Friday, 24 October 2014

The Boys on the Bus - a sample of a story

When I was 17 years old, two boys set my hair on fire when I was on the bus.

Which wasn't very nice of them, was it?

It's an experience that obviously stayed with me but it's not something I really thought about much. It was just something that had happened, something a bit odd, a bit cruel.

Then earlier this year, I kept seeing women being attacked online with the line 'go die in a fire'. And it started me thinking about how being set on fire, is something that has happened to women over the centuries. Witches, heretics, adulteresses in old times. Today, violent men set their homes on fire to kill their partners and children. And I also started thinking about hair, and women's hair, and how destroying women's hair is another long-standing attack.

So I was having all these thoughts, about fire, and hair, and women, and what happened to me. I didn't know what to do with these thoughts. I didn't know how to process them.

And in the end I decided to do what I do best. I wrote a story.

It's called The Boys on the Bus and you can buy it for the bargain price of £1.53 for your Kindle. You can also buy it for your Kindle app. Even better, once you've read The Boys on the Bus you'll find a second story called Anna's Interlude.

I'm so proud of both these stories and I hope you will enjoy them.

And to whet your appetite, here's a sample of The Boys on the Bus.

The boys on the bus set my hair on fire.

This, then, is a literary dinner. This is the world of books and plays and poetry and conversation, washed down with good wine, and a smile. This is the world that I dreamed of when I was sat on the bus, daringly wearing my sixth form clothes, my eyes focused on the metal arch of the seat in front of me, my ears stubbornly silencing the noise from the seats behind me. 

I’ve made it. I’ve made it here, and I’m sat beside someone who I think I can now call a friend. She is a writer whose name you will probably have heard of. Opposite me, just to the left, is a pretty blonde-haired publicist who lives near to where I used to live. We have talked about that, in the way you do with strangers, trying to find a point of shared experience. Just to my right is the world-famous writer we are here to celebrate. You will have heard of her. You will perhaps have sat there, on the school bus, her GCSE syllabus-approved novel jostling for space with a lunch box, exercise books, pencils and illicit packets of chewing gum and fags in your backpack. 

I’ve made it. I’ve made it this far, to this restaurant where the chatter, and the clatter of cutlery against crockery, is loud and buzzing. It’s hard to hear, and so the world-famous writer leans in to ask me to repeat what I said. 

The boys on the bus set my hair on fire. 

I have told this story before, with a smile, and a shake of my hair, long now, long and glossy, good hair, free from charred flakes that lingered, stinking, for days afterwards. 

Tonight though, I don’t tell it funny. Tonight, in the dimmed light of the restaurant, it doesn’t sound like a story to tell with a side smile and a shrug and a wide-eyed, ‘I know, right?’

The boys on the bus set my hair on fire. 

We are talking, at this literary dinner, about bullying. We are talking about the ritual of bullying. We are talking about how the patterns of bullying hark back to rituals that centred on cruelty.  My friend, the writer you may have heard of, has been writing a story where boys go back to the Bible to find examples of ritualistic cruelty. In the Bible, they discovered the clues they needed to become the most famous bullies in the school. The world-famous writer wrote the book on the rituals children play out to torment other children. Perhaps you have read it. 

It was ritual for those boys on the bus. It was ritual for the boys on the bus, when they set my hair on fire, on that sticky May day, eleven years before. 

But why? the world-famous writer asks. 

They didn’t like my brother, I reply. 

I’m seventeen years old, and the bus is winding its way along the road from the bus stop outside my school, swaying slightly as it goes with the weight of its load. It is winding its way, the same way once, twice, three times a day, to the bus stop at the end of my road, and eventually to its final destination at the currently-under-refurbishment depot. 

On the bus, we sit in obedient pairs. Some, like me, wear our sixth form clothes. But most of the pairs are in the cheap polyester trousers and the shirts that were once white but are now one smudge of grey. The seats force us into order, but our behaviour refuses to be confined into neat, detached rows. 

Buy your copy of The Boys on the Bus today

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Show a little empathy, John Grisham

John Grisham, the famous crime writer, has been condemned today for his comments regarding sentences for men who view images of child abuse. Just to be clear – it is not ‘child p0rn’ – the latter word implies consent. These are images of child abuse. 

[Just so you know, I have to spell p0rn that way because on previous occasions of writing about similar issues I have had search terms come to my blog that have made me wonder if I should call the police] 

Grisham argues that men who view images of child abuse online, but who would never actively abuse a child, do not deserve harsh prison sentences. He argues:

We’ve got prisons now filled with guys my age, 60-year-old-white men, in prison, who have never harmed anyone. Who would never touch a child, but they got online one night, started surfing around, probably had too much to drink whatever and pushed the wrong buttons, and went too far and went into child p0rn or whatever.’ 

Excuse me while I try and lift my head up from my desk. 

There are so many things wrong with Grisham’s statement I don’t know where to start. But we could start with the fact that in the US, the prisons are certainly not filled with 60-year old white men. 

But the main issue with his comments is his utter lack of empathy with the children who are being abused in these films and images. What is so startling about Grisham’s comments is the refusal to acknowledge the children. His empathy only extends to the men who look like him – the white 60-year-old American male. He is determined in his comments to ignore the actual victims. Instead, he recasts the victims as the men who look at the images.   

Grisham argues that men like his friend, who is in prison for viewing images of child abuse, would never harm a child. But what he is ignoring is that in searching for and looking at the images in the first place, his friend *is* harming the child. It’s not rocket science. Through his search, he is feeding an industry that sexually exploits children, as well as fuelling the demand for that industry. 

This colossal lack of empathy is not a one-off, and the comments are not unique to Grisham. Similar arguments to his were made when Chris Langham was was found guilty on charges of possessing child pornography and made to sign the sexual offenders register, or when Peter Townshend was placed on the sex offenders register for five years in 2003, after admitting he had used his credit card to access a website bearing the message "click here for child p0rn". Both men claimed ‘research’ as their reason for accessing these images. Their defenders argued that as a result they shouldn’t be criminalised. Looking for these images as research, they posed, was different than looking at them because you’re a paedophile. After all, the debate ran, these men weren’t getting sexual pleasure from these images. So what’s the problem?

But what these arguments missed, and what Grisham misses, is that it doesn’t matter to a child why a man chooses to look at the images of them being raped. It doesn’t stop the rape, because one man is looking for research, and one man is looking because he’s drunk, and one man is looking because he gets off on it. The individual viewer’s motivations don’t change what has happened to that child. It doesn’t matter why a man looks, because the fact remains that a child has still been abused for them to view. 

As long as men are looking for these images for whatever reason, people will continue to make them. And that is why the men who view these images need to face justice. They’re complicit in the abuse, whether they like it or not. 

How could Grisham justify his comments, if faced with someone whose abuse was filmed and shared online? How could he explain to that child that his friend didn’t mean any harm? What difference would his friend’s drunken justifications make to the child? It wouldn’t undo the harm done to that child. It wouldn’t change anything. 

When men look at images of child abuse, they are committing a crime. They are complicit in the rape and abuse of a child. Their motivation doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to the child being abused, and it certainly doesn’t matter to their abusers. All the former knows is that someone is willing to pay to view their pain. And all the latter knows is that someone is willing to pay them to abuse a child. 

Think about that, John Grisham. Try to feel empathy for someone who doesn’t look like you. Think about that child, and how your friend’s ‘mistake’ is complicit in the abuse of that child. Then maybe think about apologising. And then maybe donate some dollars to a charity tackling child abuse. 

If you need to talk to someone about rape or abuse, you can call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999. You can also call the NSPCC on: 0808 800 5000

And I know none of my readers are as rich as John Grisham. But if you want to, you can donate to Rape Crisis or the NSPCC and help tackle sexual violence.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

On Friday evening I headed across town to the haunting and evocative setting of Arnos Vale cemetery to watch the Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – adapted from Anne Bronte’s novel. The company have been running a season of Bronte adaptations – including the perhaps better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The novel’s narrative is mainly told through a letter from Gilbert Markham to his friend, detailing the arrival of the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The middle part of the novel is written as Helen’s diary, before switching back to Gilbert’s letter.  

This structure informed the performance of the play – with two actors taking on all the character roles and using the framing of a letter and a diary to directly narrate to the audience what was happening in the story. This successfully meant that the audience was able to negotiate what is quite a complex story, while gaining an insight into the inner lives of Gilbert and Helen. 

The play began with the male actor addressing the audience as Gilbert. He draws us into the world of his village – with the woman actor taking on the role of mother, sister, brother, landlord, and the wickedly flirtatious Eliza Millward, before entering the stage as Helen. It’s a real skill to be able to perform such a diverse set of roles in such quick succession and allow the audience to latch on to the change of character without feeling jarred, and it’s a skill she had. Changing her posture, her smile, the way she moved her eyes – these subtle movements helped the audience understand straight away whether she was, for example, Helen or Eliza. 

Gilbert’s narration meant that as well as the action on stage, we were able to comprehend and empathise with his changing feelings towards Helen, as slowly he finds himself in love with her – and she with him. We see a young man grappling with the first realisation of love and feel with him his shock and horror when he believes Helen has betrayed his love. 

The story then switches, and it is Helen who takes centre stage, as the narrative voice moves to her diary and the story of her increasingly violent marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. 

The devastating centre of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of domestic abuse, and Helen’s struggle to decide whether to stay, and remain in a violent marriage, or go and risk the scandal and censure of her peers. It’s a very radical and brutally honest story – made even more so when you consider that Bronte wrote this novel when women didn’t have much legal status at all – and certainly not in cases of divorce. 

The actor playing Helen beautifully depicted how marriage turned her from a spirited and principled young girl full of verve and energy, to a grown woman who is trying to survive in a loveless and violent marriage. The actors powerfully brought to life Helen’s internal struggle – she optimistically hopes for a better future with her husband, whilst knowing that in reality such a belief is hopeless. As a result, she is torn between wanting to stay, and knowing she must leave.  

Just as in 1848, when the novel was written, readers and audiences today still question ‘why did she stay for so long’. It’s a question we don’t just ask of Helen, but of all women in violent relationships. The ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ question has echoed through the ages – dangerously ignoring the role of the perpetrator and the dynamics of male violence against women. Through witnessing Helen as she battles with the expectations put on her by society, her fears for her son, and her dying hopes for a better future, the audience perhaps are brought closer to understanding the impact of domestic abuse, and the difficulties women face in escaping violent marriages. 

Having two actors play all the characters meant that much of the novel was cut – for example the storyline involving Walter Hargrave, and the scenes where Huntingdon tries to corrupt his son by giving him wine and teaching him to insult his mother. As a result, some of the novel’s darkness and horror was lost, as both of those storylines bring to life even more just how impossibly placed Helen was. She knows that if she leaves her husband, she risks being preyed upon by men like Hargrave, and will be seen by her peers as a disgraced woman who is up for grabs. She also knows that if she doesn’t leave, Huntingdon’s influence on her son will increase, and the cycle of abuse re-enforced. 

But the effect of these cuts meant that the play could distil the two key core developments of the novel – that of Gilbert from a slightly frivolous and fickle boy to a loving and mature man, and of Helen’s journey towards freedom and a mutual, respectful love. As a result, the production gave the audience access into the inner lives of these two complex and challenging characters in a very personal and powerful way.  

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

If not now, when?

September was a good month. It was sunny, and didn’t rain much, and I went on holiday and turned 30. Pretty good month. 

It was also the month 11 women were killed in the UK by suspected male violence. Follow that link to the Counting Dead Women blog see their names. It’s important we remember their names - Palmira Silva, Alice Gross, Hannah Witheridge, Leighann Duffy, Glynis Bensley, Pennie Davis, Serena Hickey, Dorothy Brown, Nicola Mckenzie, Davinia Loynton, Lorna McCarthy.  

September was also the month we learnt that a rich white man who shoots a gun four times loaded with bullets that are designed to kill, and does kill, is not actually considered a murderer. 

Today I woke up to the tragic news that another young girl has been killed, by suspected male violence. It’s a horrible, horrible news story and my thoughts and sympathies go out to her family, friends and loved ones. 

I’m not going to comment on the specific case here. I want to instead talk about the wider response to the epidemic of male violence. 

Whenever there is a murder like this, feminist campaigners like myself start talking again about male violence. And we are told we’re disgusting, that we’re trying to make political capital out of a tragedy. That now is not the time to talk about male violence. 

It’s a similar response that conservatives make to gun crime incidents in the USA. A mass shooting provokes discussion about gun control. Those in favour of the status quo pronounce that ‘now is not the time to talk about gun control’ and accuse reformists of trying to make political capital out of a tragedy. 

To which the response is – if not now, when? If not in the aftermath of a mass killing by a man with a gun, when is a good time to talk about gun crime? When is a non-sensitive time to have this conversation? When everyone has forgotten again? Or on the days when no gun murders take place in the States? (hint, those days don’t actually exist). 

It’s the same with male violence. We know that 2 women a week are murdered by their partners or ex partners. We know that the vast majority of murderers of women are men (and the vast majority of killers of men are men too). We know that there are 80,000 rapes a year in the UK, over 500,000 sexual assaults – again a majority of which are committed by men against women.

When would be a good time to talk about fatal male violence? When would be a good time to talk about the patterns of male violence? When would be good time to talk about how male violence is not an ‘isolated incident’, how 11 women being killed in one month is not an ‘isolated incident’? If not now, when?

Shall we talk about it on the few days in the week when a woman isn’t killed by a man? We can’t talk about it on the days when male violence against women isn’t happening because – like gun murders in America – those days don’t exist. 

Talking about fatal male violence when it happens isn’t an attempt to make political capital out of a dreadful murder. It’s a very real and very necessary attempt to try and make sense of why these murders keep on happening, so that we can stop them from happening again. 

We keep burying our heads in the sand about the reality of male violence. We keep pretending that these are isolated incidents. We keep ignoring the fact that if 11 members of any other group of people were murdered by another group of people within 30 days then we wouldn’t call it an ‘isolated incident’. 

If we don’t talk honestly about male violence, then we can’t take action to stop it. If we don’t talk about causes, police failings, cuts to life-saving services; if we don’t talk about education; if we don’t talk about impunity then we can’t stop it. 

Ask yourself. How many women have to die before we start talking about fatal male violence? How long are you prepared to wait?