Monday, 13 June 2016

An Open Letter to "Emily Doe"...

I thought long and hard about posting this because it's something I wrote a few days ago, after reading “Emily Doe's” statement for the third time and needing to do something – anything – to get my feelings in order again. But then I read it again tonight and I just...I don't know. I just felt like I needed to put it out there. It's addressed to “Emily Doe” but, really, it's for anyone whose past may have come back to haunt them because of the Brock Turner case and the publicity it's received...

Dear “Emily”,

You don't know me at all and, clearly, I don't know you; not even your real name, the one your parents gave you twenty-three years ago when you came into this world and were placed into their arms for the first time, no doubt blinking and squalling like the rest of us. However, thanks to the actions of one individual on one night last year, it must feel like half the world currently “knows” you and this particular part of your story.

Like many people I first heard about what had happened to you when the internet exploded in fury about the pathetically-lenient sentence handed down by the trial judge, and then again when the friends and family of the man responsible for the events of 17th January 2015 made statements proclaiming how his life had been “ruined” without acknowledging, even for a second, the trauma you and your family were going through as a result of his actions. I read, in stunned disbelief, as more and more victim-blaming and shaming poured from their words, without so much as a thought for you. And I have read, over and over again, the words you read out in Court during his sentencing and I have cried every time: I have never, ever read anything so eloquent, so powerful and so, so heartbreaking.

And that's why I wanted to write to you, “Emily”, whoever and wherever you are, because in most of the media coverage of what happened on that night it's been about him: HIS losses, HIS pain, HIS ruined life. And that's not right.

It's a simple enough statement but it's true:

That's. Not. Right.

I don't want to say anything which makes you relive your trauma any more than you must be doing already, but it felt important to me to acknowledge you; to acknowledge YOUR loss, YOUR pain. In your statement you said you had no power, no voice...”Emily”, with those words you read out in Court you took BACK some of your power because you made people, from all over the world and from all walks of life, feel something for someone they didn't even know. People who've been through similar situations to you. People, like me, who haven't. It doesn't matter. Your words, your voice, come out clear and strong in every single line of that statement and that is something no one can EVER take away from you.

Like I say, I don't know anything about you other than from the words you read out in your statement. I know you have a sister, a mother, a father; that you have a boyfriend; that you have friends and co-workers; a job somewhere, doing something which you enjoy or at least tolerate because it pays the bills and buys you shoes or chocolate or yellow flowers on grey days. I know, too, that you live somewhere in the region of Stanford University; perhaps you've lived there all your life, perhaps you moved there more recently. I'm guessing, as I can only do, that growing up you fought with your sister but would always be the first to defend her; that you fought, too, with your parents but knew that, no matter what, they would always be there for you even in the throes of your teenage “rebellion”. Maybe your Dad was the one who taught you to ride a bike, or maybe it was your Mum, or maybe one day you just scared them half to death by saying 'look, look at me; I can do it!' before crashing to the tarmac and scraping your knees. There is a whole life behind you which we can never know about; there is a whole life, too, in front of you; one which I hope you will be able to face day by day, step by step...

What happened to you cannot be undone, nor can any one presume to “understand” what it is you're going through, or how long it may take you to be able to finally sleep without the lights on. But I hope one day you will be able to look back on this and say: 'I am a survivor, not a victim'. Because you are, “Emily”; you ARE a survivor and it is THAT which I hope will one day replace 'victim' as part of your self-identity. You are an incredibly courageous young woman who has touched thousands of people all over the world with your bravery and your dignity. He didn't take that from you. You're a survivor.

I don't expect for one minute that you'll ever read this but I wanted to put it out there into the ether, just in case. I wanted to tell you something which, actually, I could never put any better than you did in your own words: you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you.

There are many, many little boats on this ocean of the world looking to your lighthouse and taking in those little pieces of light, but never forget that boats can reflect back light as well. We are with you, anonymously, quietly; reflecting back the beacon you cast from our wooden or shiny surfaces and telling you the same words you gave us in that courtroom:

I am with you”.

Wherever you are, “Emily”, in the face of the storm which has raged online these past few weeks, know that we are with you too. We are not afraid. We will stand with you. You are not alone. And, one day, I hope that you will be able to find some sort of peace...

A Friendly Boat”

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Plea To Humanity...

If I hear one more person say 'moderate' Muslims *should* apologise for what happened in France, Kuwait and Tunisia last Friday I will start screaming. Why *should* they? They didn't do it, after all; I don't recall two and half million British Muslims on that beach or in that mosque or at that factory, unless I blinked and missed them all?

Flippancy aside, what took place last Friday was terrible. It got to the point where everyone was a bit like, "well where the hell is this going to stop?!!" The beheading of Herve Cornara in Lyon was abhorrent; the massacre of 27 innocent people at Friday prayers during the Holy Month of Ramadan in Kuwait was abhorrent; the massacre of at least 36 innocent people on a beach in Tunisia was abhorrent. Any one of these incidents, on its own, would be shocking; for all three to come on the same day, one after the other...there just weren't any words to describe people's feelings.

But - without wishing to minimise what took place or upset anyone - here's the thing:

The massacre of nine innocent people at a church in Charleston was abhorrent.

The massacre of seventy seven innocent people in Norway was abhorrent.

Where are all the people demanding "the White community" apologise for Dylann Roof? Where are all the people demanding everyone who considers themselves right-wing rather than left-wing apologise for Anders Breivik?

Oh, that's right.

They don't exist.

David Cameron last week claimed that anyone within the Muslim community not actively shouting from the rooftops that what happened on Friday was the most appalling thing to happen was in fact "quietly condoning" ISIS. Really? You mean to tell me there are huge swathes of people in this country who just sort of shrug quietly when this happens and anticipate the next beheading or suicide bombing with a vague sense of "well, what can you do?" Really?!

Now I'm not saying these people don't exist. Far from it - every community has its vaguely lunatic fringes (some more dangerous than others), after all, and everyone knows someone who fervently believes that the days of "no dogs, no Blacks, no Irish" should make some sort of triumphant return. I'm pretty sure there are some in the Muslim community in Britain who condone what ISIS or Al Quaida have done. I'm also pretty sure there are some people in the White British community who quietly condone what Dylann Roof has done as well. Just because they don't say it aloud doesn't mean they aren't thinking it. Then again, however, I didn't start screaming from the rooftops on Friday about what a horrible, terrible thing had happened that day; does this mean that in some way I tacitly went along with what those three individuals did, that I somehow "quietly condoned" it? oh of course not. I'm not Muslim, so it doesn't matter that I wasn't self-flagellating in the middle of the High Street afterwards.

All this nonsense about "the Muslim community needs to do more" and "it's like they're condoning it if they don't actively say how terrible it was" - it's just that: nonsense. Does this mean that as a 'moderate' White Person I need to apologise to the Black community for Dylann Roof? If I chain myself to the offices of the Daily Mail or start a protest outside Britain First's headquarters, will that be penance enough or do I need to do more? Should I shave my head and don sackcloth-and-ashes while castigating everyone around me who makes a vaguely racist remark, just to prove how utterly, abjectly apologetic I am for the one white guy I don't even know who did this Terrible Thing? Cos, y'know, if communities have to start taking responsibility for the various lunatic fringes which hijack beliefs or race or gender or whatever in the name of their deluded 'cause' then shit, I do apologise wholeheartedly to the Black community for Dylann Roof. I also apologise to the families of dead soldiers for the Westboro Baptist Church since, y'know, I went to Sunday school a few times as a kid, so I guess I am (or was) part of the religious community as well. I also identify as a cisgender straight woman, so I guess I also owe the Lesbian/Gay/Bi and Trans communities massive apologies for the likes of Vladimir Putin and his policies. Just, y'know, so it doesn't look I'm 'quietly condoning' his stripping away of people's basic human rights.

Hey, I guess all this means I should start demanding a seriously grovelling apology from any Conservative/right-leaning people I know since, as a lefty-type, I was clearly the target type for Breivik's outrage and if you aren't proclaiming your sorrow from the skies then you must "quietly condone" the murders of young Labour activists as well, right...?

The whole thing is ridiculous. Can you imagine the outcry if President Obama had gone to Charleston and demanded that every 'moderate' White Person apologise for Roof's actions? It would have made the pre-Civil Rights lynchings look like child's play. And actually, what is a "moderate White Person" anyway? Is it someone who doesn't have a racist thought ever, or is it someone who sometimes thinks "geez, those Blacks/Mexicans/Insert Other Racist Stereotype Here are a bit of a nuisance" but would never dream of saying it out loud because that would be Racist and they really aren't but...? How moderate is 'moderate'?

Now I'm not saying there isn't more the Muslim community as a whole can do regarding radicalisation. Then again, there's an awful lot more society as a whole could do; people don't just wake up one morning and go "wheeee, I've decided to be right-wing Neo-Nazi/Islamic terrorist today - let's go blow stuff up after breakfast!!" It's about raising awareness; it's about providing support; it's about listening to people's grievances rather than dismissing them as "racist clap-trap" - but it's also about education. You think all Muslims are terrorists who've come over here to butcher us all in our sleep? Interesting thought, Little Johnny; now what makes you say that? Have you ever met anyone from the Islamic faith? No? here, allow me to introduce you to Little Mohammed so you can learn a bit more. Little Mohammed, you think all White British people want to kill you because they're all Neo-Nazi skinheads? Come and chat with Little Johnny; let's see if we can't find some common ground here. You both like playing on your X-box? Well isn't that a, let's plug it in and see what happens...

Utopian Visions above aside, lets be clear here: anyone can be radicalised. These people, ISIS and their like, or the right-wing Neo-Nazi organistions, are past masters at deception and manipulation. The BNP recruit at youth clubs, ffs; one weekend it's all "come paintballing with us, you Disenfranchised Yoofs; it's free!" and then a few weeks later it's "hey, come out with us again and oh by the way, how 'bout them immigrants...?" Al Quaida recruit using Call of Duty; if you can communicate with your mates on a pretend mission, why not on a real one? (Paedophiles use Club Penguin, incidentally). There are so many reasons why people become radicalised into one group or another; insisting 'moderate' members of a society "do more to apologise for them" is frankly ludicrous. SOCIETY needs to do more, full stop. Parents need to goddamn monitor what their kids are doing online. Schools need to raise awareness and teach a broad, balanced curriculum which celebrates difference and doesn't demonise people based on race/religion/gender/sexuality/whatever. Society as a whole needs to wake up and stop pointing the finger at other people - if everyone would just Be Excellent To Each Other, as Bill and Ted so wisely said, maybe the world would be less screwed than it is now.

I am not going to apologise for Dylann Roof, or the white cops shooting unarmed black men, or anyone else. They are the ones who need to step up and say sorry, and they also need to get themselves educated fast before anyone else dies in a hail of bullets. But I don't expect my Muslim friends to apologise for last Friday's horrors, either. We know it was horrible. We know it was wrong. Two and a half million individual people standing up and apologising isn't going to change what happened, and it sure as hell isn't going to stop vulnerable people becoming radicalised and going off to join ISIS, Britain First, the BNP or any other extremist group. The people who run them are smart. We just have to be smarter is all. And that starts by not insisting every single person who makes up a community is somehow responsible for the actions of a small percentage of that community.

SO BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER, PEOPLE!!!!! We're all Human Beans, after all, and we're all stuck on this big blue marble whizzing around in space; we've had two thousand years of coming up with ever more inventive and whimsical ways to demonise and destroy each other, marking out the Other and targeting them until We Win. Can we not have two thousand years of finding ways to be kind to each other; to support each other; to build bridges and stop blaming the whole world and his wife for the actions of individuals? Are we really so insecure as a species? That's...beyond sad.

I can't make any claim to being the World's Greatest Human Bean Ever in the History of the World; there are plenty of times when an uncharitable thought crosses my mind, or I find myself demonising or blaming some great mythical Other for the ills in the world. But I try hard to not be an intolerant, bigoted, hate-filled person, I really do, and I like to think I'm successful more times than I'm not. Human Nature isn't straightforward - one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, as the saying goes, and we are a contrary old species - but I am stating this here and now: I am going to try and be better at calling out people who are intolerant and bigoted. I plan on Doing My Bit to educate, illuminate and meet you halfway; I rejoice in the diversity of this planet and the intricacies of our relationships with each other. You might learn stuff. I definitely will. But I will not tolerate hatred and bigotry so be warned - I may end up having to seriously rethink our relationship if you insist on preaching hate and being divisive. It was unacceptable for Abu Hamza to do so; it is equally unacceptable for you.

As my Nan always says - if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all...

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

"Metaphorical Sticks": Modern Bedlam and the state of mental health in Britain

This is (or was) Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which opened in Barnet in 1851.  These days it has been redeveloped, as has much of our heritage (no matter how dubious) into the ubiquitous "luxury apartments", home to members of One Direction, actress and Strictly Come Dancing winner Kara Tointon, and various Premiership footballers such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; but in its heyday as the "Second Middlesex County Asylum" it was, over the years, home to the likes of serial killer/rapist John Duffy, the historian Barbara Taylor and one Aaron Kosminski, one of many suspects in the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888.

Now I know what you're thinking: "bloody hell, here she goes again with her obsession with serial killers and crumbling buildings!" but alas! Dear Reader, in this instance you would be entirely wrong.  I mean I still have my obsession with serial killers and crumbling buildings, but that isn't what prompted me to write this blog.

The actual reason for this particular bit of bloggage is twofold: firstly, unless you've been living under a rock or been lucky enough to get a place on that mission to Mars, you will probably have heard that yesterday a 25 year old man was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the murder of 82 year old Palmira Silva in Edmonton, London, last year.  Instead Nicholas Salvador, who was found to be suffering from severe paranoid schizophrenia, was detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act and sent to Broadmoor Hospital.  The attack itself was utterly, utterly horrifying; having seen some of the footage the police released of what happened (although not, thank god, the actual murder), I can't even begin to imagine how terrifying it must have been for Mrs Silva and all the other people who witnessed events that day; but as the defence barrister pointed out after the verdict, it must have been equally terrifying to be inside Nicholas Salvador's head that day.  Paranoid schizophrenia is relentless in its distortion of the human brain even when a person is getting treatment for it; when Nicholas Salvador finally starts to retain some sense of equilibrium and realise what he actually did, that is going to take a whole heap of skilled medical care to deal with.

The other reason is Will Self's article in the current issue of the New Statesman on the complete and utter failure of the Government to give mental health services in this country anywhere near the parity it deserves.  Say what you like about Nick Clegg, he and the Lib Dems were wholeheartedly correct in their insistence that mental health be accorded the same rights as physical health and, when you see some of the stats, it's easy to see why...

  • Shortly after Colney Hatch hospital opened, in 1860, there were 38,058 people in England and Wales who were certified as insane, just under 2% of the general population, although it should be noted this does include people with conditions such as dementia, learning disabilities (like one of my paternal ancestors, who is down on the asylum records as 'imbecile') and 'nervous exhaustion' and does not include people who were not 'certified lunatics' (thanks to the brilliant Sarah Wise's book "Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors in Victorian England" for the stats on this).  These days, it is estimated by the likes of MIND and the Mental Health Network that 20% of the population - 1 in 5 of us - will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in our lives; in a 2012 report by the London School of Economics on the cost of treating mental health conditions, 1% of the adult population of England will suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and 8% will suffer from depression and anxiety disorders respectively.  For children, the depression/anxiety disorder figure was 4%.  You probably know someone who has had a mental health condition.  You may have had one yourself.  It's endemic, really; I mean, just from my own personal point of view I have suffered with depression in the past and had to have psychiatric input to deal with it; I have two family members (that I know of) who have had depression; there is the aforementioned 'imbecile' in the asylum in my family history; I have several friends with anxiety disorders/depression/other mental health conditions; and I had a very good friend who suffered with severe paranoid schizophrenia and subsequently killed himself because he couldn't take the ups and downs anymore.  That's not including the number of young people I've come across at work who are presenting with a wide range of emerging mental health issues, some quite serious.  I could literally throw a stick among my social, familial and work circles and hit several people who've been there, done that.

  • Given the fact mental health conditions are so endemic and present the highest 'disease burden' on the NHS - higher than coronary disease and cancer - you'd think we'd have cottoned onto the fact it needs an equally-high financial package to deal with it.  Not so.  An NHS England report from 2013 found that although mental health issues causes 23% of the 'disease burden', it only gets 13% of the NHS budget - and this has been reduced from the previous financial year (and presumably the years before that).  Conversely cancer, while clearly hideous (also had that several times among my circles) causes 15% of the 'disease burden' and cardiovascular disease 16%, they get far more of the budget thrown at them.  Now clearly I'm not saying we pull all cancer funding and let the people with heart problems rot, and god knows I'm painfully aware of how stretched the NHS budget actually is, but if you've got something which affects 1 in 5 people in the country, surely you'd sit up and think "blimey, might wanna do something about that!"

But we don't talk about mental health issues in this country.  It really is the poor relation when it comes to healthcare and it always has been; Nick Clegg pointed out before the election that mental health services in this country have been neglected for decades.  Again, say what you like about him but he's not wrong; we seem to have treated people with mental health conditions appallingly in this country since the day you could pay a penny to go and poke a lunatic at Bedlam.  Because that's a wholesome, fun day out for the whole family...

Now clearly when Colney Hatch and its ilk were opening up and down the country and we were locking people up inside them for years for such spurious reasons as having a learning disability, 'hysteria' and having a child out of wedlock, as happened as late as the 1920's according to Sarah Wise's excellent book (because having a child out of wedlock = loose morals; loose morals =moral defectiveness; moral defectiveness = clearly mad so quick nurse, the straitjacket!!!) we were not necessarily acting in the best interests of the often very vulnerable people inside these institutions.  Frankly, for the most part, they were often appalling, with little to no therapeutic input and some pretty medieval 'medical interventions'; I always liken the institutionalization of these people to the horrifying footage I remember seeing of the Romanian orphanages when I was 9 -  to all intents and purposes it was the same damn thing.  But we got better (ish) and started to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things to try and help people and, somehow, we managed to make it work.  Yeah sure, some of it was bloody awful, what with the lobotomies and the electro-shock therapies and the anti-psychotic meds that basically turned you into a zombie, but at least we weren't letting posh people pay to come and poke them with sticks.

Then, of course, came Mrs T and her "care in the community" shtick.  Never was something so badly named; I don't believe Mrs T gave a flying fig about any of the traumatised people she turfed out of the many asylums she and her cronies shut down, leaving people who had become so institutionalized they genuinely couldn't cope in the outside world to the tender mercies of a struggling community mental health team which was badly funded then and is in an even more parlous state now.

It is this salient point Will Self raises in his article, and the reason I wanted to write this blog.  Will Self and I do not always agree on things but in this particular case we are in accord: the NHS needs more funding for better mental health services and it needs it now.  I alluded earlier in my article to the (frankly alarming) numbers of children and young people I come across in the course of my day job who are presenting with some form of emerging mental health need, some of which are at the extreme end of the spectrum; this doesn't, of course, include the numbers of parents I come across who have mental health conditions.  Trying to get help for these people is, frankly, a nightmare; while I'm not blaming the overstretched, underfunded services for this, there are times when I think if I hear the words "sorry, it doesn't meet our criteria" again I will brain someone.  Care in the community could be - is - a great idea: it would free up precious room in psychiatric wards, which are losing bed spaces at an alarming rate; it would mean vulnerable people could be treated and supported in their own homes with friends and family close at hand, leaving only the most severe cases to be hospitalized long-term; it could even, if given a full early-intervention remit, help prevent the young people I work with presenting with emerging needs from ending up severely unwell, to say nothing of the impact such early intervention and community support could have on the prison population which is all but overwhelmed with people who are, frankly, Proper Poorly.

This, of course, would require Serious Cash and it is here, as Mr Self adroitly points out, that my Utopian Scheme falls like Bambi learning to ice skate: smack bang on its face.  We live in the Age of Austerity now, after all, and the mad are waaaaay down the list when it comes to being worthy of assistance.  You can almost see Cameron, Osborne and their smarmy-git friends visibly recoiling at the thought of having anything to do with lunatics, for sadly we still appear to treat mental illness like some contagious bogeyman which needs either sweeping under the carpet or medicating so much it becomes catatonic and therefore unable to harm us.  Because of course all 'lunatics' like to go on cheerfully unmedicated killing sprees at the drop of a hat.  It says so in the Daily Mail.

Will Self notes that the current incarnation of "care in the community", through no fault really of the overworked, underfunded organisations struggling to keep afloat in the era of huge budget cuts and trying desperately to help people who are among the most vulnerable in society, is to medicate people until they're practically comatose.  This is a Good Thing, apparently because it brings in money to Big Pharma, which as we all know is struggling in these times of auster...well, yeah.  Quite.  But just chucking pills down people's throats doesn't actually help anybody, least of all the person themselves.  It's all very well putting a sticking plaster over your bleeding leg, but until we address the fact your leg is bleeding because half of it's missing then we're not going to get anywhere very fast.

We may not be locking people up and poking them with sticks any more, but I can't honestly say the general treatment of mental health conditions in this country is much improved.  No one talks about it for one thing, so it's still seen as the Elephant in the Room, and no one in Government seems prepared to step up and actually do anything about it.  All those people who go from prison to the streets to prison to the streets to prison and then hang themselves with a bedsheet or slice their veins open with a bit of a are we helping them?  Is siloing them in a prison without addressing their mental health needs really the way forward?  If Oscar Pistorious had had bipolar disorder instead of missing his lower limbs, would he still have got to serve his sentence in the medical wing of a South African prison?  When Ronnie Biggs had cancer, did the prison estate just shrug and go "tough luck, mate"?  No, of course not - he was given the medical care he needed for his health condition, and rightly so.  (Not that I think Ronnie Biggs was a lovely bloke or anything; far from it - I'm glad the bastard finally got locked up, but that's not the point I'm making.  You wouldn't withhold medical treatment to diabetics or cancer sufferers in prison because people would start causing A Fuss, but even though "mental health" has the word "health" in it we seem to be able to ignore that perfectly).

People with mental health conditions need help.  They need better-funded, better-staffed services with shorter waiting lists, more early intervention work and a plethora of different therapeutic and, yes, medicated approaches in order to help them live the fullest life they possibly can.  If they get really sick they should be able to go to a hospital, just as you would if your appendix suddenly burst, and they should be supported to move on from that hospital when they are no longer a danger to themselves or others.  Some of them will never be able to do that, and that is why we have the likes of Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton, but many of them will and we should encourage them to focus on their recovery and support them to go home again.  How can something which impacts so many people in this country be given such short shrift?

Finally, I leave you with this.  In the last paragraph of his article Will Self note he sees the effect of this 'care in the community' stuff on a daily basis in South London; peripheral neuropathy is a common side effect of anti-psychotic medications and he often finds half-popped blister packs of prescribed drugs lying in the street, dropped by the numb fingers of someone sick enough to need to take them.  He made a short video about this and wants as many people as possible to see it, hoping it might shame the Tories into honouring David Cameron's pledge for "parity of esteem" when it comes to mental health services.  I'm not holding out much hope of that, but I am sharing his film.  Spread the word.  Make some noise.  Rage against the dying of the light.  Otherwise we might just as well start poking mentally unwell people with actual physical sticks instead of just metaphorical ones...

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Literary Heroines

One of the joyous things about having a goddaughter who reads almost as much as you do is getting to swap stories about what you're reading and why.   At 13, B appreciates the importance of strong characters in her books, particularly strong female characters; as she says, it's all very well having a rollicking good story (she actually said "rollicking".  I am so proud...) but what's the point if the characters are badly written and, worse, if all the female characters do is sit around simpering and waiting to be rescued?  (Yeah, did I not mention she practically came out of the womb as a right-on deep-thinking feminist?  She's already decided The Literary Character She Most Wants To Be is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy, a choice I heartily approve of, and watches re-runs of Xena with an almost fanatical gleam in her eye - this, after all, is the girl who read the first Twilight book last year and dismissed Bella as "1950's Gone Wrong".  What can I say, she's never going to be anyone's passive heroine...I feel very sorry for all the 13 year old boys she comes into contact with; she probably runs rings around them...)

But having such a literary (and feminist) goddaughter has been quite an eye-opener for me because it's made me think long and hard both about the books I either recommend to her or buy for her, and the books I used to read as a child/pre-teen.  B often says to me "ooh, Auntie Kate, recommend me a book you used to read!" and it throws me; not because I can't think of anything (I read even more voraciously as a child than I do as an adult, which is saying something), but because I've started noticing a pattern in the books I've mentioned to her.

The books that stick in my mind the most from when I was a kid almost exclusively star female characters in a lead role.

Now I'm not saying that at the age of 3 I was marching around as a little mini-feminist and refusing to read books with boys in (although my mother will tell you I was born with an innate sense of justice and cried when I saw the starving children in Ethiopia at the age of about 2 1/2); far from it, in fact - I read a lotand a lot of books with boys in were among my favourites.  It just seems that the books which made the deepest impression on my young mind either had girls in the 'lead role' or as very well-developed ensemble characters; well-written, strong characters which stick in my mind to this day.  They may not all embody the sort of "right-on" feminism of Katniss or the heroine in Neil Gaiman's utterly enchanting fairytale "The Sleeper and the Spindle" (seriously, if you have tweenage girls in your life, buy them this book.  They will thank you for it one day), but they clearly made an impression on me and they are the ones I have, over the years, recommended to B.

So without further ado, here are the ten Literary Heroines who made an impression on me from an early age, in (roughly) the order I first encountered them.

1) Fancy Nancy (from "Fancy Nancy" by Ruth Craft)
I loved Fancy Nancy.  I mean actually, properly loved her; so much so that from the age of 3 or 4 up until I started school, this was the one book I got out of the library every single week.  I identified with Nancy: she was about the same age as me; she lived in a house with her mum and dad; she had a little brother who was known as Smelly Baby (hers was Thomas, mine Christopher) was as if we were destined to be friends.  There was nothing particularly extraordinary about her adventures - buying mittens or getting sick - but there was such charm to them, and to Nancy herself with her love of all things sparkly and, well, 'fancy', that you couldn't help but fall in love with her.  Long after I'd stopped reading "Fancy Nancy" I still thought fondly of her, so imagine my amazement - and delight - when on my graduation from university, my mother presented me with both "Fancy Nancy" and the sequel, "Fancy Nancy in Disguise", which I had never read!  To this day it remains the best present I have ever received, and reading them still brings a big smile to my face.  Of course Nancy herself would now be in her 30's, but I'd stake my life on her still being quirky and interesting.  Kinda like me, actually...clearly she had even more of an impression than I thought!!

2) Katy Carr (from "What Katy Did" by Susan Coolidge)
For a book that was written in 1872, over a hundred years before I was born, Katy Carr certainly left an impression on me.  I had a beautiful blue hardback edition, comprising "What Katy Did" and one of its sequels, "What Katy Did Next" - the book was a fifth birthday present to me from our next door neighbours, who knew what a little bookworm I was, and I adored it.  Initially my excitement stemmed from the fact Katy had the same name as me, and that it was spelt the same way I spelled mine; once I started reading it, however, it was Katy Carr herself I came to love.  Not that she was a particularly nice character, at least not all the time; she starts off as a wild tomboy forever leading her brothers and sisters astray and trying to govern her bad temper (I hear ya, sister...); then she disobeys poor harassed Aunt Izzie and swings too high on the swing in the woodshed, which breaks, leading to poor Katy becoming An Invalid after she damages her spine.  She has to stay in bed and is so utterly miserable you can feel her despair; this, after all, was way before medical science had advanced to understand the treatment of spinal injuries.  When drippy, unbearably 'good' Cousin Helen comes to stay, who is also an invalid in a wheelchair (two invalids for the price of one!  What joy!!) Katy starts to realise life isn't all doom and gloom and turns her life around, becoming frustratingly drippy herself in the process.  She definitely becomes kinder, but loses something of her spark; clearly Katy Carr is no modern feminist icon but, in her early tomboy years and through her painfully-yet-beautifully written attempts to conquer her temper and "be good", she was without doubt my kind of girl.

3) Heidi (from "Heidi" by Johanna Spyri)
More invalids!!  Seriously, what was with all the invalids in those days...Written in 1880, "Heidi" has been a beloved children's classic almost from the moment it was published, and I was no exception.  Heidi always endeared herself to me; she was an incredibly self-possessed little girl, and who wouldn't want that idyllic life running around the Alps with Peter and the goats?  Heidi is smart as paint and incredibly loving; she also had a deeply-close bond with her grandfather, which was something I related to wholeheartedly.  She was also a reader, once she was taught by poor invalid Klara's grandmother, and that was something else I related to.  Plus I look wicked-cute in a dirndl.  Just sayin'...

4) Mildred Hubble (from "The Worst Witch" books by Jill Murphy)
Oh Mildred Hubble, how I adored thee.  I will not hear a bad word said about her.  Ever.  Ok, so she may not be the brightest and best of the students at Miss Cackle's Academy, but she's the one who saves the day in the end thanks to her initiative and that makes her all right by me.  Plus she was totally devoted to her equally-inept cat, Tabby; given that at the time I had two fairly useless specimens who I was nevertheless besotted with, I felt her pain.  Hermione Granger may have come along to steal her thunder at a later date, what with all her smarts and proto-feminist shiz, but Mildred Hubble was infinitely more lovable and just as capable of saving the whole school from disaster - Worst Witch, I salute you!!

5) Ramona Quimby (from the "Ramona" books by Beverly Cleary)
Ramona Q was the girl I wanted to be when I was her age.  Fearless, funny and just like every other five-to-eight year old kid on the planet, Ramona tries so very hard to be good yet always seems to end up in a pickle.  I adored her.  When Ramona started kindergarten (in "Ramona the Pest") I was starting in my Reception year at school; although Ramona was an American created in the 1950's she resonated incredibly clearly with me.  Just as Ramona struggled with having to sit still in class and learning to do handwriting, so did I, and there is something so incredibly human about her, which stems from Beverly Cleary's amazing writing.  I read all the books from "Ramona the Pest" through to "Ramona Quimby Age 8" and it was like having someone who knew exactly what I was going through without me even having to say it, or even really understanding what I was feeling.  Plus she was funny.  I mean really, really funny.  When I read Ramona to B, she laughed so hard she almost gave herself a nosebleed.  I count that as a success!!

6) Georgina "George" Kirrin (from the "Famous Five" books by Enid Blyton)
Tomboyish, headstrong, hot-tempered, loyal, courageous George.  She was easily the best character in the "Famous Five" books (well, apart from Timmy the dog, obviously, but that goes without saying) and there was something about her which tugged at my heart and fired my imagination.  Although I was something of a tomboy as a child it was never to the extremes George took it to, and I was certainly never as brave as she was; perhaps, deep down, she represented things I wished I was brave enough to be.  Enid Blyton's books certainly have their faults, and they are very much 'of their time', but whereas Anne was the drippy housewife-in-training of the Five, and Julian and Dick were smug and fairly boring (Julian more so; god, I wanted to smack him) it was the lonely, fierce, lovable George I adored.  I wept when she was sad, I cheered when she saved the day (which was often), and I laughed when she did something which drove the various adults in the books to distraction.  I have no truck with all these latter-day, retrospective analyses of the books which claim George had gender dysphoria and what-have-you; first of all Enid Blyton wouldn't have known what the hell that was, given that she was writing in the 40's and 50's; secondly, George was just George, and she never pretended to be anything other than who and what she was.  Bless you, George; you were a lifeline when I was laid up with my leg in plaster, and living vicariously through your adventures kept me sane.

7) Darrell Rivers (from the "Malory Towers" books) / Pat and Isabel O'Sullivan (from the "St Claire's" books; both by Enid Blyton)
Ok, so neither of these would ever win prizes for anything other than "Depiction of 40's/50's Upper-Middle-Class Smugness" - certainly not anything particularly feminist - but I was obsessed with these books as a child.  I loved the different girls in the schools, particularly wild Carlotta at St Claire's and sharp-tongued, uber-smart Alicia at Malory Towers, and reading about their adventures instilled in me a buning desire to go to boarding school.  Imagine my disappointment when I found out it wasn't all midnight feasts and practical jokes...Of course books set in an all-girls boarding school were bound to appeal to little girls looking for female characters, but their adventures were inspiring and I loved reading about them.  The fact I was also obsessed with Enid Blyton's "Circus" series and was convinced that St Claire's ex-circus girl Carlotta was the very same Lotta from that series was no coincidence; I never went to boarding school or ran away to join the circus but, thanks to these books, I sort of feel like I did.  In a very 1940's kind of way...

8) Nancy Drew (from the "Nancy Drew" books by 'Carolyn Keene')
Ohhh, Nancy Drew.  The smartest girl detective there ever was. Ok, so she was attractive and wealthy, (and it weren't for the fact that 'Carolyn Keene' was a pseudonym for a succession of ghostwriters you might be tempted to suggest Nancy was something of a Mary Sue since she was apparently so utterly brilliant at absolutely everything she did), but she had brains and by golly she wasn't afraid to use 'em.  You need some sleuthing done, Nancy Drew is your girl.  Once they introduced the character of Ned Nickerson there was a slight shift in that sometime he had to "save" Nancy from something (although she just as regularly "saved" him), and there have been plenty of critics over the years who contend Nancy was nothing more than a privileged white girl who never had to work a day in her life and stuck her nose into other people's business when really she should have just called the police and butted out, but those people are cynics who have no soul.  As a nine year old I was enchanted with Nancy Drew: she could just run off and solve mysteries whenever she felt like it; she was super-smart and energetic; and, most importantly, she was free-spirited, helping other people because she could, because she wanted to and because it was the right thing to do.  The cynics may try to run her down but Nancy will keep right on going, and that's the way it should be.  Hold on, Nancy, I'm just grabbing my magnifying glass...

9) Jo March (from "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott)
For a girl looking for a female-centric book, you can't go wrong with "Little Women".  Oh sure, Mr March is mentioned, and the girls get up to plenty of scrapes with neighbour Laurie and his tutor Mr Brooke, but the book is actually the story of the four March Girls and the insoluble bonds of sisterhood.  Oh sure, it flies in the face of feminism, what with Meg being Little Miss Goody-Goody who wants to be the perfect wife and mother, and Amy flitting around being looks-obsessed, and Beth who just, well, dies; the whole "self-sacrifice" theme of the book is enough to make any modern woman want to stick pins in her eyes before slapping some sense into the Marches by yelling "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU LOT?!!" but the entire book is redeemed in my eyes by the pure Literary Heroine Perfection that is Jo March.  Jo is not a goody-goody by any stretch of the imagination, and her hot temper lands her in trouble a lot, but she cares greatly for her family and is their staunchest defender.  The scene where she sells her hair to raise money to keep the family afloat sends shivers down my spine to this day; family is everything to Jo, something I identify with very strongly, and she never shies away from that.  Plus, of course, Jo is a writer, so from an early age I identified with that as well.  You can keep your consumptives and your drippy good girls; Jo is the March sister I want to be when I grow up...

10) Sally J Freedman (from "Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself" by The Incomparable Judy Blume
Ok, so first off a disclaimer: I adore Judy Blume.  She and the Equally Incomparable Jacqueline Wilson were the Literary Soundtrack of my pre-teen years; I have never known any other authors who seemed to be able to describe in almost exact detail just what was going on in my head.  (Whoever bought me Jacqueline Wilson's "The Suitcase Kid" should be sainted; that book helped me cope with and understand my parents divorce better than any 'conversation with a grown up' could).  That being said, it's the irrepressible Sally who makes my list of Literary Heroines; she is endlessly inventive with a wonderful imagination, and I absolutely adored her.  Plus she makes the list for the use of the phrase "love and other indoor sports", which I use to this day.  Thanks, Sally...

I have recommended/read all of these to B over the years; some she enjoyed, some she didn't ("Little Women" didn't quite cut it because apparently not even the 'awesome' Jo could cut through the 'drippiness' of the rest of it), but it's certainly been interesting seeing how characters which had such a strong impact on me have affected her.  It's also been interesting seeing the strong female characters she likes - Katniss, for example, who I think is a brilliant role model for girls if you leave out the 'having to kill people' bit - and the impact they've had on her.  I just hope all the amazing writers out there carry on creating such brilliant books for kids with these strong characters; they often have more of an impact on children and young people than you'd think, and if it makes them want to read then that's a really, really good thing...

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

In Which I Write A Short Story...

Some of you may remember that back in February I was planning on entering my first 'professional' writing competition, Mslexia's Short Story contest.  (To those of you who read and commented upon various drafts: thank you!!)  Well, I DID enter, which is quite something for me, and although I wasn't shortlisted I still feel a vague sense of satisfaction at the fact I actually took the plunge.  Since I am currently (still) procrastinating the "I-swear-it-will-be-finished-by-the-next-millennium-never-ending-steampunk-Jack-the-Ripper"-set novel rewrite, I thought I'd share my entry with you all.  Because I can.

So go on, little Short Story of mine, fly free.  Fly free!  Fly...oh for goodness sake, can't you leave without tripping over your shoelaces and embarrassing me?  Mind the lamppost!!  Yeah, this is definitely one of my creations...oh well...please feel free to throw stones at it if it comes near you...or, if for some perverse reason you like it, it will respond well to a light ruffling of its ears (as will its Author, coincidentally).

The Shopping Mall at the End of the World

He doesn't trust you...

I bit the thought back quickly. True though it may have been it was of no use to me now, and time wasn't exactly on our side.

He doesn't trust you, but he has to...

I glanced around, hoping it looked nonchalant enough.

“I'm not going to hurt you.”

My voice was paper-thin; the bruises round my neck made it hard for me to get enough air around my vocal chords to squeeze the words out, but if we were to both survive this I had to at least try. Clearing my throat, a noise so explosive it made it sound as though I were choking on a hairball, I spoke again.

“It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. You have to trust me.”

The boy was wary. I didn't blame him; it felt as if the whole world had recently shifted on its axis and I wasn't sure any of us knew which way was up any more. There was a haunted look in his eyes; he must have seen some things, I realised. Terrible things. Things no child should see...

“Where are your parents?”

He started at that, holding himself rigidly erect. His arms wrapped around his body as if to keep himself together; too late, I realised what I'd said.

“It's all right,” I repeated, softer this time. “I won't let them hurt you...”

His little face crumpled then. He could only have been six or seven, this child, painfully thin and with the grubbiness which seems endemic in small boys. His eyes, though...huge pools of green nothingness stared out of his pale face, menaced by some unseen memory lurking within. He took a hesitant shuffle towards me, then another, and another; the next thing I knew his arms held me in a vice-like grip as he sobbed soundlessly somewhere in the region of my shoulder.

Feeling slightly perturbed by my sudden additional appendage, I risked a glance around the side of the counter. Directly in front of me was the window of the shop front; beyond it I could see the glass doors of the Lakeland Heights Mall, the view of the lake partially obscured by an abandoned truck.

If I ever find out who decided to open a shopping centre in the middle of the god-damn Apocalypse, I will personally grate him or her into pieces and feed them to the fish...

Amusing though the idea was it wasn't especially helpful in my current predicament. Instead I turned to the boy, trying not to wince at the thought of all the snot which was probably accumulating on my favourite jacket.

“Ok, kid,” I said softly, putting an arm round him and trying not to freak out myself. “Say, what's your name, anyway?”

“L...Lukas,” he mumbled, blinking at me through a haze of snot and tears.

“I'm Anna. Listen, Lukas, we can't stay here.” I hoped I sounded like I knew what I was doing. “It's too dangerous. We need to go, ok?”

Actually what I wanted to do was stay hidden, but that wasn't exactly an option. And I couldn't leave Lukas to his own devices; he was too young, he'd never make it by himself.

What I really want is to wake up and find this is all just a bad dream, but the chances of that happening got blown to hell when the world ended...

“It's going to be fine,” I said to Lukas, hoping I was masking my feelings enough. “Stay close, ok, and do as I say, and we'll get out of here safely.”

“P...promise?” he sniffled.

Oh great. Just what I need – the fine line between promises and outright lies...

To Lukas, however, I merely nodded.

“Scout's honour. Ok, kid, let's do this.”

I crouched down on my hands and knees, motioning for Lukas to do the same. Keeping him on the side of me furthest from the glass, I nodded towards the door at the rear of the shop.

“See that? That's where we're going.”

He nodded mutely, still looking terrified.

Now or never...

Keeping a wary eye on the window I edged my way towards the steel door, Lukas right beside me. The mall was deathly silent but I wasn't fooled. Those monsters were out there, somewhere. They were coming.


The thought was as painful as Lukas' earlier death-squeeze had been, forcing the air sharply out of me with an unconscious moan.

He was out there, somewhere. He could be one of them...

I pushed that thought firmly from my mind. Jed wasn't stupid; he'd find a way to keep safe. No mindless killing machine was going to get the better of my boyfriend, that was for sure.

I had a sudden jolt of memory so forceful it made me moan again. The last time we went to the cabin...the cool mountain air so clean you felt like you were breathing pure heaven; the peculiar silence which was never really silent after all, only felt like it after living in the city...the day he asked me to marry him.

The day I hesitated...

I glanced down, realising my moans had spooked Lukas.

“It's ok,” I whispered, glancing over my shoulder. “Come on, help me.”

Between us we managed to get our fingers into the tiny gap between door and frame, hauling it open just enough to crawl through before closing it fully behind us. I'd seen my fair share of disaster movies. I knew what I was doing.

“Ok, Lukas, here we go.”

He looked astonished as I jumped up on one of the filing cabinets, ripping one of the vent covers off with my hands. Adrenaline gives you strength; when your life's on the line it could be the one thing standing between you and the Grim Reaper. And no offence to Death – I'd seen Bill and Ted, I thought he was pretty cool – but I wasn't ready to give up the fight just yet.

“What's up there?” Lukas asked.

“Vents. Can you get up here?”

He frowned, judging the height of the cabinet against his own small stature, and then nodded. Dragging a box of football helmets over he stood on top of it, stretching up so I could grab his hands and half drag, half swing him up beside me.

“Great job, Lukas. Come on, follow me...”

Scrambling up through the air vent I pulled him through as well, beckoning him to follow me. It was a bit of a squeeze but I managed it, crawling on hands and knees and trusting my instincts to take me back to where I'd started, before all this madness occurred.

We reached a junction in the vent system and paused while I tried to get my bearings. My contemplations were interrupted by a sudden gurgling sound. Lukas looked abashed.

“Hungry,” he muttered.

I felt a twinge of sympathy. I couldn't remember how long we'd been shut in this mall – it felt like months, but it couldn't have been – but I remembered feeling hungry. Jed and I had been on our way to the food court when it happened...


I schooled my face into what I hoped was a reassuring expression. Mum always said my face was like glass; it was why I was never privy to my brother's exploits growing up. If they got caught lying to Mum they knew they had a fifty-fifty chance of getting away with it, but if I'd been in on the plot...well, my face gave away the truth even as my mouth spoke the scripted lie.

I felt another twinge. Mum, Dad, my brothers...where were they now? Which side were they on? My brothers were all athletic, I was pretty sure they'd be able to outrun anything which came after them, but Mum and Dad...I didn't want to think about it.

I stopped thinking.

Lukas' stomach growled again.

“Ok, kiddo, let’s get you something to eat...”

I knew we were close to the food court. I knew because when it happened, when the world ended, Jed and I were approaching the escalator. He told me to run.

I ran.

I ran and I ran and I didn't stop running, not until I got inside the sports store and managed to hunker down behind the counter. I saw nothing.

I heard things, though...

One of the vents above the food court was loose. I managed to lift it up, wincing as I took in the state of my broken, bloody nails.

How long have we been trapped here...?

Before I could reach for the answer my brain was already straining towards, my stomach gurgled. Lukas' growled in reply. We both giggled.

“Hold on a sec...”

I stuck my head out of the vent.

The smell of rotting flesh almost made me vomit. Beneath me the food court was like a mortuary, bodies trapped in their last rituals of normality, frozen in fear.

The kid can't see this.

The thought was fleeting but crystal-clear. Lukas could not see this. I didn't want to see it, but too late for that.

I turned my attention back to the matter at hand. Nothing was moving down below; that was a good sign.

I looked at Lukas.

“Close your eyes, kiddo. I'll go first then pull you through, ok?”

He nodded.

I dropped down out of the vent, landing on a table directly beneath us.

“Ok, Lukas.”

He wriggled forward and I stretched up, half dragging him through as we collapsed on the table.

“What's that smell?”

“Eyes shut, Lukas.”

“I’m still hungry.”

“Stay here.”

Hopping off the table I went behind the counter of one of the ubiquitous burger chains. The stuff looked reasonably fresh, so I grabbed a couple of bits for us both before towing Lukas out of harm’s way. He ate the lukewarm meat like he was starving whilst I idly gnawed at mine.

Think. I needed to think.

They'd come back, I knew they would. Besides, we couldn't stay in here forever. Food supplies would run out and the smell...yeuch!

People got out. Perhaps Jed...

“I need to find my boyfriend,” I said decidedly. “And have family, right? Grandparents?”

He nodded, and I made up my mind.

“Right. Grandparents. We'll find them.”

Lukas looked suddenly afraid.

They're out there.”

“I know. But they'll be in here too, soon. We have to go.”

He hesitated. I couldn't blame him, but I wouldn't wait either. My survival instinct was kicking in.

Still, I was oddly gratified when he nodded.

We crawled slowly on hands and knees through the abandoned, silent shopping mall. The stench of death was everywhere; I hadn't noticed it before but now it was all I could smell.

We were making for the side entrance. The front of the mall was too dangerous but the side...I'd seen people get out that way as I ran. We could get out that way too.

We had to...

I found it easily. The door was shut. I turned to Lukas.

“When I open this door, run.”

Taking a breath I pushed down hard on the handle, forcing the door open. It swung outward; momentarily dazzled by the brightness of the sun I paused, but then I heard a noise and started.

They're here...

Lukas! Run!!!

He ran. I was right behind him, making for the nearby woods, when I heard them coming. That noise...god, it was so loud. How could those...things make so much noise?!

There was no time to think. I couldn't. I had to act.

Run, Lukas!

I didn't see him go. I stopped, turning round to face them. If I could distract them, draw them away, Lukas would stand a chance.

There was a pack of them behind me. They scented blood; they were moving in for the kill.

I'm not afraid...

My fists clenched. I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of knowing I was scared. I could hear moaning; a low keening noise which, I realised with a start, was coming from me.

I crouched down. Tensed.


I looked up. That voice...I knew that voice. I knew the face, too; brown eyes filled with a sudden sadness as he looked at me.

“Oh no,” he whispered. “Anna...”


My heart leapt and I jumped to my feet.

“Stay back!”

The voice wasn't Jed's.

The gun was.

The flash from Jed's shotgun dazzled me. The bullet, fired so close, entered my skull right between the eyes, lodging in the soft tissue of my brain.


I could feel the bullet and then, so overwhelmingly it conquered everything else, I remembered...

The zombies attacking the mall. Jed telling me to run. The panic. The terrible screaming.

Being cornered.

Hands at my throat.

Being bitten...

With sudden clarity I realised the truth. The moaning. The smell of death. The hunger.

They turned me!!

I staggered forward, feeling the bullet working its redemptive spell.

My eyes cleared.


Jed's expression changed. I knew he saw it, the zombie leaving and the old me returning.

It was too late.

The moans, the screams...all was still.


At last, silence...