When you see something you disagree with…

There are lots of things we disagree on. Some things are inconsequential – a matter of taste – tea or coffee, cats or dogs. Some things are cultural, embedded in our way of life, important to us morally, such as choices about religion, matters of lifestyle. We all know that we have the freedom to make personal choices and we understand about respectful disagreement and the right to an opinion. But what about when the situation isn’t so clear cut, we disagree with something we think isn’t as it should be. It isn’t right, but we don’t know how to respond.

My mother hated injustice. She worked as a dinner lady in a school for a while, and in a soap factory. Both jobs had a hierarchical management system and the expectation was that supervisors were workers with a lot of experience who were paid a little more than the other workers to make sure that the job went smoothly. In both cases, my mum noticed supervisors humiliating inexperienced members of the team and my mum spoke out and made the point that the supervisors’ behaviour was unacceptable and demanded that they changed the way they treated individuals in public. Although she was just an ordinary worker, my mum felt it was the right thing to defend someone who was upset and couldn’t speak up for themselves.

It has taken a long time for rules about how we treat each other in relationships to become clearly defined. It wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against women affirmed that violence against women also violates their human rights. We know attitudes about domestic violence have been slowly changing – it was only in 1994 that rape in marriage was made a crime, and that was after fifteen years of hard campaigning.

We’re not there yet, and sometimes things happen to remind us that not all partners in a relationship enjoy equal rights or are fairly treated.

Last weekend, I was in a DIY store and needed some assistance – with door knobs, as it happened. I approached an assistant who was helping a man and a woman and I intended to wait until they’d finished. The man was explaining to the young male assistant what he wanted and the woman quietly chipped in, to help. At this point, the man turned to the woman with an angry face and said, too loudly,  ‘Shut up.’ She recoiled and he leaned towards her and said ‘Go away and do some knitting or something.’ Who would even speak to their dog like that?

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We all know that’s abusive. It worked. She did shut up and she moved back and waited in silence. I wondered what to say. The man had help from the assistant and moved off and she trotted away behind him. Later in the store, I saw them both again, walking along in silence side by side in silence.

My point is, what could I do? What should I have done? I wasn’t intimidated, but to intervene with ‘That’s not very nice’ mightn’t have helped at all. I could have said to the woman  ‘Are you all right?’ but how would that have helped? How could she have replied?

The interchange was not part of a humorous role play, not a bit of intimate banter or fun between the couple. It was aggressive and meant to hurt. I wondered why the woman didn’t walk away, why she couldn’t.

Had the roles been reversed, and the woman had said to the man ‘Shut up. Go away and play with your golf clubs,’ would it have been met with a similar tacit public reaction? (Is the insertion of golf clubs as demeaning as knitting? What is the equivalent?) Hopefully, we have the same attitude to domestic abuse whether a man or a woman is the recipient. Abuse isn’t acceptable, no matter who is on the end of it. I wonder how many people -men, women or chidren – are used to this type of constant  bombardment on their emotions and end up feeling being unworthy of anything better. How can we speak out to help them?

It’s not just partners who indulge in repeated emotional abuse. It happens in the workplace, in schools, in families. The point is, how should we react when we see it? Are we nosy parkers if we speak up or cowards if we don’t?  Are we just making more trouble for the victim when they get home or do we owe it to them to help them realise they aren’t isolated?

I remember a story about a friend of mine carrying his four-year-old child out of the supermarket over his shoulder because she was having a tantrum. The girl was screaming ‘Put me down, you horrible man. I want my Mummy.’ But no-one challenged him, not for the three minutes it took him to leave the store. He said he’d have welcomed intervention, just in case he hadn’t been the parent. He’d have been pleased to see someone speak out for the safety of his child.

I don’t have an answer to this one, but perhaps we’re living in a time where our social lives are such that it’s easy to retreat into thinking it’s ‘not my business’ and then make a judgement afterwards. If we don’t know someone personally, perhaps we don’t think we should try to help. Perhaps we live in our own little worlds and are afraid or detached or just not interested enough to support others.

I’m not wholly happy that I don’t know how best to help a stranger who is being badly treated in a public place. Perhaps the man was able to be rude to the woman in the DIY store because he knew no-one would care enough to ask him why he was so abusive. Perhaps some teachers are regularly disrespectful to some children, perhaps some bosses take liberties with workers’ self-esteem  because they don’t expect anyone to speak out.

Perhaps we’ve become too self-absorbed and we’ve lost the concern for others which would make a challenge against injustice the norm, the right thing to do. There is the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen in prison in Iran on trumped-up ‘espionage’ charges. There are things we can do to help. We can write to our MPs and urge them to take immediate action. There are countless cases of women abused by men in postions of power. Where are the people who know what’s happening and can speak out to support them? There are more than 250,000 homeless people in our country, and 1.2 million older people who are chronically lonely. Is there something we can do beyond a moment’s empathy and a cursory glance at our debit card?

The incident has given me a lot to consider. I will give it much more thought.

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Is there a novel in all of us?

A friend of mine sent me a lovely piece of writing this week and asked my opinion on its worth. By coincidence, I’d just read a bestselling novel by someone I worked with a few years ago. I was pulled in by the intrigue and the characters of both stories straight away.  Although the styles and genre were very different, I enjoyed both pieces of writing on their own merit and not because the writers are people I like.

Another talented woman I know has just had a novel turned down by an agent – refused very politely and with encouragement, but it was her life’s work, her magnum opus, so I hope she perseveres.

I belonged to a vibrant writers’ group for over a year and I collaborated with talented wordsmiths in my master’s group. I’m surrounded by some inspirational novelists and poets and I read all the time, so I’ve a good idea of what works, up to a point. So after my friend, a novice writer, offered me this wonderful story to read, she asked me the question ‘Am I good enough to be a writer?’ I said yes, of course. She has energy, enthusiasm, talent in bucket loads. But that started me thinking about the old saying that everyone has a novel in them and I wondered: is it true? Can anyone be a novelist?

It depends what the question means. If it means can anyone physically sit at a computer and bash out 90,000 coherent words, then yes, that’s just endurance and editing. If it means can anyone get published, that’s a question of resilience, luck and the good fortune to create a saleable product. Does the question ask if all writers have talent? Subjectivity is an issue here up to a point – one person’s favourite book is another’s bin liner, although readability is an important factor.

There is so much talent waiting in the wings, ready to dive into the spotlight. I know two brilliant poets who are yet unpublished although I believe they both have the potential to rock the world. I know three novelists who could easily take the bookselling charts by storm. I’ve also read my share of really disastrous writing by people who believe that bashing out a sequence of random pretentious words makes them Gerard Manley Hopkins or Virginia Woolf. Not at all. But they can learn. We all learn as we go.

After some thought, I’ve reconsidered the answer to the question about whether anyone can write a novel. The answer is no.

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So many people don’t have the time. Full-time jobs, responsibilities, hobbies, tiredness, commitments all get in the way of being a writer. Many people don’t have the desire, the patience, the resilience, the inclination to sit for hours bashing away at a computer. It may be that some people don’t have the spare thinking time to come up with and develop a novel idea, or the opportunity to find quiet time or space to write. Some people don’t have a computer or a pen. Some people are not interested – they’d never make a novelist. Why would they even want to? They have a life.

That aside, writing is not an exclusive profession. A writer’s talent isn’t measured or assessed against other writers’ work; it’s not even equal to the success or enjoyability of the novel. It may not even be a hugely important factor in the novel’s popularity, although it does help to have a love of words and the ability to tell a story. There are some useful rules to be aware of as a writer – the show don’t tell, the avoid using too many adverbs, or clichés, the vary pace and sentence length, the create characters you are interested in and a novel you’d like to read yourself advice. But all these things are teachable and learnable with experience, and all writers have to continue to develop their skills.

My friend wanted to know if the short story was good enough. What on earth does good enough mean? There isn’t a sliding scale which suggests that the better writers (whoever they are) will have more enthusiastic readers and sell more books. I can think of competent writers who have sold millions of novels and they are hardly James Joyce. But these writers satisfy what many readers want – a good story, a gripping journey swathed in interesting words. We have help at our fingertips – spellcheck, Google research, writers’ groups, buddies, editors. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to write a novel which stands up well. Anyone who wants to should go ahead and do it and believe in themselves. Without self-belief, the going will be a lot tougher.

So I’ve come to a conclusion and the answer is, to people who want to write – yes, start now. You can do it.

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Books are brilliant. Hard copies, kindle, audio books, books which could become a TV series, a stage play, a film. Books which thrill, which entertain, which intrigue. There are all sorts of readers, even people who don’t know they are readers yet. There can never be enough books so it follows that there can never be enough writers. If someone wants to write a novel, they should be sure about the commitment involved – a writer needs to spend a lot of time, energy, emotion. But it’s a whole lot of fun – a privilege to step into another world, to stay there for a while and to be responsible for how it shapes up.

I’ve found the writing industry fascinating and wonderful. Agents, publishers, publicity managers – they are a breed of guardian angels and each of them is a brilliant companion on the journey to completing a saleable novel. Such people with experience and ability are to be cherished for their skills and advice. The chance to sit and write is a blessing and it’s an opportunity I would so gladly share with and recommend to anyone else. I’m 25,000 words into a fifth novel and my first is published next year, pre-orderable on Amazon. I love writing and I love books. What could be better?

So, back to my friend who asks me if her work is good enough, I want to scream YES. Her writing is entertaining, thoughtful, it has strong legs and I believe it can sprout wings and fly. I’ve heard all the warnings about how writing is an isolated profession, how it’s steeped in anxiety; how there wil be problems with writer’s block, patience, focus, crushing deadlines. But I’m shaking my head as I type. It’s a chance to work with ideas, with words, with imagination, to share something exciting with others.

There are many people who wouldn’t want to write. That’s fair enough. I can’t build houses, grow wheat, perform open heart surgery. But to those people who sniff the hint of a desire to create that novel, there’s only one answer. You are good enough. Don’t hold back. Don’t deliberate and don’t doubt yourself. Just do it.

When witches wove their spells

In 1878, in the area where I now live, a house was being demolished and a secret room was found. Inside, a witch’s ladder was discovered, an armchair and six broomsticks. The ladder was made of knotted cord, with feathers woven in to it. It was used to cast a death spell. The local area is famous for the witch trials of 1664, when Sir Richard Hunt, JP, presided over a trial of seventeen people, six of whom were men, four of whom were husbands of accused women. The trial followed a zealous eight year hunt, during which victims were arrested and confessions were extracted by torture, along with ‘evidence’ such as blemishes, birthmarks and spots. These areas were pricked by professional witch finders armed with bodkins to see if the ‘witch’ felt pain.  Interestingly, ‘prickers’ could earn up to twenty shillings for finding a witch, so the use of retractable needles was prevalent.

There was widespread victimisation. It was easy for a woman to be accused: someone would blame her for any ailment or local tragedy and hysteria would follow, evidence would be contrived and the woman would be thrown into a river, hanged or disposed of in a variety of other dreadful ways.

Many innocent women were targeted: the elderly, anyone who lived outside the community, even someone who owned a pet would be under suspicion. Incidents such as accidents of weather, petty jealousies, unfortunate deaths would result in a poor unfortunate being singled out for blame. Wise women, healers, herbalists and midwives were often met with mistrust. The last witch to be ‘discovered’ in the county in which I live was in 1707. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1735. The death penalty for witches was replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. Attitudes had started to shift.

We consider Hallowe’en to be an exciting and imaginary night when witches venture during the night to wreak final havoc before All Hallows’ Day on November 1st. But old attitudes still prevail. On 31st October, ‘Secret midnight hags’ are said to roam at large and images of witches usually fall into one of two simple stereotypes: crone or temptress. The old witch with a hooked nose, warts, straggly grey hair and a broomstick is renowned. It appears that it’s still acceptable to view old women as hags.

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We have a problematic attitude to age in our society. Phrases like ageing population don’t help. Adverts bombard television screens with creams and cosmetics which claim to reduce wrinkles The expectation that we can turn time backwards and the belief that being older is unattractive doesn’t support the idea that people can grow old and still be worth looking at. Prejudice towards the old is not only rife, but it’s not yet entered the pc radar sufficiently to become the contentious issue it should be. Old people are viewed as less active, feeble even, both mentally and physically. Their contribution is marginalised, as if younger people can do everything  better. Which is not to say that young people can’t excel – it is the widespread assumption that age means that people are past their best which is erroneous.

Look at adverts on television. Older people seem only to be represented when someone is selling pension, retirement and funeral plans. Actors are silver haired, smiling and bland. Nothing defines them other than just being old. Not sage, not experienced, not – God, forbid – interesting, attractive,  intelligent, with a sense of humour or an opinion. Just old. And a bit doddery.

I researched attitudes to older people, and the ‘cut off’ point from young to old was interesting. People above 50 were deemed to be ‘old’ generally. People above 35 were ‘ageing’ when it came to mental or physical prowess or fitness, as their ability was already believed to be diminishing.  Yet I know of people much older than 50 who are athletes, students, thinkers, geniuses. Lovely people. I fail to see why age is an issue at all in many cases.

Age is a blessing. Isn’t the point, though, that we all want to grow old? We don’t want to die prematurely. We are struck with horror when someone passes before their time. We all have a right to hope for our four score and ten – or much more now, in this age of medical science, prevention and cure. We all want to live to a ripe old age. We want to be as physically and mentally strong as possible, to work, to create, to be active, to be attractive even and, certainly, we want to be able to have a laugh with our grandchildren, help them with homework and beat them at paintball and drinking competitions. So, why all the denigration of old people when that is exactly what we all aspire to being?

I’m wondering how far we have come since the witches were hunted and shunned? An old lady in her cottage, alone with her cat, her fingertips blessed with healing skills and a sound knowledge of potions was viewed with suspicion and then she was blamed for every natural disaster. Now, perhaps, a similar old woman is ignored, ridiculed and viewed as a member of the ageing society, a burden on the state. That’s a long way from the respect older people – all people – deserve. It’s about time we treated others with care and empathy rather than wrongly assess the cost of their usefulness to us and then shove them to one side. That was also true of the convicted women in the trial in 1664. Blamed, victimised and then forgotten.

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I have affection, an affiilation even, with the women who healed and charmed, who harnessed the powers of nature four centuries ago, followed as they worked by a lone black cat. I wonder what they would think if they were able to visit the 21st century. I wonder if tmodern ageing counterparts are treated with more respect and dignity. Perhaps if they were here now they’d blend a potion to redress the balance and dispel the continuing prejudice. It’s a nice thought.