Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Can Art Be Separated From A Flawed Creator?

Trigger warning: This post features links to accounts of sexual abuse and rape, though details in the actual post are minimal.

Here in Britain we're currently going through seemingly never ending discoveries of sexual abuse at the hands of people in powerful positions. Rolf Harris, the much loved presenter of Rolf's Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital, was convicted on twelve counts of indecent assault and sentenced to five years and nine months. Prior to that Max Clifford, was sentenced to eight years for a string of indecent assaults and it's common knowledge now what Jimmy Saville was up to, though without a trial his accusations will remain forever unproven.

Gathering less attention, but certainly something that seems fatefully timed, has been the revelations about the science fiction and fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley. There had been conjecture about her, and even certainty that she'd covered up her husband's crimes of rape and abuse of boys.  She admitted as much in her deposition in 1998, with the transcript leaving no room for doubt. But far more shocking, to me at least, is the heart wrenching account from her own daughter, Moira Greyland, revealing that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself was committing sexual assault, among other types of abuse, towards her throughout her childhood. And that there may be others. It isn't easy reading and I felt physically ill reading Greyland's poem, "Mother's Hands", but Greyland's words are incredibly moving and brave and deserve to be read.

So far I've never read any of Bradley's works. Interestingly she was never a writer my mum rated much, and as I experienced Science Fiction and Fantasy through my mum's collection it meant I wasn't really all that aware of her. There was a copy of Mists of Avalon on mum's shelf but I never got round to it. I have it on my wish list but I'm in no hurry to read it. I'm not in favour of blacklisting artwork even if it's created by a monster though. Sometimes even the most evil of people can create something of worth or meaning to others. I can't imagine what these revelations will do to those who loved Bradley's writing, who got started on the writing path because of reading her work or submitting stories to her anthologies. One has pledged to give all of her profits from the stories she got published that way to RAINN, America's largest anti-sexual violence charity. It's a wonderful way to handle the dichotomy of being proud of work you've done, even though it's connected to someone who has done such terrible things.

Australian councils are working to remove all Rolf Harris artwork from their buildings and in the local areas, and the price of his art has plummeted since his conviction. Likewise, I imagine less SF and Fantasy fans will be interested in reading Bradley's works. But I don't think what someone does in their life, no matter how horrendous, means their creations should be destroyed. If that were the case we wouldn't have a lot of the classical music, paintings or stories we have today. Then there's the question of the value you can get from art created by undesirables. My mum's response when I told her about all this was that she'd always felt there was something a bit "off" in Bradley's works, even though she fit the feminist, female, science fiction writer mould that my mum prefers. She couldn't put her finger on it, but said she wasn't entirely surprised by the revelations about Bradley.

It's often claimed that art can reveal far more of the artist than they intend, and for that reason alone I won't write off the chances of me reading a Bradley book one day. My interpretation of her works will be heavily influenced by what I know, just as reading Mein Kampf or looking at one of Hitler's paintings is impossible to separate from what he was responsible for. It's also a lot easier when the perpetrator is deceased; because no matter what you think of their art, at least you know they aren't benefiting from your purchase. At the same time though I can completely understand people never wanting material near them that was created by someone who committed terrible crimes or atrocities. Because even though art can exist on its own merits, it is always, inevitably, entwined with the person who created it.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Book Review: Frozen In Time

Frozen In Time
Ali Sparkes
Kindle Edition

Every now and again I buy a book simply because of the description, without reading a sample. Something about it makes my eyebrow meet my hairline and I'm intrigued enough to make that knee-jerk purchase. Frozen in Time is one of the few that's done this, and it did not disappoint me.

Very much based on the Enid Blyton mysteries, Frozen in Time is set in modern times, with siblings Ben and Rachel condemned to a dull, wet summer in their countryside house. Their parents are away and all they're left with is a broken TV, no internet and their erratic Uncle, who is more interested in his latest experiment than entertaining two pre-teens. As soon as the weather clears up, they make their escape into the woods. But the storms have revealed something; a hatch leading into an underground vault, where two children have been cryogenically frozen since the 1950s. Suddenly Ben and Rachel's summer isn't so boring.

I really wish I could have read this book when I was ten. Seriously, it would have been one of my favourite books of all time. It has mystery, science fiction, conspiracies and just enough tension to keep you turning the pages. There is also a lot to enjoy as an adult, in particular the references to 1950s mores, especially with the shift in gender-dynamics since then. The language changes are also played with and the teasing of Enid Blyton type exclamations are, well; just super. The story is great, and would be a wonderful way to introduce younger readers to the Cold War in a fictional setting.

Highly recommended for anyone who doesn't mind reading books for younger readers and especially for younger readers themselves. With no swearing or inappropriate violence or sexual imagery it's a safe book to buy for the kid in your life just hungering for some time bending adventure.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The New Job Begins

Like a lot of folks, I've never really known what I want to do with my life. It always seemed to change day to day, depending upon what cool film or book I'd recently read. This used to worry me a lot, especially in the education years, when apparently everyone was planning their career path with military like precision. Or at least that's what the career planners would have you believe; what I saw was a bunch of kids just as confused as me, with a few of them genuinely knowing what they wanted to do, and the rest just doing whatever their parents wanted them.

I think the key problem I've always had is that I'm interested in too many things, like a magpie is interested in the shiny. Some would say "fickle" - I would say versatile. The idea of only doing one thing for the rest of my days makes me hyperventilate in terror. This inevitably means I've tended to accidentally end up in jobs, just so I have money coming in but with the hope I may be able to make something of it and possibly, if the wind blows the right way, even enjoy it.

This is how I became a manager for a Catalogue team for LOVEFiLM way back in 2007, after nearly three years in the customer services section. Catalogue work mainly involves trying to keep up with the latest DVD/Blu-ray release schedules so that people can add them to a rental list, and we can send that title to them after they send the last one back. If you don't know how online DVD rental works by now you likely never will, as it seems to have had its heyday and is inevitably being superseded by streaming. I've had the same four discs sitting in my living room for… two weeks? Three? A while anyway. And I continually forget to send them back. [Note to self: put those discs in an envelope and in your bag!] I still get to watch cool stuff via online rental though, so will keep it up as long as it's on offer. And as long as I get my staff discount…

Even without the dawning of a new age I've been wanting to move on to do something else for a while now. I don't want much from my day job, but the bear minimum is to be intellectually challenged and busy. Neither of these things have been happening with any regularity for years now. Finally though, after many job applications and many disappointments, I have got another role to move into, starting today. And I don't even have to change building as I got a position with the Merchandising team for Amazon Instant Video. Yep, that's right; I work for the megalith, big bad/last great hope, saviour of books/destroyer of books, Amazon. My desire to be self-published and a successful novelist came first but it has crossed my mind that it won't hurt being one floor below the Kindle team.

It's been a strange path, and I have been super sad to say goodbye to some amazing people who have moved onto new pastures these last few months. But I'll admit it; I'm pleased I get to stay at Amazon. It's going to be really odd to not know what I'm doing, after so long being able to sleepwalk my way through the day, but I couldn't be happier. I'm already seeing the shift it's caused in my extracurricular activities. There's nothing more destructive to creativity than being bored all day long (this is true for me at any rate) and the writing has definitely benefited from my brain being bamboozled during these last few weeks when I've been learning about the new job. I have no doubt there will be challenging days ahead* but I feel that not only have I moved in the right direction, but that I once again have a direction to move in. Not bad for someone who's still winging it.

*I can hear everyone I work with laughing and someone saying "You know nothing Jon Snow".

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Strange World of Guilty Pleasures

There's been a recent kerfuffle over whether adults should or should not be embarrassed about reading Young Adult books. The original article in Slate came in for some criticism which the author, Ruth Graham of the original piece, has responded to as best as a critic can, though it seemed to boil down to, "what I think is a worthy book is good, anything else is not". It got me thinking overall about the strange phenomena known as "guilty pleasures" and why exactly we should feel bad about liking something.

The only media I have ever felt that my tastes may be judged is music. This is what happens when you have an ex-folk singer for a Mum and a late-60s/early-70s rock connoisseur for a Dad. I admit it changed my listening habits growing up, so I refused to even listen to mainstream Pop (or did so secretly on the radio on my Walkman) and I was a huge Indie Rock fan in the 90s. As it happens I do generally prefer Rock and Alternative over other types of music. But I no longer bar Pop music from my iPod; I have a collection of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and even Ms. Spears (among many others) that I listen to when I want a bit of light relief. Some of it is "good" and some of it is not, if such subjective measurements can ever really be assigned to something as personal as music. But I like the songs, which is ultimately all that matters. And yes, I take great pleasure in telling my parents this and arguing with them that Lady Gaga is actually really rather good if you give her a try. They remain unconvinced. I remain unrepentant. We talk about other things.

My current read and to be read pile #5
So, which of these books am I meant to feel guilty about exactly?
Graham's assertions seem a bit odd to me and I've long wondered why one piece of art or media is more deserving than another. I've done my duty and read or tried to read the classics;

  • Great Expectations - dull, only ever get to the fourth or fifth chapter before I give up
  • Moby Dick - good, but massively racist and the language is so hard to read with this damned 21st century perspective.
  • War and Peace - just no.
  • Pride and Prejudice - love, love, love. I've reread it so many times I now have two versions; one well thumbed and one intact for future read-throughs.
  • The Odyssey - adore and again have re-read countless times.

The only thing the books I like have in common is that I like them. Yes, there's common features such as interesting female characters, magical or supernatural elements or explorations of far flung worlds and future times. But I'll give anything a go, especially in film and TV (takes less time to consume so even if I don't like it I won't have lost more than a few hours of my life) so the idea I should feel guilty for enjoying something just seems… odd. If I like a thing all it says is that I like it. Nothing more. It may mean a friend of mine likes it too, if we share the same tastes. Then again, maybe it won't. But no one needs to be embarrassed or feel guilty, regardless whether we both like a thing or don't.

A big part of this whole discussion over "guilty pleasures" or keeping your penchant for glittering vampires secret, is simply snobbery; some folks think they're better than others and they use a person's taste in entertainment to justify that view. I'll be perfectly honest here and say I have much the same problem but in reverse; I have no time for literary novels and watch very few (if any) art films or "serious" films. I generally find them boring and tedious, which inevitably makes me judge people who like these things with the assumption that they likely share these characteristics. It's wrong and unfair, but it is what it is. However I would never tell them they shouldn't watch or read in these genres. That's none of my business. I wonder how long it will be before the favour is returned the other way? In the meantime I'll continue to watch my Buffy the Vampire Slayer on repeat, cheer away to Kaiju being hit in the face by giant robots and delve into the latest novel (YA or otherwise) that feature vampires, assassins, sorceresses, the undead, aliens, conspiracies or any combination of the above.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Older and A Little Bit Wiser

I celebrated my birthday last week. I kind of stopped caring about birthdays after the big three-oh, but I like to take time off work when it comes around and this year was no different. Me and boyfriend spent the day itself seeing things in London that we haven't bothered to look at before. That's the weird thing about living in this city; everyday you're near all this incredibly cool history, art and activities but you rarely bother with it, let alone notice it.

Got to scratch the cow's head - think she was surprised I wanted to.
We started the day in Mudchute Farm and if you haven't been I highly recommend. It's a small working farm with a "pet corner" for your standard rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and other birds. Oh, and a chipmunk who hid right at the top of his enclosure so he looked like he was trapped against the wooden roof. He was faking though; I saw him move to another section at the back. Chipmunks - can't be trusted.

Horsie coming for a scratch; or food. Either way I win.
They also have cows, a pig, llamas and most importantly, horses. I've had a love for horses all my life, even when they scared me as a kid (seriously, think how huge horses are to an eight-year-old). They're as close as I'm likely to get to a unicorn so I have a strong desire to pet them whenever I see them. I was delighted that two of them came up for a scratch and a nibble at my fingers. The second that came up to me left as soon as he realised I had no food for him. Note to self; take carrots next time for bribery.

Am I the only one who fantasises about climbing the rigging on ships?
Afterwards we went to the Cutty Sark and walked around it for a bit. I love old clippers and ships. In fact boats of any description. Maybe it's something in the blood; allegedly one of my great, great uncles was the cabin boy on the Cutty Sark sometime in the late 1800s. I couldn't see his name on any of the logs though. Mum claims it's because they don't list cabin boys. I wonder if he didn't just live the life of Riley in London at the time he claimed to be on board… WE WILL NEVER KNOW.

It was lovely seeing my gorgeous city from some new angles and kind of mirrored how I'm seeing my life at the moment; looking at the same old thing from new viewpoints and finding much I love that I didn't know was there or didn't appreciate enough before. I have a new job coming up as a merchandiser, and my hobbies are giving me joy again rather than frustration. Can't say there's any great secret to it all; I've just relaxed more and yet become a lot more focused at the same time. I have a life plan (twenty-year-old me is laughing hysterically at this point), I'm a regular gym goer and reaping the physical and health benefits (twenty-year-old me is now shaking her head and calling me a sell-out) and I've finally, after many attempts, got the job I've wanted for years.

Now… bring me that horizon.
I have no doubt there are rocks ahead and shoals I may get beached on. Hopefully with the positive outlook, and a plan I can fall back on if I start to feel lost, I should be able to get myself back out onto the exciting seas, no matter what comes.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Short Story Competition - RAC Driving Abroad

I'm going to do a new feature on the blog, where I'll try to find writing competitions that are opening for submissions. Generally I'm not a huge fan of competitions, especially those that ask for payment to enter. But they can be a good place to try out your skills, especially if they're free. I'll avoid adding any that in my biased opinion are rubbish and not worth the time. The criteria for good competitions are:

1. Cost to enter (lower the better)
2. Prestige; is winning this thing something you would want to have on your cover letter?
3. The prize; is the reward worth the words you'll be scribing? A competition that only wants a 500 word story for a top prize of £500 is pretty good but one that wants 5000 words for the same may not be worth the hassle.

I'll try to do this as a weekly roundup normally but for this week I'm going to link to a single competition that the RAC are running, called their Driving Abroad Writing Competition. Essentially they're after 1000 words maximum based on the theme of driving in Europe. More details in the link but first prize is £500 and free RAC European Breakdown cover for a year. Runners up win £100 in M&S vouchers.

Closing date is September 11th 2014; get writing you would be travellers!

Friday, 16 May 2014

Book Review: Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat
Philip Lymbery, Isabel Oakeshott
Kindle Edition

Farmageddon came along at exactly the right time for me, when I was reassessing my diet and exercise habits with the goal of increasing my health and fitness levels. One thing that was frustrating me was how little information there is about the food we buy every day in the supermarkets. Though you sometimes know where it came from, there isn't any detail on how it was made, or explanations about what all those terms and ingredients really mean. Farmageddon confronts this knowledge gap face on, discussing how the intensified farming practises that are behind a significant amount of the food on shop shelves is damaging the environment, animals and us.

I already knew how horrendous the meat industry can be, and thought I was reasonably well informed. Reading Farmageddon revealed details that I wasn't aware of, and covered other areas of the farming process not related to meat. Discovering people have died from falling into vats of pig excrement, that vast amounts of antibiotics are fed to animals packed together for profit margins and that companies own the patent on GM seeds so farmers can't reuse the seeds their crops naturally drop; all of this was logical but things I had never consciously considered before.

It also offered a historical perspective on how all this intensified farming came to be, demonstrating how sensible it seemed at one time. By no means does it make farmers the bad guys, but instead shows they are as much a victim of intensified farming practises as consumers. It also does not claim that just because a farm is small or not intensified that it will treat the animals any better. Lymbery makes no bones about the fact that some of the worst places he's seen are small farms.

Written by the now CEO of the charity Compassion in World Farming, it takes a global view but inevitably focuses more on the USA, where farming practises are particularly intensified compared to Europe. The charity have long campaigned for farm animals to be treated respectfully and for their suffering to be as limited as possible, and I like that at no time in the book did I feel that I was being criticised for choosing to eat meat.

Understandably the work of the charity is also a feature of the book but it doesn't feel like an attempt at self promotion or a self-congratulatory monologue. Instead it's a demonstration that no matter how bad practises may be right now, they can get better. Campaigns, consumer pressure and government action can all prevent the disaster that awaits us if we continue to give animals large doses of antibiotics, if we continue feeding crops suitable for humans to animals instead, if we continue to chop down rainforests to make way for those same crops. It's hard not to be convinced by the end of the book that our current push for intensified farming is not sustainable and ultimately self-destructive.

If you care at all about animal welfare this is a must-read. If you care at all about what the food you eat could be doing to you or your family, this is a must-read. The truth is hard to swallow (sorry, couldn't resist) but this is vital information for everyone to know.