallen in love with the place, and decide to live there. Kev has a geographically independent job and so do I. There’s a train from Woodstock into Chicago, so good for work, and it’s very near Kev’s parents’ place. It hasn’t changed much at all since Bill Murray found himself repeatedly stepping in the same puddle. It has a timeless charm, plus a great crêpe place.

We visit around Groundhog Day, by chance. They have their own groundhog now — Woodstock Willie. He does his prognostications each year on 2 February. We miss the big day, sadly, as our flight back to London is that evening, but we find a lovely house and our estate agent (realtor) is on the Groundhog Day committee, so we go to one of the events. It is a lot of fun, and makes us even more keen to move there.

Early February in northern Illinois can get chilly. And it does. Down to -18C. My breath freezes in my nose, a tickly, crackly sensation. Breathing deeply is a mistake, frigid air brutalising my lungs. But I have better shoes and a better coat this time, and we sleep in a proper bed in a proper house made of matchsticks, paper, spit and actual insulation.

I now know a lot more about cold.

~~

Kevin has been here in Sheboygan for a month when, in March 2014, I visit to look for a house. He’s done all the heavy lifting; I just have to pick one of the final three and give it my seal of approval. It’s easy. The house we now live in stands head and shoulders above the others.

I have ten days to look around, find something out about the place I am about to call home. It’s white and snowy, huge piles of the stuff in every carpark, walls of it along the side of every road. Kevin introduces me to the Duke of Devon pub, an English eatery run by a chap from Bideford and crammed with British memorabilia and incredibly expensive British chocolate.

We decide to drive out to Plymouth, to look at an antique shop. More of a flea market by British standards, but we don’t know that and by the time we figure it out, I don’t care. We park a bit of a ways up the high street from the shop we’re aiming for, but that’s ok because we’re not scared of walking. It’s -16C. Even with my nice thick coat and my boots, by the time we get to the shop I am ready to go inside, no matter how much tat it sells. We have a look round. Twice. Slowly. Warming. Up.

Eventually, we go back out into the bitter wind and trudge back to the car. Should have taken cousin Leonie’s advice: Go where you want to go, and then find a place to park.

The thing about cold is that you forget.

~~

Thanksgiving, 2014. I’m living here now. We have a house. It’s made of matchsticks and paper and spit and although I know it has some insulation in the roof, there are so many gaps around the windows that they might as well have not bothered. We have had a wonderful evening with friends in Milwaukee, and we’ve got home to find the house suspiciously cold. It’s -13C outside. Our heating, which uses the infernal Fahrenheit system, is set at 72F (22C). I do not believe that the thermostat tells the truth about the temperature but that is a discussion for another day.

Whatever biases the thermostat has, it says that it’s 68F/20C. I turn it up, try to get the heating to kick in, but nothing happens. Kevin goes downstairs to check the furnace. We don’t have boilers here, we have furnaces. Great big beasts with giant flues that sounds like small jet engines when they start up. This one was silent as the grave. No small jet engines here.

It’s 11.30pm on Thanksgiving evening, and there’s no way we’re about to call someone out. It’ll be fine, I say. We have our sofabed, and a working fireplace. Kevin gets in the last of the wood. We only use the fireplace when it’s warmer than -2C, because otherwise you loose more heat up the chimney than the fire can produce. But we have no real choice. I make up the bed with two duvets, two blankets, and I make sure we have hats and wooly socks and long-johns. Kevin lights a fire. The temperature continues to drop.

The cats are unhappy. They don’t really understand why it’s so damn cold inside and try to scrunch themselves up into tiny little balls to conserve heat. Mewton discovers that it’s warmer under the duvet, and I welcome him in. Every little bit of extra heat helps. But Grabbity is a jealous goddess and, after sulking for a while at the end of the bed, she pounces on top of the Mewton-shaped mound, firing him out from under the duvet like a pea squeezed out of its pod. He is disgruntled. I am very disgruntled, as his rapid departure has allowed a gust of cold air in under the duvets and the blankets. It feels like Boston all over again. I daren’t turn over.

We wake at 2am, Kevin puts the last log on the fire. We sleep fitfully until around 6.30am. It is 48F/8C. Inside. The temperature is still falling, and will fall faster now that we have run out of wood to burn. Kevin rings an engineer as soon as he can, and we sit on the sofa, wrapped in coats and blankets and duvets and hats and scarfs until the engineer arrives at 11am. We get a temporary fix; the proper fix comes later and costs us $400. The house takes 12 hours to warm back up to something approaching sensible.

The winter of 14/15 is not as cold as the previous winter had been. That one had been legendary, even amongst the townsfolk of Sheboygan. It had been phenomenally bitter. Ridiculously cold. Brutal. Lake Michigan was solid with ice, and blue ice at that. Baby glaciers, covering 93% of the lake.

Don’t get me wrong; 14/15 is cold. Very cold, with impressive ice jetties sticking out into the lake along the North Point shoreline, but only 90% of the lake is frozen and it isn’t brutally cold. It has only gone down to -27C.

~~

Here’s how temperature works, now, for me:

0 to -10C: This is not too bad at all. The cold here is a dry cold, so it doesn’t get into your bones the way it does in the UK. It doesn’t really feel that cold.

-10C to -15C: It’s starting to get a bit uncomfortable if you’ve got the wrong coat on, or if there’s a breeze. My knees suffer the most.

-15C to -20C: Your breath freezes in your nose, your lungs hurt if you take a deep breath, and the dryness is evil. Everything becomes static. You can’t touch the cats because you’ll zap them. Your skin starts to dry out and itch.

-20C to -27C and beyond: Dear fucking god get me out of this hellhole. When I said everything becomes static before, I didn’t really mean it. Now, everything, every single thing is static. My silk scarfs stick to the walls. I fear that if I stroke the cats they’ll float upwards and stick to the ceiling. I can’t kiss my husband without getting zapped. I can’t do anything without getting zapped. My skin is starting to fall off, and it’s only great self-restraint that stops me carving it off in chunks because it itches so fucking much. This is miserable fucking cold. Do not go out without a thick coat, scarf, hat and gloves. In fact, just do not go out in this shit. Exposed flesh will begin to freeze within 10 minutes. Do not get yourself locked out. Do not let your car break down. Do not take a walk. You will die.

When Kevin and I started talking about moving to the States, I said that I had conditions: I would not move anywhere where the cause of death might be tornado, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or ‘went outside’. I failed on that last point.

That’s not my joke, btw, I read it on the internet somewhere, though I now have no idea where. But it’s also not actually a joke.

My understanding of cold is now far deeper and broader than it has ever been before.

~~

This winter, I work hard to try to plug up all those pesky gaps around the windows. Last winter, we frequently had sheets of ice covering the secondary glazing (storm windows), especially in the bathroom. It was quite beautiful, really. Jack Frost visited often, drawing his fern leaves in frozen water. Trouble is, that moisture is precious. I want that moisture. I want it in the air. I want it in my skin. So I cover the windows in tertiary glazing, that plastic you stick to the window frame with double-sided tape and shrink with the hairdryer. I can’t do all of the windows, but I do the most important ones. The shitty, cheap double-glazed windows in the dining room get done twice, as in two layers of film, because ice is forming on the room-side of the film.

We buy ‘caulking cord’,which turns out to be long strips of plasticine. We buy foam strips to go under the sashes, where they meet the windowsill. We buy insulating curtains, and we finally put up the red Thai silk curtains that we bought from Restoration Hardware’s outlet store at 90% off. It helps. A bit.

In the depths of winter, we have a humidifier running 24/7. The noise of it drives me crazy, but it helps. A bit. We pump litres and litres and litres of water in to the atmosphere, but this house gets so dry, you’d need two or three of the things to really make a difference, and I’m not sure my psyche could cope with the incessant drone.

This winter is, though, not as cold as last. We’ve been down to -22C once, but mostly we’ve been in the minus single digits, which isn’t bad at all for round here. Ironically, these warmer temperatures lead to more snow. More days of snow fall, and more snow actually falling. But we also enjoy more warm periods, which has meant more snow melting in between the more snow falling. It’s been a bouncy kind of a winter.

~~

It’s mid-March, and I’m packing up to leave my parents’ house in Dorset and return back to Sheboygan.

“Oh, well,” my mum begins. “It’ll be spring by the time you get home!”

I tell my mum that it’s unlikely, and that we had snow in March last year. We did. One flurry after I got back from my apparently-now-yearly March trip home. It’ll snow again, I’m sure, I tell my Mum, and she looks doubtful, but acquiesces.

It has snowed more since I got back than it did in December. It’s April now. It snowed all day yesterday. It snowed the day before. It might snow again tomorrow. There is snow on the ground, right now, as I type. We’ve had ‘lake effect’ snow when we weren’t supposed to get any snow at all, and we’ve seen snow go north of us, and snow go south of us. We’ve been in the snow firing line, and we’ve dodged snow bullets.

I find it fascinating, the snow. It falls, and I watch it, and I have to tear myself away and get back to work, but then I glance up and there it is, mesmerising, spellbinding, hypnotising. As I gaze out of the window, the world is obscured by white static. And yet.. And yet… It’s April. I am ready for the snow to go away. The daffodils are ready for the snow to go away too. And the lilies. The grass. The trees. We’re all ready now for the snow to retreat. It’s been Winter for five months, since the temperature first fell below freezing on 7 November. It has to be time for it to be Spring now.

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The cold is not what makes Midwestern winters hard.

What makes them hard is that they don’t seem to stop.

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“Winter weather advisory. Snow possible at 4:30am.”

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Lucifer charming

It seems I can only be prompted to blog during bouts of strong emotion these days, writing in midst of white hot anger, extreme smug or, in this case, intense over-excitement. Maybe it’s because, after 14 years, the dynamic of blogging has radically changed, moving from the urgent confessional towards a more self-conscious performance. (Or maybe I’m spending too much time on Twitter, which is performative in the same way that theatre must be, with immediate gratification/mortification; blogging is more like a movie or TV show, requiring rather more of our limited stock of patience than perhaps we wish to give.)

Anyway.

Lucifer.

I knew from the moment I saw the first trail for Lucifer that it would be My Sort Of Thing. I didn’t realise for the first couple of episodes that it is loosely based on Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer from The Sandman, but for various reasons which will become eminently clear at some point in the next few weeks, or months, I’ve been a little distracted lately and had not been paying attention. Tsk tsk. Always said I was bad at being a fan.

If you’re a better fan than me, and are familiar with Lucifer from the work of either Gaiman or the wonderful Mike Carey who wrote the spin-off comic, I’d advise that you put that out of your mind right now. Lucifer the TV show takes Lucifer the character, and his backstory, and does something very different, but just as good, with him.

Lucifer (Tom Ellis) has grown bored of Hell, has shut up shop and moved to LA where he’s spent the last five years running a nightclub and charming the pants off anyone who stops moving long enough. When Delilah, a singer whose career Lucifer ‘helped along’ is shot dead, he cannot help but get involved in the hunt for the real killer. Enter Chloe Decker (Lauren German), detective with the LAPD, who is peculiarly immune to Lucifer’s ’superpower’, his ability to extract from people an admission of their deepest, darkest secrets. And so we end up with the unlikely team of Lucifer Morningstar and Detective Chloe Decker, fighting crime on LA’s lawless streets… Except not.

In the same way that it is unhelpful to think of Lucifer as a comic book adaptation, it’s also unhelpful to slot it into the supernatural police procedural genre. It’s not CSI or NCIS or The Bill or New Tricks (yes, yes, I’ve been trawling Hulu for old British TV shows, what of it?) with added Satan. Whilst there is a crime of the week, they’re really just a backdrop, the scenery against which we see a far more interesting narrative play out.

If anything, Lucifer has more in common with Sleepy Hollow than any of the million or so police procedurals that have graced our screens. Like Sleepy Hollow, Lucifer features a character dislocated from his normal reality and is paired with a modern cop who is dealing with their own problems and who also serves to ground not just both characters but also the show.

Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a man out of time who has to not only adapt to an era radically different from his own, he also has to protect himself, Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and their extended family/team from supernatural evil. Lucifer is, well, the Devil, a fallen angel who’s trying to adapt to this messy, weird, very human world that he now inhabits. He’s not supposed to be adapting, he’s not supposed to change at all. He’s supposed to be emotionless and unsentimental but instead he finds himself having these… these feelings… which he can neither explain nor understand but which he yet finds fascinating. Lucifer is a lot less interested in protecting others, even if he does find himself intervening when perhaps he ought not, so the dynamic isn’t entirely parallel to Sleepy Hollow, but the overall structure is similar.

Co-incidentally, both Lucifer and Sleepy Hollow feature a white British male actor called Tom playing the ‘out of time/place’ character. (They also share an executive producer, Len Wiseman.) As a Brit living in the wilds of Wisconsin, perhaps this idea of the dislocated Brit dealing with all the strangeness of a different culture resonates particularly strongly with me. I particularly look forward to the episodes where Lucifer and Crane try to order a glass of water in a restaurant only to find themselves deemed entirely unintelligible. Now there’s a crossover to boggle the mind.

!! (Minor?) SPOILERS !!

As I said, Lucifer is only vaguely a procedural, not least because Mr Morningstar himself isn’t hugely interested in these crimes, unless he’s getting something out of it himself. In the first episode, Pilot, he’s interested in Delilah’s death because he was responsible for her having a music career in the first place. After that, the crimes are, for him, either a mechanism that allows him to get closer to Decker, who intrigues him, or an opportunity to play with his own (im)morality. But by S01E06, Favourite Son, the novelty has worn off and Lucifer walks away from the crime scene because the murder of a security guard and theft of a shipping container is “boring”. It’s only when he finds out that it’s his shipping container that’s been nicked that he engages.

Lucifer’s real interest lies not in solving crimes, but in understanding humans and their emotions, finding out why Decker is immune to his charms and, as the series progresses, understanding what it is to become (more) mortal. Having never had to deal with humans in their natural habitat before, he finds that perhaps they are a bit more complicated than he had been lead to believe, and he the ambiguity is irresistible.

This is, imho, one of the major strengths of the show. Most TV series or movies that tackle human nature head-on suffer from hideous interminability. There is nothing, to borrow Lucifer’s word, more “boring” than a worthy exploration of the human condition. The best way to tackle such introspection in popular culture is obliquely, through the medium of humour. We can take a sneak peak at our humanity through the lens of the Devil, and if we’re smart we can learn something about ourselves as we laugh.

This question of identity is a crucial one to every human who’s awake and paying attention. It’s certainly an important one for me. Having had what one might call a ‘non-standard career’, I can feel some of Lucifer’s pain. Who are we, really? Are we here for a reason, or do we just blunder through life and hope for the best? Does our work shape the person we become? Or does our nature draw us to certain types of work?

Lucifer’s own sense of identity is in crisis. He feels a deep-seated contradiction between his role as the Father of Lies and the fact that he is himself truthful and honourable, for certain definitions of truthful and honourable. His ability to draw the truth out of other people is mirrored by the fact that he never actually lies, though his truths often sound so ludicrous they are ignored. And, as he says, his word is his bond; Lucifer always upholds his end of a bargain. How can he, or we, square this with Satan’s reputation for deceit, manipulation and trickery?

And there are more wrinkles: How can he, or we, ignore the fact that his honour is not a little besmirched by the fact that he tells people that if they want something, they should take it. He might argue that ultimately the people he manipulates make their own decisions, but we can’t ignore the fact that he still encourages transgression.

“So the Devil made you do it, did he?” Lucifer asks Delilah. “The alcohol and the drugs and the topless selfies. The choices are on you, my dear.” But time and again, we see him nudging people towards choices they might not otherwise have taken.

These conflicts, between Lucifer’s conception of himself as truthful and honourable and both his actions and reputation, are at the heart of the sub-plot that explores Lucifer’s damaged relationship with his dad. After all, Lucifer Morningstar was once called Samael and was the favourite son of God, the most beautiful of all the angels. But, being a tad feisty, he rebelled some 3 seconds after the moment of Creation and was cast out of Heaven to become the Lord of Hell. But, as he says, was he made Lord of Hell because he was inherently evil, or is he a good person doing the job his father commanded him to do?

From this springs Lucifer’s second rebellion, his closing up of Hell and relocation to LA. He turns his back on his father, dismissing God’s demand, delivered by the angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside), and the pleas of the demon Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt ) that he return to Hell. And thus we have another story strand, that of Amenadiel’s and Maze’s attempt to persuade Lucifer to resume his duties. In, Pilot, Amenadiel asks what has become of the tortured souls and demons that Lucifer should be looking after? That question, so far, has not been answered. I was half-expecting to see more in the way of supernatural crime as the damned and the demons run riot. I’m actually glad that’s not the case, because Lucifer’s personal journey is far, far more interesting.

Of course, Lucifer isn’t the only person with issues. Decker has a broken marriage and is ostracised at work for daring to think that perhaps a fellow cop, now deceased, wasn’t squeaky clean. “Palmetto Street” keeps coming up as a major turning point for her, and an unresolved issue she can’t keep from revisiting.

One of the things I really love about Lucifer is that Decker’s relationship with her ex-husband, Dan, isn’t black and white. Whilst Lucifer himself refers to him as “Detective Douche”, and it’s easy to agree with that summation in early episodes during which Dan is at risk of being a cartoon of a character, by Favourite Son, he’s beginning to be a real, fleshed-out person. He doesn’t just have feelings, he has complexity, he has virtues and vulnerabilities, and he’s likeable. Maybe Chloe and Dan’s relationship is actually meant to be, maybe it’s worth saving.

This kind of character arc is not an uncommon one, but in Lucifer it’s essential. How tedious would it be if Detective Douche was actually a douche, if Lucifer really was the best man in Decker’s life? Not only would that be trite, it would be a disaster for Decker. Lucifer describes himself as “like walking heroin: very habit forming. It never ends well.” And you know that if Decker got involved with Lucifer it would indeed end badly, and she’s far too good of a person for that.

So often, buddy set-ups are predicated on romantic love between the leads, or some kinda of platonic bro-love if it’s two men. (When the leads are two women, it’s usually hatred morphing into basic platonic friendship, cf The Heat, because heaven forfend two women have any kind of love for each other.) And whilst Lucifer is desperate to provoke an amorous response from Decker, she is entirely disinterested in him, which makes their relationship both more credible and more satisfying. Instead, the romantic focus is on the estranged husband and wife, and it’s done with nuance and complexity, things of which I am a huge fan.

Lauren German is fantastic as Decker, with that perfect mix of suspicion and level-headedness that makes the whole show work. Without German, Lucifer would feel like nothing more than a vehicle for Ellis’s very obvious charms, but she brings an everywoman vibe to her performance that allows us to relate to her. Decker got where she is by being tough and determined, and not taking any shit from anyone, lease of all some weird bloke who says he’s the Devil. She is exactly the person that Lucifer needs, and German does her brilliantly. I love her to bits.

Tom Ellis is equally well cast. He has the insouciance, the accent, the eyebrows for the job, and his interpretation of Lucifer as the bastard child of “Noel Coward and Mick Jagger” is perfect. Of course Lucifer’s going to be cocky — he can’t be killed because he’s immortal. Of course he’s going to have swagger — women are irresistibly drawn to him (as might also be some men, as we find out in one scene). But where Ellis really excels is in portraying uncertainty, those moments when Lucifer really isn’t sure what the fuck is going on, and doesn’t quite know what is happening to him. It would be easy to overdo Lucifer, but Ellis is at his best when he’s reining it in, those moments of barely controlled rage, or the intense perplexity when Decker doesn’t behave the way he’s expecting.

If you haven’t seen Lucifer, then I recommend binge-watching as soon as you feasibly can. Watching the episodes back to back is hugely satisfying, not least because each episode is fresh in your mind so you pick up on the smaller details that you might miss if you waited a week in-between. And, of course, if you haven’t seen Sleepy Hollow yet, you seriously need to binge on that, too. All of it. Right now.

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Restoring a plaster frame

by Suw on January 19, 2016

Back in 2011, I bought a plaster mirror off eBay for £26. It was badly packed by the seller, however, and arrive with several cracks and chips. I was gutted, but kept it anyway. In 2013, it got shipped over to the US, during which process our moving company broke it even further. When I looked at it, I wasn’t really sure it could ever be saved: Too many chunks and chips broken off, and five major fractures. I kept it anyway, just in case.

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Last August, I decided to see what I could do to save it. All I had to do was glue it all back together, fill the holes and paint it, right?

I read around about what sort of glue to use, and one recommendation was Fabri-Tac, a fabric glue, which dries relatively quickly but stays workable for long enough to allow positioning. It also works well with plaster, forming a thin layer which doesn’t make the joint thicker than it should be. Gluing all the little bits and chips back was actually a lot of fun, a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. 

So that would work for gluing on the bits that had broken off, but there were five fractures that would need a little bit more strength than I thought Fabri-Tac could provide. However, there’s also a metal hoop that is set into the plaster, so I couldn’t move the broken sections apart to get the glue in between them. The only thing I could think of was using a fast-drying (5-minute) epoxy to glue a metal bars to the back to act as a brace, and if I could, dribble some Fabri-Tac down the fracture to provide extra strength. 

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Once everything was put back together, barring the few chips in the middle of the above photo that I couldn’t find the home for, it was time to fill in the cracks and gaps. At first I thought it would be easiest to use filler, or what Americans call spackle, but it turned out to be a major error – whilst the filler went on easily, it dried soft, not hard. Turned out to be a vinyl filler that was entirely not suitable for this project. Instead, I bought proper plaster of paris, which will dry hard. 

Now, plaster of paris is a really squirly material to work with, and it took me ages to figure out how best to use it. Mixing it thick and then trying to smear it on like filler totally did not work as it didn’t even begin to adhere to the bare plaster. Instead, I mixed it really thin, and then painted it on in layers using a small brush. It thickens very quickly, though, but a little extra water in the mix keeps it workable. You do have to clean the brush off regularly though, otherwise you end up with a stick with a blob of plaster on the end. 

Eventually, I got everything filled, and then I sanded it down with fine sandpaper. 

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Next, it was time to paint. This is where my impatience really got the better of me. Instead of doing research, I just bought a couple of ‘metallic gold’ acrylic paints, picked a shade I liked and got to painting.

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The result was plasticky, to say the least. Although it looked half-decent when not in direct light, the colour deepened by the shadows, in bright sunlight it looked awful.

I had bought some gold-coloured metallic powder for another project, so thought I’d mix some of that into some clear acrylic gloss varnish to get a richer finish. It was… ok. I tried again, but added some burnt sienna to give it a slightly darker colour, and see if that worked better. It sort of did, but it still looked more like plastic than gold leaf. It was tolerable, I guess, but not really what I wanted. 

After a break, due to Christmas and the like, I decided this weekend to have a go at antiquing it, to see if that would save it. Mixing burnt sienna with burnt umber in a 1:2 ratio gave a nice, reddish-brown colour, which I painted into the recesses with a small paintbrush, then took most of it off again with a stiff-bristled brush, and wiped the excess off the highlight areas with a cloth. That made a huge difference, giving the frame much more depth. 

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In the top photos, the top part of the frame has been antiqued, and in the bottom photo, the bottom part has been done.

The antiquing certainly helped, but it still wasn’t quite right. Luckily, for Christmas I was given some Liquid Leaf, which gets the best reviews for of any of the metallic paints. Whist it doesn’t give a finish as smooth as real leaf, it does do a good job. I decided to add that to the highlights. Finally, that gave a finish I was happy with.

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And once the mirror was in and it was hung on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, Grabbity could sit on the newel post to admire herself:

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The finish is quite a bit lighter in tone than the original, but I prefer that. Overall, I’m really pleased about how it came out, though in retrospect I’d do things a bit differently with the painting. What I should have done was:

  1. Seal the bare plaster with an acrylic sealant.
  2. Paint the whole thing with Liquid Leaf.
  3. Seal with gloss acrylic sealant (I haven’t been able to seal this frame, because of the order I did it all in, so the Liquid Leaf may tarnish over time)
  4. Antique with the acrylic burnt sienna/umber mix, but water it down a bit and make sure not to get it on the highlights. If necessary, do it in layers rather than try to do it all at once. (Also, mix enough for the whole frame, otherwise you might have issues matching the colour.)

That said, I have a totally different plan for my next mirror, which is much smaller, but needs just as much love.

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Journalist Simon Ricketts wrote an excellent piece about Labour in which he argues that because there’s no real way that Labour can win the next election, they need to get a hold of the narrative and own it. They need to actually move the debate to the left, to be seen to stand up for what’s right, rather than trying to find out what would make them ‘electable’. They need to find some spine and create an opposition party that’s actually in opposition to the Tories.

They should fight, they should stand up, they should campaign and they should vote against. For the people who need them.

For the people who didn’t vote for austerity – and it’s worth remembering that is the majority of the country – they need to grab their bloody rifles, wrap their paws around the triggers and FIRE.

The only way you move the Overton window is to get outside of it and PULL. You need people who aren’t concerned about how their haircut “plays” in the eyes of the electorate, or whether they should put the words “reach out” or “going forward” in their latest dribble-filled speech.

You need brave people. Unselfish people. Ready to stand outside, prepared to be mocked. Passionate, committed and determined. I don’t see that in many of our politicians.

Last night, I heard a lettuce-fuelled Labour leadership hopeful tell a TV reporter that he is re-evaluating the ‘core values’ in the eyes of the electorate, as if by merely saying those words with his mouth, then the answer will turn up in a taxi.

Let me tell you the core values, sunshine. They are to stand up to inequality, punch hard for those who cannot, and REFUSE to be bowed in the face of battle. Save yourself the money you were going to spend on shiny leaflets. You won’t need them. Just stand up, charge forward and bloody fight.

It’s well worth reading the whole post.

When I first read it, I wasn’t really sure that Labour was actually dead. Wounded certainly, but actually dead? The next election’s five years away, surely they weren’t so mortally wounded that they couldn’t recover?

And then I read about the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, a bill that Labour should have been in vocal opposition to. But instead, they put up a pathetic amendment, and then put their MPs under a whip to abstain instead of vote against. If they had voted against, the amendment would have failed, and about 48 Labour MPs voted with their conscience and did in fact vote against.

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, in case you haven’t read about it, “slashes tax credits, cuts the benefit cap by £6,000 and takes up to £30 a week from sick and disabled jobseekers”. It is a regressive bit of legislation, punishing the poor and the disabled even more than they currently are under Tory policy.

Why on earth would Labour want to abstain? Why does Harriet Harman support this sort of legislation? It’s just baffling. Utterly baffling. How is this supposed to appeal to people on the left, who believe in the welfare state, in the NHS, in social mobility, in equality?

(UPDATE: Some folks on Twitter have pointed out that it’s all a bit more complicated than that, and fair enough it probably is, but the thing is that people believe Labour should have voted against, not abstained, and so the harm is done regardless. If there was a good reason to abstain, Labour didn’t communicate it well enough.)

But is one bad vote, by itself, enough to ensure that Labour are dead? Probably not. But things get worse for Labour.

Before the election, I think a lot of people on the left assumed that UKIP would split the Tory vote in England, giving an advantage to Labour. But that’s not what happened. Instead, UKIP stole Labour voters in England, way more than Labour anticipated:

Analysis of the results by The Independent shows that Ukip won more votes than the size of the Conservative majority in nine seats the Tories gained from Labour. They included Morley and Outwood, where the former shadow Chancellor Ed Balls suffered a shock defeat by 442 votes after the third-placed Ukip candidate won 7,951 votes. Although not all of these Ukip voters would have switched from Labour, defections from Labour could have tipped the balance in the Tories’ favour.

The pattern was repeated as the Tories gained Labour-held Bolton West, Corby, Derby North, Gower, Plymouth Moor View, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Vale of Clwyd. In 48 seats retained by the Tories, their majority over Labour was lower than the number of votes won by Ukip.

That’s bad. Who would have thought that UKIP’s ridiculous, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic platform would have appealed to Labour voters? You can answer that question yourself.

But that’s not even the worst of it. A study out this week shows that the reason that the polls were so different to the final result was not the fabled ‘shy Tory’, too ashamed of their Conservative ethos to tell a pollster. Oh no. The Tories voted the way the Tories said they would vote. The huge difference was down to Labour supporters who said they would vote Labour, but didn’t bother to vote at all.

The pre-election polls for the 2015 UK General Election missed the final result by a considerable margin: underestimating the Conservative Party and overestimating Labour. We analyse evidence for five theories of why the polls missed using data from the British Election Study. We find no evidence for Shy Tories, late swing or systematically different preferences among “don’t knows”. We find strong evidence that respondents overstated their likelihood of voting and their actual turnout after the election and that these respondents systematically lean towards Labour. This differential turnout can be predicted above and beyond respondents’ self-reported likelihood of voting using demographic variables and past behaviour. We also find evidence that samples are likely to underrepresent some groups in the population and that current weighting schemes may not be adequately correcting for this. In particular, we find that the oldest respondents in our sample are greatly underrepresented.

The media, rather cruelly, called them “lazy”, but I suspect what we’re talking about is a swath of disillusioned voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Tory Lite, and I can quite understand their position. Calling them lazy is a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card for Labour, though, because it means Labour can tell themselves that they don’t have to bother with these terrible, indolent lefties, and thus will never ask why those people felt unwilling to vote for them. Tip: It’s not laziness.

So what have we got here? Well, the three shots to Labour’s foot that have resulted in fatal blood loss:

  1. The Labour party elite have lost the plot and are no longer representing the progressive electorate (and haven’t for some considerable time now)
  2. Labour voters defecting to UKIP
  3. Labour voters feeling unable to actually vote Labour

I don’t see how Labour can come back from this at all, so what’s the point in considering “electability” when choosing the new Labour leader? Why toss Corbyn out because you think he doesn’t play well on TV? Which of the other leaders sound even remotely committed to a progressive agenda?

Simon Ricketts has Labour bang to rights. They are dead already, and they’re dead three times. So don’t bother wringing your hands over the next election. Instead, we need to remake the left in the UK, to get back to proper progressive politics and, sadly, that means Labour needs to just fuck off and die, and let the real left take over.

Note: I joined the Labour party after the defeat, and now I’m wondering why I bothered.

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There has been, and will continue to be, a lot written about the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman by HarperCollins over the months since the announcement of its discovery. There are many questions remaining over how and when it was discovered, and over the decision to publish it, but right now the focus is on the book itself.

I’ve read a few reviews and the comments under them, and if there’s a theme that jumps out at me, it’s confusion around how Lee could have turned Atticus Finch from being a fair, just, upstanding man to an old racist in this book set 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Finch we know is defined by his commitment to racial equality and justice, and yet here he is in Watchman, an almost completely different character.

I have seen people trying to rationalise this away, talking about how people change over 20 years, or how Scout was a child in Mockingbird but an adult in Watchman and thus seeing things without the rose-tinted glasses of childhood innocence. But these attempts to impose coherence are missing a vital piece of context:

Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.

Go Set A Watchman is not even Harper Lee’s “second book”.

Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, a draft she extensively revised and changed. We cannot look at Watchman as any kind of continuation of Mockingbird, we cannot expect the two books to share a coherent world view or think of the characters as the same people who’ve ‘changed’ between books, because Watchman is not a deliberately planned out sequel to Mockingbird at all. It is not set in the same universe, but an earlier, related one.

Watchman is like an ancestor of Mockingbird, sharing much of its genetic material with the bestseller – you can see examples of passages that Lee decided were good enough to make it into the new draft in this Quartz analysis. But Watchman is no more a sequel than my father is my son.

HarperCollins very carefully does not use the word “sequel” in it’s publicity. As Neil Gaiman said on Twitter:

But the HarperCollins press release muddies the waters hugely about what this book is, calling it “a newly discovered novel”, and implying – but not saying – that it’s an entirely new book and a sequel:

“My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout” –  quote from Harper Lee.

“Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.”

“I, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that Harper Lee had written another book.” – quote from Michael Morrison, President and Publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada.

“Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel…” – quote from onathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Harper.

One would be forgiven for believing that this was a different novel, a sequel, something that Harper Lee had worked on as a separate enterprise to Mockingbird. But it isn’t. To repeat: Watchman is the first draft of Mockingbird.

This first draft was written through 1956-57, after Lee was given the financial support to allow her to take a year off to write. The first 49 pages were given to agent Annie Laurie Williams on 14 January 1957, and she had the complete draft by 27 February 1957.

Williams and her husband and business partner Maurice Crain thought that Lee’s draft was interesting but needed work. Crain worked with Lee to revise the draft, and it was sent to publishers J.B. Lippincott. They liked it, but again felt it needed further revisions. From the Washington Post, we hear from Tay Hohoff, “eventual editor of the book”:

“First of all, the element in the original manuscript which was unmistakable: it was alive, the characters stood on their own two feet, they were three-dimensional,” Hohoff wrote. “And the spark of the true writer flashed in every line. Though Miss Lee had then never published even an essay or a short story, this was clearly not the work of an amateur.”

That said, noted Hohoff, who died in 1974, the effort was very, very flawed.

“The manuscript we saw was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The editorial call to duty was plain. She needed, at last, professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.”

The upshot?

Lippincott did not offer to buy the manuscript. The editors sent Lee home to make revisions. They hoped she might come back.

It took two years of hard work revising the book closely with Hohoff for Lee to produce Mockingbird. Lippincott accepted the manuscript on 10 November 1959.

Harper Lee wrote no further novels. In fact, over the decades since Mockingbird was published, Lee chose not to rework into a sequel the bits of the first draft that didn’t make it into the final version, despite the fact that there would have been a huge appetite for it. It might be tempting to say that this was because the first draft was lost, but it certainly wasn’t lost in 1959 and had she wanted to write a sequel, she easily could have in subsequent years. Lee cannot have been ignorant of the commercial opportunity afforded by her success, but she decided that she preferred her privacy to the lunacy that would undoubtedly result from publishing a second book.

Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Lee has not revised Watchman. There have been some questions as to her cognitive capabilities, and the NY Times wrote:

Ms. Lee — known to many as Nelle, her legal first name — had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations if visitors yell in her ear or write questions down for her to read under a special machine.

It does not seem likely, therefore, that she was able to read the manuscript and give it the kind of hard edit that every single first draft in the world needs in order to turn it into a viable novel, let alone a sequel to Mockingbird. If she had, at some point, decided to revise what was left of Watchman into a true sequel, we could reasonably have expected it to be as different from that first draft as Mockingbird is, not least because she would have taken into account all those changes she made back in the late 1950s.

Watchman has some value as a literary artefact, as a window into Lee’s early thinking behind what eventually became Mockingbird, and as a testament to her tenacious reworking of her first draft. But it is unfair to Lee to publish it as if it were a finished novel, or to in any way represent it as her second novel or as a sequel.

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The stealth feminism of San Andreas

by Suw on July 11, 2015

Kevin and I went to see San Andreas last Sunday, a film that I nearly missed because I was in the UK whilst it was running at our local cinema, but which I was so eager to see that I made Kevin drive for an hour so we could catch the closest showing we could find.

As a lapsed geologist, I love anything even remotely geological, and particularly if it involves geophysical hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, or tsunamis. San Andreas thankfully only has two of those and, although I knew its pudding was over-egged, I was still really looking forward to seeing just how scientifically silly it was. I’d read the geological reviews, and was expecting it to be incredibly silly indeed.

I was not disappointed. The majority of the plot, from a scientific standpoint, is ridiculous, although there are a few points which are either plausible or spot on.

SPOILER ALERT. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU DO NOT LIKE SPOILERS, BECAUSE THIS HAS ALL THE SPOILERS IN THE WORLD FOR SAN ANDREAS, AND SOME FOR MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.

I’m not going to get in to a long description of what’s realistic and what’s not, as otherwise we’ll be here all day and others have done it better than I could. Suffice it to say that a Nevada quake could trigger a rupture on the San Andreas fault, but not at that magnitude. The constant aftershocks are a good representation of reality, but the collapsing skyscrapers are not. The advice to ‘drop, cover, and hold on’ is indeed what you should do in an earthquake: Get to the floor, get under something solid, maybe a desk or table, and hold on to it. And whilst drawback is a good way to spot that you’re in deep tsunami schtum, the San Andreas fault cannot produce a tsunami because the two sides are sliding past each other horizontally, not vertically as in a subduction zone. Oh, and in real life, if you’re dead for five minutes after drowning without receiving expert medical care, you’re probably just dead full stop.

The scientific accuracy of the movie was about what I was expecting. What really surprised me was the stealth feminism and the strong parallels with Mad Max: Fury Road.

Yes, you read that right. Feminism. In a movie featuring The Rock. I’m not kidding.

Now the first thing that I want to say is that I entirely disagree with the premise that only women can make feminist art, or that the only feminist art worth making is perfectly feminist art. A movie does not have to be perfect to be good, it does not have to score 100 percent on some feminist purism scale to be worthy of note. So before anyone argues that there’s something unfeminist in the movie which entirely negates my argument, let’s just lay it out: I’m not arguing that this is a perfect feminist movie, I’m saying that it has some laudable feminist aspects which I would like to see a lot more of in other movies (and books and TV and and and).

Right, I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.

The first item of note in San Andreas is that it is in many ways a predictable action hero movie. It involves Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson staring as Ray, a big manly man with big manly muscles and a big manly career rescuing poor young ladies who’ve ended up stuck in their car after a landslide (and their own lack of attention — tsk, lady drivers) runs them off the road. The main plot of the movie concerns how Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue pilot, flies his chopper through the disintegrating skyscrapers of LA to rescue his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma, (who has left him for a one percenter architect, Daniel), and then continues on to San Francisco to rescue their daughter, Blake.

Ray is rather uncomplicated, one-dimensional character, played perfectly by Johnson whom the uncharitable might say specialises in uncomplicated, one-dimensional characters. Ray is a stereotype, and he cleaves to all the action hero tropes: He is big and brave. He has trouble expressing his emotions and loses his wife because of his inability to open up. He rescues people. He redeems the failure in his past, in this case the inability to save his daughter Mallory from drowning by, surprise surprise, saving his daughter Blake from drowning.

And, of course, he heals the rift between himself and his wife, winning back her love through the expediency of having a handy catastrophe of monumental proportions to help him work through his feelings. Never mind the several million people who die, the key thing is that Ray and Emma rekindle their love. So far so tropey.

But what about Emma? Well, we don’t get to see much of Emma. We know that she’s got a pretty shoddy taste in men as you suspect that Daniel, the rich architect dude, is a wanker from the off, and it doesn’t take long for him to confirm that not only is he a wanker, he’s a murderous wanker when his own life is at stake. Where Ray is one dimensional, Daniel is merely a MacGuffin, and the way is clear for him to get knocked off so that Emma can go back to Ray without any emotional complications.

How much more interesting and emotional would it have been for Daniel to have turned out to actually be a lovely, honourable chap, for Emma to have to choose not between dead wanker and live hero, but live hero and live hero? That’s probably a bridge too far for an action movie, but still.

We see that Emma’s good at following instructions, and she certainly manages to go up when everyone else is going down, but apart from that she doesn’t really do very much. However, she doesn’t scream unnecessarily, isn’t ditzy or stupid, appears to hold her own in terms of bravery, so she gets ten out of ten for defying usual action movie wife tropes, but she’s given very little to actually do. She just gets rescued, travels with Ray to San Francisco, and pilots a boat a bit at the end, but other than that, nada really.

So rather like Mad Max: Fury Road is just a very long car chase with a brief lull in the middle, San Andreas is a very long road trip, except it’s mostly by air. And rather like Max, Ray’s story is so simple it almost doesn’t exist. Max helps Furiosa save the Wives, but he is almost always the adjunct, having a grand total of one novel idea —‘Let’s turn round and go back again’ — throughout the entire movie. Ray manages to be a bit more useful, he saves five people throughout the entire movie, but he spends most of his time getting from A to B and dealing with all these sudden feelings he’s having. But his actions do not drive the story forward. He is a reactive character, who spends most of his time dealing with things that are happening to him, making few decisions and none that are surprising.

On the other hand Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake, gets an awful lot to do. More than any other single character in the movie, it’s Blake who has to think on her feet, come up with ingenious solutions, defy (absent) authority, and put her extensive knowledge of emergency preparedness to the test. And she does this whilst assisting and protecting two male characters, newbie architect Ben and his little brother Ollie.

Blake is incredibly interesting. At the beginning of the movie, it rather seems as if she’s the usual sort of young women that we see in action flicks: She’s sitting by a pool, chatting to her dad on the phone, getting him to do something for her. She’s uncomfortable with her mum’s choice of new boyfriend, but feels some degree of loyalty to her mum and acquiesces to Daniel’s offer to take her up to San Francisco on his private jet.

When the earthquake hits, she and Daniel are in their chauffeur-driven car in the underground garage of his offices when a chunk of masonry kills said chauffeur and trips her legs, so she cannot get out of the car. At this point, I thought we were going to go full stereotype and we’d have screaming woman and slimy Daniel would save her and then we’d watch their flight through the disaster, but no, he’s more interested in saving himself, leaving her there to be Female Helpless Victim.

And sure enough Ben turns up to save her, with his younger brother Ollie in tow. Unable to shift the concrete by hand, Ben uses the car’s jack to lift it up a bit, then lets down the car’s tyres to give Blake just enough room to extricate herself. Nice bit of lateral thinking there, but so far, again, so tropey.

But Blake, it turns out, is not just a capable young women, she is intelligent, resourceful, determined, brave, and well-informed. She’s paid attention to Ray over the years, and knows what to do in an emergency and how to do it. It is Blake, not Ben, who leads the trio ultimately to safety (via her own death, but I’ll come to that later). It is Blake who makes the decisions, and Ben and Ollie who either provide information or support to her. Indeed, when Ben is vacillating over whether to follow her instructions, it is Ollie who says, (paraphrasing), “But Blake’s the one who knows what she’s doing, and she’s saved our arses already, so without her we’re toast.”

Indeed, Blake, Ben and Ollie work well together as a team, with Blake as the clear leader. Blake is the one who knows they need to find a landline to call her parents. Ollie’s the one with the map who directs them to the nearest electronics shop, but Blake’s the one who cobbles together a handset and makes it work.

Although Blake takes Ray’s instructions on where to meet, when Coit Tower turns out to be inaccessible, she’s the one who decides where to go next: to higher ground and Ollie, again, is the one with the map but Blake is the one who knows, when they see an abandoned fire truck that there might be useful supplies. She knows which channel to tune the radio set to.

When Ben is struck by flying glass, Blake shows no squeamishness at all in removing the glass from his leg. There’s no squealing, crying, shouting, screaming or fainting. She does what needs to be done. And when they hear the tsunami warning, she is the one who knows to get up as high as possible, and when they think they’re high enough, she’s the one who gives commands to find water and supplies. She is calm, collected, rational, knowledgeable and very much in command.

Yet there’s no arguments from Ben and Ollie about Blake’s leadership position, other than Ben’s one moment of doubt which is quickly and effectively countered by his younger brother. There’s no stroppiness about being told what to do by a woman, no snark, no sarcasm, no disobedience, no backstabbing, no self-interest. They just get on with it, each doing their best to help each other survive, working together as a team in which each brings their strengths and each can rely on the other.

That depiction of teamwork alone is unusual in a disaster movie. So often we’re given teams in conflict, where one person is working against the others because they are selfish, stupid, greedy or venal. But in San Andreas, everyone except Daniel is likeable, and Daniel is the cartoon sacrificial jerk who has to die. Everyone else gets on with doing what they think they need to do not just to survive, but to save each other.

Mad Max: Fury Road was really Furiosa’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she realises that someone else might do it better.

San Andreas is really Blake’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she’s either physically pinioned inside a car or dead. She makes the decisions; she shows the initiative; and she is the knowledgeable one, the leader.

And, interestingly, Blake takes on this role without surrendering her femininity or character. Furiosa, and similar characters like Aliens’ Ripley, are portrayed as having had to become harder, harsher, colder less empathic, in order to survive. They sacrificed their femininity on the altar of survival and that sacrifice was made off screen, before we even meet them.

Blake, on the other hand, starts the movie as a typical young woman and whilst by the end of the movie she’s been through a lot, what she hasn’t done is shed her femininity as if it were a skin to be sloughed to reveal the ‘real’, more masculine Blake underneath. She’s clearly still herself, clearly still has all the emotional capacities that she had when she started. She hasn’t had to harden, to close off her emotions or reject her humanity, even though she’s seen death and disaster up close.

One area where the script does fail us is in the insistence that Blake has to die in order for Ray to redeem himself. Simply saving her from certain death is not enough, she has to actually die in order for Ray to forgive himself for the death of Mallory, whom we’re told no one could have saved. This is not on. Using the suffering and death of woman as a mechanism to redeem a man reduces that woman to a convenient object. In doing that, San Andreas fails its audience, Blake and Ray himself, who is shown as incapable of dealing with his feelings and making peace with his past without the actual death of his daughter. That’s ugly, no matter which way you cut it.

Blake is, for my money, the most important character in San Andreas from both cultural and feminist points of view. Blake shows us that women can be smart, knowledgable leaders without being ball-breaking bitches. Indeed, they can be strong leaders and be kind, compassionate and caring at the same time. Blake shows us that women can give orders to men without those men breaking down in to faux-masculine outrage, and that women can work hand-in-hand with men to ensure everyone’s success and survival.

Ben, of course, has a part to play in this construction too. He is clearly also smart, resourceful and brave. He has to be, in order to be worthy of Blake’s love. But his reactions to to Blake’s leadership are intelligent and respectful, and they allow Blake to do what she does best.

Interestingly, Ben is British. I wonder if Hollywood thought that a woman telling an American man what to do was too outré for their audience to tolerate, but that British men are far too wimpy for anyone to complain? Well, I’m actually rather proud of the idea that British men are more capable of working closely and successfully with women leaders. I don’t know if that idea reflects reality, mind you, but I think it’s something good to aspire to.

But Blake is important not just because of what she represents, but because of who is most likely to go and see San Andreas. There’s no doubt that action hero movies are written to appeal to men, and sure enough, there were a lot of men in the cinema when we went to see it. And whilst it is incredibly important that girls women see on screen female characters that they can relate to and admire, it is also important that boys and men see smart, resourceful female leaders being treated with respect. And it’s even better if that role model is slipped under their nose almost without them noticing, without engendering a Fury Road-like backlash, so that it’s just normal, unremarkable, like Furiosa’s disability was.

San Andreas is only one film, and it’s far from being a perfect film, but it’s a good, solid step towards normalising the idea that women can be strong, compassionate and successful leaders. More please.

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Amazon has changed the way that it pays authors for books that readers borrow via Kindle Unlimited from a per book payment to a per page read payment. This has, obviously, caused uproar, which I’ve mostly ignored because I still loathe Amazon, am no longer self-publishing (though still writing), and don’t have a snail in the race. 

However, people’s differing interpretations of what a per-page model will reward have been quite interesting, in that they’ve shown up one of publishing’s biggest blind spots: Quality. 

Hugh Howey says that the new system will reward good books

In fact, I think most people analyzing KU and the length of works to offer are getting it wrong. KU does not reward longer works: It rewards good works. It rewards gripping works.

In fact, KU will not reward good books, but books which are “finishable”, and some of those finishable books may be gripping, but being gripping is not a prerequisite for finishability. 

Finishability is a concept that Michael Bhaskar, Chris McCrudden and I came up with during a Twitter conversation a while back. It means exactly what it sounds like it means: That quality of a book that keeps you reading, sometimes despite your better instincts. 

Some books are delightfully finishable. You just sail through them like a skiff on friendly waves, barely aware of the act of reading. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker or Tigerman, for example. You feel almost bereft when you finish them. 

Some books are finishable with a little effort: Harry Potter 4, which really needed to be half the length and put me off the rest of the series. 

Some books you finish because although they are terribly written, they are still somehow compelling. Flood by Richard Doyle is one of the most appallingly written books I’ve ever read, but it’s a firm favourite of mine. There’s no craft there at all, no skill or finesse, yet the book is a page turner, and it’s a fun read because of the plot. 

Some books you need to be bloody minded to finish. They’re awful. Really terribly awful. No craft, no plot, no joy at all, but you keep going because goddammit you are going to finish it because your paid good money for it. Harry Turtledove’s Supervolcano: Eruption is the perfect example. Only stubbornness kept me going through this turgid heap of shit.  

Then there are the unfinishable books, the ones that life’s just too short for. The Casual Vacancy, for example. A book where I could not have cared less about the characters, and where I rapidly realised that I was resenting the time it was stealing from me. 

So a finishable book is not necessarily a good book. There’s no linear relationship between quality and finishability. A shitty book can be very finishable. And some books are finishable not because of any inherent qualities at all, but because they have become a cultural touchstone which peer pressure demands that you finish. Whatever all the reverse-snobbery types say, 50 Shades is a truly shitty set of books, and their massive popularity has little to do with quality and much more to do with people not wanting to be the only one who hasn’t read them. 

Which brings me to another point: Rarely does finishability have anything to do with popularity. Only for aberrations like 50 Shades does popularity force finishability, and it’s important to recognise that 50 Shades is an aberration, in every possible way. It is not how publishing usually works, so it teaches us nothing other than that aberrations happen. 

So what actually is finishability? I’m going to borrow a concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a book that many see as a productivity, bible although personally I didn’t manage to finish it. Allen talks about ‘open loops’, which he defines as: 

anything pulling at your attention that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.

So open loops are things like tasks that you know you need to do but haven’t written down or done yet. Open loops lodge in the mind like a pip between teeth. They irritate. They draw your attention. They demand to be resolved. They cause procrastination. 

GTD deals with this by getting you to write everything down so that your open loops are saved somewhere and you can put them out of your mind and focus on what you’re supposed to be doing. And it works. It’s why I keep comprehensive lists, and it’s also why tools like Omnifocus, for me, become the place where my To Do items go to die. If I write it down, I might discover that it’s not worth doing. 

How does this relate to finishability? A finishable book is one that sets up open loops which your mind demands that you close. These might be big, meaty questions: Does she survive? Do they get it together? Who is the mysterious stranger? Does the island get blown up at the end? Sometimes they might be subtler: How does this peculiar relationship play out? Is this person really who they appear to be? How reliable is our narrator? 

You can’t put the book down because you need to have your questions answered, and as soon as possible please. You need to know what happens. You have. To. Know. You cannot go through life not knowing. 

This is why books that end without answering the key questions that they’ve set up are so fundamentally irritating. You are robbed of the opportunity to close that damn loop, get rid of that mental pip that lodged in your brain. And worse, you know that you’ll never be given the answers (unless they come in a sequel). 

An authors ability to set up compelling questions in the reader’s mind has no relationship to how good they are as a writer. People love Dan Brown not because of the grace of his prose, but because he knows how to pace the opening and closing of loops. You have a constant flow: Each new open loop provides a reason to keep reading, each closing loop gives you a jolt of satisfaction at a “task” completed. 

Amazon’s new pay-per-page regime will not reward long or short books, or good books, or well written books. It will reward finishable books, and particularly easily finishable book. 

The thing that worries me is that not every book that is worth finishing is easy to finish. 

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With great power comes great responsibility.

Whilst we mostly associate these words with Spider-Man, the notion that power is necessarily bound to responsibility goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it is no less true today.

A less well-known quote, spoken by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is also true:

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.

Taken together, these quotes tell us that if you are in a position of influence, you have a responsibility to choose your words carefully, because words themselves have great power.

And this is why I’m so fundamentally disappointed by those in British academia who are coming to Sir Tim Hunt’s defence without considering either the responsibilities inherent in their positions of influence, or how his and their words can damage others.

Much has been written about Sir Tim’s comments about women in Korea, and if you’re unfamiliar with the story then Google is your friend at this point. There is a lot of debate about whether Sir Tim’s comments were meant as a joke, and thus whether they carry as much weight as if they were made seriously.

But the “just a joke” excuse is problematic in and of itself: When we tell people that they shouldn’t be offended by offensive words, we’re both normalising the offensive opinions contained in the “joke”, and belittling the people harmed by the promulgation of those opinions.

For the record, I don’t believe that this was either a joke or a mistake. According to those who were there, such as Deborah Blum or Connie St Louis, his was not some off-the-cuff comment. St Louis tells us (2:21:29, available until around 8 July) that he was told “not to go down this ‘Ha, ha’ route” before he made his comments, and that he talked for “five to seven minutes”, rather than just making a single aside. Blum tells us that she and others challenged him the next day. And this was, as far as I can tell, before his ill-advised comments to the Today programme.

However, whether or not Sir Tim was joking is ultimately irrelevant. He should never have spoken those words in the first place. As a Nobel Laureate, a professor and a Knight of the British Empire, Sir Tim definitely has power, influence and authority. He therefore has a responsibility to think very carefully about the words he uses in his public and professional lives.

People in Sir Tim’s position have an obligation to use their power to help, support and inspire others, not to denigrate a group of people — in this case, women — who are already at a disadvantage. Sir Tim failed in that obligation. He did not take his responsibilities seriously. Instead, he abused his position of power and has either refused to or been incapable of understanding the impact his words have had, or how he is supporting the institutional sexism rife in academia, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).

Even when his failure was pointed out to him, instead of reflecting on what he’d said, he doubled down and, as far as I am aware, is yet to produce a full and proper apology.

And worse, we’ve now seen a raft of people, men and women alike, in positions of significant influence and power in academia and public life have come out to defend Sir Tim and in the process belittle the concerns that women, and many men, have about sexism in science.

Ottoline Leyser and Dame Athene Donald, both senior figures at Cambridge University, supported Sir Tim in The Times, in a paywalled article that cannot be widely read.

UPDATE 22 June: The letter below is actually from Lord Winston, not Leyser & Dame Athene, so apologies for the misattribution.

Their Lord Winston’s letter begins (my bold):

Sir, Whether or not University College London pressurised Sir Tim Hunt to resign after his remarks about women in laboratories, it acted utterly wrongly. A quiet phone call followed by a gentle face-to-face conversation with the Provost should have decided a joint statement on this trivial matter.

Apart from being a brilliant scientist with a Nobel Prize for his outstanding work, Professor Hunt is a gentle, unassuming and warm individual. Indeed, he is a scientific role model not only because of his lack of arrogance but also for his concern to support more women in science.

Sir Tim Times letter

I find it frustrating that they Lord Winston would decide to characterise Sir Tim’s comments as a “trivial matter”. Discrimination is never a trivial matter, nor are public comments disparaging women. It is especially disappointing that Donald, who has a reputation as someone very supportive of women in STEM, should decide that sexism is trivial when it is one of her friends who is criticised.

The Telegraph reports Leyser & Dame Athene as saying:

Fear and anger are natural responses that we all feel when challenged both individually and institutionally.

They have an important role to play in bringing issues to the fore, but they get in the way of finding solutions to complex problems.

It’s time for all of us to stop cowering and shouting, buck-passing and fingerpointing and start listening and talking.

This command to ‘move on’ is just as disappointing, bringing with it as it does the implication that somehow our concerns are no longer valid, now that so many people have weighed in on the issue. That is simply not true. Problems do not just go away because lots of people have opinions, and telling people to move on is condescending and inappropriate for anyone with the influence and power these women wield.

Then another eight senior figures, Nobel Laureates all, chipped in with their opinions. Unsurprisingly, they too wrote in The Times, behind a paywall, and they too come out on Sir Tim’s side. Again, The Telegraph gives us hints as to the contents of the letter.

(If anyone has a link to these letters which is available without a subscription, please leave a comment.)

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester, wrote:

The saddest part is probably the reaction by the UCL top brass who forced Tim to resign. So much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be guardians of academic freedom.

Sir Andre completely misses the mark here, because this is not about academic freedom at all. Sir Tim did not release research about the relative successes of male-only labs vs female-only labs, so this is not about preventing him from publishing a paper that makes us feel uncomfortable. This is about a personal opinion, which many have found derogatory, expressed in a professional context where such opinions are very likely to be robustly challenged. Sir Andre forgets that freedom of expression is not freedom from the consequences of expression, and the science elite should be held responsible for their mistakes the same as everyone else.

And then there are the comments of Boris Johnson, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard Dawkins, also in support of Sir Tim, and also failing to adequately address the serious issue of sexism in science.

What really disturbs me about this is that the British academic (and political) elite appear to be closing ranks around a man who has made sexist comments and who is refusing to deal with the repercussions of those comments. Sir Tim’s words are indefensible. Describing oneself, apparently quite comfortably, as chauvinist, making demeaning comments about women, and then refusing to properly apologise for those remarks is not a slip of the tongue and it is not acceptable. It is not something that senior scientists should be supporting.

The message this sends to women is that British academe is still sexist, still does not know how to recognise sexist behaviour, has no desire to tackle sexism, and, indeed, will even support men who make sexist comments.

The message this sends is that it’s still too risky for women to call out sexist behaviour, because even other women will not censure sexism.

This is incredibly damaging, and the damage only gets worse as more and more academics decide to support Sir Tim, instead of recognising the seriousness of his error and encouraging him to make a full and sincere apology. Maybe if that happened, maybe if we saw clear signals that sexism will not be tolerated, we might be able do that moving on that Donald and Leyser are so keen on.

If academia needs an example to follow, they should take a serious look at how the Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison dealt with much more serious accusations of sexism made in 2013.

Lieutenant General Morrison does not mince his words:

Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.

[…]

On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behaviour is acceptable, but I doubt it.

[…]

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role.

If Lieutenant General Morrison can be so very clear, to very emphatic when dealing with a much, much worse situation, why can academia’s leaders not be so clear that sexism of any degree is unacceptable, in any situation, from any member of faculty in any position?

Is there not one senior academic, one Nobel Laureate, who will stand up and in unflinching language decry sexism and the support of sexism that we are currently seeing from so many leading figures? This isn’t about Sir Tim anymore. This is about an inability amongst senior scientists to understand and take seriously the responsibilities that their power has bestowed upon them.

UPDATE 22 June: Here’s a fantastic post by Hilda Bastian about the problems with the “it’s just a joke” defence, complete with references. Well worth a read.

Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.

Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.

And according to the Daily Mail (sorry!), two Nobel scientists have come out against Sir Tim’s comments, so that’s something to applaud:

However, 2014 shared Nobel prize winners for medicine, husband and wife Edvald and May-Britt Moser, from Norway, said Sir Tim’s speech was in no way beneficial to women.

‘Hunt’s statements point to attitudes that contribute to the continuation of inequality between the genders in science,’ they were reported as saying.

It’s a shame, though, that their comments were buried at the bottom of the article and haven’t been as widely discussed as those defending Sir Tim’s words.

Finally, @JennyRohn tweeted this, which made me sad, but underlines why we need to keep talking about sexism and calling out sexist comments and behaviour:

A woman scientist I know just said, “I’m afraid to tweet this”: http://t.co/KiLvyhlWZN by @suw – I think that speaks for itself

Please note that comments are moderated, and I will not be publishing any comments that are abusive. 

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Why Mad Max: Fury Road may be even more feminist and awesome that it looks

May 28, 2015

Warning: Spoilers abound in this post, so if such things bother you, I seriously suggest you bookmark this and come back to it when you’ve seen Fury Road.

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Dear fellow lefties

May 8, 2015

It is 2:41am as I begin this blog post, and I’ve been awake since 1am. I cannot begin to describe how I feel about this election, but I know now how American lefties must have felt when Bush got in for a second term back in 2004, and my, doesn’t that feel like a long […]

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For the love of typewriters

February 27, 2015

My creative writing process has changed a lot over the years. Back in 2001 when I was commuting between Reading and London on a daily basis, I was doing most of my writing on a Philips Velo, a delightful little device that was a bit bigger than a PDA, had a full keyboard, but was […]

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The worst book I have ever read

February 11, 2015

This review contains spoilers, but if I were you I’d read this, not the book. Also, let’s face it, this is less of a review and more of a rant, because I read 454 pages of shite and the only way to expunge it from my brain is to share. You’re welcome. Anyone who reads […]

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The Minimum Viable Product for self-publishing

January 8, 2015

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a common one in the tech world. Wikipedia defines it as a product with “just those core features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more”. Entrepreneur Eric Reis defines it as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect […]

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