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Books & Literature

RIP Carrie Fisher – Actor, Author, Mental Health Advocate, in her own words

Carrie Fisher, died 27 December 2016

Carrie Fisher will be mostly remembered for being Princess Leia in Star Wars as the Space Western princess with a gun and rapid riposte to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo when he needed a put-down. It didn’t stop them having a recently revealed off-screen romance. Also, off-screen was her battle with the darker forces of addiction and bipolar mental health. Her website records her in the way she’d prefer to be remembered as an “actor, author” and shamelessly, a “mental health advocate”, her site listed mental health resources, and she was active in promoting mental health awareness.

Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist (2016)
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist (2016)

For the record, she starred in 44 films from Shampoo (1975) to Star Wars: Episode VIII (2017), wrote 7 books, and well over half-a-dozen plays, scripts and screenplays.More a signature action than her Leia buns and Avenger/Charlie’s Angels-style with

Even more a signature action than her Leia buns and Avengers/Charlie’s Angels-style gun-aloft pose, her middle finger was often shot up at the press. She was a hero for her honesty, humour and heart, the media needs to treat mental health better.

As someone who battles and “sur-thrives” with Bipolar Affective Disorder, aka manic depression, myself, I find so many echoes in her statements on mental health, and her activism in helping others through honesty and sheer guts – or clitzpah, female “courage bordering on arrogance”, as a friend puts it.

A fitting tribute is, therefore, to remember her in her own words:

Carrie Fisher Quotes – In Her Own Words

“I really love the internet. They say chat-rooms are the trailer park of the internet but I find it amazing.”

On Writing as Therapy

Carrie Fisher, Shockaholic (2011)
Carrie Fisher, Shockaholic (2011)

“I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there’s something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly it’s not something that you’re in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it, putting it into your words, can be a very powerful experience.”

“I always kept a diary – not a diary like, ‘Dear Diary, we got up at 5 A.M., and I wore the weird hair again and that white dress! Hi-yeee!’ I’d just write.”

“Writing is a very calming thing for me.” 

I can echo those thoughts, totally! Writing slows my racing pacing thoughts down, coming up with the language that accurately and emotional reflects my thoughts on myself, life, the universe and everything, is a process that is cathartic, creative, and better than CBT.

Her humour

Whether scripted stand-up comedy or unscripted ad-lib, Carrie was quick witted, sharp, funny and could turn the tables on an interviewer. A vital skill in the harsh world of Hollywood and media criticism.

“I brought along Gary” (Carrie Fisher’s dog) “because his tongue matches my sweater” … “I think in my mouth so I don’t lie” … “what music makes [weight loss] worthwhile?” Not to mention some beautiful flirting with “DNA jackpot” GMA’s Amy Robach!

The humour, the jokey OCD matching, the flirting, she was my kind of inappropriate unboundaried, humourous getting-into-trouble, woman.

“There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed” via Twitter (2014)

“I googled myself without lubricant. I don’t I recommend it.” on David Letterman (2009)

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got my nose pressed up against the window of a bakery, only I’m the bread” – Postcards from the Edge (1987)

“Pure lust is an oxymoron” via Twitter (2016)

On Life and Being Herself

“I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me. I am somewhat nonplused by the event that is my life.”

“I don’t want my life to imitate art, I want my life to be art.”

Again, one feels like an actor in one’s own drama, there is sometimes a feeling of distance from the actions one takes, as if one were only playing a part, however grand a role.

On Body, Weight and Aging

“I don’t like looking at myself. I have such bad body dysmorphia.”

“I think of my body as a side effect of my mind.”

“I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance. That is so messed up. They might as well say ‘Get younger,’ because that’s how easy it is.”

“There were days I could barely struggle into a size 46 or 48, months of larges and XXLs, and endless rounds of leggings with the elastic at the waist stretched to its limit and beyond – topped with the fashion equivalent of a tea cozy. And always black, because I was in mourning for my slimmer self.”

“…when I do lose the weight, I don’t like that it makes me feel good about myself. It’s not who I am.”

“Along with aging comes life experience, so in every way that is consistent with even being human.”

On Mental Health & Bipolar Mood State

Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking (2008)
Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking (2008)

“I’m very sane about how crazy I am.” – Wishful Drinking, (2008)

“I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?” – Wishful Drinking, (2008)

“Anything you can do in excess for the wrong reasons is exciting to me.”

“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital.”

“Drugs made me feel more normal.”

“I went to a doctor and told him I felt normal on acid, that I was a light bulb in a world of moths. That is what the manic state is like.”

“I have two moods. One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs… Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”

The manic mood ride that is Roy and the pessimistic panic that is Pam, is very familiar. I’ve not heard anyone else echo my experience of drugs making one feel normal. I tried weed, ecstasy and minor drugs like that, even smoking and drinking, but they didn’t do anything for me, indeed ecstasy made me responsible, hyper-sensible! 

On Surviving and Thriving

“Ive [sic] stopped trying to take things a day at a time. I now take 2 or 3 days at once—hoping it’ll cause a blur effect & I might look younger.” via Twitter (2015)

“I don’t want to be thought of as a survivor because you have to continue getting involved in difficult situations to show off that particular gift…”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That’s my word for it.”

Boundaries and Bad Judgements

“The world of manic depression is a world of bad judgment calls.”

“I’ll never be known for my work with boundaries.”

“Mistakes are a drag, because you get in the area of regret and self-pity.”

Fortunately, it’s not all bad boundaries and manic mistakes, and the following day come-down into reality and realisation that one has overstepped, overdrawn, overdone it, and occasionally overdosed. Manic can be fun, or at least hypomanic can, with just enough awareness to feel empowered, energied, extrovert and not yet into the territory of relationship, finance and employment self-destruction.  

“The manic end of is a lot of fun.”

On acting as if all is well

“One of the great things to pretend is that you’re not only alright, you’re in great shape. Now to have that come true – I’ve actually gone on stage depressed and that’s worked its magic on me, ’cause if I can convince you that I’m alright, then maybe I can convince me.”

“Stay afraid but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

“I’m fine, but I’m bipolar. I’m on seven medications, and I take medication three times a day. This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day.”

She is free now, “drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra“. Whilst she was “nonplused” about her life, we are far from nonplused at her death and feel the disruption in the force in 2016, which has been a traumatic year of loss. RIP Carrie, Princess, Queen, General and very human being, “May the Force be with you.” 

Postscript: Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, star of Singin’ in the Rain, died aged 84 of a stroke within 24 hours of Carrie.

Books & Literature

Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear in New York, off-Broadway Hostry Festival Norwich

King Lear in New York, Melvyn Bragg

The 2016 Hostry Festival production of the 1994 original play by Melvyn Bragg has been revised by Melvyn with suggestions by Stash Kirkbride, who directed this version, and one of the principal actors, Peter Barrow. The result is a play that positively zips along, in just 90 minutes without a break, with two outstanding performances from Louis Hilyer playing Robert and Rebecca Chapman as Jackie, who set the depth and drama of Shakespeare against the gossip and glamour of Hollywood.

Peter Barrow and Louis Hilyer in Melvyn Bragg's King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford
Peter Barrow and Louis Hilyer in Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford

The other starring role in King Lear in New York goes to drink, for it is a dysfunctional family tragic-comedy with father, daughter, and brother, ex-wives and ex-lovers, and a prominent role for the not so on-off relationship with alcohol.

Modelled on Richard Burton’s own demons – drink and women, as Bragg admits, having also authored his biography, Richard Burton: A Life. Burton said, himself, that he turned to drink to “burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes offstage.”

“I was fairly sloshed for five years. I was up there with John Barrymore and Robert Newton. The ghosts of them were looking over my shoulder.” – Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers, p145 (2009)

Burton of course, never played King Lear, only King John, and whilst wanting to play Macbeth to spite Laurence Olivier, in a film version, never achieved that either. This play imagines a type of Burton before opening King Lear, albeit in off-off-Broadway.

Melvyn was in town on Wednesday to see the new version and take a Q&A on it. He was asked about the cutting and editing process, that included the removal on one character in their entirety. Personally, I don’t feel the daughter’s addiction is fully sold to us, indeed there’s enough broken family angst between father and daughter, even without her addiction to drugs paralleling her father’s to drink. Melvyn was keen to present her fragility and yet, unlike Lear, portray redemption and rescue.

There is a cracking score of music and storm effects, projected New York backdrops, vintage ‘brick’ phones and, I think I spotted a Dalwhinnie whisky centre stage, alongside the Jack Daniels and plenty more drink besides, on the permanently-on-stage cocktail mini-bar. More likely to have been cold tea or coloured water than the marvellous amber single malt nectar. Peter Barrow holds the stage alone at first, almost making one wonder if we are watching a 1980-90s Wall Street drama.

Before any chance of settling in, there was an early dramatic entrance by Robert, amidst a cacophonic clatter and clink, rather alarming the back row, and one wondered whether this was going to be a cross between Withnail and I and Waiting for Godot, or perhaps even Whisky Galore! The entry brings wine and JD to join the already well-lubricated ‘actor-playing-an-actor’ on stage who is on the knife-edge of a return to fame or floundering as a washed-up thespian wannabe.

Nina Taylor in Melvyn Bragg's King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford
Nina Taylor in Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford

As if his drink and acting problems weren’t enough, he has broken relationships with his daughter Julie played with teen-twenty angst by Nina Taylor and ex-lovers to manage. Rebeccas Aldred and Chapman squared off with each other, arguing over Robert, his career, and his affections. Aldred was an excellent foil to Chapman, an in her role was equally torn between her allegiances and hopes for Robert.

All that, and King Lear too? A knowing audience would be left wondering how far the play within, or rather before, a play will ape Shakespeare’s own and be a full-on tragedy and no mere storm in a whisky glass.

Rebecca Chapman and Rebecc Aldred in Melvyn Bragg's King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford
Rebecca Chapman and Rebecc Aldred in Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford

King Lear faced the challenge of dividing his realm between his three daughters, with the lion’s share going to the one who loved him most. In this play, there are more than three rival and competing loves. Dialogue and drama swing between the paternal love of his daughter, fraternal to his brother, and erotic – and there are a few good speeches about that in the play with regard to ex-lovers. Excusing his past loves as natural processes, defending the self-acknowledged Lotharian love rat that he was/is, he expounds on ‘what is love?’ Or rather, on sex – “Sex is like emptying your bladder.” Though, the full “repertoire of love [is] grander than a cathedral organ.”

Then there’s the titanic struggle between the allure of Hollywood and the age-old stage actor’s dream of Shakespearian challenge. A challenge, that the role of Robert is simultaneously tempted and tortured by, not to mention taunting by his ex-lovers. Whether an actor will ‘die’ on stage is part of the attraction he says. But one day and one death on stage would also kill his Hollywood resurrection, the others counter with. In the play’s first outing in 1994, one reviewer described Kate O’Mara in Jackie’s role as “horny for disaster”, Chapman, instead, seems to desire either his success or failure, but nothing in-between.

Life is an act. “He is him when he is most someone else”, the actor’s brother says, even the agent has to ‘act’ on his behalf. We are all the great pretenders, performing our ‘lie-dentities’. Whether in life or on the stage, we are actors in our own dramas.

Louis Hilyer in Melvyn Bragg's King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford
Louis Hilyer in Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear in New York for Hostry Festival 2016. Photo by Matt Dartford

This drama is part sitcom, part tragedy, but fully engaging. Torn between multiple loves, do we love it? In the context of the play, it might be pushing it to say addictive, but the editors seem to have got the revision just about right. Quitting Shakespeare is as hard as quitting drink, it is as much a drug to its proponents as the skin-deep glamour and glitz of Hollywood celebrity. The play expertly channels King Lear through the funnel of boozy dysfunctionality of its players. Louis Hilyer is Shakespearean and Rebecca Chapman revels in exuding the worst of Hollywood and TV chat shows, even reeling in the excellent Rebecca Aldred as Bett. The play is certainly worth a second visit after 20 years and maybe even a second visit this week. Norwich’s Hostry Festival event is certainly off-off-off Broadway, and deserves greater visibility.

Books & Literature

Novel Gender Twists in Debut Crime Fiction Book He’s Gone by Alex Clare

Alex Clare, He’s Gone

Hidden under the surface of an apparently everyday, even mundane at times, police procedural whodunnit, by new author Alex Clare, lie a handful of neat twists. The cleverest twist, encountered on its front cover, is the book title itself. The intentional double meaning of “He’s Gone” describes both the disappearance of a young kidnapped or killed boy, and the gender dysphoria and real life experience of a transitioning male-to-female lead detective.

“The double meaning in the title is quite deliberate. It’s meant to show that Robyn is here to stay.” – Alex Clare

He's Gone, Alex Clare, p4Robyn was Detective Inspector Roger Bailley, that is, until the day they return to work as Robyn. Then, on their first day back at work, facing every trans person’s “Real Life Experience” (it used to be called a test) nightmare, they are launched into a missing persons case and on day two, a body is found. Now, that is not every trans person’s typical transition at work scenario. These two clashing worlds, Roger/Robyn’s inner one and the outer reality of a serious crime, are blended together well in this debut novel by, sometime corporate commuter, Alex Clare.

The focus on day-to-day details of police procedures, internal force politics, in-tray and waste bin descriptions, and fears of your boss and Professional Standards constantly checking your progress on both the crime(s) and your own transition at work, rooted Robyn in reality, not fantasy.

At times, that reality, as someone all too familiar with being transgender, was painfully raw and depressing. Being one of the first books to tackle this subject in fictional form with sensitivity, rather than exploitation as crossdressing serial killer or exotic sex object, makes it groundbreaking. Although there have been others such as Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998), among a few more, they have tended to concentrate more on sexuality and the erotic rather than the practical dilemmas of transition itself.

The daily facing of colleagues, public, family, and the media, are treated well, and resonated as closer to fact than fiction. The constant sniping, media intrusion, initial family rejection, even the workplace bullying and transphobic vandalism, none of these are sensationalised but instead rather realistically realised.

Alex Clare, He's Gone, Crime FictionThe inspiration came, in 2013, from the author’s watching of the UK Parliament debating the Equal Marriage Act and the intensity of feeling it created. She, therefore, invented a fictional literary world to explore some of the issues and attitudes:

“Some of the opinions horrified me, people being defined and condemned by a single aspect of their life. The character of Robyn Bailley formed quickly in my mind and I’ve really enjoyed telling her story and what she has to face to live a normal life.” – Alex Clare, author of He’s Gone

The dilemma, for me as a very much non-conforming non-binary trans person, was that at times it plays into the hands of stereotyped trans tropes – the obsession with time spent in front of the mirror, makeup, clothing, voice, tucking, pronouns, name and ID documents. These are less criticisms than my personal preference for a gender non-conforming trans role model, even a fictional one, as some comic books have done. It is understandable, however, why these features have been described, and, on the whole, embedded without taking over from the book’s plot.

I did wonder at a few things including why her police warrant card had not been updated speedily by the police as part of her transition at work plan, and similarly that her Gender Identity counsellor “insisted on skirts” and make-up to “demonstrate she was living as a woman” (p.80). Advice that seemed about 3-4 years out of date. Such is the pace of NHS GIC improvement that sourcing reference material and other trans people’s experiences may already be dated, however much “some of the scenarios, … comments people make … and their reactions are taken from real life.”

“There is an active trans community on Twitter and I have read there about real-life experiences and the discrimination suffered. I’ve tried to reflect these in the book, like the example where Robyn is asked for ID before buying alcohol and doesn’t have anything that gives her new name.” – Alex Clare, Interview in OmniMystery News

Other minor details, on the other hand, were eerily and sometimes humorously accurate, such as forgetting that women’s clothes tend to fasten and button the other way, or that their suits tend to lack pockets. These were gentle insights that I remember well. I’ve since made a point of buying women’s clothes with decent pockets as smartphones do not fit inside your bra these days!

I imagine, for many readers, it may feel as though turning the pages of this book gives insights into the lives and emotional discomfort of many trans people, and it does – but there’s not just one type of trans person, and there are, indeed, many trans police officers, as well as trans prison officers, fire and rescue officers, and perhaps up to 1% of people in all walks of life who experience some form of gender dysphoria that may lead to hormonal and/or surgical transition.

I would love to see Robyn’s character develop, for her to touch base with trans support groups and find peer advice. I certainly went through a phase of obsessing over hyper-feminine stereotyped presentation myself, fortunately for me it lasted barely six weeks before I discovered Dr Martens and comfortable clothes! Robyn’s own transitioning at work journey is just 10 days old by the end of the book so I am being somewhat hyper-critical in expecting much evolution of trans personal awareness or feminism 101 in that short timeframe.

The first plot twist, with respect to the crime itself, I didn’t see coming, but the second I guessed straight away, but then watching it play out and come up with the proof was interesting. I found the mid-book anti-climax like a reboot, and the second half more interesting than the first from a crime fiction point of view, and by which time characters were more fully developed. I particularly liked the allusions to a cultish religious group and its holier than thou attitudes to difference and morality. Having once been a part of such beliefs and then been on the receiving end of them, they resonated, painfully.

“How do you find a missing child when his mother doesn’t believe you have the right to even exist?” – He’s Gone, back cover

It was great to see a preponderance of female leads as victims, suspects, investigators, family members and secondary characters. It also made a change not to have a heterosexual partners sub-plot, whether as cop-buddies or romantic liaison constantly making it about sexual friction and frisson. Instead, it was about Robyn internal relationship with her trans self and her external dealings with fellow police officers and colleagues, not to mention the rather awful mother of the missing child whom you end up thinking doesn’t deserve to have her son back. As another reviewer described her, “singularly one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals that one could encounter”.

As a character, I felt Robyn needed an ally, someone to confide in and talk to about her feelings and struggles. The dialogue, advice, emotions and humour that that might provide would supply some relief from her inner torture and the laboured process of the Police investigation. Her relationship with her daughter, though, was well portrayed as she struggled slowly to accept her father’s transition. Perhaps, she might become an ally in future books, along with a work colleague? I look forward to reading their future character arcs and seeing how DI Robyn Bailley develops.


For further details about gender identity dysphoria and transgender workplace issues visit www.genderagenda.net and also the National Trans Police Association (NTPA). Thanks to the publisher Impress Books for the ARC review copy of the book which you will find available from 1 August on Amazon and in book stores. A couple of other reviews from the Blog Tour can be found here.

 

 

Books & Literature

Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, The Second Sex, Female, Femininity & The Other

Simone de Beauvoir, Sex-Positive Feminist, d.1986

Simone de Beauvoir, d.1986
Simone de Beauvoir, d.1986

It’s a generation since the death of author, feminist, and existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir on 14 April 1986. A lover of Sartre – in both senses of the word, she was a sexually liberated bisexual whose disregard for sexual convention – including age of consent laws, caused her to lose her right to teach in France. Her 1949 defining work on the oppression of women, Le Deuxième Sexe – The Second Sex, is widely considered a groundbreaking treatise on sex and gender for 20th-century feminism.

As to her sexual liberation, her “erotic liberty“, and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, she saw any sexual categorisation as restrictive:

“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” – Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir Quotes

I recently quoted, knowingly totally out of context, this from de Beauvoir:

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”

I was quite promptly, and perhaps rightly, accused of ‘quote mining’. Contextomy or the unjustified use of an uprooted, and in this case anachronous, quote, to prove a point it was never intended to address, is a fair criticism.

My use of the quote was because it resonated with the idea that people can be born female, raised a girl, but become a woman. A woman is as much experience, as nature. I’m not jumping in and suggesting, for example, that post-operative trans women are thus women, the same as those who were born with a uterus and raised as girls. Indeed, is anyone any less of a woman after uterine cancer (affecting 8,500 women in the UK a year) and removal of the womb via hysterectomy? Similarly, women can have various difficulties in reproduction due to infertility, or any number of intersex medical differences that may cause an XX or indeed other chromosomal combination such as XXY etc to present a body that defies the defined binary female stereotype. Women should not be defined by their ability to procreate and bear children – that much I am sure de Beauvoir would agree with.

My question is, though, whether de Beauvoir would have condemned or supported the rights of some to pursue a gender trajectory that more matches their inner feelings and psyche than their binary-born bodies. In other words, transgender, non-binary and other forms of gender fluidity or transition.

Simone de Beauvoir on Woman, Femininity, the Other, and maybe a Third Sex

Simone de Beauvoir - The Second Sex, 1949
Simone de Beauvoir “The Second Sex” (1949)

So to add insult to injury, to compound my contextomy crime, here are some further Beauvoirisms that might shed light on what might have been her attitude to “The Third Sex”. A phrase which I use, advisedly, for the main purpose of echoing her “Second Sex”, rather than for the purpose of defining all trans and/or gender non-conforming people as a “Third Sex” even though that is a way which some, especially in Asian and Indian cultures, do define.

Does ‘Woman’ even exist?

Beauvoir existentially questioned whether woman would always exist, suggesting that ‘she’ is an ephemeral concept ,driven by culture and construct as much as conception:

“Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: ‘Even in Russia women still are women’; and other erudite persons – sometimes the very same – say with a sigh: ‘Woman is losing her way, woman is lost.’ One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should…” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

One can be female but not a woman

As to femininity, she saw it as something esoteric, and that female ≠ woman ≠ femininity:

“It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination?” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

If female equals the “female of the species” reproductively, and feminine a cultural construct if not oppression, then woman need not be feminine and feminism a path to throwing off that oppression. But does ‘woman’ need to be female? If one can be female but not a woman, can one be woman but not a female?

What is woman?

If much previous philosophical, and biblical-theological enquiry, stemmed around “What is man?” and the nature of man, then de Beauvoir helpfully examines, what is woman:

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

Yet would it not be more helpful to discuss what it means to be human, or are we still stuck seeing woman as something less than a man, and hence neither equal nor fully human since, as in the Bible, Adam stands for man and humankind as the first point of reference?

“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

On BBC Woman’s Hour today, British Army Captain Rosie Hamilton was interviewed about how female recruits are trained, but it was then made all about how many of them made the ‘male’ standard.

Woman as the ‘Other’

Beauvoir rebelled against the patriarchal concept that man is human and woman is defined only in relation to being man’s so-called opposite pole, that she is ‘othered’ in reference to him. Not that we have achieved gender parity yet, but I wonder how she would see trans, non-binary, intersex people now, as perhaps the new (however ancient a group of people they are) ‘other’?

“No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

Trans, Non-Binary and Intersex people are ‘othered’ by the default biologically and socially essentialist binary. In the same way, de Beauvoir saw woman as othered by man. Thus, gender non-conforming people, whether assigned male or female at birth, should have some solidarity with the feminist struggle to assert the equality of women with men, and their common core identity as human beings absolutely, not relatively. Sadly, that is not always the case and some folk do not see a common struggle between feminism and gender identity. As de Beauvoir said:

“Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

Some radical feminists, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffries and others, are well known for exclusionary attitudes to trans people. Indeed, de Beauvoir others intersex people, formerly termed ‘hermaphrodite’, in her seeking to find an independent voice on ‘what is woman?’:

“What we need is an angel – neither man nor woman – but where shall we find one? Still, the angel would be poorly qualified to speak, for an angel is ignorant of all the basic facts involved in the problem. With a hermaphrodite we should be no better off, for here the situation is most peculiar; the hermaphrodite is not really the combination of a whole man and a whole woman, but consists of parts of each and thus is neither.” – The Second Sex, introduction (1949)

In a 1976 interview, when asked about excluding men from some aspects of the feminist struggle and female gatherings, she opined that sometimes it was necessary. So she may have argued against the full and unfettered access of some transwomen (e.g., pre-operative) to women-only safe spaces. She did also say, however:

“The battle of the sexes is not implicit in the anatomy of man and woman.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

Similarly, she spoke of some lesbian women, in particular, being male-exclusionary:

“There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle.” interview (1976)

Anyone, who is oppressed has the right to gather in safe spaces – whether other oppressed minorities should have rights of access to the safe spaces of other groups who have been ‘othered’ is another matter. That siad, shared oppression is sometimes more important than shared hormones.

“Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

It was Audre Lorde that said, whilst “any woman is not free”, then “no woman is”. Being the one oppressed is sadly part of a common humanity, and a common responsibility:

“Each of us is responsible – to every human being.” – Simone de Beauvoir

In some matters, if not most – except the most basic biological differences, “men and women” and anyone that is defined or identified outside that binary need to” unequivocally affirm their brotherhood”, as de Beauvoir concluded in The Second Sex.

So, could every Human be a Woman?

“I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.”

Beauvoir speaks of every human being, every human life, less of the categorisation that in a class-distinctive way oppresses all of us, even the men. For, in defining men and not women, as not soft or empathic, or similar stereotypes, we trap them in conventional masculinity, we oppress gay men, drag queens and transvestites who may still identify as male.

“…man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

We no longer accept feminism as the sole regard of women. True women’s liberation also liberates men from roles and rules of sex and gender.

“…the woman of today is [not] a creation of nature; it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

If a feminist need not be a woman, and a female need not be a ‘woman’, and the ‘feminine’ just as possessable by males, then, perhaps too, a ‘woman’ need not be female, at least not assigned one at birth. In other words, is the very term ‘woman’ as much a social construct as gender itself, and the so-called masculine and feminine ideals?

“No single educator could fashion a female human being today who would be the exact homologue of the male human being; if she is brought up like a boy, the young girl feels she is an oddity and thereby she is given a new kind of sex specification.” – The Second Sex, conclusion (1949)

Only in an androgynous (but not uniform) utopia, where all human beings were raised without class or gender specificity, could true equality perhaps be found.

 

 

Books & Literature

Happy Birthday to you Dr Seuss, his best guidance for life Quotes

Happy Birthday to you, Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss seated at desk covered with his books, World Telegram and Sun photo by Al Ravenna
Dr Seuss seated at desk covered with his books, World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1957

Dr. Seuss would be 112 today, and certainly the non-conforming characters in his books never felt like acting their age, or following conventional wisdom, instead they offered sage advice for breaking out of the box, and being yourself, without limits.

The Cat in the Hat, among others, I read to a foster child in my care and took inspiration from it, myself.

Happy Birthday to You, Dr Seuss
Happy Birthday to You, Dr Seuss, 1959

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote some 60 books, selling over 600 million copies, whose challenging quotes still resonate today. His birthday, March 2, has become the annual date for National Read Across America Day and comes the day before World Book Day.

“The more that you read, The more things you will know.
The more that you learn, The more places you’ll go.”
I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! (1978)

Theodor Seuss Geisel, author, illustrator, cartoonist

Geisel said he was saving the name ‘Geisel’ for the Great American Novel, instead he began to use his pen name ‘Dr. Seuss’ during his time studying at Dartmouth College and continued whilst studying for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Oxford (which he did not finish, though in 1956 Dartmouth awarded him an honorary doctorate). It was at Dartmouth, as editor of a humour magazine, that he was caught drinking gin with friends in his room, during the time of Prohibition, and so with encouragement from his Professor of Rhetoric he continued clandestinely under his nom de plume. He once described himself as “subversive as hell”.

America First, and the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones but those were foreign children and it really didn't matter, Dr SeussFrom 1927 he worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for Vanity Fair, Life, and other publications, including as chief political cartoonist for the New York newspaper, 1941-43. At the latter newspaper, he produced some 400 political cartoons such as this one:

America First, “and the wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones but those were foreign children and it really didn’t matter”.

Perhaps, as relevant now under Donald Trump’s presidency as during the 1940s.

Dr Seuss at work on a drawing of The Grinch for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957
Dr Seuss at work on a drawing of The Grinch for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957

During World War II, he joined the Army in 1943 as a Captain and was made commander of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces.

 

His first children’s book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street did not appear until 1937 and his most famous, The Cat in the Hat, only came out in 1957.

Top 12 Best Dr Seuss Life Lessons Quotes

Or perhaps just 8, given that some are of uncertain attribution, even though they are Seuss-ian in nature and intent.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” – Happy Birthday to You! (1959)

If I ran the Zoo, Dr Seuss
If I ran the Zoo, Dr Seuss, 1950

“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

“‎Live with intention. Walk to the edge. Listen Hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. Laugh. Choose with no regrets. Appreciate your friends. Continue to learn. Do what you love. Live as if this is all there is.”

If I ran the Circus, Dr Seuss
If I ran the Circus, Dr Seuss, 1956

“You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” – Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990)

“And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!” – Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990)

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!” – Horton Hears a Who! (1954)

The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss
The Cat in the Hat, Dr Seuss, 1957

“It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.” – The Lorax (1971)

“Only you can control your future.”

“We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.” – actually Robert Fulghum, True Love (1997)

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out” – of doubtful attribution

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” – of doubtful attribution

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – of doubtful attribution

Oh the Thinks you can Think, Dr Seuss
Oh the Thinks you can Think, Dr Seuss, 1975

Dr Seuss (originally pronounced Soice) wrote and illustrated subversively to open minds, encourage liberal reading and adventurous lives. Horton hears a Who! was allegedly an allegory of the Hiroshima bombing. Thomas Fensch describes its ideas as “universal, multinational, multi-ethnic. In a word: Equality.” – Fensch, Thomas, The Man Who Was Dr. Seuss, (2001).

He even wrote under a female pen name, Rosetta Stone, Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo!! (1975). He remains loved and controversial to this day, but with some books still achieving half-million-a year book sales, he can definitely rest assured that he encouraged millions to read.

 Dr Seuss Quotes and misquotes

Dr Seuss Quotes and misquotes
 Dr Seuss Quotes and misquotes

Dr Seuss Quotes and misquotes
Books & Literature

Time Magazine list of top 100 most-read female writers in college

Top 100 Female writers in college

TIME Magazine 100 Most Read Female Authors on Campus
TIME Magazine 100 Most Read Female Authors on Campus

Today Time reported on the top 100 most-read female writers on college syllabi drawn from the Open Syllabus Project‘s collection of over 1.1 million course syllabi referencing 933,635 texts. Unfortunately, Time fell foul of a schoolboy error, thinking that the creator of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh, was a woman. Akin to thinking George Eliot was a man, she was in fact one Mary Ann Evans. Whilst they soon changed it to another undoubtedly female author they could not stop the error-spotting pedants’ scoop circulating on social media.

Historically, over the last 15 years, some 20,214 syllabi have featured William Shakespeare. Plato, Marx and Freud, and 13 other male writers precede the first female author on the list: A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian. The current course texts list includes at #5 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ahead of Aristotle’s Ethics, and Turabian’s work at #13.

Evelyn Waugh, He-Evelyn or She-Evelyn?

So, not a female writer then! But also, not an uncommon mistake as Waugh himself pointed out:

“I was christened Arthur Evelyn St John: the first name after my father, the second from a whim of my mother’s. I have never liked the name. In America it is used only of girls and from time to time even in England it has caused confusion as to my sex.” – Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography

Following TIME magazine‘s gendered mistake, the Independent in its ante-penultimate weekend issue seem to have made the same error:

“When Evelyn Waugh was listed recently among Time magazine’s top 100 female writers, it made me wonder how Evelyn’s books would be reviewed and marketed if she had written them now. In 1928, Decline and Fall was lauded as a viciously funny social satire; but would the same novel by Mrs Waugh be read as semi-autobiographical flimflam about a wedding? A Handful of Dust: a condemnation of the futility of humanist philosophy, or a thinly disguised roman à clef? Vile Bodies was a dark view of a decadent, doomed generation, but today’s Evelyn would have had her novel forced into pink covers, renamed Pretty Young Things and marketed as a romcom.”

Waugh, not a fan of punctuality, considered it a virtue only for the bored – much like Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps he had a similar attitude to accuracy! Certainly, he thought gendered division by sex “absurd”:

“Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic.” – Evelyn Waugh

In 1927 Waugh got engaged to one Evelyn Gardner, yes another Evelyn, and they were affectionately known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn, though the marriage only lasted a year owing to She-Evelyn’s unfaithfulness with a mutual friend rather more simply named John. During the decline and fall of their marriage, Waugh’s first book and social satire, Decline and Fall, became successful. The first edition bore a note from the author:

“Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.”

One imagines that is probably how he would see his name being on an all-female writers list!

St Julian of Norwich

The actual first woman to write a book in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love (1395), was an anchoress attached to the Church of St Julian in Norwich. She is even named ‘Julian’ from the church cell she occupied as her actual name is not known.

Gender bending Authors

The use of a cross-gender pen name has been around for centuries, in the main for female authors trying to get published or taken seriously in the predominantly male domain of publishing.

George Eliot

Whilst Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote as female, Mary Ann Evans chose to use the nom de plume of George Eliot to avoid Victorian romantic stereotyping of her writing. Instead, she wrote seven serious and substantial novels including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Middlemarch is currently #331 on the list of over 900,000 texts.

George Sand

TIME Magazine 100 Most Read Female Writers in CollegeAnother female author said that “My name is not Marie-Aurore de Saxe, Marquise of Dudevant, as several of my biographers have asserted, but Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin”, in fact, nineteenth century French novelist Aurore wrote under the more familiar name George Sand. Apart from novels and a memoir of an affair with Chopin, Sand wrote works of literary criticism, socialist political and feminist activism. At the outset of the 1848 French Revolution she founded a workers’ co-operative newspaper. The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev said of her:

“What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.”

She even began wearing male attire in public, claiming it was more practical and hardwearing. It also gave her access to places more typically dressed French noble women might have been barred from. It didn’t stop the criticism of her smoking in public, then frowned upon for women. Her most well known and most-translated work La Mare Au Diable (1846) “The Devil’s Pool” appears at #24,956 on the Open Syllabus list and has even been reinterpreted as a contrasexual queer novel once the author’s female gender is acknowledged.

Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell

Never heard of them? Well Ellis was in fact Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights (1847) #680. Currer was Charlotte Brontë, the writer of Jane Eyre (1847) #406. Acton was Anne, author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) #27,436. All three Brontë sisters first published under their male pen names a volume of poetry, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846).

Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen or indeed Pierre Andrézel were in fact the Danish female author Karen Dinesen who became Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke. She is best known for two literary works that became films, Out of Africa (1937) #6,151 and Babette’s Feast (1958).

Harper Lee

Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) #255, who died last week, was born Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards, her grandmother’s name) but wrote under the gender ambiguous name Harper. Harper as a forename is derived from the Middle English surname for a harpist, and is most commonly a boy’s name but does feature in girl’s names lists, even as high as #89 in the UK (2014).

JK Rowling

The Harry Potter novels author, Joanne Rowling, has written as JK and as Robert Galbraith. It was her publishers who asked that she use use initials to aid appeal to the male young adult market. Her highest novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is ranked #4,599 by the Open Syllabus Explorer.

EL James & LS Hilton

Maestra, Lisa LS Hilton
Maestra, LS Hilton

Writing under gender-neutral initials rather than a gender-outing first name is becoming all too common. Following in JK Rowling’s footsteps, five years ago, Erika Leonard aka EL James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. Now Lisa Hilton, writing as LS, breaks onto the erotic literary scene with her – or should that be an ‘unouted’ their, 2016 book in the now obligatory three parts. Maestra (published 10 March) is a sexy but classy romp in the art world, a far cry from her academic literary biographies written as Lisa.

Male to Female Pseudonyms

The eighteenth century American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin penned works under pseudonyms. He chose Richard Saunders but also Alice Addertongue, Polly Baker, Martha Careful, and Caelia Shortface. The 1747 Speech of Polly Baker by Franklin was an early woman’s rights protest against the way women were hounded and charged for having illegitimate children not the fathers. 250 years later societies are still trying to solve that injustice.

Even Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum, wrote books for a female audience using feminine pseudonyms: Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, and Suzanne Metcalf.

Changing Sex POV

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, Stephanie Meyer
Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, Stephanie Meyer

It is a common writing exercise and literary device to change the gendered Point of View (POV) of an author and have them write from the viewpoint of a main protagonist who is of a gender different to that of the author. A variation on this is what Twilight author Stephanie Meyer intends to do with the release of her gender-switched tenth anniversary rewrite of the novel. Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined features a male human Beau and female vampire Edythe, transposing the original roles, allegedly to prove the original intended no patronising damsel in distress stereotype.

Sex and Gender Bias

It’s been sadly proven that job applications, manuscript submissions are affected by gender bias. It is a very interesting psycho-social experiment to degender authorship and identity, to third-person neutral gender reference work colleagues by their job proficiency and not by their sex. Perhaps all authors should use initials? I often use just KJ so as not reveal my gender or even transgender by my fully spelled out name, Katy Jon.

Books & Literature

Death and Taxes on Health not Wealth – Windows, Wallpaper, Bricks & Beards

Death and Taxes

It seems everything is taxed these days, from bedrooms to tampons,  oversized coffins and even death itself. Death and taxes, not the punk song by Kid Dynamite, nor the debut 1941 novel by accountant David Dodge about a tax expert and reluctant detective James ‘Whit’ Whitney, but those certainties first twinned by Christopher Bullock in his 1716 Cobbler of Preston, and no, it was not Mark Twain, either:

“’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes!”

In 1724’s Dancing Devils Edward Ward wrote of their certainty:

“Death and Taxes, they are certain.”

That devilish certainty was repeated by Daniel Defoe in his 1726 Political History of the Devil:

“Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.”

More familiar, perhaps is the reference by Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, in the year of the French Revolution, 1789.

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Margaret Mitchell added a third inconvenience in her 1936 book Gone With the Wind:

“Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

Will Rogers quipped that:

“The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”

Death from Taxes

Of the two certainties in life, death and taxes, there are as many curious taxes as causes of death, indeed some of the former may be brought about by the latter. Government austerity cuts, a kind of reverse taxation but cutting benefits, can lead to deaths too – suicides, illness, and accidental – as one listener to BBC Radio 4 pointed out this week, having a DWP fitness for work interview pass you as fit when you suffer from blackouts and then you get a job as a driver and plough down innocent pedestrians in a dustbin lorry, for example.

The Window Tax

Window Tax blocked up windows, Portland Street, Southampton, photo by Gary Burt
Window Tax blocked up windows, Portland Street, Southampton, photo by Gary Burt

My favourite misguided tax is still the window tax, not the Windows tax – the cost of bundling Microsoft Windows with all new PCs. The 1696 tax is still much in evidence today by bricked up 17th-18th century building windows. Allegedly it is the origin of the term “daylight robbery”, and only repealed in 1851 after complaints that it was a “tax on health”, and a “tax on light and air”. Just like income tax there was a tax-free allowance of 6-8 windows. The origins of the first council tax, in fact, with property bands based upon the number of windows – so people cheated and bricked up their windows – when they could afford the bricks.

The Brick Tax

Bricked up, Jickling Lane, Wells-next-the-Sea
Bricked up, Jickling Lane, Wells-next-the-Sea

Thank god, not on Lego, but on bricks and taxed at manufacturing source on the builders during the revenue-raising needs of the Napoleonic and American Wars and after up until 1850. It was charged per brick so canny builders increased the size of them until the government of the day capped the maximum size of a brick by law. Clever tax avoidance is not a modern phenomena restricted to Amazon, Apple, Ebay, Google, Starbucks, Vodafone etc.

The Hat Tax

Another means of funding wars was the hat tax, which was essentially on the wealthy. Nonetheless milliners found ways round it, reclassifying their headgear leading to a legal definition of a hat in 1804, or faking the tax labels at great risk as hat tax avoidance could merit the death penalty – something to reconsider for Apple and Amazon?

The Hearth Tax

The late 17th century hearth and stove tax on heating and fireplaces served to take from the necessities of life to provide for the luxuries of life of King Charles II.

The Wallpaper Tax

Introduced under Queen Anne in 1712 but ran for 124 years on preprinted and painted wallpaper at least. This led to artistic ingenuity and spontaneous on-site stenciling on plain papers by creative builders and decorators.

The Soap Tax

The “mischievous and vexatious” soap tax raised as much as alcohol duty does today. It ran for 142 years until its repeal in 1853. It was levied upon the weight of soap not its quality or value and thus disproportionately affected the poor and prejudiced their cleanliness and overall health. It became a slave trade issue under William Gladstone who abolished it in favour of a less distorted market in African palm oil products.

“AMONGST our numerous taxes, this is one of the worst. It is levied on an article essential both to cleanliness and health; it is very unequal; for whilst the duty adds two thirds to the price of the coarse soap which the poor man uses, it becomes trivial when levied on the refined and scented soaps of the rich. It combines in itself, and that to a considerable extent, two of the most objectionable elements in taxation: duties are laid upon all the raw materials of its manufacture, and then a heavy duty, both mischievous and vexatious, is levied upon the manufactured commodity, the effect of the regulations under which it is collected being to encourage smuggling, and to shut out all improvement in the legitimate trade.” – The Spectator, 27 April 1833

A Beard Tax

A tax on beards – a surefire way to raise money today out of coiffured lumbersexuals – was apparently a myth. Razors and shaving items are, however, taxed at 20% which is actually a tax on non-beards!

A Tampon Tax

Yes, unlike beards but not shaving, they are taxed – albeit at a reduced rate of 5% rather than the 20% VAT on other allegedly non-medically necessary health and sanitary care products. That they should be taxed at all is a scandal, but it is a false argument to compare them to men’s sanitary products, despite shaving being a choice and bleeding, not one, since men’s grooming products are mostly charged at 20%.

The Royalist Tax

A tax on the monarchy sounds like a great idea. Oliver Cromwell taxed the Royalist monarchists in 1655-56. Perhaps one that could be brought back?

The Poll Tax

Poll Tax Riot, 31 Mar 1990, photo by James Bourne
Poll Tax Riot, 31 Mar 1990, photo by James Bourne

Variations on this have been around since time immemorial. Censuses make it possible. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 opposed it as did the people’s revolt of 1990, i.e., the UK ‘Poll Tax’ riots under Margaret Thatcher. After the Black Death took out half the population there was a shortage of supply and increased opportunities for the surviving working population. This led to socio-economic upward mobility and a power shift towards labourers, something the property classes did not like. War with France needed finance and so repeated taxes on every adult were applied and raised. The second poll tax was actually quite fair based upon seven different English classes, and taxing the wealthiest upper classes the most. It was broadly evaded and avoided though and raised little, prompting a third flat rate tax on everyone, which was the one that caused the lower classes to rebel.

The Council Tax

Coming in as allegedly more progressive than the infamous headcount Poll Tax or Community Charge, the Council Tax is often raised for reform as the values of houses and banding have changed so radically since its inception and a review is well overdue. Adding additional higher bands would be an excellent tax on property, but it is the people with property that make the decisions and they are reticent.

The Bedroom Tax

Or “Spare Room Subsidy” as politicians on one side of the House tried to label it, but like the Poll Tax, the colloquial name stuck. It is a reduction in benefit, another tax by stealth, on housing benefit for having an alleged excess of bedrooms – leading to attempts to redefine the smallest room as a box room and uninhabitable. Of course private tenants, were already receiving reduced benefits for living alone as brought in under Labour. Council social housing tenants were not affected until the Conservatives applied similar but not identical rules to them. it cruelly and disproportionately affected the disabled and their carers, the elderly keeping a spare room for family, and families with those in the forces rendered unable to maintain a room at home for them.

The Inheritance Tax

This is at one at the same time the fairest and unfairest tax. It is a kind of tax on death itself, a double taxation on property acquired through previously taxed income and expenditure, since there is also a Stamp Duty Tax on property purchase. Whilst it is blatantly an unethical double taxation, it is obviously affordable, though the rich circumvent it and the asset rich, cash poor are most affected by being unable to pass on a family home without selling up.

Tax Evasion and Avoidance

The more you have, the easier it is to avoid responsibility and requirement. The irony of public ownership is the duty to shareholders to maximise profit and minimise tax on commercial enterprises. Artfully called tax avoidance or reduction, or even tax flight, only tax evasion is technically illegal. The rest, many regard as unethical. As Plato said, that avoidance is unjust.

“When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.”

Those that can afford to pay more should in a communitarian society. We can’t wait for belated billionaire philanthropy, however amazing giving away 50-99% of your wealth sounds. Taxes should cut in before anyone amasses a billion!

Taxes, an evil force for good?

Taxes are necessary evils, originally bought in to finance wars rather than the welfare state. Tax collectors and money lenders are oft caricatured as evil themselves. In some countries, Hijra trans people are employed to shame and embarrass people into paying their taxes.

A number of Middle Eastern countries have just bought in taxes for the first time with the price of oil at a recent low meaning that they cannot live off their natural assets.

Competing economists and politicians have argued for a low flat rate tax that is paid by all and encourages compliance and simplicity versus complex and graduated taxes on income and wealth which are often avoided. From Churchill to Thatcher many have argued that lower taxes encourage prosperity and allegedly raise more revenues.

“It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low, and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the tax rates.” – John F. Kennedy

“For a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” – Winston Churchill

The UK tax handbook runs to thousands of pages, wouldn’t a simple flat tax be better? Even if it were true, it would raise prosperity for all, in an uneven, unfair way.

Taxes on consumption of alcohol and tobacco, fuel and certain foods, are the easiest to administer but fall heaviest on the poor.

No tax seems fair and more of us want to live off-grid, bringing back barter and local exchanged trading schemes as alternates to taxable currency, income and purchases, until, that is, we use a road, call the police, or need the NHS and wonder how we pay for it? The better the life we want, the more we will need taxes to pay for it, and the less we can rely on diminishing natural resources to prop up the state. Taxes are about responsibility and being wealthy enough to be income taxed at least means being better off than those that live below the minimum income tax bracket. I’d love to be rich enough to have to pay a 40-50% tax on higher income levels!

Death and taxes – are you ready for both, Photo by Echo9er on Flickr
Death and taxes – are you ready for both, Photo by Echo9er on Flickr
Books & Literature

BBC’s Sherlock returns for 4th Season and 2015 Special – The game is afoot!

Sherlock BBC Benedict CumberbatchWe can’t get enough of Benedict Cumberbatch and the BBC‘s ‪‎Sherlock, fortunately the Beeb have announced they are to return with filming of a 2015 Special beginning next January and then another 3 episode fourth season later in the year to hit our screens in 2016. The dripfeed of tantalising information began last Tuesday with a BBC One tweet:

Sherlock BBC hashtag 221back facebook Of course the hashtags, #221back and #Sherlock, gave it away but talk about teasing foreplay and dangling this before us and yet making us wait over a year. It is because both the actors and writers are so good that they are in such demand elsewhere too. Cumberbatch on Star Trek, Martin Freeman on Fargo and both of them in The Hobbit. Then at precisely 2:21pm GMT, simultaneously in the UK and US, the BBC announced, and serially re-announced, the news formally, again via the trending ‪#‎221back‬ hashtag:

The new series will be “deeper and darker” than before, and Moriarty could be back. Steven Moffat hinted that “the very next thing to happen to Sherlock and John, is the very last thing you’d expect.”

And so “the game is on” – again!

What has become a catchphrase of Sherlock, “the game is on”, is an update to “the game is afoot” which was originally uttered in just one Sherlock story, The adventure of the Abbey Grange:

“It was on a bitterly cold and frosty morning during the winter of ’97 that I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder. It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stooping face and told me at a glance that something was amiss. ‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’ Ten minutes later we were both in a cab and rattling through the silent streets on our way to Charing Cross Station.”

“The game is afoot” was not an original Conan Doyle inspiration but rather a phrase borrowed from that other English master craftsman, Shakespeare, some 300 years earlier. It first appears in a Shakespearian play, spoken by the Earl of Northumberland, in Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 3:

“Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.”

It also appears in the famous speech of King Henry beginning, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” and ending:

“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” (Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1

Appeal of Sherlock Holmes

Many people, especially women, find intelligence attractive – “brainy is the new sexy”, but self-confessed cold aloofness and detachment?

Sherlock BBC Benedict Cumberbatch Brainy is the new sexySo why the appeal of Sherlock with his narcissistic superior personality not to mention narcotic escapism on the side. Just why is Sherlock so addictive? Is it that we too are escapist fantasists wishing for an attachment with someone so detached, or do we want to be him, as intelligent and as apparently not needy? Although, it is clear from his weaknesses for drugs and Dr Watson, that he is, however idealised, still far from emotional self-sufficiency.

“My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” – Sherlock Holmes

It’s not as if Sherlock is great marrying material, given his views on the subject:

“Let’s talk about…murder. Did I say murder? I meant to say marriage. But, you know, they’re quite similar procedures when you think about it. The participants tend to know each other, it’s over when one of them’s dead. In fairness, murder is a lot quicker though.” – Sherlock, BBC

Sherlock himself was not one for emotional attachment, as the modern Sherlock says, “Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side”, but his one weakness was for Irene Adler, whom Conan Doyle describes thus:

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen…. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes Paget 1903 The Empty House - The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Holmes and Watson in the The Empty House – The Return of Sherlock Holmes, illustrated by Sidney Paget, 1903

I’ve loved Sherlock ever since reading all 60 stories – published over a 40 year period, aged 15, and writing my English OA level special paper on him. I love his intelligence, but not his supposed rational avoidance of emotion for it is clear he loves Watson, not to mention the allusions to attraction and love for Irene Adler.

Elementary my dear Watson

Whilst the US adaptation of the Sherlock brand, the TV series Elementary (Season 1 – 2012, 2 – 2013/14 and Season 3 announced), has been running nearly as long, it takes a different road. Sherlock, played by Jonny Lee Miller, gains the first female crime-busting sidekick with Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson – Sherlock’s sobriety companion, a form of addiction counsellor. Sherlock in this is more gritty, troubled, emotional – indeed more human, but no less intelligent despite essentially being in rehab.

It would be a massive SPOILER ALERT for watchers of the US series to reveal the clever twist in just who Moriarty may be. More details, if you already know, or don’t care, on the Wiki list of Moriarty portrayals.

Whilst Elementary is quite different, both play upon the original stories and cleverly leave us guessing as to how they will interweave Victorian plots and book references whilst remaining gripping narrative arcs with surprise twists. That said, Elementary drifts ever further from the originals and seems to exhibit little loyalty to the originals, not that Moffat and Gatiss are renowned for traditional faithfulness either, especially with the way they’ve reinvented Doctor Who – albeit, in my opinion successfully and brilliantly.

Holmes, House and 221B

Although, contextually further away from the criminal detection, the American series House, again with a British actor playing the lead, transposes Holmes and to a lesser extent Watson, to a medical milieu. In many ways, it has been argued, the series is more faithful to the character of Holmes whilst straying almost completely from the plots. In this case it is Dr Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie with his medical friend Dr James Wilson, same initials as Dr J Watson. They both live at 221B’s, House actually on Baker Street. Their first patient is named Rebecca Adler and later a reference is made to another patient, Irene Adler.

Modern Film Interpretations

Sherlock Holmes theatrical release poster WikiSherlock Holmes has also been brought back to the big screen, so that we have three adaptations of him running simultaneously, along with the BBC version and US Elementary. In 2009, Guy Ritchie directed the first instalment of a British–American film series, produced by Joel Silver. It was more than sufficiently successful to  merit a sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, coming out for Christmas 2011.  A third film announced that year by Warner Bros is still, according to Jude Law in 2013, at scripting stage. Robert Downey Jr played a believably narcissistic Holmes to Law’s suave updated, rather than bumbling, Watson. Whilst the films were more action based than the originals, they have been updated for our times, just like the TV series, but with bigger budgets.

David Stratton, writing in The Australian, in a piece calledThe Swinging Detective disliked the first film’s Indiana Jones-styled interpretation of the original stories concluding, “The makers of this film are mainly interested in action; that, they believe, is all that gets young audiences into cinemas today. They may be right, but they have ridden roughshod over one of literature’s greatest creations in the process.” The fact that there are literally dozens of versions, though, and that each may drive young readers back to the books, is surely a good thing. Just like stage plays and films of Shakespeare one can go for authenticity or adaptation, if not reinvention, it does not diminish the original, rather it shows how versatile and enduring the stories are.

Actors who’ve played Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Holmes is the most portrayed character in movies, of all time, with some 70+ actors playing him. Of all his portrayals, though, I’ve always loved the classic Basil Rathbone on TV and the sharper, perhaps less likeable, Jeremy Brett. Probably the worst, for me, at least, were Charlton Heston, Roy Hudd, Roger Moore and Edward Woodward – not that I didn’t like these actors in other roles, the latter in Callan, for instance.

On radio, a medium quite well suited to the stories, I loved Clive Merrison, the only actor to cover every story and thus the entire canon of Sherlock Holmes. Carleton Hobbs managed 56 of the stories in 80 radio productions. In the war years, Sir John Gielgud performed several radio versions.

The updated television versions make extensive use of visual demonstrations of Holmes’ thought processes, not to mention texting and phone technology, an advantage of television over radio, which lends itself to modernisation rather than authenticity. It may surprise you to know that John Cleese played Sherlock Holmes in a 1977 comedy spoof The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It. Other unlikely actors included Larry Hagman of Dallas fame playing him in another comedy drama made for television movie as a motorcycle cop who after an accident believed himself to be Sherlock Holmes. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore also paired up in a comic version.

More seriously, Leonard Nimoy, perhaps as the emotionless Spock well suited to the role, played Sherlock on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

A Growing Audience

It is to be hoped that modern reworkings of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, Elementary and the film franchise will create a new young audience for Conan Doyle’s character and send them back to books to marvel at Victorian penmanship.

Sherlock’s Facebook page has 3.7m likes and no doubt after 10 million Brits watched him rise from the dead, that figure will just rise and rise again.

Sherlock BBC 221back facebook

 

[An earlier version of this article first appeared here]

Image credits:

BBC public domain facebook image of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock   BBC public domain facebook image of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock BBC public domain facebook image of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes WikiMedia Commons

Books & Literature

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Magical Realist, Nobel Prize novelist, author of 100 Years of Solitude

The colourful Colombian Nobel novelist Gabriel García Márquez died in April at the ripe old age of 87 at his home in Mexico City. Although solitude was a recurring theme in his novels he leaves behind his wife of 56 years and two children. Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, or Gabo, was born in March 1927 and at 45 he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and at 55 the Nobel Prize in Literature. He started out in law, but abandoned that for journalism and work as a foreign correspondent. He wrote for Bogotá’s El Espectador newspaper in the 1940s.

His literary style has been termed magical realism, a style that began in Latin American/Hispanic writing and which contains fantasy or unnatural elements in otherwise commonplace, mundane ordinary life. Think, Guillermo del Toro movies! No, not, Kung Fu Panda 2 but perhaps Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or Cronos (1993). Surrealism, symbolism and subtle historical satire also make regular appearances as if works of surrealist art rendered in literary form.

As a result of this Spanish-language literature emerging from South America in the 1960s, it has also been called the Latin American Boom with such literary giants as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez being key figures in its development and global renown.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of SolitudeHis most famous novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude (“Cien años de soledad”), published in 1967, and declared by a NY Times review to be “required reading for the entire human race” and the Guardian as “kaleidoscopically, mysteriously alive”. It has been translated into more than two dozen languages and sold tens of millions of copies.

“It’s just a small thing to even call it a book. It is a whole universe that’s been created that you’re being asked to step into.” – Patricia Smith, Associate Professor of Creative Writing, City University of New York

The book begins with the family patriarch’s scion, the now Colonel Aureliano Buendía, looking back on his childhood whilst facing a firing squad. Very evocative of an older era of Hispanic revolutionary times. The description of the early village settlement of Macondo, nestled on the bank of a river containing “polished stones…white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names…” is Edenic and utopic. Then comes the mysterious Melquíades and his gypsies, inventions, alchemy and a secret manuscript that would remain undeciphered for 7 generations of the somewhat doomed to repeat history family – another Latin American trait, fatalism. As his biographer Gerald Martin told AP it was “the first novel in which Latin Americans recognized themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure”.

Salman Rushdie described it as the “greatest novel in any language of the last 50 years”, but it wasn’t just any language, it was Spanish – a language almost as suited as English to passionate expression, with so many evocative words and idioms. It is said that English has perhaps twice as many words at its disposal but that “doesn’t mean that it can’t be just as expressive as English; sometimes it is more so.”

“One feature that Spanish has when compared to English is a flexible word order. Thus the distinction that is made in English between “dark night” and “gloomy night” might be made in Spanish by saying noche oscura and oscura noche, respectively. Spanish also has two verbs that are the rough equivalent of the English “to be,” and the choice of verb can change the meaning (as perceived by English speakers) of other words in the sentence. Thus estoy enferma (“I am sick”) is not the same as soy enferma (“I am sickly”). Spanish also has verb forms, including a much-used subjunctive mood, that can provide nuances of meaning sometimes absent in English. Finally, Spanish speakers frequently use suffixes to provide shades of meaning.”

I remember trying to read a Márquez novel in a post-A level Spanish literary class, and needing a dictionary constantly in hand. Though that interrupted the the flow of the narrative and slowed the comprehension, I was no less enthralled by the beauty and colour of the language, readily understood or not.

Márquez has been described as “the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century” and as having “outsold everything published in Spanish except the Bible.”

Upon accepting the 1982 Noble Prize for Literature, Márquez situated his fictional writing firmly in the real, the political, the crucible of civil wars, revolutions, exiles, people ‘disappeared’, “between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work”:

“The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway. I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters [Nobel committee]. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”

The opening lines of Love in the Time of Cholera (“El amor en los tiempos del cólera”, 1985) are literally bittersweet:

“It was inevitable: The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love…his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the time of choleraWritten 18 years after One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera is less fantastical but no less magical. Described as “a compelling exploration of the myths we make of love” by Barbara Hoffert, in the Library Journal, and the Independent wrote of it that “Few have written so passionately about the power of love”. The Daily Telegraph said of Márquez’ writing, that it was “Quite the nearest thing to sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”

In all the apparent hopelessness of Latin American existence, he, nonetheless, writes of a triumph of hope over experience and celebrates love in its many forms, including lovesickness, and at every age, even in the twilight of our lives. He reached the twilight of his existence and will remain loved by his family, fellow Latin Americans, and avid readers from most every nation alive.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said of Márquez that he was Colombia’s “most loved and admired compatriot of all time” and has announced three days of official mourning.

[This article was first published here]

Novels

  • In Evil Hour (1962)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  • The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)
  • Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
  • The General in His Labyrinth (1989)
  • Of Love and Other Demons (1994)

Novellas

  • Leaf Storm (1955)
  • No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
  • Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981)
  • Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)

Short Story Collections

  • Eyes of a Blue Dog (1947)
  • Big Mama’s Funeral (1962)
  • The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1978)
  • Collected Stories (1984)
  • Strange Pilgrims (1993)

Non-fiction Books

  • The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970)
  • The Solitude of Latin America (1982)
  • The Fragrance of Guava (1982, with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza)
  • Clandestine in Chile (1986)
  • News of a Kidnapping (1996)
  • A Country for Children (1998)
  • Living to Tell the Tale (2002)

 

Books & Literature

The legacy of Sue Townsend, social commentator, book-lover, author of Adrian Mole and his Secret Diary

Adrian Mole Secret Diary Sue Townsend book cover montage
A montage of just some of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole book covers over 30 years by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend (1946-2014), creator of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, has died of a stroke, aged 68. Despite failing her 11-plus exam, leaving school at 15, and being a three-child single mother by 23, she went on to write 17 books, 11 plays and receive half-a-dozen awards including two honorary doctorates. She shared the Freedom of Leicester, where she was born and based the Adrian Mole books, with Leicester-raised singer Engelbert Humperdinck. Her humble writing roots were not dissimilar to JK Rowling’s and she wrote for 20 years before being published. The first volume of Adrian Mole’s Diary was written was working 3 jobs and living on Leicester’s Saffron Lane estate.

Stephen Mangan, who played the television role of Adrian Mole in 2001, said on hearing of her passing, “Greatly upset to hear that Sue Townsend has died. One of the warmest, funniest and wisest people I ever met.”

A Portuguese edition of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
A Portuguese edition of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

The Adrian Mole books described the growing pains and internal worries of a teenage boy, his loves and woes, such as glue sniffing and ending up with model aeroplane stuck to his nose! Her first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ became one of the bestselling books of the 1980s in which it was also set.

Within a decade the first book had sold in excess of 2 million copies. To date some 20 million+ copies of the books have sold, as it has spawned numerous sequels and translations, making both Sue Townsend and Adrian Mole famous.

“Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13 3/4 year old undiscovered intellectual.”

Indeed, that is how Adrian saw himself, an aspiring yet unrecognised intellectual with the following catch or caveat:

“I have a problem. I am an intellectual, but at the same time I am not very clever.”

This was evidenced by his confusing “Pride and Prejudice” with “Prejudice or Pride” and not getting the association of Pandora and Box – a tenth unpublished Adrian Mole novel was to have been titled “Pandora’s Box”. Similarly he confused the genders of Evelyn Waugh and George Eliot. His mother found his poetry funny rather than deep, because “she was not an intellectual”.

“Now I know I am an intellectual. I saw Malcolm Muggeridge on the television last night, and I understood nearly every word. It all adds up. A bad home, poor diet, not liking punk. I think I will join the library and see what happens.”

Books offer both the ticket and journey out of dead-end life circumstances. Townsend saw a life littered with literature and books as an opportunity for economic, mental, and social escape.

“To unlock the heavy outer door and to walk into the hushed interior, with the morning light spilling from the high windows on to the waiting books, gave her such pleasure that she would have worked for nothing.” – Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year

Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry
Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry

In “Rebuilding Coventry“, a 1988 Townsend novel about Coventry Dakin, a woman on the run in London after killing her neighbour with an action man – he was in turn killing his wife at the time, she again writes of her novels characters’ love of books:

“I’ve always loved books. I’m passionate about them. I think books are sexy. They are smooth and solid and contain delightful surprises. They smell good. They fit into a handbag and can be carried around and opened at will. They don’t change. They are what they are and nothing else. One day I want to own a lot of books and have them near to me in my house, so that I can stroll to my bookshelves and choose what I fancy. I want a harem. I shall keep my favourites by my bed.” – Sue Townsend, Rebuilding Coventry

One obituary, in the Telegraph, describes her self-taught literary Damascene journey: “the internal, secret world of books increasingly played a central part in her existence. Having started on Richmal Crompton’s Just William, she quickly graduated to Jane Eyre, and from there to Dostoevsky. ‘Jane Eyre was the first book I read right through, non-stop,’ she said. ‘It was winter, freezing cold, and I remember seeing this thin light outside and realising it was dawn. I got dressed reading, walked to school reading and finished it in the cloakroom at lunchtime. It was riveting.’ She devoured ‘all the Russians, then the French, then the Americans. I remember getting in trouble for reading The Grapes of Wrath under my desk in a boring lesson.'”

Whilst Adrian Mole’s father read Playboy he read Charles Dickens by torchlight and wanted to escape his housing estate existence and find true love with Pandora. His were the trials of a teenage boy, intellectually and sexually thwarted, at one and same time. “Somehow,” writes David Walliams, “Townsend understood what is was to be an adolescent boy better than any adolescent boy.”

“I have realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac.”

Her novels featured wry humour, social commentary on class and economic inequalities, and an independent feminism and socialism. The working classes were seen as separate to the pro-Royal “Marks and Spencer set”.

“Well, there are people and people, aren’t there? It was hardly the Marks and Spencer set, was it? Tattooed grandfathers, single parents, Alsatians, delinquents and maladjusted children. Hardly a discriminating public was it?” – Sue Townsend, Bazaar and Rummage [Gwenda speaking]  (see more on this)

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

Although she is most famous for creating a teenage boy and all his adolescent angst, it was her female characters that most reflected her own ideals. For instance, Pauline Mole, Adrian’s mother reads Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch“, cuts her hair short, goes on an assertiveness course, camps out at Greenham Common and seeks to become an independent woman. Similarly, love of Adrian’s life, Pandora, wants to be a free woman yet also a feminist mum, saying:

“I should like to have one child when I am forty-six years of age. The child will be a girl. She will be beautiful and immensely gifted. Her name will be Liberty.” – Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole

Sue Townsend, Ghost Children
Sue Townsend, Ghost Children

In 1987’s “Ghost Children” Townsend explored heavier themes of abortion, body-image, abuse, bereavement, reconciliation and redemption – quite a departure from her usual fare but no less observationally sharp.

Her books appealed to boys and girls, and adults, alike and captured a snapshot of over three decades of British social and political life from Thatcher to Blair (see the satirical “Number Ten“). The Falklands, Old and New Labour, Tony Benn, old-school Communist OAP Bert, even the break up of the SDP all featured. Adrian espoused mixed political beliefs between his desire to get a paper round so that he could afford to go private to sort out his acne and his confusion over the cult and personality of Mrs Thatcher:

“I’m not sure how I will vote. Sometimes I think Mrs Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman. Then the next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”

Tony Blair did not get off lightly in the books either:

“Glenn has been excluded from school, for calling Tony Blair a twat.”

Adrian’s obsession with Tony Blair is described in excerpts from Adrian’s middle-aged diary and his description of Blair surrounding himself, not with “Blair’s Babes” but rather, “Alpha Males” such as Margaret Beckett!

“I am not a trained psychologist but I am wise beyond my 40 years and think that I have discovered why Mr Blair was so keen to become a war leader and to swagger alongside George Bush. He thought it would give him another pair of testicles and would promote him to Alpha Maleness.”

She had planned to write one or two more Adrian Mole novels, the 10th and 11th, to cover the Coalition years of the current Government.

Read more reader suggested memorable quotes from Adrian Mole in the comments section of this Guardian piece.

Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went to Bed for Year, Sue Townsend
Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went to Bed for Year

Her last published novel in 2012, “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year“, described as “a funny and touching novel about what happens when someone stops being the person everyone wants them to be.” Reviews said it was “deeper and darker than comedy” (Sunday Times) and “Bursting with witty social commentary as well as humour” (Women’s Weekly). It is a witty and wry observation on life that will be missed.

Sue Townsend, will undoubtedly be missed, despite her few critics and doubters – as evidenced in some comment threads, but most especially for her warmth, generosity and a style of satire, so eminently British, that is paradoxically both sharp and soft on its targets. She was never vicious and left enough humanity in each character she penned or real people she had her creations criticise for each reader to be left to make up their own minds. Take just a sampling of some of the endearing praise on this theme that the media has printed over the last few days:

“…a political fantasy where the Queen is invited to move to a council estate after the creation of the British republic. It’s a gentle approach, but no less powerful for that. Her humour allows you to rise above the politicians and the divisiveness. No one ever got hurt or beaten up because of a Sue Townsend novel, but their conscience was raised nonetheless.” – Bob and Roberta Smith

“A lot of modern comedy is based on cruelty and snobbery, but she found decency and even heroism in Adrian’s delusions of genius, his pointless adoration of Pandora, and his loyalty to Bert Baxter.” – Frank Cottrell Boyce

“While her satire was sharp and scabrous, she treated her characters with a warmth that made them stay with us over the years…warm, satirical style” – Luke Wright

“So funny, without ever being cruel or mocking.” – Isy Suttie

“There was also a kindness in her writing. She treated her characters – and her readers – with such humanity. Always funny, always inclusive, and never cruel.” – Leviathan212 

“She was loved by generations of readers, not only because she made them laugh out loud, but because her view of the world, its inhabitants and their frailties was so generous, life-affirming and unique.” – Tom Weldon, chief executive of her publisher Penguin Random House UK

“However, what I love most about this book is that unlike a lot of modern comedy (and yes, I am partly to blame), Townsend’s writing is full of warmth.” – David Walliams (who wrote the foreword to the 30th Anniversary edition of the Secret Diary)

“Sue Townsend did social satire without contempt and cruelty.” – Linda Grant

Remembered, but never to be forgotten. Sue Townsend – through Adrian Mole, will keep a place of affection in readers’ hearts as strong as JK Rowling and Harry Potter.

The Adrian Mole series
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982)
  • The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984)
  • The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989)
  • Adrian Mole From Minor to Major (1991) including Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians
  • Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993)
  • Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999)
  • Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004)
  • The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999–2001 (2008)
  • Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009)
Other books
  • Rebuilding Coventry (1988)
  • Mr Bevan’s Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State (1989) [non-fiction]
  • The Queen and I (1992)
  • Ghost Children (1997)
  • The Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman (2001) [non-fiction]
  • Number Ten (2002)
  • Queen Camilla (2006)
  • The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012)

This article first appeared here.