Lockdown Update: Welcome to half-way through the year

Opinion seems divided on whether or not lockdown in the UK is resulting in a surge of creativity, a surge of Netflix bingeing, or absolutely no change whatsoever barring a sudden desire to eat more crisps. Apparently in the eyes of whoever collates this information these things are mutually exclusive, and many very tiresome newspaper columnists of the sort who get paid £800 a column to write nothing edifying or even funny have made pronouncements of the “no one is really baking sourdough bread and learning Duolingo Latin, we’re all binge-watching TV, haha, aren’t I relatable” variety.

I rather think that all that’s happened is that people have reverted to what they find most comforting that’s actively available to to them in this period. For some people that’s binge-watching TV, because that’s what they’re into anyway (Long Suffering Boyfriend has run out of TV and is now marathoning the Aliens movies to supplement his usual diet of games and his recent hobby of doing pushups at 6am; The Resident Australian has acquired a wrist brace and gone back to drawing while watching YouTube videos, and taken up doing pushups at about 12pm). For me, someone who for reasons which I suspect actually constitute a neurological disability, cannot watch TV without being highly stressed and talking constantly, that means I have been churning out fiction as if my life depended on it.

I’ve also taken up doing push-ups in the living room in the time when the others aren’t, but we’re going to look at the writing.

One of the most important changes I’ve made to my writing life this year has been to return to fundamentals of style and technique, which saw me start the year with writing exercises, transition into writing things for my own consumption without a thought of potential audience (this is ongoing, and has seen me write over 50,000 words since I started–all longhand, at a glacial pace), and most recently has resulted in taking inspiration from my more ambitious reading material to return to another lesson from university: look at different ways of telling a story.

Delving back into structure, narrative, literary Dadaism, concepts like the antinovel, experimental fiction and literary rather than genre-specific approaches to writing has been a breath of fresh air for me. The last time a book’s germinus came about from a specific idea about structure was when I tried to envision a book in which the passage of a core plot was relegated to its rightfully unimportant place in the lives of most of the characters that it passed through.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the 11 years or so since finishing Pass the Parcel working on plotting because I was very aware that it’s a weak point. I have spent a lot of time trying to pursue more naturalistic and less forced plot progression because I am aware it’s a weak point. I’ve approached a lack of desire to research and I’ve made myself comfortable with the “why not” approach to casting characters (“does anything about the plot require this character to have the privileges of a white, male, able-bodied cis man for it to be able to function? Then that’s not what that character is”) and I have in the last couple of years done the following:

  1. a full, page-by-page plot breakdown of someone else’s book followed by a page-by-page rebuild of a similar plot with completely different features to it.
  2. gotten to grips with the short story format a little better, rather than just writing vignettes, and taken on “this thing needs to express an idea and imply an entire world”.

And I’d argue that this, in addition to making the uneasy acquaintance of things like “in-depth planning”, “editing”, and “no seriously, more editing”, has seen a serious improvement in the quality of work. However, by last year it also shoved me into a rut and made me bored.

Laying aside the usual concerns has allowed me to concentrate more fully on returning to things that invigorate my imagination, and almost as a by-product resulted in a lot of other, more normal work being shaken loose!

And it also inspired some art:

Transcription for screenreaders:

From the surface, Earth feels limitless and permanent, which is perhaps why it took so long to accept that it is not immobile at the centre of the universe.
“I’m very excited,” says Frank.
There may be very few places in the average galaxy where atoms have come to contemplate atoms. / But technology will advance very quickly over the next few hundred years.
It took seven years for The culmination of a long-held
view of the cosmos, made of ice.

With the sun’s powerful rats eclipsed
gravity of other celestial bodies
reveals an icy floodplain.

We are hungry for unknown aspects of a solid, flat surface carpeted with / a thin golden line in the dark.

by firing an electron atmosphere was tinged with less–than meets the eye.

kaleidoscopic ball above like beads on a string. / From space, our world appears finite and fragile, a tumbling grain of dust.

We can see the virus here thanks.

Transcription for screenreaders:

FIGHTERS Fairy tales

As a city kid, / based on a century-old idea:

a vast forest, impassable roads seemed to disappear

elk and wolves, / began to shrink.

They were hunters, / drugs that strip / the category of family, / hunt and kill foreign invaders.

That’s a physical representation of / blocks in its way,

and is armed to / be able to target more

“because you need silence.”

Transcription for screenreaders:

drought, and overuse

clusters of abandoned / stranded; the fish / born of drought.

like ice cream in a freezer that has melted / into thin air

warm water encourages growth.

air was lip-chapping dry / across the lake flooded

Water that once spread / nourishing rivers.

shrunk to a sliver / and worsening drought.

Winds that whip across / for the return of their dried-up lake.


On the “more normal writing” front, I’m delighted to also be able to announce that an excerpt from a longer project, When Someone Speaks Your Language, will be included in New Smut Project‘s forthcoming flash-fiction erotica anthology, Erato: Flash Fiction. I’m very excited to see the other work I’ll be appearing alongside–New Smut Project have a great dedication to erotica with character and imagination, and humanity. I’ve had the good fortune to have published with them previously, under the romance/erotica pseudonym Melissa Snowdon, in anthology Between The Shores (still available!), but this is the first time I’ll have published with this excellent imprint under my own name. Hopefully not the last, however, as they’re great people to work with.

Language Control

Good day to you, fellow coronaprisoners. I’m here to abuse my captive audience by talking about talking. Having a chat about having a chat. That sort of thing. The question is, is “that sort of thing” my words? And if not, whose words are they?

An element of creative writing timewasting, as I think it’s probably appropriate to refer to the rising debt with the student loans company that i incurred for three years of drinking and the most useless BA ever to have been granted, is the identification of your literary influences, practising on the determination of the literary influences of others. Mine are nakedly evident enough that complete strangers have accurately picked them out of examples of my writing–which either says something very complimentary about the once much-prized chameleonic capacity of a fanfic writer, or something very uncomplimentary about my inability to establish my own voice without relying on the linguistic tropes and tendencies of other, better writers.

It’s that last part that I want to look into now. Not so much in fiction, although it feeds into fiction the same way that every single experience and thought eventually contributes to the works produced by any given individual (and which is also why no two stories are ever going to be identical unless you actually copy out another word-for-word, and that is why yes, you should have a crack at an idea someone else has “already had”, for goodness’ sakes).

What I want navigate is the origins of habits of speech (for example: when I started this sentence, I originally phrased it as “What I want to have a navigate of”–this seems much less formal, but also indicative of a certain mindset, a habitual “nouning of the verb” which was in vogue in some internet social circles about ten years ago), and how to alter them to alter the perceived self.

I am no fan of linguistic determinism — in its logical extreme you have to ask how the hell we ever developed language in the first place — and I stringently dislike one of the more benign neuro-linguistic programming drivel ideas, that of “affirmations”, the concept of brain-washing yourself with concepts conveyed through typically syrupy and irritating language. One function that changing the way one talks has, however, is changing the group affiliations one has or is perceived to have.

At this point most people who have been on the internet for five minutes are familiar with terms like “dogwhistle” (the encoding of seemingly unrelated topics into phrases which will be understood by those from a specific sub-group, “calling up” the rest of a phrase or concept like using a whistle only dogs can hear) or “code switching” (a speaker moving between one dialect or register reserved for one group of people to another dialect or register reserved for another group of people. Typically one group will be more intimate than another or less hostile, for which a less-penetrable dialect/register to outsiders will be used, with the original definition of switching between discrete languages at the far end of the spectrum), and so on. It’s also possible if you’ve been about on the internet much you’ll have observed the linguistic changes occasioned by the gradual switch to global written communication in real-time described in Because Internet.

A visible example of what I am about to get at is a kind of generational strata of written communication online: a joke which has circulated several social media sites by now is the ease with which it’s possible to determine whether a “speaker” comes from the arbitrary generational categories of “boomer”, “gen x”, “millennial”, or “gen z/zoomer” based on how they communicate in informal text. There is certainly a grain of truth in this, but there are several other visible calibrations: social class/cultural considerations, the specific etiquette and norms of specific channels of communication, and the intended audience. The latter, of course, is true of all forms of communication: we don’t speak in the same way to strangers at a party as friends at a gathering, to partners at home, to children, to parents, to colleagues, to bosses, to classmates, to educators, to our medical care-givers. There is a wealth of “instinctive” social linguistic adjustment in each transition, and it usually takes the transplantation to a new culture with new rules or the acute social observation of someone who learns this “manually” to point out that it’s not at all instinctive.

In public spaces where a variety of voices are audible (or visible, online) we signal our affiliations to each other in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is word choices. To use a blunt example, the words “homosexual”, “gay”, and “queer” all carry different information about the speaker. Some of it may be generational, but–for example–a non-binary person may feel a lot less secure in the company of “gay” than “queer”, and most people who fall under the umbrella of LGBTQIA will distance themselves from users of “homosexual” where possible. There’s also the reclamation of terms of abuse given particular contexts: “faggot” in one person’s mouth is an extremely different proposition to another’s.

But this a bulldozer and the calibrations I’m thinking of are less obvious. Think about how language works a moment. How it changes. How neologisms and new coinings get into your vocabulary and become something you either unthinkingly use, begrudgingly accept, or self-consciously reject. Some represent marketing minds turned to politics (“Brexit”, for example), while others act in a more devious manner, introducing and associating ideas which then become normal (“ethnic cleansing” as a euphemistic, less-appalling-somehow version of “genocide” despite the absolute parity in actual behaviour; or the association of human beings with vermin by the use of dehumanising language like “swarm” or “tide” and categorising words of activity careful to avoid words like “people” which later give way to adjectives; “immigrants” then becomes “illegals”, focused not on the action but the assumption of how it was achieved, dragging associations further and further away from the guilt-inspiring “people”).

The same is true of language used in its social identification. Closed social codes aren’t always as impenetrable to outsiders as Polari (the partially Roma-derived, partially Cockney-evolved gay slang/cant of the mid-20th century), and in a world long-used to mass communication what began as a mode of communication for one group of people becomes a novelty for another, and then a “cool” way of talking, and then finally the norm. There is a conspicuous pipeline now from African-American women’s conversational habits through to white drag queens to white straight women which is only partially occasioned by the popularity of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, although that has certainly helped.

Every culture and subculture has its shibboleths, and usually when they become widely-used they’re abandoned and replaced, often the source of derision to the same cultural sections which once relied on them: very few self-identified “nerds” still think the ability to quote large chunks of Monty Python sketches verbatim qualifies as a status determinant, for example.

Without digressing too much: memes absolutely constitute semi-verbal fast-evolving shibboleths with the interesting caveat that meme mutation and social media platform jumping have set boundaries (not always adhered to, but visible).

Linguistic group-signalling can be quite subtle, often unconscious. For example, I don’t think the die-hard, Gen X Buffy fans of my acquaintance necessarily know that they’re signalling their age and former affiliations so clearly with sentences that by now naturally mimic the then-novel formations used by Joss Whedon (“get stabby”, “and this sentence? Has a question in the middle that answers itself”), but they are, and it allows them to find each other. It also paints a specific image.

A one-stop shop for often cruel lampooning of social image broadcasting through language can be found among the first genuinely online generation, those who were brought up with internet access as a given, and with the reasonable expectation that they were under observation at all times. It’s produced a generation extremely savvy to and obsessed with image projection and capable of tracking/analysing minutiae of known shibboleths–a useful skill in a world in which dogwhistling of increasingly hostile groups is a possibility.

Fortunately, writing journals and other self-analysis skills inculcated by the useless degree allow for things like this self-definition project: the analysis (probably private) of my own language use, and my ongoing discovery that in my laziness in associating on different brevity-valuing social media platforms and my general and fairly human desire to fit in with the various different and not hugely overlapping social groups I’ve acquired over the course of my life, I’ve acquired a kind of coating of linguistic tropes and tendencies. Which is all well and good, except it feels increasingly as if I am not speaking in my own self, but rather a self wearing a series of ugly and increasingly ill-fitting clothes as a camouflage, in an attempt to avoid being ill-treated or singled out.

And that is a habit formed in times that aren’t relevant any more. As someone with more confidence in the validity of my own thoughts, opinions, and most importantly in the likelihood of my welcome from friends regardless of my personal oddness and any unusual idiolect, I think it might be time that I had a go at a kind of “Konmari” on my vocabulary or verbal habits, asking myself “does this phrase spark joy or does it in fact make me feel as if I am participating in a giant social pantomime, a role play game in which I and everyone around me am locked into a series of pre-defined types and positions from which we are afforded no release?”

Also it’s really limiting my ability to write as well as I want to, to have my neurological pathways purely determined by a limited register of expression honed around the need to streamline myself into particular moulds for the comfort of others, especially when those others are often strangers with a pre-disposition to hostility.

Which is like, totally shitty.

Plague Posting

As the world takes on a somewhat different cast these days I thought I’d give everyone a quick update on my general state of being and a brief assurance that I’m definitely not dead.

Doing

  • Still editing the manuscript known tentatively as “Eggs & Rice”
  • Gently plugging away at a low-effort long-term writing project which may or may not ever bear book-shaped fruit
  • Producing the odd short story and poem for markets that may or may not accept them (titles including “The Black Orchid Chandelier” and “Down Time”), and submitting those.
  • Writing on my pro blog about Art in the Time of Plague
  • Refusing to look at any helpful videos as I attempt to problem-solve my way through to bookbinding via trial and error
  • Learning to climb trees, a respectable and sensible activity for  man approaching 40
  • Working on my long-term comics project with collaborator Emma Weakley (located in Aotearoa New Zealand, also under lockdown).

Recommendations

  • If you’re morbidly capable of taking in contagion & pandemic media right now, I wrote a book four years ago on this exact subject: The Next Big One. It addresses a much less contagious but considerably more deadly (fictional) illness than COVID-19, and looks at the swathe of responses from different media sources and individuals to living through a pandemic. At the time, my primary sources were the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and the AIDS crisis of my youth; I have to say, living through this now, I may have been a little too optimistic about the overall moral foundations of the country’s press… you can tell that I wrote it before I’d spent much time working in media monitoring!
  • If you’re feeling the absolute opposite and would rather never hear anything about a pandemic again, the opening paragraphs of the above-mentioned blog post on Art in Time of Plague collates arts livestream and virtual gallery tours for those under lockdown, and my personal favourite nonsense TV, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, is on Netflix in its entirety.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the aquarium with the best social media presence, has livestreams of many of its creatures. I’m personally a big fan of the jellyfish.
  • If you don’t have the attention span for crochet or the mathematical skills for knitting, you can always learn how to macrame.

In future days, when I haven’t wasted all of my time exploring disused railway lines instead of actually putting any work into the aforementioned projects, using the excuse “I need to get exercise and the gym is closed”, I hope to have a post ready. Suggestions welcome!

Cui Bono? What can we infer from press ownership, and who owns Britain’s news?

There is a well-known Soviet-era joke about newspapers. In Moscow, there were two papers. Pravda (Truth), and Izvestia (News). And as the saying goes: if it’s in Izvestia it’s not Truth, and if it’s in Pravda, it’s not News. Like most jokes, it reveals something about the culture it comes from, in this case a healthy distrust for press information in a society with infamously strong state control over newspapers.

In the UK, there is an apparently plurality of information sources, catering to a variety of different views as much as they shape them. We suffer from an apparent plague of trustworthy news sources, all contradicting each other.

There are a couple of stand-out offenders in the “not actually reporting the news” arena: The Daily Mail probably the most infamous. It has a low trust rating, a high level of complaints, and climbing profits because it figured out a hundred years before the internet how to monetize Outrage Clicks interspersed with cute dogs.

We shall take as a given that there is no such thing as unbiased reporting; even the choice to report or not on a subject constitutes a bias, long before we get into issues such as framing, language use, editorialising, speculation, opinion bleed and so on. In order to get a good idea of what biases we can likely expect from a news source, it’s a good idea to find out who and what controls the news.

In places like the former Soviet Union, this was easy. The Party controlled the Press, and the Press reported the truth as they determined it would be. In the UK, with much-vaunted freedom of the press* and litigant-favouring libel laws which in theory keep misinformation in check**, this is much harder.

* However, the UK remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe, and a number of worrying trends continued, particularly in relation to national security, surveillance, and data protection.
** Daily Mail tops the list of Independent Press Standards Organisation Corrections for the third year running

  • The Daily Mail is owned by the Daily Mail & General Trust, of which Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere is the chair and controlling shareholder. Harmsworth is a nom-domiciled citizen.
  • The Daily Express, Daily Star and The Mirror, as well as Scotland’s Daily Record, are all owned by Reach, formerly the Trinity Mirror group. The Mirror was originally a Harmsworth Publication, and the Express was previously owned by pornographer Richard Desmond; as part of the Competition & Markets Authority’s requirements for the acquisition of the Express, Reach (then Trinity Mirror) had to leave it as a standalone concern, effectively meaning its editorial policies have not changed. The CEO of Reach is Jim Mullen, and the chair is Nicholas Prettejohn.
  • The Barclay brothers, non-domiciled billionaries, currently own the Daily Telegraph, although as of October 26th 2019 it has been rumoured they are placing the title and its Sunday variant up for sale due to declining revenues.
  • The Times and The Sun are owned, ultimately, by News Corp. News Corp is run by Australian-born American citizen Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. Murdoch inherited the beginnings of his media empire from his father, Keith.
  • The Independent and the Evening Standard are owned by Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev.
  • The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese company Nikkei. Chairman and CEO of the Nikkei group is Tsuneo Kita.
  • The Guardian is owned by the Guardian Media Group. The group is wholly owned by Scott Trust Limited, which exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity.
  • The Morning Star, the UK’s only far-left newspaper of note, has been owned by the People’s Press Printing Society since 1945. The PPPS is a readers’ cooperative.
  • The New Statesman, technically a magazine rather than a newspaper although often treated as a newspaper, is owned by Mike Danson, who also owns Globaldata.

It’s not just who owns papers that matters, but how they get their money. The Twitter-based activist collective @StopFundingHate, for example, uses the interests of advertisers to “nudge” newspapers away from publishing racism, homophobia, and other forms of derogatory speech against protected characteristics by contacting the companies whose products or services are placed in juxtaposition with these articles, asking “is this what you want your brand to be associated with?”. In some instances this has led to companies pulling their advertising contracts from the offending newspapers, choking a certain amount of revenue. It is debatable whether this achieves the long-term aims of the group, that of removing the inflammatory use of bigotry to drive traffic to news sites and therefore pollute public discourse with unacceptable and usually fringe viewpoints. However, it is an example of the way in which capitalist structures do not have to solely serve one group of people.

The majority of newspapers draw their revenue from advertising, especially the tabloid press (a group usually comprised from UK nationals: The Mirror, The Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Daily Express, with The Daily Star as a lesser-impact tabloid) and some are supplemented through subscriptions and other sources, which are exclusive to broadsheets and periodicals.

Of the above list, The Morning Star, Times, Telegraph, New Statesman and Financial Times operate on a full subscription access model for their online versions to augment advertising revenues. The Guardian offers a voluntary subscription service modelled after Wikipedia’s donation drives, and the Independent offers a premium subscription with access to additional content.

With the above information, it is easy enough to find–in the public domain and accessible via most good search engines–conflicts of interest that may lead to altered reporting or the suppression of stories. Although it is advisable not to give too much credence to complex sociopolitical explanations for news publishing choices–the primary role of any news media agency is to sell papers (or, online, to drive traffic to its site and keep it there)–following the money can help to make sense of more baffling suppressions of inherently newsworthy stories, especially those wherein there is little-to-no risk of a valid libel suit*. Connections between properties owned or heavily invested-in by newspaper owners or indeed editors are therefore a reasonable starting place for understanding omissions and editorial distortions.

Some of these connections are highly visible: the Times is unlikely to criticise Sky News, another News Corp company; Lebedev’s Evening Standard editor, former chancellor George Osborne, is an indication of interest. However, there are more difficult connections to be sought out. Webs of connections between politicians, newspaper owners, and heavyweight donors may only be traceable by full-time journalists like Carole Cadwalladr; many companies’ true ownership are buried behind a string of shell companies. While these are usually designed for the purpose of limiting the amount of tax due to any given country’s administration, they do have the secondary benefit of concealing interests and promoting the view of specific individuals or news sources as disinterested third parties.

While less centrally financially-controlled publications such as the Guardian may appear to be less dictated by the interests of companies with direct shared ownership to the newspaper, it is worth considering that a the media trust’s investments must be nurtured to provide adequate funding to run the newspaper and pay its staff. Adversely affecting/prejudicing the returns of those investments would be counterproductive to the paper–even before considering the individual biases of editorial staff.

It may therefore be worth triangulating media consumption between economic biases to some degree. To my mind, a reasonable balance can be achieved by reading the Financial Times (biases: largely the making of money in a highly capitalist global society), the Morning Star (biases: Marxist), and a news agency of some kind–for preference Press Association/Associated Press over Thomson Reuters. This will still not necessarily give you an unbiased through line of fact, but it will at least ensure that all your information doesn’t come from the interests of one company.

* To understand what may constitute a libellous story, or one which can feasibly be sued over, I cannot recommend McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists highly enough.

Additional advice: avoid articles which report solely on an emotive reaction to something, or which are simply a reworded press release (“a source says”); be aware that “think tanks” or “pressure groups” are usually funded from uncertain sources and with unknown aims (The Taxpayers Alliance is a very good example of this). A think-tank with a clear mission statement is preferable to one which uses vague terms. Do not neglect local newspapers, but be aware that the majority are owned by one single company. And, where possible, seek out your own confirmation. We live in a golden age for access to journalists. Make the most of it: not all of them are corrupt.

Taken as a whole, the view on the UK’s print media is stark. Many newspapers are owned by individuals (usually via some tax-avoidance strategy boards), and those individuals are rarely, if ever, tax-paying UK citizens. For unbiased information on taxation effects, for example, I would not recommend a reader turning to the Telegraph, Times, or the Independent, even less so any of the tabloids. Connections between political parties and particular press outlets are also vexatious: the original intention of a free press was to hold Parliament and the ruling parties of the country to account. If newspaper owners are allowed to give large donations to specific political parties, it calls into question the lens of reporting from those newspapers. It will, however, be hard to win an election without the support of the major UK publications, particularly on a platform that explicitly threatens the model of donations in secret.

For the sake of remaining informed, rather than misled, I would strongly advise not reading UK newspapers, and concentrating on press agencies instead.

 

Inspiration Station

Since my last book came out and chaos descended all over the country in its most unedifying of forms, I’ve taken a vow to spend more time looking at art (and promptly broken that vow by picking up overtime at work), I’ve started compiling a poetry collection, and turned towards trying to fill my brain back up with things, or what Terry Pratchett referred to as “blind research”.

Here, then, are a few of the things I have consumed or am in the process of consuming:

  • Foundation, by Peter Ackroyd; the first of Ackroyd’s ambitious histories of England. Charming and poetic in an understated way, it begins with the very first intimations of human settlement in England and ends up… with the Tudors. That’s a lot of scope. Currently I’m watching John I fuck things up repeatedly. Ackroyd has these subtly emotionally destructive turns of phrase and dry humour that I’m enjoying a lot.
  • Homo Britannicus, by Chris Stringer. The Ancient Habitation of Britain project’s findings, and also the history of the study of pre-history. Sometimes a bit overwhelming both in the sense of the sheer depth of time being surveyed, sometimes in the sense of the amount of numbers being used (I have this infuriating brain problem where I stop being able to read things if there are too many numbers in the text), but never in terms of the prose, which is highly accessible and occasionally quite funny, if only because 19th century scientists truly, truly were a bonkers collection of people.
  • Discovering Scarfolk, by Richard Littler. Some light relief in terms of the amount of mental energy required to read it, although not in tone. Scarfolk’s occult and folk horror stylings riven with 70s nostalgia & presented in the form of an exploration of a found document is a nice reminder of the different formats fiction can take, and also (possibly intentionally) mirrors some of the presentation of the somewhat more high-brow House of Leaves.
  • Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. I tore through this in about two days–a very short book–and the film which is based upon it only really contains some echoes of what the novella is actually about. It’s an ambitious, cold kind of read with a narrator who is deliberately detached from the reader while being present and first-person. The relentlessness and complete alien nature of the discoveries being made makes for a very stressful read but they’re also part of what makes it so compelling.
  • The Construction of Homosexuality, by David. F Greenberg. A very dense and somewhat out of date (published in 1988) sociology text examining the history and global conception of “homosexuality” as a social category, using deviance & labelling theory, Greenberg’s book is in part a welcome return to long-ago learnt concepts from my secondary education-level sociology classes, in part a fascinating overview of (what was known at the time) about the history and anthropology of same-sex attraction/sexuality around the world and as far back as can be remembered, and in part a frustrating catalogue of the failures of a white cis man to get to grips with non-white gender identities and the concept of sexualities and genders not lining up directly with the penetrator/pentrated axis that permeates many conceptions of these things even now. It’s highly ambitious and very long.
  • The Mindscape of Alan Moore is an indepth narrated tour around Alan Moore’s concept of magic and consciousness; this was accompanied by multiple interviews (Stewart Lee & Alan Moore; Alan Moore & John Higgs; Alan Moore & Michael Moorcock; and this homely little chat for starters, which touch on a number of adjacent subjects; I had forgotten how laconic & genuinely funny Alan Moore can be)
  • Stewart Lee on writing — or rather on “not writing”; in an address to students Lee–out of his stage persona for once–talks about the history of stand-up comedy in the twentieth century, its relationship in the UK to fluctuations in arts funding and how that’s affected how comedians conceptualise themselves and their work, and his approach to writing, or indeed not-writing, a set. It is a genuine joy both in this and in other of his interviews to see how much thought he puts into the structure and pacing of his work.
  • The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen (read by Edward French).
  • Dr Euan Mackie’s lecture on the work of Alexander Thom at Megalithomania / Archaeastronomy and The Megalith Builders sees apparent archaeastronomological renegade Dr Mackie explain his tests, both planned and “accidental” of theories put forward by Alexander Thom on the function of megaliths in Scotland, and their accuracy as astrological clocks. As I knew approximately nothing about the subject going in, the immediate overlying narrative of academic warfare gave the whole thing an added layer of interest which helped augment the detective-story shape that excavations often have in the retelling.

Seasons Greasons

From me, my household, and the disproportionately large IKEA stuff bear currently straddling my lap while I type: I hope you have a pleasant 25th of December, whatever you are doing with it. I hope you have a relaxing festive perineum, whether at work or at home or on holiday or, I suppose, on the space station. And I fervently hope that 2020 is better for the majority of the people of the world than 2019 was.

And, since hoping is rarely enough, may 2020 be the year that we start acting to en masse to have a slightly more equitably-distributed Good Time.

Autopsy of a Failure: How Not To Write

Every year since 2006 I’ve participated in and completed NaNoWriMo. Using the month of concerted, frenzied activity to push myself into focusing and finishing, I’ve always used the challenge to get a solid first draft done for later editing.

This year, I didn’t, for the first time.

I started, but I didn’t finish.

(Alright, in 2006 and 2009 I didn’t finish my draft but did hit the word count; in 2006 I came back to the story and finished it, and the result is The Other Daughter, whereas in 2009 my attempted sequel to Pass The Parcel, tentatively titled Musical Chairs, stalled at 80,000 words and only the bare beginnings of a plot, and I gave it up as a bad job–but that doesn’t sound as dramatic).

In fact, I wasn’t even two weeks into the challenge when I threw up my hands and declared that I was, in the words of a familiar meme, straight up not having a good time, bro.

That, incidentally, was the deciding factor. Not time constraints (for the first time in several years I was trying to balance concerted full-time work with writing, as I couldn’t take any time off this year), but loss of enthusiasm. I can–and indeed have, when writing the first and second halves of Pass the Parcel–work around a full-time job to get a draft written in the time allotted to me. It’s tricky, but when the will is there, the way can be found. The challenge becomes a joy.

In this case, I was getting absolutely no joy out of the experience. I couldn’t get words out. Every single sentence was a walking nightmare: the motto of NaNoWriMo is usually given as just Get The Words Out, which is very liberating for a lot of people–not to have to struggle with concepts of quality, to uncork and unclench and just assure themselves that they’re capable of writing that much, that consistently,. on one project.

The problem is that if I see what’s coming out of me and know that it is complete sludge, no amount of “giving myself permission to suck” will erase the fact that future me is going to have to edit that. “Fix it in post” applies to factual research, names I can’t remember, individual words I can’t find at the moment I need to find them in–bits that can be blocked out in the original draft as I zoom past them in the joy of pursuing the plot and hanging out with the characters.

When, however, the language feels like lead pellets and the characters are pretty much lifeless and flat in my palms, there’s not likely to be a remedy short of throwing the whole book away.

I’m trying to work out how it came to this point. The portion of the year spent on world-building and exploration was fun and interesting. I just appear to have forgotten how to convey information about a world in a narrative. The portion of the year spent on writing things about characters was interesting; but I completely missed any attempt at writing with them.

Part of the reason I had dead characters with dead voices is that I never trialled them, and part of the reason that I didn’t trial them was lack of authorial acoustics. I’ve never subscribed to the Ivory Tower model; of bookwriting, and like to take lots of people along with me even for the first draft ride, to get plentiful feedback as I’m writing, to help me see where I might be missing things, or which characters aren’t developing in the way that I want them to. Even before the first draft, being able to talk out plot holes, advertise and expand characters to an audience, and wrestle with what themes are actually contained in my story at the planning stage with someone who is genuinely interested is a great help!

It’s also a great confidence-booster, and the sad fact is that since last year where–through no one’s fault so much as through bad timing and communication mishaps–I couldn’t find anyone to step into either the first draft readership or planning stages for my draft, I began to feel discontent with writing, and convinced nothing I was doing was any good.

The year that followed saw me writing even less, and planning less, and losing confidence hand-over-fist in what I was producing. Which is bizarre, because I was also being paid to write content for an app and a blog. The authorial ego is a very fragile thing!

How to undo this?

Well, there is a question! So far, having had a good response to the publication of Architects of the Flesh, and working on a private commission for a friend’s Christmas present, in which I’m genuinely freed from all judgment but hers (including my own!) has given me a little confidence back.

So has being straight-up hassled by a different friend about a project I’ve been putting off writing, and talking over that same project with a different friend and getting exactly the intelligent, critical questions I needed to work out one of the things I’d been getting wrong with it.

So I’m cautiously optimistic that next year will bring me a slightly better and more committed run at it.

For some people, “just let yourself be bad at it, but finish it” is what’s liberating. For me, haunted by the spectre of god knows how many “you give up too easily” complaints in my youth and therefore punishing myself into finishing things neither I nor anyone else enjoys me doing, it’s accepting that I’m allowed to quit when something’s not fun any more. Writing should be fun, at least most of the time, even if there are the odd off days when you’re not inspired and have to go sweat instead, or feel like a complete imposter and you’re sure that nothing that comes out can be at all good–if those days are all the time, it might just be that the project is not right.

A break for your daily language lesson

I realised recently that my use of Duolingo is largely ritualistic. Catalyst for this was French getting a whole bunch of bullshit added: not proper lessons, just individual words and stuff being added to Basic so that all my progress got wiped out of level 1 and I have to do all the additional stuff. Now, each time I finish those skills I get a Lingot, so if I were *grinding* (as Yon Gamers Say), I’d be pleased I had an easy way to build up Lingots. If I were merely interested in progress, I’d be using my massive Lingot stash for streak freezes and buying bonus skill rounds. If I were truly dedicated to actually learning I’d be consuming Turkish especially outside of the app, but I’m basically not stretching myself at all. It’s just a morning ritual: 5-10 minutes of swearing at the phone as it analyses my ability to bullshit in two different languages: a mild warm-up for the brain like my lazy work-outs are a mild warm-up for the body.

I am, largely non-consensually, learning more French though. My current job requires (unlike my old one) that I read press coverage from various client-selected non-UK countries. They don’t expect me to be multilingual (they’d need to pay a lot more for that); one platform autotranslates (sometimes badly) from the German, Italian (very badly: translate cannot handle this AT ALL), Chinese, French, Spanish, Portugese and theoretically Polish (although none’s come up yet) business press. The other offers a click through translation applet: which at shit o’clock in the morning, when I’m trying to process a million billion articles, is just a waste of several seconds and CPU on an already beleaguered laptop.

So I’ve been kind of learning enough context and minimal vocab to know whether this or that article is relevant. I’ve also, in the privacy of my own head, taken to referring to the SNCF, the French national train service which causes the people of France such consternation despite being so much bloody cheaper than the privatised UK “services” I could weep (seriously, France, it’s very easy here to spend 2/3 of your day’s wages getting to and from work), as “Sncoof” or “Sncoeuf”. If I’m feeling really petty, it’s “Le Sncoeuf.” Why petty? Because in that blasted unnecessarily gendered language, the rail service is feminine. It’s La SNCF. Referred to as “she” when the translate function has finished muddying the waters.

That’s right: I’m expressing my displeasure with mountains of bickering about French trains by deliberately misgendering the national rail service. Take THAT, French journalists!

Trans Day of Visibility 2019

It’s TDoV again, and I’m still here.

There was a point in my life where that wasn’t really such a certainty. In the four and a half years since coming out, the three years since getting hormones, the two and a half since top surgery, I have lost a grand total of zero friends as a result of transition. I’ve faced zero familial objection (this may be because I had the luxury of not having to ask anyone’s permission and of being able to present the situation as a fait accompli [even though, with two more surgeries impatiently awaited, it’s not strictly accompli; there’s also the GRC looming, for which I do not much fancy having to surrender my passport]; either you accept your son, or you don’t, but you don’t have a daughter); not everyone is so lucky.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time introspecting and about the same amount of time being annoyed by the relentless force of a very tiresome and very loud minority determined to make life harder for people who already have it very hard, and grown adults who feel they have a moral duty to bully children, often on the front pages of national newspapers, because nothing says “moral rectitude” and “maturity” like using a nationally-circulated publication to harass seven-year-olds for wearing The Wrong Kind Of Clothing and Weeing In The Wrong Toilet (if I recall correctly from my own childhood it was generally just considered positive if small children weed in A Toilet as opposed to in their chair, and wore Some Kind Of Clothes instead of removing them and running around with no knickers on, but it’s possible my friends were the exception).

In the midst of that I’ve been quietly proud of the younger generations for whom gender becomes more and more optional and whose support for their peers is so much more committed and usually better-informed, despite these pointless Mumsnet campaigns.

That said, even in the 90s nights in rural nowhere in a school largely intended to keep bothersome fuck-ups away from “real people” (because further isolation is of course what all abused teenagers need; we had a large mural in our building painted on a personal trip by none other than celebrity nonce Rolf Harris in the 1970s. I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to the nature of the school), I found a bemused kind of support for my 16-year-old declaration that I was “going to become a gay man”. I had no more idea how I was going to make this happen than anyone else, but I still have a leavers’ book signed by my peers and a vivid memory of an encouraging message penned in clumsy biro letters by one Gemma Petherick: “You go be a gay man. I believe in you.”

Well, Gemma, it’s taken me a further 16 years–an actual lifetime–to get that started and it’s still a work in progress (a paralytic lack of confidence in my charming personality doesn’t help with putting the moves on real live gents, for one thing), but I got there. I did it. You were right to believe in me.

Not in me alone: no one in this world does anything by themselves. Generations of trans people before me fought for this: Michael Dillon, Lou Sullivan, Reed Erickson. Friends who’d made the same trip before me gave me their advice, tips, names, taught me what not to say or do in order to avoid undue stress from interrogation or additional delays. I lucked into a time when consciousness of this irritating mismatcjh between body and self is expanding; a certain intolerance of intolerance had already given me a circle of friends committed to No Bullshit Transphobia before I came out.

And that’s actually what I want to focus on this year: friends and allies.

Because being trans is often a historically lonely experience where isolated individuals thought they were the only person labouring under a unique and horrible curse, because cultures seek validation from tradition, because people will insist on treating gender variance as a trend that’s popped out of nowhere, I’ve been lookign to the past like trans Sherlock Holmes for traces of my “trancestors”. There’s in fact an easy litmus test to determine between “woman escaping from the strictures of the patriarchy” vs “actual trans man” when looking at the past: “did they ever stop being a man voluntarily?” or did they, like the nameless weaver reported in 17th century France by Louis Crompton in his Homosexuality and Civilisation, caught out with the wrong genitals and offered the chance to “repent”, instead respond more or less, “Non merci, je préférerais être pendu.”?

In a couple of these cases I see not only the courage and determination of men refusing to be forced into a life that wasn’t theirs on the basis of anatomy, but also the anachronistically stalwart loyalty of their friends. James Barry‘s good friend Lord Charles Somerset; the fellow-soldiers of Albert Cashier who had him buried with full military honours under the name he had chosen, and unwaveringly maintained that he was a man regardless of his genitals–correct in their knowledge that he was their friend and comrade Albert, regardless of the circumstances of his birth.

I think also of the war surgeon Harold Gilles who not only reconstructed shattered soldiers during WW1 but also performed the first known phalloplasty on the young doctor Michael Dillon. I think of Magnus Hirschfeld, who first argued that the best treatment for what would come to be known as gender dysphoria was to allow the patient to transition–whose valuable work and research was burned by the Third Reich. I think of my friend Sandra Duffy, international trans law expert travelling the damn world trying to fix it; I think about the recent spectacular success of hbomberguy’s stream to raise money for the UK Mermaids charity which supports transgender children and their families and its support from game developer John Romero and US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all the other people who visited and donated. I think of the parents I’ve seen at trans pride, proud as all hell or confused but loving, with their recently-out children.

I can’t pretend to know what it feels like for an unprepared cis person to find out their child, parent, sibling, friend or partner isn’t the gender they thought they were. My experience of this as a trans person (even before I knew that’s what I was) has always been a peculiar mixture of envy and alarm before I transitioned and now, with the process well underway and misgenderings down to never, a kind of paternal (well, avuncular, anyway)pride as a person blurred by separation from themselves begins to come slowly into focus and springs into life. As they begin to shine. I can at last fully empathise with the (trans) friend whose own response to my coming out was: “oh thank God, I’ve been waiting for you to say this for ten years“.

It’s not that this is some cult, that I want every person on earth to go get a new gender from the gender bin and throw away one that works for them. But I do think it’s useful to look at yourself and ask, “am I happy like this? How would I feel if my gender were different?”. Even if the answer is “nah fam, I’m good”,. sometimes there’s a niggling question buried in there: “do I have to wear make-up/have to not wear it?”; “what if I have a test run of just not having a gender at all?”, “I feel kind of trapped by the expectations attached to my gender”. Maybe it gives people the freedom to pick-and-mix gender signifiers instead of feeling that they’re required to perform a role that doesn’t entirely fit.

Those of you who wear bras might like to liken it to taking off one that just does not fit. The relief! The freedom! The vulnerability, sure–but it’s so much easier to deal with anything else when that particular pain is gone, and the red marks go away eventually.

Anyway, here I am: thirty-six not out, weird and ridiculous, still can’t dance and no longer care. I go to the gym, work in a job, cook my own meals, occasionally even remember to clean the kitchen; I write to MPs, I vote, and I never, ever, ever watch anything that credits Graham Linehan as a writer.

(If you’d like to learn more about trans men in history, Wikipedia peppers them in here among those of us who are alive and famous enough to have a Wikipedia page–I haven’t published enough books for that yet. If you’d like to take some of the sting out of the expense of post-surgical taxis, my Ko-Fi is here.)

Tudor Costuming 101

There is nothing in my life that I do which isn’t a riot of trial and error, thrown in at the absolute deep end, and this was no different. Here is a step-by-step guide to making a full Tudor gentleman’s outfit, which you too can wear to the National Portrait Gallery to harass the paintings and make the security staff giggle.

Step one: obsess about owning a doublet because you’ve been reading about Tudor history.

Step two: finally commit to buying a pattern.

Step three: buy curtain fabric off ebay, some cheap ribbon, and another set of curtains from TRAID during their £3 sale.

Step four: I don’t have a sewing table, by the way, so I did pretty much all of this standing up at an 18-year-old ironing board that was shedding padding onto the carpet the entire time, and I spectacularly burnt myself. But at least I didn’t take a chunk out of my knuckle with the shears this time! I did burn the next knuckle up on the same finger.

Several pattern pieces pinned to their patterns

I also didn’t cut enough of some pieces but I didn’t find that out until later so I had to go back and cut more.

Incidentally, standing up for sewing is much less awful for my back than sitting hunched over a machine has ever been, and makes me less impatient, which means I’m more likely to do things properly! Incredible. Yes, this disaster counts as doing things properly

Step five: While still in the early stages of construction, run out of trim and have to order more, thus effectively forcing a pause.

ribbon trim laid out on velvet

Step six: while waiting to get more trim, make life even harder for yourself by deciding you want “slashy Tudor hotpants” (not their correct name, astonishingly! Apparently they’re called “paned slops”); search for a pattern but find them all astonishingly dear. Instead end up on an SCA/Renfair guide site which uploads written instructions on “quick and dirty pumpkin pants”, which acknowledges that once you put in panes, which requires another layer of fabric, you can’t really call it “quick” any more.

Step seven: arrogantly attempt it anyway. Do the base layer fine. Do the next layer fine:

slashed tudor shorts held up to show slashes clearly

Step eight: promptly make the exact mistake you were trying to avoid vis-a-vis which side goes over which (it’s wrong side of inner layer to right side of outer layer then invert, genius), and have to unpick about 50% of it. NB: you are also sewing an elasticated waistband into the curtain pole section of the old curtains, which you will not do in any kind of rational or logical manner.

Step nine: having completed your PANED SLOPS WITH POCKETS IN THE SIDE SEAMS, BECAUSE MAKING CLOTHING WITHOUT POCKETS IS FUCKING ILLEGAL, CLOTHING COMPANIES, STOP THAT SHIT, you will now get the remaining quantity of trim: it sill won’t be enough so you’re going to have to make do.

Step ten: Oh shit do I have enough grommets? Yes I have enough grommets, but can’t fuck this up at all. You immediately fuck up the first one and break it, because you cannot remember how to apply grommets and have lost the instructions, and are squatting in the bathroom doorway using a plate weight from your dumbbells as an anvil because the floor in your flat is too soft. Buttonhole that hole with embroidery thread instead, and move on.

Step eleven: sew on buttons, button loops, and attach cord through grommets. Immediately have to shorten the button loops. The aglets still haven’t arrived for your jacket: don’t let that stop you from wearing it to Bageriet for semla and getting compliments from nice Swedish bakers on your sewing.

close up of me wearing the jacket, with fraying cord

Step Twelve: the cord will unknot if you try to tie it in a bow. Repeatedly. You will have to perform emergency surgery in a Nero toilet and later remove a grommet that’s come loose and replace it with more scarlet thread buttonholing.

Step Thirteen: the aglets have arrived by the time you get home. They look suspiciously big. You fit one with your bare hands. It is too wide and won’t go through the hole. Unfurl it with jewellery pliers and carefully wrap it properly. Repeat this 23 more times.

close up of shoulder attachment, with aglets

Step fourteen: insist on a photoshoot, wearing eBay-purchased ruff made out of yet more curtains (net ones), and a pair of extremely elderly thigh socks from the late American Apparel range. Realise with a heavy heart that, unless someone has a costume party, you have absolutely nowhere to wear this outfit.

photoshoot of full black and red tudor gentleman's outfit: red stockings, red and black paned slops, black doublet with red and gold trim, white ruff. no shoes or cape

Step fifteen: mysteriously receive praise for this disaster from multiple professional costumier friends even after pointing out that it’s a hanging thread mess that you failed to iron effectively and that you also managed to sew the lining wrong twice and that the unpicker is now more familiar to you than your own body, to which they will inevitably reply: that’s how it is, bro.


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