Friday, December 15, 2017

Me Too

15th December 2017

When all of the ruckus broke out over sexual misconduct by men, and without really thinking it through, I felt lucky that such a thing had never happened to me.  And I went on for quite a while declaring this to myself. I watched the women coming forward over such and such a TV executive who had made them watch him shower, this or that politician who had made women watch him masturbate or had sent them pictures of his genitals. Not me, I thought. None of this had happened to me.

And then fairly recently, three or so months into this scandal, it began to dawn on me that yes it had happened to me, and in a sector that has surely been under-reported in this regard, but which probably sees more of this than most: academia.


My experience, after all,  didn't really fit the profile of other reports from women, because these weren't flamboyant men in the film industry or TV stars of the daytime news cycle or politicians waving their guns or waving their knowledge of law and constitution. These icons of academia were respectable men in the way that stars of the screen are not. They had Ph.d's for God's sake. The paradigm of respectability.

I spent eight years in academia, four undergraduate at Edinburgh University and four as a post-graduate at Oxford. The head of the department at Edinburgh was a married, father of three, very quietly spoken and self-effacing man, published and liked by everyone. He "took me under his wing," especially when my father died and I was looking for a father figure to hold me up. Only it emerged that his idea was more one of laying me down. On two different occasions he made what as teenagers we used to call "a major pass." In modern parlance, he sexually assaulted me. I felt betrayed, disgusted, and very anxious to move on, which I did, apparently quite efficiently.

At the end of my post-graduate years in Oxford, I came before two male examiners in the Viva Voce spoken defence of my Ph.D. Thesis. One of those men was livid the moment I walked into the room, because I had dared to criticise a friend of his in my thesis. The other one, a married man (and father of three again), wanted afterwards to take me to tea. Well, I blame myself for going to tea, but then I was pretty devastated when those two examiners failed my thesis. What I didn't know then was what was really on the mind of Mr. Examiner 2, an American as it happened, and who now teaches in Texas, was taking me to bed.  Or perhaps I misread that explicit request, and the kissing and the fondling. Again, the disgust, the betrayal, the need to flee.

So, I have kept this to myself for the last thirty years, and part of me still wants to stay mum and let bygones be bygones. I would lay a hefty bet that I am not alone in this. As a woman, it was part of my training to pass this off as my own fault or even as a compliment. But it wasn't either of these things. It was a man in a position of power taking advantage of a young woman. Period. It feels better to open the door and let these academic ghosts wander out of the closet. Lately, they have been making way too much noise in there.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Writing Advice

8th December 2017

Life today is like gripping the sides of a roller coaster as it careens around bend after bend and then races down the vertical drop and chugs up the other side before falling off to zero gravity again. So, I'm holding on and screaming out and getting up at 4am because my mind is racing and the walls seem to be falling like Jericho around us.  A reader of my novel wrote to me last week, asking me for advice for anyone embarking on "the writing life," and I am reminded amidst the chaos that this blog started out life as a commentary on my own writing life. So, back to basics:

When people ask me about becoming a writer, I feel my first obligation is to disabuse them of the idea that the writing life is glorious and romantic. True, there are a lot of writers who have never disabused themselves of this idea, and so they see their life as a grand gesture (in some cases like Hemmingway and Hunter Thomas, Virginia Woolf, only to be appropriately finished off in a final grand gesture.)
Who was it that said, if you can even conceive of doing anything else than becoming a writer, do it?
I have been at this lark for decades. And decades. I have written solidly for decades and decades, and have a substantial oevre - nine books at last counting and moving into the writing of the tenth. Call it a disease. Call it compulsive behaviour. I won't contradict you.

Novice writers often ask: where do you get good ideas to write about? Stephen King in his outstanding book On Writing, says "Out of the clear blue sky."  Tradition has had it that they come from the muse, which I suppose is the same thing. Jung would say, "Out of the collective unconscious," and I would most likely go along with him. (And this is why the writer/artist is so important to culture and why totalitarian regimes go after them.)

But it is a tough sisyphean climb, and I suppose you don't know if you're cut out for it, until you put on your climbing shoes and head up the slope. 

But know that the task is not romantic. It's full of doubt and self-reproach. If you can imagine tearing out your heart and watching it be assailed and smashed, then by all means go ahead.  Though it is hard to imagine it with your entrails hanging from your fingers, writers and artists in general hold out the hope that one day the universe will give it all back to them. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Shaking of the Foundations

November 3rd 2017

I was born a hothead. Ich kann nicht anders. It was in me from my earliest steps to raise my freak flag and wave it in the face of injustice. It's one of the defining characteristics of Scorpios, and perhaps we should come with a warning label for those unfortunates who seek to live peaceably besides us. Friedrich Nietzsche used to say that he had good psychological antennae, and Lord knows he got himself into hot water by proclaiming the flag of the anti-Christ (when in fact he was only holding up a mirror.) Overly sensitive antennae might be a requisite of hotheads.

If you look down the lens of history, you don't see too many female hotheads. But look under the leaves, and there have been plenty.
A quick foray into 1st Century England, or into British coinage, will turn up Celtic warrior queen Boudica. She took up what she called her "woman's resolve" and rallied the greatest attack on Roman occupation ever mounted.

A Roman historian tells us that such was her ferocity, Governor Nero was almost compelled to abandon Britain altogether.
More recently, mother of five, Mrs Pankhurst spent a lifetime battling the British Establishment for a woman's right to vote. She was imprisoned, force-fed when on hunger strike and finally turned history's tables in 1920.
In the USA, it was trouble-maker Harriet Tubman filtering slaves trough the underground railway, and hothead Rosa Parks who couldn't just do what everyone else did and sit at the back of the bus.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, saith the playwright. Now is history's time to unleash that woman fury, because enough is enough. All ye Boudica hotheads who took to the streets in November of last year and mounted the greatest protest ever recorded against the hell that is the pinacle of male fury in the White House, your time is come.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Stepping Out Of the Box

24th November 2017

These are Neanderthals, according to the most recent study on what that species might have looked like.

But wait a minute! Neanderthals are the hairy dense knuckle-draggers we were taught about in school, the ones that became extinct because they couldn't keep up with the superior brain of our Homo Sapiens ancestors!
Such is the history that is taught, but this should never have been the conclusion, because any comparison of a human brain with these ancestors of ours (yes, we did interbreed) reveals that they had larger craniums to hold larger brains. Recent DNA sequencing has shown that Neanderthals were likely fair of skin and red of hair. In fact, the percentage of Neanderthal DNA you possess is roughly proportionate to how northern European you look. Put that in your superior pipe and smoke it! In fact, perhaps the only reason Neanderthals ever went extinct had to do with the superior violence of this new upstart race called Sapiens. The trickster.
Because Homo Sapiens had another trick up its sleeve, something called denial.  It's a psychological flaw really, a need by the human mind to bend reality to its own cause.
Here's another trick: The Dark Ages.

Historian Frances Pryor says "Poppycock!" There was never anything of the sort! Archeology shows continuous human development thoughout the ages, with stagnation nowhere in sight. But then, if you want to praise the "Enlightenment," you have to concoct something dark from which it emerged, don't you? If you want to have a renaissance, something had to have died on the limb in order for it to be reborn. As if pagans weren't capable  of  a flourishing of the arts. Dark Ages, dark pagans, dark neanderthal versions of Homo with heavy eyebrow ridges and only half a clue.

It's hard for a species that regards itself with such superiority to watch its paradigms teeter and topple. I am far from guiltless in this: I am sticking with my paleolithic flip phone, my computer that still accepts floppy discs, and I will have nothing to do with Facebook. Paradigm shifts just run against the grain. Gallileo, Copernicus and Einstein were all persecuted for thinking outside the box of scientific status quo. Modern man isn't about to welcome the blood of his Neanderthal ancestors in his veins. He may be inventive, but he doesn't like any rocking of the boat he's trying to sail in. For this he might himself go extinct. Homo Ignoramus.

Friday, November 17, 2017


17th November 2017

The Mayan calendar says that once this era runs into its end times, things are going to start moving much, much faster. When I got my first computer back in 1984, it was a portable (ha!) Kaypro, basically a word processor with some games, like "the psychiatrist game," where you actually had a conversation with a machine! No you didn't - the computer just stored some of your answers for a minute or two and then looped them back to remind you that this is what you believed. Astounding!

Back in 1997 or so when I first saw moving pictures on a computer screen, I couldn't wrap my mind around it. Zoom forward to 2017, and we have computers with a terabyte memory, smart phones, smart houses, smart grocery stores.  My Kaypro days belong in a cave in the dark ages.

And yet, in terms of world politics, you might be persuaded that the Mayans had it all wrong, and rather than moving forward, we're actually slipping backwards. It seems like we have left democracy behind and are going the well worn route of dictatorial governments. Rather than moving forwards, we seem to be in the midst of an explosion of male hierarchical power with Donald Trump on the top of this dung heap.
But perhaps through all the gyres of history we are actually now at a tipping point. On a global timeline, things look much more hopeful: since the year 1820, extreme poverty has dropped from 95% to 10%, child mortality from 45% to 4%, fewer people are dying from war than ever before and life expectancy has doubled. Even 9% of diehard Trump voters are already leaning away, are rubbing their eyes and wondering what kind of a nightmare they have woken up from.

So perhaps the Mayans were right, and the age in which we live is going into warp speed. Donald Trump, Duterte, Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, all the dictators and middle men of the world, are quickly moving into history like stations from a fast-moving train. Computers and the internet have changed everything. There is no way of fooling even some of the people all of the time. With any luck, and I won't quote Churchill here because he was as much part of the problem as anyone, but we are full speed ahead into the end of the beginning.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Ties That Bind Us

10th November 2017

As Neil Tyson astutely observed, we spend the first two years of a child's life teaching it how to walk and talk and the rest of its life telling it to shut up and sit down. That's the culture I grew up in, the one that most of us call home. We have come to think of the small inner voice of doubt we harbour as just something inherently human, and something we have to live with. Surveys have shown that most people think of public speaking as (literally) a fate worse than death. Because if you have been put in your place in the chair as a child, you're not going to be able to stand up and speak so easily.  You're not going to be able to think of yourself as worthy of attention. Children, especially babies in our culture, are thought of as being in a constant grab for attention. Babies are left to cry because they are "just trying to get attention."

We may have published a book, we may have become the highest-grossing star in Hollywood, we may be president of a super power, and no matter how much hot air we blow out in the cause of our self-worth, we are still in our own mind's eye, bound up, tied to a chair. This is especially true of women. In the above picture, the castle that is rightfully ours lies off in the distance, blocked from our vision by a puny fence of our own making.

To escape, the first step is to acknowledge that the ties that bind us are not chains, but only ribbons, something we could actually wriggle free of. The fence we have constructed around ourselves, or has been constructed for us, is made up of our own courage turned in against itself. It's a barrier made up of swords barely planted in the ground.  Like all fear, it exists in our own circle of solitude and won't withstand the action of simply standing up and walking away. So grab your sword, your own courage,  and make a run for it!

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Dead

3rd November 2017

When I walk through my stable of dead heroes, feeding to them their allotment of ghost hay, what strikes me is how fleeting is the whole farm and stable thing, those plowed fields of names and numbers, our own personal historical landscape. We preserve it because some of these phantoms have laid their stamp on yonder hill, on this hollow and dip,  on that line of trees punctuated across the horizon. Most of us are chaff and get tilled back in, and it is this prospect of anonymity that keeps us moving through our stables of the dead.

I suppose different stalls in that stable have different functions: there's the one of dead ancestors and family, the ones that have to stay with us because they were too known, too much a part of the measure of ourselves. We go into that stall and pull out the ossuaries, the clean white bones of the dead father, those other bones that go back further and are almost turned to stone by now: the great-grandmother after whom you were named, the great-grandfather who took a bullet in the neck at Flanders.
But the place I spend the most time is in the stall of those people we never knew but whose lines of thought and speech still make the world for us a warmer place. These bones came to us like collectors pieces, across the counter of ideology; we have taken them out often and polished them. Some we don't even look at anymore, because they belong back in the days of being young and easy. But we still like to know they are still there.

This is where we come in the lonely hours of night with our swinging lanterns. As we grow older, the hay in this stable doesn't smell so fresh anymore, but if we stay very still, we can still make out the faint aroma of movement, of horses flashing into the dark, of the turning pages of our numberless dreams.