Paul Darrow

I lost a friend today.

Long ago, hormonal 14 year old me watched repeats of her beloved Blakes 7 on UK Gold and idly dreamed of Avon being in her bedroom.  Little did 14 year old me imagine that would one day happen.  But 14 year old me could also never have imagined that there would be seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.

Lots will be – and is – being written about Paul Darrow’s acting career and his contribution to the cultural life of the world.  But I want to talk about the man I was privileged enough to get to know and spend some time with.

Paul holding court over lunch, the first day I met him.

 

I first met Paul in October 2012, at a small lunch in aid of charity that I’d seen advertised somewhere online.  I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet some new people and mix up my social life.  I took a day off work and went to Hastings for the day, not sure what to expect.  I found an engaging, intelligent man full of enthusiasm for life who was brilliant company and the polar opposite of every cold-hearted, calculating bastard he ever played on screen.  Lunch extended into a slow wander through the autumn sunshine.  Conversation turned to an event he (and Jacqueline Pearce) were due to be at the following day at Kennington Cinema Museum.  As we parted he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Paul and I outside a Hastings restaurant

So I duly presented myself at the Cinema Museum the following day.  And I found myself sucked into Paul’s entourage.  We spent a lot of time hanging out on the smoking terrace – with Jacqueline Pearce – and generally running round the Cinema Museum giggling (we were hiding from someone Paul was trying to avoid).  I laughed so much my ribs were aching.

Three months later I found myself in a small hotel, deep in the countryside.  There were about 10 of us, and after a fantastic dinner we played Trivial Pursuit in teams.  Paul’s team won.  He was always very competitive, and picked the pink questions at every opportunity.  (A category where he always had an unfair advantage, I feel.)

l-r Michael Keating (Vila), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), me, Paul Darrow (Avon), Steven Pacey (Tarrant)

 

That set a pattern for the last six years.  It was like a long lost uncle had suddenly arrived in my life.  But an uncle determined to drag me to the pub and tell me stories about all the exciting things he’d been doing while long and lost. Fascinating insights into the acting profession from repertory to working for the BBC and ITV, and film, told with real pride about his craft.  Behind the scenes stories from on set.  History told with an instinct for drama.  And underneath it all, a childlike enthusiasm for life, often expressed through filthy jokes, impressions and a mischievous sense of humour – all with impeccable comic timing.

Giggling with l-r Stephen Greif (Travis), Michael Keating (Vila), me and Paul Darrow (Avon)

This long lost uncle introduced me to an entire extended family of cousins I’d never have known otherwise.  I met and made some amazing friends through Paul.  Fascinating people I would never have met otherwise.  And a circle of remarkably un-fannish people at that.  Paul drew around him those that were interesting, engaging and good company.  And we all cared for him deeply.

Behind the Liberator control console with l-r Michael Keating (Vila), me, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Glynis Barber (Soolin), Stephen Greif (Travis) and Paul Darrow (Avon)

If there is one thing I learned from the time I spent with him, it was the joy that can come from time spent in good company with no particular plan in mind.  He turned hanging out into an artform of existing in the moment.

They say you should never meet your heroes.  Take the chance.  You may find your life is impossibly enriched by doing it.

Paul and I late one night. Or was it early one morning?

EasterCon 2019, Or The Fear Of Over-Exposure

Last weekend I was at Ytterbium, the 70th annual British science fiction convention.  It’s run each year by a committee of volunteers, and is a huge endeavour that attracts around 1,000 people.  It’s my fifth year attending, since my first, Dysprosium in 2015.  And it was far and away the best EasterCon I’ve been to in those five years.  So much so that it’s taken me nearly a week to get over my concrash enough to consider writing a con report.

Me with Gareth L Powell after he won with BSFA Best Novel Award for Embers of War

Over the last five years my personal involvement in SFF communities has increased significantly, as has my confidence in these spaces.  Reflecting back to Dysprosium, I spent a lot of my time feeling like an unwelcome outsider.  I was a Muggle at Hogwarts and none of the cool kids would give me the time of day.  Now, I know far more people in the community, and have found/built my little subset of the tribe to hang out with.

Me (l) with friend Ida (r)

Building that community has taken time.  I have one friend who has that fierce brand of confidence that means that she can walk into any room, be the centre of attention, and emerge feted.  That is not me.  I joke that I grow on people more slowly, much like mould, until I become part of the furniture.  A wise friend always remarks on my networking ability.  Professionally, part of my job is to know lots of people and understand the connections between them.  I have slowly learned that not everyone works that way, and I’ve also learned that it’s something I unconsciously bring into my personal life.  But I’m not always good at deepening those connections beyond the superficial, however much I might want to sometimes.  (Fierce, confident friend had to have a few goes at it before I finally twigged what she was doing.  Two bottles of wine and the sharing of many confidences one evening, and the rest is history.  Wise friend invited me for tea and cake with astonishing clarity, and then patiently and explicitly explained to me over said tea and cake that it was because she liked me and was interested in deepening our friendship.  The rest is history.)  And I forget – unless reminded – that the flip side of being the person who knows lots of people is that I’m a person known by lots of people.  I struggle with that, largely because inside my head I think of myself as pretty boring in comparison to all the amazing and interesting people I know.

All of that made this a bit of an interesting EasterCon for me.  This was a weekend where it felt like I was everywhere.  Being on six programme items was, by any measure, a lot.  And it led to the surreal experience of having people keep coming up to me to talk about them.  Plus having lots of the organising team loudly calling me a hero and trying to buy me lots of gin on Sunday night, after I stepped into the breach at short notice earlier that day (see below).  I’m not used to that kind of attention.  Really, I’m not.  I’d already gone into the weekend worried about being over-exposed.  I’m not a famous writer or fan.  I don’t work in publishing.  I’m just me, who sometimes dresses up as characters from Doctor Who and runs a relatively low-traffic book review blog.  So this is a weekend that has messed with my head and my self-perception quite a bit.

Six programme items.  I was on three of them because I’d suggested them.  But the rest were down to accident, the programme scheduling gods, or not moving quickly enough.

SF-ing Clue. L-R me, Helena McCallum, Tony Keen, Tiffani Angus, Tlanti.

SF-ing Clue.  In homage to a popular radio comedy show, this was a team-based panel game, done as a con warm up event on Thursday night.  It had been deliberately set up with an all-woman set of contestants, to help counter the idea that men have the monopoly on doing funny things at conventions.  In line with its inspiration there was a premium on puns and witty wordplay.  We had only 48 hours to prep the rounds, which was harder than you might think.  They included the Umbridge English Dictionary (giving existing words SFnal definitions, such as “Revoke: to turn back into a Klingon”) and YA Film Club (“To Kill A Mockingjay”).  I won’t be giving up the day job.  And the moral of this story is never to agree to do something in the pub when you’ve had a lot of wine after a long day.

Planning For The Apocalypse.  I’d suggested this because it seems that my friends and I have fairly well developed apocalypse plans, and it’s a regular topic of discussion.  I’d had in mind a kind of Choose Your Own Apocalypse type thing, but I had not envisaged the chaotic, surreal hour that followed.  Someone described it as three feminists on a panel with Alan Partridge.  Someone else wondered if it was a scripted radio play.  Regardless, it defies description or summary.  You had to be there.  All I can say is that Tiffani and Helen, my fellow panellists, are goddesses of deadpan humour and witty comebacks.  I was mostly corpseing with laughter.

The Art of Reviewing.  Much less eventful.  And a chance to meet and spend some time with the wonderful Maureen Spellar of Strange Horizons and fantastic book-tuber Claire Rousseau.  We got into the democratisation of what ‘good’ is, and the role of reviewers as influencers.  Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about how lovely Runalong Womble is.

Conflict Without Violence panel. L-R John Scalzi, Aliette de Bodard, Juliet Kemp, Brian Atterbury, me

Conflict Without Violence.  This was the panel I’d been most anxious about all weekend.  It was my first time moderating.  I was doing it in the big room, with John Scalzi `(one of the Guests of Honour) and Aliette de Bodard, two writers I really admire, plus Juliet Kemp and Brian Attterbury, a professor specialising in SFF literature.  And on a serious topic too – the prevalence of stories about physical violence in SFF, when there are so many different ways of telling stories and resolving conflict.  Much of it is a blur, but I think we explored the topic fairly well.

I walked out that room congratulating myself and feeling in desperate need of a cup of tea and the chance to decompress.  I bumped into one of the organisers, who was in a massive panic because the moderator for one of the panel items had pulled out at the last minute.  Stuff happens to us all, but there is something inexcusable about letting down volunteer organisers at short notice and without good reason.  It creates a horrible mess for them to have to sort out.  I’ve been in that organiser’s position, and there’s no way I could leave them with a crisis on their hands.  So …

The 2019 Hugo Award Shortlist.  I ended up moderating this with 10 minutes notice.  10 minutes.  That was long enough to Google the shortlist, try to work out what areas to focus the panel on, introduce myself to the panellists and take it from there.  I think I got away with it.  But a badly prepared moderator is not a good thing, and bad moderation can ruin a panel, however good the panellists are.  I’m incredibly grateful to an understanding audience and the panellists for their tolerance, and for enabling us to have a great discussion.

Me looking exhausted and very hungover (l), Charlie Stross, Kate Towner (r)

Administering Fantasy Worlds.  My final panel on Monday lunchtime was a struggle.  I was exhausted and panelling is Hard Work.  But I poured my remaining spoons into it.  This was a re-run of a panel a few of us had done at Nine Worlds last August, looking at governance and bureaucracy as world-building issues in SFF.  My friend Kate (an accountant) moderated, and did a fantastic job helping us to cover a lot of ground.  The other panelists were Wendy Bradley (retired tax inspector) and author Charlie Stross.  Kate and I have been fans of Charlie’s for years, so were having to suppress our inner fangirls whilst talking about the lack of proper procurement frameworks for laser guns, or the logistical challenges of handling taxes paid in live chickens.

me (l) with Ida (r)

The programme as a whole was excellent, and the organisers should be congratulated for that in particular.  Diversity was built in right from the start, with none of those awful “Women in SFF”-type panels that compartmentalise people who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied men into discussions only about their protected characteristics.  The team did an amazing job in building thoughtful panels of knowledgeable people that brought different perspectives to issues.  Big name authors were mixed up with debuts and subject experts, leading to rich discussions.  Inclusion was built into the event from the ground up, in panelist/moderator guidance, with the use of pronoun badges, and badges to signify access needs, including invisible ones.  It feels like the best parts of events like Nine Worlds were taken account of.  It’s in marked contrast to previous years and ha set an incredibly high standard for next year’s EasterCon.  I hope next year’s organising team have been paying attention and deliver the same standards.

Andrew Wallace performing from Celebrity Werewolf

Other stand out items were a performance by SF author, songwriter and comedian Mitch Benn, who performed his new song Zombie Jesus Chocolate Day.  Rapid-Fire Info Shots was a gloriously chaotic mix of three-minute segments by willing volunteers on subjects as diverse as why Captain Benjamin Sisko is the leader we need right now; how to draw the perfect demon summoning circle; and the problem with Lembas bread.  All while having (vegan) marshmallows thrown at them.  I also saw author friends read from their work, and went to their book launches.  I’m sad I missed so many other great items for scheduling or energy level reasons – including a couple of brilliant-looking Doctor Who items.

me (r) with Magnus (l)

But the best part of the weekend was the bar-con.  I met and hung out with loads of amazing people, some of whom I’ve known in passing for a while, but got to know better over the weekend.  One friend made a special trip to come down for the Sunday night.  There was dancing.  There was gin.  There were many hugs.  Nights were late.  Feet were sore.  Heads were sore the following morning.  The craic was mighty.

Roll on Dublin in August.  Roll on EasterCon next year.

 

Adventures in Dyeing

On Saturday I spent the day learning how to dye yarn from Lola of Third Vault Yarns.  When Lola took her new studio, she offered a small number of dyeing classes to help cover some of the fixed costs of expanding into a studio.

Of course I was going to snap one up.

This was a brilliant day playing with colour, learning a new skill and seeing how the magic of hand-dyed yarn comes together.  I’ve left with a new respect for Lola and every single yarnie out there.  This is one of those bits of craft that is the perfect mix of technical skill and creativity.

We started with a health and safety briefing (very important!) before Lola ran through the different kinds of dyes and how they work on different kinds of fibres.

The first exercise was applying the same dyes to three different fibre blends to see the differences in how they turn out.  The centre mini-skein here is a pure, superwash merino, where there is good colour definition and crispness.  On the right, a merino/cashmere/nylon blend gives a softer result, with more blending of the colours.  On the left, a 50/50 silk/merino blend has a lighter colour pick up, but the silk makes the colour glow.

We then explored three different dyeing techniqes, and I got to have a go at all of them.

First up was handpainting.

This was definitely the messiest of the three, with the need for clingfilm on the table surface to capture the excess dye and water.  But it has the scope for greater control about the overall result, even if as the dye sets you get to see the colours blend and play together.

Here I aimed for subtlety.  On the left is the test skein, with the final result on the right (with a lower concentration of dye than the test skein giving a paler result).  I was trying to see how subtle you could get, with this mix of sand, baby blue, shell pink, silver grey and brown.

If I’m honest, this was the most labour intensive of the three techniques, and probably my least favourite.  Though I do like this skein – even if it’s less bold than the other two that followed.

Next up was low-water immersion dyeing, where I went for the exact opposite – bold, bright contrasting colours.

Here you lay the skein of yarn out, apply dye powder to the surface, and then add water.  The effect you get depends on how you arrange the yarn and where you apply the dye.  There is much more scope for the colours to break, bleed into one another and generally play around.

This is definitely the way to go if you like bold, variegated yarns with lots of contrast.  It was insanely satisfying to do – from sprinkling the dye powder onto the yarn to poking and prodding it to get the dye into the right nooks and crannies of the skein.  But it takes a lot more dye than the other methods did.

Finally, we did kettle-dyeing, with resist techniques.

This was probably my favourite of the three skeins, both for the end result and for the technique.  This used some resist techniques (twisting the yarn with varying degress of tightness, and then immersing it in successive dye baths.  This colour was built up with a base of sand, followed by blue and then two shades of turquoise on top.  Each colour shows through to varying extents by itself, as well as blending with the other colours.

I had an amazing day, and learned loads.  I loved playing with the dyes and yarns, and it’s definitely something I’d like to do again in the future.  But Lola and fellow yarnies need not fear – I don’t think I will be setting up in competition any time soon.

On the lived experience of being a woman

Every year in October my employer does a survey of all staff to do a healthcheck of the team’s experience.  Every year I pause over two questions: in the last year have you personally experienced discrimination/bullying or harrassment?  I pause not because I’m trying to decide whether to click yes, but because I ask myself how many instances of discrimination and harrassment I would report if I had the chance.  And each year my employer clutches its pearls in horror when it sees the survey resuls on these two questions, without ever doing anything to address the underlying causes.

My dilemma is particularly acute this year, as the survey rolls out against the backdrop of the allegations and revelations about Harvey Weinstein.  It’s sadly still all too common that so many of us are experiencing discrimination and harassment.  But what is truly shocking is that it has become so normalised for so many of us that we often just treat it as part of the background noise of life that we have to deal with, while the rest seem genuinely surprised that it’s still an issue.  After all, we have equality now, don’t we?

To give you just one example of something that happened to me within the last year –

I was attending a work event with some key stakeholders.  There was an evening dinner.  I found myself sat next to a senior person in that organisation that I’d not met before that day.  He tried to get me drunk, asked intrusively personal questions, ‘admired my necklace’ (code for staring at my breasts) and then propositioned me.  I made my excuses and left.

Some will no doubt suggest I should be flattered by the attention.  That I’ve ‘still got it’, whatever that means.  Others will laugh if off as just one of those things that happens.  Or, worse, deny it ever happened.  Surely I must be imagining it or making too much of a fuss about it?

But this is a failure of basic, respectful treatment of others.  I have to have a working relationship with this person, but they’ve added an uncomfortable sexual dimension to it.  I’m now left having to manage that dynamic, trying to keep things professional and make sure to avoid circumstances where I could find myself facing the same situation again.  I now have a whole plan to make sure I never have to sit next to him at dinner again.  And instead of focusing all my energy on work, when we are in the same place I will need to expend a good proportion of it managing the interpersonal dynamic, shutting down further overtures from him (yes, there have been some).

It also exposes the shocking sense of entitlement that some people feel.  They see nothing wrong in behaving this way.  In part that is because it is so rarely challenged.  We let it play out as if there’s nothing wrong with it.  Or else it takes place away from the public gaze, so that those in a position to act never see what is really happening.

[I’m not saying it’s never possible to make an intimate connection with someone you meet professionally.  But it’s tricky territory and I’d urge you to get to know the person first and be damn sure there’s mutual attraction before raising the prospect of anything else.  If you make a habit of propositioning people you’ve just met  or who are patently not interested, you’re a creeper, and it’s not my job to educate you about how not to be one.]

In many ways, this kind of obvious and overt harassment is easy to deal with because it’s so obviously beyond the pale.  What is much harder to deal with is the insidious kind of discrimination.  The differential treatment. The mansplaining.  The being talked over, marginalised and ignored.  The unconscious bias that creates a culture of Great Men doing Great Things, while the women do the office housework that will never make their careers.

In all those cases there’s plausible deniability.  You are left wondering whether you are imagining that you’re being treated differently or whether there’s some other cause, like that you’re just not good enough.  And while each incident may be a mix of complex cause and consequence, it’s highly likely that there’s something gendered going on under the surface, whether those responsible realise it or not.  But the net result is that you are left doubting yourself or fighting a system stacked against you.

Of course, I’m relatively lucky.  I’m a woman, but I’m also white, heterosexual and without disabilities.  So I don’t have the multiple, intersecting areas of difference that enable a much more multi-faceted experience of harassment and discrimination.

I hope that if some good is to come out of the current debate it is a greater awareness of the need for respectful and inclusive spaces that are free of this kind of harassment and discrimination, and the need to tackle the power structures and institutions that have enabled permissive environments to thrive.

Archie, The Little Suitcase Who Could

Archie,

Eight and a half years ago, one December day in Cape Town, I welcomed you into my life.  Since then, you and I have had many wonderful adventures together.  We have been on many work trips away, but lots of fun times too.  We have travelled all over the country, and across the world.  Always you have been happy and eager to see what was waiting round the next corner, and excited for the next adventure.  You have been my constant, reliable, and cheerful companion, rattling along next to me with reassuring solidity and the promise of adventure.

Archie, with his happy smiling face

There was the time we got snowed into Belfast and I had to leave you there over Christmas because I wasn’t confident I could get you home in the snow.  I felt so guilty leaving you, but your happy, smiling face was waiting for me in January and I was so pleased to see you.

We have had so many fantastic nights away with friends.  I would pack you with excitement, and you’d carry pretty dresses, shoes and make up with ease.  For a while, when my life was different, we only did fun stuff together, but recently there have been more work trips.

You have been practically perfect in every way.  Your Mary Poppins-like interior holds a huge amount.  Your inner pockets are just so.  The secret space in your lid has held many emergency books and sets of work papers.  You nestle into overhead lockers like a pea in a pod, with your smiling face waiting to greet me the moment I open the door.  I can push or pull you with equal ease.  You helped me smuggle knitting projects  on flights before the security rules were relaxed and it was allowed again.

But you are showing your age, every scuff on your exterior a mark of the time we have spent together.  I’ve had to reluctantly make the decision to retire you.

A few weeks ago, the mechanism for your telescoping handle jammed.  It had been sticking increasingly frequently, but every time previously a determined jiggle would free it up.  Not this time.  I had to carry you back from Leicester, cradled in my arms like a child.  No amount of WD40 has been able to fix you.

Last week I went shopping for a new suitcase.  It felt like I was being unfaithful to you, walking around the shop looking at all the other suitcases and assessing what they had to offer.   Trying to imagine spending time with them in the way that I have done with you.  None of them were right, either.  Too flimsy, too ugly, and the wrong arrangement of pockets inside.  I came to the crushing realisation that I will never be able to replace you.  You are unique.

This week I go away on business, and I will take my new suitcase with me.  But every time I look at it I will feed sad.  Because it’s not you.

New arrivals

It’s been eleven months since we lost The Contessa.  We’ve spent a lot of time mourning her, given what a big part of our lives she was.  We’ve also had a challenging year, full of upheaval and crisis (2016 really has been a rubbish year…).  So it’s only recently that we’ve started feeling in the right place to maybe welcome new cats into our lives.

About two weeks ago I spotted a post on Facebook about two cats urgently needing homes.  Last Sunday we went to meet them, and we brought them home with us.  Over the last week they’ve been slowly starting to get settled in our home.

Meet Dali and Peta.

img_2810They’re both 6 and a half years old.  They’ve been together since they were kittens, but they aren’t littermates.  Their previous owner is a writer and a painter, and they lived with her in a glorious book-filled London flat.  But she has dementia, and it’s worsened to the point where she needed to go into residential care.  So Dali and Peta needed a new home.

img_2777

Dali is a boisterous boy.  He’s absolutely massive – 6.7kg – and it’s pure muscle.  He doesn’t jump, he levitates.  He loves his food and generally thinks everything is brilliant.  He loves company and is very sociable.  Of the two of them, he has settled the most easily, and has been exploring the house and regularly demands fuss and scritches.  He’s also a bit clumsy and there have been some comedy pratfalls already.  He’s a proper house panther.

img_2815Peta has taken much longer to settle.  She’s spent most of the last week hiding, and has been incredibly creative about finding hidey-holes in obscure corners of the house.  At times we’ve really struggled to find her.  She’s tiny (it’s all floof!) and delicate and much shyer than Dali, but once you get to know her she’s very affectionate.  She’s been keeping her own counsel this week, but seems to have decided we are all right, and will now come out from behind the bookcase and ask to be fussed.  There has even been some purring.

Both of them have had a really difficult and unsettled time recently.  They’ve had to cope with their beloved owner’s health deteriorating, and all the upheaval of her leaving, their home being packed up round them, and then the ignominy of being taken across London to live in a strange place with two total strangers.  It is going to take them a long time to settle into their new life with us, but everything’s going well so far, and in time I’m expecting we’ll both be fully Under The Paw.

But one thing I will say: our house now feels like a home again.

Fibre East 2016

After a gruelling few weeks, what could be better than a trip to a yarn show?  I took myself off to Fibre East with a couple of friends for the day about a week or so ago, to soak up the atmosphere.

Fibre East was a new show to me, but it’s become a regular fixture in the calendar.  It has a real focus on spinning and weaving, with some people from one of the local spinning guilds taking part in a ‘sheep to shawl’ challenge over the course of the weekend, scouring, carding, spinning and weaving freshly sheared fleece.

The Sheer Sheep Experience was there, exploring some of the UK’s native sheep breeds and the different characteristics of their coats.  (Though spot the Antipodean interloper on the far right!)

img_2406There was a shearing demonstration, using both electric clippers and traditional hand shears.  The lucky owner of the fleece, which had been auctioned earlier in the weekend, was also in the audience.

img_2396John Arbon had this beautiful antique on his stand.  It’s gloriously steampunk in design.

And there were lots of ways to indulge in some retail therapy.  I’ve noticed that the tougher the time I’ve had recently, the more outlandish my purchases are.  At Fibre East I kept being drawn to 80s style neon colours, in bright highlighter pen shades.  I mostly escaped unscathed, but there were a few I just couldn’t resist.

img_2439This pink, called Pink!, from WooSheeps, called to me from across the hall.  Paired with a more subdued charcoal grey, it will make a fantastic colourwork shawl.  And it comes in generous 150g skeins too.

img_2443I loved the neon spatter dye of For The Love Of Yarn‘s Speckled Lagoon, and picked up a couple of skeins in more muted shades.  They have some fantastic dyeing, and some beautiful shades.  I will definitely keep an eye out for them at future yarn shows.

img_2440As always, I had to pay a trip to see Lola at Third Vault Yarns.  Lola joked that I probably have most of her colourways in one base or another, but I still picked up these two beauties.  The top one (Bad Apples) will be perfect for a pair of socks I have in mind.

img_2448And I paid a trip to Sparkleduck as well.  If you like purple (and who doesn’t?!) Sparkleduck is the place to go.  These are all beautiful laceweights.

But these were probably the most unexpected purchases of my trip, and probably a measure of just how tired and run down I am.

img_2446I’ve never spun in my life.  But I came home with a sparkly top-whorl drop spindle from Spin City, and two lots of fluff.  I nearly succumbed to the one with candy-coloured unicorns, but went for the slightly subtler one with the iridescent heart-shaped confetti and glitter.

So, I guess I need to learn to spin.  Does anyone have any good resources they can point me to?

Gendered merchandising: A rant

Over the break between Christmas and New Year I went to several exhibitions.  One of them – Celts – I’ve already blogged about, but I had a fabulous day out taking in three more with a female friend of mine.  The first one of the day was the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, which I bought tickets for on the recommendation of another female friend.

  
I’d love it if in blogging about my visit to the exhibition, the key thing I’d want to write about would be the fascinating insights into the early days of space exploration.  How so much of the Russian space programme hinged on the collaboration between two visionary men: the thinker Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose thought experiments about what it would be like to be in space helped to shape so much of our current reality of space travel; and Sergei Korolev, the director of the Russian space programme who turned that vision into a reality.  About the ground-breaking design it engendered (I really want one of those Sputnik-inspired samovars).  About the terrifyingly brave men and women who took those first steps into space.  (And who knew that one of the main qualifying criteria for the programme was to be small enough to fit in the capsule?)  About the Cold War battle for space and the subsequent international co-operation that has led to the International Space Station and all the scientific developments it has engendered.

  
But, no.  The main impression I was left with after this exhibition is that the Science Museum doesn’t think science is for women.

  
I loved the exhibition so much that I wanted to take home some souvenirs.  Particularly one of the range of awesome tshirts that were for sale, given that I love wearing geeky tshirts.  I wear them round the house with jeans.  I wear them with skirts and funky tights when I’m out and about.  Perhaps I should buy one featuring the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.  Or one inspired by those glorious Russian propaganda posters, with their instantly recognisable design aesthetic.  But it turns out that the Science Museum only offered one tshirt in a woman’s fit – a rather dull design based on a spacewalk motif.  When I asked the assistant on duty if there were any woman’s fit tshirts available he seemed surprised I’d even asked.

  
I checked the Science Museum’s website, and of the 23 tshirt designs they offer for sale, only one is available in a woman’s fit.  (Compare that to the Tate, who offer 10 out of their entire range of 38 tshirts, including children’s sizes, in a woman’s fit).  So I contacted the Science Museum to ask them if they had any plans to expand their range.  Disappointingly, I was told that not only do they have no plans to expand their offer, they’re actually intending to decrease it, phasing out the one design they currently offer in a woman’s fit.

A large proportion of the products in the Cosmonauts shop have been targeted at either unisex or female customers. These ranges include an exclusively commissioned range by the designer Keely Hunter and a number of items aimed at a contemporary adult audience. The Science Museum stocks unisex t-shirts (as opposed to men’s or women’s fit t-shirts) to ensure that our products are gender neutral where possible. We offer these in sizes XS to XL to cater to the needs of most visitors. The Spacewalk women’s fit t-shirt that you described is part of an old product range, and the move away from this style to a unisex fit was based on audience research, aiming to target the needs to our wide variety of visitors.

A quick straw poll of my female friends reveals that while some are happy to wear a unisex tshirt, most aren’t.  We should be careful not to generalise, but women’s bodies are, in general, a different shape to those of men.  We have breasts and hips.  We tend to wear skirts and jeans with a lower waist that sits just above the hips, and well below the natural waist.  Clothes are normally much more fitted, though fashions can vary.  A so-called unisex tshirt is designed for a typical male shape: straight up and down and with a loose fit.  Some women may choose to wear that style, but I’ve generally found them to be in the minority.  Personally, I don’t wear unisex tshirts because I don’t think they are flattering on me.  Buying a smaller size in the hope of getting something more fitted doesn’t work, because unisex tshirts lack the stretch that comes from the more fitted women’s styles.  So I’d love to know where and how the Science Museum did their audience research if it concluded that reducing people’s choice was a good idea.

I get that commercial imperatives may make it uneconomic to stock a range of tshirts in multiple sizes in both unisex and fitted styles (though that doesn’t seem to be a problem affecting the Tate).  But if that’s the case, please admit it’s that, rather than blaming it on audience research or pointing to the availability of overpriced fluffy hats as some kind of substitute.

The message I and others can’t help but take from this is that the Science Museum doesn’t think it’s important to cater for women in their merchandise.  It’s particularly disappointing given the important role the Science Museum plays in educating people about science and technology, and the huge range of evidence about the difficulties of attracting women to careers in STEM fields, much of which is down to the perception that science is for men.  You would expect the self-styled National Museum of Science and Industry to be at the forefront of breaking down those barriers, not reinforcing them.

This blogpost was written while wearing this cool Godzilla tshirt.  The original feedback email to the Science Museum was written while wearing this brilliant Blake’s 7 tshirt, designed by an awesome friend of mine.  I wear a woman’s fit, in size Large, thanks. 

2016: A Look Ahead

Having reflected back on 2015, it’s also time to look ahead to 2016.  I’m not the kind of person who makes New Year Resolutions.  The coldest, darkest time of year is not the best time for me to make plans or commitments, particularly those involving the kind of dramatic life changes that require significant amounts of effort and willpower.  So all I will do on that front is continue to commit to trying new things, having adventures and living life as joyfully as I can.

The TBR bookcase

I thought it would be interesting to take a New Year look at the state of my To Be Read pile.  Well, To Be Read bookcase.  And the piles next to it.

Yes, it’s double, nay even triple, stacked …

That is a lot of books waiting to be read, and a lot of awesome books at that.  And that’s even after I had a good weed through it last week and put aside three boxes of books to take to the charity shop.  Some of that must be down to me continuing to buy the books I would like to read at a prodigious rate, despite having 3/4 of my reading in 2015 dictated by review copies and my book club.

I don’t feel weighed down by this at all.  I love having choice.  It means that when I finish a book I have the luxury of being able to pick the perfect one to suit my mood at that exact moment.  And while I’m lucky enough to be financially comfortable enough to buy books without having to think too hard about it, I will carry on adding to the pile.  The day may well come when I might be less fortunate, but at that point I’ll have a resource to draw on.


One of my reflections from last year is that there are a lot of books by authors that I love that I have chosen not to read yet.  Part of that is knowing that I will only have the experience of reading them for the first time once, making me want to save and savour them for when I will really appreciate them, or want the certainty that I will not just enjoy, but will love a book and be guaranteed transcendent escapism.  The pile on the left are some of those books.  (Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven came out in 2010, which shows you how long I’ve been hanging on to that one.)  But it seems crazy to spend my time reading books I’m a bit indifferent about while leaving ones I’d love on the shelf unread.  So, this year, I’d like to make a bit of a dent in that pile.

The pile in the centre is one I will definitely read.  These are books for my book club for the first part of this year.  There will be a couple of additions to that pile – The Snow Queen by Joan D Vinge (ordered, and on its way) and The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.  I’m particularly looking forward to getting stuck into a bit more PKD, and to re-reading Vurt, which I haven’t read since it came out.

The pile on the right are all books that I also have in ebook format, usually because they were on offer or part of a Hugo voter packet, like the Chu.  It’s likeliest I’ll get to some of these on holiday.


This is the main section of the bookcase.  There’s lot of good stuff in here too, and that’s just the front row that is visible.  I’m particularly looking forward to carving out the time to read the Ian McDonald and Aliette de Bodard, not least as both are GOHs at this year’s EasterCon, which I might go to.


Finally, this is the pile on the left, which is a ragbag mix of literary fiction and genre fiction, including a lot of second hand books.

I’d be very interested to hear if there is anything there that you think I should be moving closer to the metaphorical top of the pile, to be sure to read soon.

The Ravelry Queue

Another area I’ve been reflecting on is the current state of my Ravelry queue.  At 1,144 patterns there is little chance that I’ll make everything on it.  I use it more as a “short”-list of patterns I like to rummage through when I have startitis.  But it could do with a serious weed nonetheless, to remove the things I really have no intention of ever making.

There are a few queued items on the first page of the queue worth touching on:

sachertorteI love this cabled swing jacket and I have some Kilcarra Donegal Tweed yarn that has been in stash for a while.  It’s in a lovely purple colour and will be perfect for it.

rhinecliffThis is the cardigan I bought the tweed yarn at New Lanark to make.  But I want to lengthen the pattern so that the garment finishes at mid-thigh rather than on the hips.  That will need a bit of thought.  And some sums.

octopusI fell in love with this colourwork octopus sweater the moment I saw it.  There are some issues with the pattern (the pattern writer suggests doing the whole thing stranded, which is a very inefficient use of yarn for the design, and would make it unbearably warm) so it will also need some thought.  But I have the yarn and would love to get on with making it.

hemlockFinally, I have a burgeoning stash of sock and laceweight yarn, which I would like to make better use of.  That means lots more socks and shawls, like this beautiful two-colour shawl.

It’ll be interesting to come back this time next year and see how different the To Be Read bookcase looks, and what progress I’ve managed to make towards these projects.

2015 In Review

It’s traditional at this time of year to do a bit of a retrospective, looking back at the year and reflecting on it.  And who am I to ignore that trend, even if the day we change our calendars is a pretty arbitrary choice?  So, as well as this run-through of 2015, with some nerdy statistics and awards, I’ll also do a little look ahead to 2016.

2015 has been on the whole pretty awesome, if marked by sadness at the end.  It’s been a year of cons and cosplay, of time spent with friends, exciting trips to great places, the publication in a real book of my first essay, and the making of many lovely things.  There are things I probably should have blogged about, but haven’t, including our holiday in Prague in September and the prizes I won in a work craft competition.  Sorry about that.  Life kind of got in the way.

One of the biggest things to happen in 2015 is this blog.  As I explained back in February, I started it as a bit of a personal challenge during the 6 Nations.  Since then, it’s become an established part of my routine, with a growing number of followers (*waves*) even without me making strenuous efforts to publicise it.  A large part of the blog has been about recording book reviews, and that has led to me writing slightly longer reviews than the brief notes I’d previously captured for myself.

One of the most rewarding things about doing this has been pointing people towards books they love but might not otherwise have found.  That, if nothing else, makes the whole thing worthwhile.  In particular, one friend bought an overlooked treasure on my recommendation, and keeps telling me just how amazing it is and how much he loves it.  You’re welcome.  I hope I can do the same for many other people too.

Statistics

Goodreads does some pretty awesome statistics.  As well as offering you a curated ‘year in review‘ page, there’s also the scope to delve into things in a little more detail.  As a geek, I love some good statistics!

The headlines are that in 2015 I read 60 books, totaling 22,452 pages.  The average rating I gave was 3.7, which is higher than my overall average of 3.67, and lower than the Goodreads average of 3.89.  (What can I say?  I’m a tough marker ….)

GR stats 1This screen grab shows all of the 60 books I read this year, broken down by the star rating I gave them.  There is even a pie chart of the ‘shelves’ those books fall into (though I’d prefer a Venn diagram, to be honest, given that so many books fall into more than one shelf).

Some interesting points for me from this:

  • Of the 60 books I read this year, 29 were written by women.  That’s not bad, but I know it felt like quite an effort over the course of the year to read that many books by women.  I had to go out of my way to do it.
  • Related to that, of the 12 books I rated 5*, only 4 were written by women.  3 were books I’d read before.
  • 28 of the books I read this year (just under half) were review copies.  14 were book club books.  So that leaves only 18 books that I chose to read for myself.

GR stats 2This chart is also interesting too.  It shows the publication year of the books I’ve read.  You can see a marked change in my reading habits this year: far more of the books have been newly published (the three outliers from the 1960s are Dune, The Master and Margarita and Solaris, all three of which were book club books).  Much of that – but not all – will be down to half of all the books I read being review copies.

Awards

And now for the fun bit: some entirely arbitrary awards in made-up categories.  Which I may or may not repeat next year.

Best novel: Hild by Nicola Griffith.  This really is an astonishing book: multi-layered, rich, profound and a true pleasure to read.  It’s Hilary Mantel does Anglo-Saxon England.  Seriously.  Go buy it and read it.  Tell your friends.

The Michel Houellebecq Award (for an amazing book that will only appeal to a niche audience): A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar.  A novel about the Holocaust that includes BDSM sex scenes involving Hitler that are played for laughs will not be to everyone’s tastes.  But I loved it.

Best genre novel: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson.  This year, I finally made it to the end of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series .  It’s a truly epic undertaking spanning ten novels, the last of which alone is 1,200 pages.  But despite parts of the series feeling like a slog, I had all the feels at the end, sobbing as I read the ending on my way into work one morning.  It’s a fitting end for an astonishing feat of writing.

Most promising debut: The Vagrant by Peter Newman.  Peter’s writing shows real talent and The Vagrant is fresh, exciting and interesting.  I can’t wait for the sequel.

Best YA novel: Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  I don’t read much YA, but I loved this novel with its fairytale style and setting for its empowered themes of finding ones own way and female friendship.