FO: Ella Funt

There’s another outbreak of babies in the office.  And I have a rule, as you, know, that anyone who works for me gets a baby cardigan knitted for their new arrival.

This is Ella Funt.  Because colourwork elephants are awesome.  The pattern is by Pamela Wynne, and I used Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino from stash.  Apart from the teal and the grey for the elephants, the remaining colours came from bits of leftovers from other projects.  The buttons were in stash, and probably from Textile Garden.

What’s interesting about this year’s crop of new fathers is that both of them have chosen to take Shared Parental Leave, as it’s the right thing for their families.  And I cannot be more excited to have two such trailblazing men working for me.

They’ve both been really thoughtful about their reasons for taking Shared Parental Leave, and the impact it has had on them personally.  The recipient of this cardigan has been open about how hard he has found it to do in the face of gendered social expectations and anxieties about the impact on his future career.  He hasn’t even felt able to tell his parents yet that he’s taking 5 months off to look after his son.  He explicitly mentioned that it isn’t lost on him that these are the choices and consequences that have historically faced women in the workplace.  The other expectant father in my team has said that one of the reasons he is taking Shared Parental Leave is to challenge assumptions about fatherhood, for the sake of his daughters.  He is frustrated by the teasing he gets for the time he already spends looking after his daughters, which devalues his role, and that of his wife.

I firmly believe one of the best ways we can smash the patriarchy is by changing these assumptions that damage people of all genders.  It brought a tear to my angry feminist eye talking to them both, but I feel more optimistic about the future.

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On Blakes 7, 40 years on

40 years ago marked the first transmission of the first episode of a television show that has shaped my life in a whole host of ways.  

img_2389I was 9 months old when Blakes 7 started, and 4 when it finished.  It’s one of my earliest memories of television, and is something that has been a part of my life throughout.  Lots has ben written about the significance of this bit of 1970s BBC science fiction: its place in a world shaped by Thatcher and IRA terrorism, its gritty aesthetic compared to the other new kid on the block in Star Wars, its ground-breaking attempts to tell whole-series story arcs, its low budget character focused story lines, and its famously down-beat ending.  I won’t attempt to replicate any of that.  Go and read one of the excellent histories or essays about the show if you need to.  This one on Strange Horizons, which was nominated for a BSFA Award, is particularly good.  

As well as being one of my earliest television memories, Blakes 7 has cropped up at two other key moments in my life.  

img_2393Imagine if you will, impressionable, hormonal, teenage me, finding repeats of Blakes 7 on UK Gold.  Dimly remembered, but not seen since early childhood, watching it again felt like rediscovering something strange-yet-familiar.  Week after week, I’d sit there on a Saturday lunchtime, to the bemusement of my family, watching an old tv show play out.  Week after week it got more and more familiar.  People joke about Servalan being my first female role model, and shaping my career choices; about my fondness for bad boys dressed  head to toe in leather, preferably ones with razor-sharp cheekbones and a good line in cutting remarks.  (Little did hormonal teenage me realise that her dreams of one day having Avon in her bedroom would one day be fulfilled.  Albeit with seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.) More significantly though, Blakes 7 has shaped my tastes in fiction and drama towards the dark, complex, tragic and political, starring adult characters with histories that complicate their present lives.  I look at my book and DVD shelves and see those stories reflected back at me.  (Seriously – the gut-punch of ‘Rumours of Death’ and the tragedy of ‘Blake’ are positively Shakesperean, and I’m a sucker for UST wherever I can find it.)

img_2172Imagine if you also will, a time around six years ago.  I was coming out of a rough patch, and one of the signs that I was coming back to myself was an unprecedented appetite for story.  I was consuming it like it was going out of fashion, desperately craving box sets to binge on.  This was the moment when long-form story-telling was beginning to hit its stride of being the place where really interesting things were happening.  In a very short space of time I’d gone through Battlestar Galactica (having missed it when it first aired for some reason), Mad Men, Sherlock and Borgen.  I needed something to tide me over until the 6 Nations rugby started again that February.  A kind friend loaned me her Blakes 7 DVDs and once again I’d found what I needed to fill that story-shaped hole.  

img_2394One of the other things I was doing at that time was mixing up my social life a bit.  I’d got stuck in a rut, and frankly it was getting pretty boring.  Id used to have adventures and done exciting things, but for some reason that had all slipped away.  One of the things I did was adopt a rule of saying yes to everything unless I had a very good reason to say no to it.  That combined with some idle Googling found me taking a day off work to go to Hastings for a charity lunch.  One thing led to another and Blakes 7 fandom opened the door to an amazing group of wonderful people that I am proud to call friends, and some fantastic experiences.  

img_2390Tonight I will sit down and watch ‘The Way Back’.  I haven’t watched Blakes 7 all the way through since that last rewatch six years ago.  Who knows what it will bring for me this time?

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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.

The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

I view things through a narrative lens.  I construct my life as story, with myself as chief protagonist.  I make my way through life looking for narrative threads, foreshadowing, inciting incidents and dramatic denouement that I can edit into a compelling narrative.  Those stories of my life are a mash-up of genres: screwball comedy, action-adventure, kitchen sink drama, or tense political thriller.  They are stories of love, friendship and achievement, often in challenging circumstances.

In times of crisis I reach for story as a way of processing my thoughts and feelings about something.  Story written by others (whether on the page or on screen) is both my chief comfort and my main source of inspiration.  Four years ago I binged on books and drama as a way of finding my way out of a difficult time.

So, last night, in the midst of an emotional storm about the outcome of the UK’s referendum on the EU, I found myself reaching for Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan: a fictionalised retelling of the last days of Moorish Spain.  It’s one of my favourite books, and each time I read it I find new layers of meaning and relevance.

Kay’s Al-Rassan is a place of beauty, art and culture.  It is not a paradise.  It suffers from political instability and is ruled by a powerful elite who are quick to resort to violence and persecution.  But in comparison to its neighbours it is a place of religious tolerance that has permitted a diverse culture and civilisation to blossom.  It is bordered to the north by three states where the prevailing religion is an increasingly fundamentalist strain of the Jaddite faith.  To the south and across the sea are Al-Rassan’s Asharite co-religionists, whose harsh life in the desert breeds an extremist interpretation of faith.

Al-Rassan exists in a fragile bubble between these two cultures.  The temperate climate of the peninsula makes life for the Asharites easier, and a civilisation flourishes.  That civilisation is enriched by the diverse flows of people through the region, through interchange with the Jaddite kingdoms of the former Esperana to the north, and through its (albeit limited) tolerance for those of the often-persecuted Kindath faith.  The tension between the desert to the south and the Jaddites to the north has enabled that place of palaces, poetry and fountains to thrive, but Kay’s Al-Rassan is also a place on the brink of decline and collapse.  After the assassination of the last khalif, Al-Rassan has become a place of warring minor kings, increasingly beholden to desert tribes wanting to advance a more extremist agenda.  There are threats from the north too: the Jaddite kings of Esperana are pressured to put aside their differences and unite in conquest and crusade.  The tragedy of the novel comes from the inevitability of the collapse of the fragile, but beautiful, Al-Rassan as a result of these competing pressures.

The Lions of Al-Rassan examines the geo-politics of the Iberian peninsula at that moment through the lens of a love triangle between Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and two men: Rodrigo Belmonte, a fictionalised El Cid, and Ammar ibn Khairan, a courtier, soldier, poet, assassin and spy.  Both represent the pinnacle of their respective cultures and civilisations.  Although both are ultimately thrown into conflict against one another as the peninsula descends into war, for a brief, shining moment they find themselves on the same side.  Both are sent into exile by the rulers they serve, and find themselves working as mercenaries for King Badir of Ragosa, where Jehane has also found shelter.  Belmonte and ibn Khairan form a friendship and partnership of great creativity and ingenuity, which makes their ultimate opposition all the more painful.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan.  Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances.  Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced.  In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.

Kay explores the fate of nations through a single set of relationships, but manages to also represent that story in microcosm during one single night.  Ragosa’s Carnival is a night of wine and revelry, but it is also a night of masks that both conceal and reveal, as people use them to make statements about themselves.  This Carnival is particularly febrile as Al-Rassan moves on its trajectory towards war.  Jehane wanders through the city, considering and discarding options about how to spend her evening.  Finally, she is approached by a man in the mask of a lion (Ammar ibn Khairan).

“It is late now, Jehane,” said this man who seemed to have found her in the night after all.  “It may even be too late, but shall we walk together a while, you and I?”

That single piece of dialogue encapsulates the whole novel for me, freighted as it is with layers of meaning and significance.  It is indeed late in Carnival night when this exchange takes place.  But Ammar’s hesitancy also comes from the depth of personal history between him and Jehane.  His actions have contributed to the personal tragedy of her family, including the maiming of her beloved father.  That may be too much for her to get past, despite their attraction to one another.  But Ammar ibn Khairan is also the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan, and in no small part has contributed to the chain of events that is sending the peninsula towards war.  With conflict on the horizon there may be no space for love at all.

The choices Jehane makes in The Lions of Al-Rassan are ultimately ones of pragmatic self-interest.  As a relatively powerless member of a persecuted minority she chooses the way that offers the potential for greatest safety for herself and her family within some terrifying circumstances.  There are no perfect options.  Jehane’s choices are made in the full knowledge of the flaws and challenges of the options before her.

Right now, we must all be like Jehane.

Goodreads rating: 5*

 

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.

On violence

Today, less than 24 hours since the tragic events in Paris, I went to see a film.  It is about a person who commits acts of violence and ends up becoming complicit in a highly public suicide committed by a particularly militant member of the cause.  That person has been radicalised by colleagues and charismatic speakers, driven further and further away from family, and losing their job in the process.  A major contributing factor to their radicalisation is the abuse of power by the executive arm of the state, whose members should be protecting the marginalised rather than subjecting them to torture and degrading treatment.

That film is Suffragette.

I’ve seen at first hand the devastating impact that terrorism and violence has on the victims and those around them.  I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of loss at first hand and seen friends who have witnessed violence at first hand struggle to come to terms with it.  Those are effects that last for years, blighting families and leaving lifetimes worth of trauma.  And at its worst, that violence perpetuates a cycle of further violence that it can prove difficult to break.  I understand why people feel they have to resort to violence and terrorism (particularly when there appear to be no other options open to them) but it is not something I could ever support or condone.

I watched Suffragette with mixed emotions.  As a passionate feminist (albeit an imperfect one, striving to be better) I have always been proud to be part of a long tradition that includes the Pankhursts and Emily Wilding Davison.  Their work secured the vote, paving the way for other developments like equal pay and sex discrimination legislation, giving all of us – men and women – greater choice about how to live our lives.

It’s easy to romanticise things like the suffrage movement.  With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight we see the legitimacy of their aims because they coincide with our own social attitudes and values, which have been shaped by their success.  They become some of the founding myths of contemporary society, key parts of our culture.  Tales of struggle and sacrifice are always stirring, particularly when seen through the soft-focus lens that comes with the distance of time.  We like to imagine ourselves in a heroic role, striking blows for freedom.  But those stories, attractive as they are, conceal real suffering affecting real people.

Without standing directly in the shoes of those forced to make difficult choices about the best way to address the issues facing them, shedding the values of our contemporary society, it’s difficult to pass judgement.  But can I in all conscience associate myself with a movement that resorted to criminal damage and violence in support of its aims?  Would I have been a suffragist, peacefully campaigning for the vote, but achieving little?  Or would I have been a suffragette, out smashing windows with my toffee hammer in the name of equality?

 

 

Strictly Season

I love Strictly Come Dancing.  It’s the perfect thing to cheer up dull autumn days, with its mix of glamour, competition and fascinating journeys of personal growth and discovery.  Each year, the start of Strictly – just like the beginning of a new series of Doctor Who – is one of the signs that autumn is here and we’re in the run up to Christmas.

I’ve danced Latin and Ballroom on and off since 2002.  Albeit with more enthusiasm than talent. It’s something I adore doing, and always wanted to do as a child (though my parents couldn’t afford lessons).  My primary school used to do English country dancing (though a suspicious number of ceilidh dances and American square dances seemed to sneak into the mix) and it was one of my favourite things, even if I had to dance with Kevin diMarco (he had horrible scaly hands and his face would go red when he danced, which clashed with his ginger hair).  So I had to come to dance lessons later in life, filled with dreams of being Tara Morice in a ruffled red dress with Paul Mercurio doing a dramatic knee slide across the floor.

I’m not someone who has ever experienced the alleged endorphin rush one is supposed to experience from exercise (I just feel hot, sweaty and uncomfortable), but dance lifts my spirits and gives me a buzz like no other.  I’ve danced my way through break ups, and even after a dance school weekend away, and several classes in a short space of time found myself having a near-religious experience on the dance-floor at an office Christmas party.  One of those moments where self is completely sublimated, time seems to slow and there is just music and movement.  And no, I hadn’t been drinking.  And I hadn’t taken anything.  But it was awesome.

But my dancing has definitely been more off than on recently.  Since moving back to London it’s been difficult to fit it round work and the rest of my social life, and I’ve struggled to find a class with timing that suits my schedule since my last class was cancelled as numbers dwindled.  But I can say I’ve danced with a Strictly professional.  One of the owners of my local dance school, JJ’s, is John Byrnes, who danced with Claire Sweeney back in the heady days of series 1 (they were eliminated in week 5).

All of that makes me a terrible person to watch Strictly with.  I’m that person with just enough knowledge to be a dance bore, but at risk of embarrassing myself in front of anyone with proper knowledge.

So, in honour of Strictly starting again tonight, here’s my fantasy playlist if I were ever to dance on the show.

ChaCha – A very easy one, even though the ChaCha is a very crowded field.  This is my song.  In These Shoes by Kirsty MacColl.

Waltz – A satirical song about BDSM is perhaps not entirely appropriate for prime-time Saturday night telly, but it has to be Bang Goes The Knighthood by the Divine Comedy.  If they won’t let me have that (boring!) then it would be Eddi Reader’s love song to Glasgow dance halls: Wings On My Heels.

Quickstep – Mr Blue Sky by ELO.  Possibly the happiest and most smile-inducing song ever.

Jive – Sweet Home Alabama.  Nothing like a bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd to mix things up.

Samba – Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones.  Yes, it really does have a samba rhythm.  If it’s still banned by the BBC I’ll obviously need to think again.  In which case it’s Us Amazonians by Kirsty MacColl.

Tango – I’m a bit old school when it comes to my tangoes.  So it will have to be Por Una Cabeza.  You may recognise it as the tango from Scent of a Woman and True Lies.

Rumba – We haven’t had any cricket pop on Strictly yet, so it’s The Nightwatchman by the Duckworth Lewis Method.

Foxtrot – Moondance by Van Morrison.

Viennese Waltz – The Bed Song by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra.  A Viennese Waltz that will break your heart.

Paso Doble – Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.  You need a big thrashy noise and a driving beat for paso, and this delivers in spades.

American Smooth – Probably Diana Krall’s Peel Me A Grape.

Argentine Tango – Like I said, I’m old school.  So it’s something like Comme Il Faut or A Media Luz.

Salsa – It’s a party dance, so it needs a party song.  And the ultimate party song is Groove Is In The Heart by Dee-Lite.