Monday, 30 June 2014

In the Land of the Blind: Men in "Orange is the New Black"

Back in April I wrote about the silliness of changes made to World Book Night to make it more appealing to men. And men, I am afraid, are a problem yet again.

Recently we have been watching the first season of Orange is the New Black. We have only one episode left to watch and I am genuinely excited to see it.

However, when we got to the end of episode no. 12, Deb showed me this tweet;
And, you see, the thing is, that throughout the programme, I’ve been saying something deceptively similar.

If you’ve not seen it, Orange is the New Black is a series about a thirty-something white lady who goes to prison having been convicted of transporting money for her drug smuggler girlfriend ten years previous. We follow her prison life and learn about a large cast of female inmates. The dialogue is snappy, there are some good actors, and most importantly, it has Captain Janeway doing a Russian accent (I nearly fell off the sofa. Literally.)

It is a remarkable piece of narrative in that it has a large female cast who are all individual, fully rounded characters of different ages, races and sexual orientations. They are not universally motivated by love, and when they are, that love needn’t be one involving a strapping full-back.

(As an aside, it also features disabled characters. And there is a truly *brilliant* scene involving a troubled youngster in a wheelchair. Worth the cost of the DVD alone.)

It is tremendously frustrating, therefore, to find a really large hole in this magnificent thing. But it is there. In fact, there are four of them! But let’s concentrate on the most important thing - won’t someone please think about the men!

Men. I am one, you know? And as such, I am in a position of tremendous good fortune. If I want to find a role-model in narrative, I have a cubic megatonne to choose from. I do face some limitations (for example, there are relatively few disabled male role-models who don’t overcome their disability to be something tremendously heroic), but they are negligible in the face of the limits placed on women.

When studying the Women in Antiquity course as part of my Classics degree, I read and very much enjoyed Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. And scarily, these are, generally speaking, still the choices left us when we talk about women in fiction (and, often, in life too...). Maybe she is the supporting wife. Or a slave to a passion. A slut to be used and shamed. Or a goddess to save us all.

And so it’s extraordinarily easy to write a typical female character. You’ve got four options and, if you want some variety, just choose two and mix ‘em! If you doubt this, just look at the majority of the female cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

When you’re creating a male character, however, you carefully think about their job, their relationship with family and friends, hobbies and desires etc. They necessarily become rounded and real. A proper person.

When it comes to Orange is the New Black, however, the writers have taken the latter route of character creation and used it to create rounded, complex, interesting and real women (with an exception...more on which later).

And you can tell that as soon as you do this, some people are going to look at the huge female cast and think “Well this is a bit odd - where are all the men?”. And it does feel a little like that, even to me. It’s just I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. But I can understand how someone could see that and say that the men are ‘barely and inadequately represented’.

They’re not, though. There are male prison officers. There is a male prison doctor. There are male relatives and loved ones. There are male villains and victims in the flashbacks of the prison inmates.

That sounds to me about as many male characters as you could possibly fit into a story about a women’s prison! So men are very appropriately represented. They are, as men usually are, all distinct and named. It’s possible that I’ve forgotten and there has been an episode without men in it, but I sincerely doubt it.

However, what I would vehemently argue is that although there is a more than adequate representation of men, they are not written with the devotion lavished on the female inmates.

Although there are distinct men, we never really see beyond the mask. The main villain (a moustacheod prison officer) is truly awful to his charges. We can make some guesses about his life story, but they remain, up to episode no. 12 at least, entirely unexamined. Likewise, the more likeable prison officer has an interesting story of sorts (he is an amputee), but again we do not really see any depth.

The biggest problem for me is Larry, the fiancé of the main character. I find their relationship annoying at best, and a complete mystery at worst. We cannot feel genuinely sorry for any of his suffering because we only see very controlled, minimal signs of a normal life. He is a caricature being used to very poor effect.

Of course, the problem is that as soon as you think these things, you see that they’re not universally the fate of the betesticled cast. There are female prison officers who receive just as little examination and care. But, again, we’re so used to nameless women in the background, they just fade into acceptance.

So what does this mean for the series? We’re to write it off as a failure because it’s not taken universal care of its cast of characters?

Pick five pieces of great narrative. Do the majority treat men and women with equal care and love? I doubt it.

Problematic fiction can be hugely entertaining and fun. You have to suspend a little bit of your brain that argues against it. I’ve watched the first three series of Game of Thrones and there have been times when I have been sickened by the so called ‘sexposition’. And yet I’ve still watched it. And enjoyed some parts of it enough to continue watching it.

The only real problem with problematic fiction is that it can never be truly great. And that’s where I feel that, if Orange is the New Black had managed to tick all my boxes it would be a truly great piece of fiction. And that, of course, would be wonderful.

But not everything can be great. And it is perhaps just as important to have fun, problematic stuff available where women are fully rounded characters as it is to have pieces of truly great story telling now and again.

But that probably won’t stop me from shouting at the television when I desperately want them to spend a minute looking at why a man might be doing something. Because maybe that might make the impact of his actions greater...grrr!


I must just add, however, the other three problems I have with Orange is the New Black. Firstly, no one uses the word ‘bisexual’, and there is such a naivety about the whole subject that I find it distracting.

Secondly, and much more importantly, there are aspects of sexual morality which I find troubling.

1.) there is a sexual relationship between a guard and prisoner which is painted in a very romantic light. Both characters are inadequate, but this is made worse by not really understanding the man’s motives given his lack of three dimensional character. Also, the consequences are discussed, but never in a way that suggests the act to be wrong...only that they might be discovered and punished (unfairly).

2.) there are instances where same-sex intimacy are used as a threat against a religious fundamentalist. Of course, the fundamentalist is a thoroughly horrible character deserving justice...but this kind of ‘justice’ is nothing of the sort and feels, to me, like it’s meant to be chortled over.

Finally, and most upsetting of all the problems - throughout the first series there has been a number of interesting stories told by a variety of women. Because of this we see things we don’t often see -

  • a black woman growing from a terrified girl into a matriarchal business owner who carries out fatal justice for an injured worker.
  • a Russian wife turned gangster turned prison cook.
  • a black teenager who throws away a promising career because a hard-working life looks boring when you’re a kid.

But all of these stories have to be framed around the experience of our blonde, white main character. Ten years in prison having murdered a man who abused a girl? Yeah, a few weeks in and Blondie can relate. It’s sickening. Also, the ridiculous love story, made more ridiculous by the lack of proper character exploration of the chap, is an example of standard narrative being shoe-horned into a much more interesting and individual narrative.

It certainly has problems. But I’m sure I’ll cope.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

BADD 2014 - Need For Speed

Download an MP3

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
Deb and I have tried to get out of the house a little more this year. This has meant that every few weeks you might see us in convoy along the pavement, her in the lead on her wheelchair while I take up the rear on my scooter. I’d like to think that this was entirely due to her wheelchair being fractionally slower than my scooter and so it making more sense to keep to her pace. I fear, however, that I am actually one of nature’s followers. I prefer to be back a ways, watching others out in front. And Deb has pretty hair - I get to see it blowing about in the wind if I’m behind her.

Every now and then we’ll draw level where the pavement is wide enough. If it’s somewhere very quiet, we might go along holding hands (occasionally leading to a very low speed collision).

Every now and then we also get comments. Any mobility equipment user will know the kind of thing. “Cor, can I hop on for a lift!” “Have you got a license for that thing?!” and, most recently “I guess one of the good things about being disabled is not having to walk in cat s**t...”. I s**t you not...

Obviously, most of the comments aren’t meant in a terrible way. Often it’s people, a little surprised by what they’ve seen, wanting to be friendly. And when people want to be friendly at something they are surprised by, that friendliness often falls flat. What’s more, in a society where disabled people are increasingly persecuted, any reference to any part of your disability can feel like an attack.

And yet, I remember as a kid being so totally bowled over by how brilliant scooters were. There was a chap down the road who had one with a great big plastic canopy, and on rainy days it looked like a comfy little tent on wheels. And I don’t think that’s changed much - the other day we happened upon a pair of young boys being mischievous in the woods after school. A bit shocked at being found, their response was “That’s an electric wheelchair! Cooool!”

These things should be cool. And so I’d like to tell you a story.

The other day, you’ll never guess who I met. Go on, guess! You’ll never get it. But go on, give it a go anyway!

No, it wasn’t Nick Lowe, the Classics scholar and writer of Mutant Popcorn film reviews in the SF magazine Interzone. But good guess.

It was actually the former head of engineering from Karelma scooters!

Yeah, I know.

Long ago, I myself had a Karelma scooter. It was the first scooter I bought - a second hand blue-green Karelma Pegasus. Sadly, I began to have problems with it around the time when the company disappeared, and so I sold it and bought myself a Pride Legend XL in black.

At the moment, we’re in a bit of a funny situation, living between our parents. We’re trying to arrange something for our housing in the future, but in the mean time transporting a scooter between two houses would have been very difficult. I was very lucky to receive a scooter for free from the widow of a colleague of my father. So, for a time, we were actually a two scooter household. This CS200 was a fairly old machine. It had scratches along the side (and, rather suspiciously, came complete with a bottle opener on the keys...) but served me very well. It started to have problems and Deb’s wheelchair is also getting a little decrepit. So we decided to get them serviced.

Me sat on a CS200 mobility scooter in a slightly wintery graveyard.  Prescient for the fate of the scooter, alas...

And that’s how I came to meet the former head of engineering from Karelma scooters!

Disability in general, but particularly chronic invisible conditions can be extremely damaging to a chap’s sense of masculinity. Look for a male disabled role-model and you’re either looking at a pirate, super-soldier or bond villain. All of them are active, hyper masculine and...well, not ever such a lot like me. They also tend not to have anything to do with mobility scooters. Electric wheelchairs are OK for villains (and also Tim Mcinnerny in Johnny English Reborn) but on the whole, you’re expected to be propelled by the musky force of your manliness alone. Or, you know, your arms.

A still from Johnny English Reborn - a surprisingly fun film featuring an improbable mobility device.

But do you know what happened when I spoke to the former head of engineering from Karelma scooters (who, for the record, is called Artur)?

We had a wonderfully blokey conversation!

We talked about the amperage of the motor controllers. We talked about the benefits of dual motors over trans-axle designs. We talked about the cost of parts and engineering philosophies.

Honestly, I couldn’t have felt more manly without the aid of a full set of spanners and a two gallons of used engine oil!

And what’s more, I felt pride in that manliness.

Two points relating to this;

1.)  Pride is currently not encouraged for disabled people in our society. Our image, as portrayed by politicians and in the media, is one of which no one could be proud. We must be lacking everything - any sort of capacity, any sort of happiness or fulfillment - to be entitled to any sort of help (and, indeed, any sort of acceptance in society). If we receive help, we cannot show anything good for fear of that help being taken away. This means that our communities tend towards copious displays of lack of ability to justify ourselves.

2.)  I don’t want you to believe for an instant that I mean manliness in a way that excludes women. I think all women should be a little manly. There’s something wonderfully nerdy about being a chap. We watched a programme the other day about men in Georgian Britain and it mentioned how men didn’t have fripperies or toys, they had ‘equipment’. Everyone should be able to have equipment! Equipment is fun! And one of the best things that manliness gives you is a certain self confidence...and an enthusiasm.

The problem with men (or at least one of the many problems...) is that they can let that go too far the other way. That’s when you get arrogant sods and men who, when seeing a couple out on their mobility equipment is a bit annoyed that they will avoid the fate of his excrement-covered shoes.

So, I urge you all to take some pride in your equipment, whatever it may be, and feel enthused, not just in things, but in yourselves. Me, I will feel pride in my mobility equipment. And I look forward to the time when my scooter needs servicing* as I am sure Artur and I will have a fun conversation about the benefits of single-piece control panels for waterproofing purposes. Just two chaps who, in their own individual ways, are both part of a proud disability community.


If you have any problems with your scooter or wheelchair and are in East Anglia, I urge you to give Scootertech a ring. Also, wherever in the country you are, if you’re in the market for a new scooter, you could do a *lot* worse than one of his models. And if you buy one, mention me! With a few hundred commissions, I might be able to get my own Hillclimber Extreme - a name so manly, I think I just heard my chest-hair rustle in excitement!

*Sadly the CS200 had terminal problems and we’re back to being a single scooter household

BADD 2014 - Clippity Cloppity Goat and the Dragon

Download the MP3

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
Far away, beyond the mountains, there are vast plains of shingle, laying flat like a million stony fish scales. To the eye of any normal creature, these vast stretches of grey are barren. But that emptiness is a lie. If you close your eyes and listen, things move under those stones. Scales scratch. And, if you tread on the wrong piece of rock, you might end up with a terribly warm foot. Because this is the place where dragons live.


Clippity had been doing very well after his adventures with Arnold the troll. He had, of course, been in a lot of trouble with his mother. But when she saw what a sensible kid he’d been, she was inclined not to be too angry with him. Very soon he was back to playing with his friends in the paddock, chasing butterflies, butting fence-posts and spreading as much happiness as he possibly could.

One cloudy day, Clippity chased a particularly colourful butterfly all the way across the field, right up to the great steel cattle grid. Concentrating entirely on the brightly fluttering insect, he didn’t notice the ground as it gave way under his hoofs. With a clang and a bang, little Clippity tumbled forward, bending his foreleg painfully. He bleated, shocked and struggled to free himself, but to no avail. The young goat was stuck fast.


Dragons. Creatures of magic, covered in dull metallic scales. Their breath is a caustic heat while their eyes glitter terribly like distant stars on fire. But, being magical, they can, at the wiggle of a single claw, shimmer into invisibility. Which is why, even though we all know that dragons exist, we never see them.

No dragon can hide from his kin, however, no matter how much they might like to try. And Boris desperately wanted to hide. Boris did not want anyone to see him because he knew that he was very different. All his family and friends were monstrously large; miniature mountains in their own right, sliding amid their shingle burrows. But Boris was tiny - little bigger than a blackbird. And while the dragons around him were dull, like old steel, Boris was brilliant green, like a boiling emerald.

After years of ridicule and unkindness, Boris had had enough. His deep red eyes looked away from the cool grey of his home, out over the mountains, the rivers and woods all the way to the brilliant green of the fields in the distance. A green land where he might feel at home...


Poor little Clippity! His foreleg was terribly hurt. No amount of licking from his mother would cure this injury. A vet was called and very soon the fragile limb had been bandaged with a strangely coloured fabric which turned solid as more layers were wrapped around. Finally, Clippity was lifted up and carried to a field he had not seen before. The fences around it seemed particularly tall and uninviting. He was scared, not knowing where he was destined.

The vet could feel the creature tense in her arms and she made comforting noises deep in her throat. The soothing sound relaxed Clippity. But sooner than he wanted, he was placed carefully into the grassy field.

Very quickly, Clippity realised that he could no longer scamper. Gambolling was out too. Bouncing, sprinting, spinning - none of them worked very well at all with his solid, sticky out leg. If he was particularly careful, he could move a few steps without tripping over himself like a newborn kid. With a little goaty sigh, he took stock of his surroundings...


The journey had taken Boris the best part of a week, gliding quietly through the sun-drenched sky on his scaly wings and sleeping at nights, his tail wrapped tightly around the top-most branch of the tallest tree he could find. But he eventually discovered a small field, deep green and surrounded by a tall fence. He dived down into the hedges bordering it, blending in with the leaves. Although he knew no one could see him, he still felt nervous and wanted to completely disappear. He even found himself missing the cool beds of shingle back home.

Eventually, he began to explore his new home and found that he wasn’t alone. Some strangely furry creatures shared the enclosure he’d picked. And they weren’t getting on. “Well,” thought Boris, “If they get even angrier with each other, maybe they’ll leave me alone in my new green home...”. And so, bathed in his invisible scales, he flapped over to where the two goats, for goats they were, stood...


Clippity was not alone. In fact, there were two fellow kids in the centre of the field, glaring at each other. Intrigued, Clippity hobbled over.

One goat (Clara, he heard the other goat call her) also hobbled as she moved. But rather than a foreleg wrapped in brightly coloured fabric, her leg wasn’t shaped like a leg usually is. The lower part of her leg quickly dwindled into a little thin stump with no hoof at all. And rather than put any weight on it at all, she hopped around on the other three legs.

The other goat (Clarence, he heard Clara call him in a not at all friendly voice) had normal legs, normal hooves and could move around on them all apparently normally. However, his bearded face was hollow and his dark eyes flitted around the field as if terrified that some creature might pounce on him.

The strange pair were locked in a bitter argument. Open mouthed, Clippity listened...


It had been easy for Boris to stoke the fires of the argument. Hovering close to the ear of each creature, he whispered the words of hatred he’d been subjected to all his life. It felt good, for once, to have the power to make someone else hurt. And soon these stupid furry animals would storm off and leave him alone in peace and quiet.


“It’s not as if you even have any problems moving around,” bleeted Clara, gesturing with her shorter leg at his four, strong limbs. “You just don’t *want* to run around.”


Clippity’s eyebrows wiggled with surprise. It almost sounded like Clara’s voice had hopped a few inches to the right as she’d called Clarence ‘pathetic’. Clarence, however, was not worried about from what direction the voice had come. He bristled and shuddered at the insult.

“It’s *not* that I don’t *want* to run around! I’m just so scared of I need the high fences and the bushes to hide from the world. You can go wherever you want, it just takes you some extra time. That’s nothing!” Clarence shouted, stamping the ground with anger.


Clara gasped at the insult and was about to charge at Clarence when Clippity piped up.

“Excuse me, but my mother has always told me that when I’m angry, it’s important to count to ten and breathe. Things seem so much better after that.” He smiled, hoping that he might be able to defuse the situation.

It did not work.

Both goats turned to glare at him.

“What do you know, Limpy?”

Clara presumed Clarence had said this and smirked to herself. Clarence presumed that Clara had said it and snorted a short little laugh. Clippity didn’t bother thinking about who said it. He didn’t count to ten or breathe. In fact, if it weren’t for his leg, he’d have charged in and butted them both on the nose. But all he achieved was a spectacular tumble into a puddle.

“What do you know about anything?” asked Clara, derisively, “You’ll be out of this field in a few weeks when that leg’s healed. My leg won’t ever heal - I’ll be here forever!” She tried hard to mask the pain in her voice with anger.

“Yeah, you don’t know anything about what it’s really like to be scared for the future!” shouted Clarence, his heart beating wildly with fear; fear of his own anger, of the pressing sky and the wind that rustled around his ears.


Boris flapped around the three angry goats, the fear for his own future diminishing with the certainty that he would soon have the field all to himself. He did his very best to ignore the loneliness and hurt. Which is a shame, because if he hadn’t, he would have seen that it was actually growing all the time.


The three goats (with the aid of an occasional invisible snide remark) fell about arguing properly. The clamour rose into the summer air. Chloe followed it as one might the scent of a freshly baked cake. She did so carefully and gently, placing one hoof in front of the other until, finally, she was stood only a little way from the uproar.

Her opal eyes did not see, but she could clearly hear the anger of three individuals. She heard hurt, fear and shame. One goat had grown up looking different to those around her and had been treated badly. One had grown up seeing all the fear there was in the world magnified, as pebbles are at the bottom of a clear stream. One had recently suffered an injury and was scared for his future, not knowing how to cope with his new found limitations.

All of them did not fit properly into the world. All of them were the same. Whether differently shaped, hurt in mind or injuried of body. They all faced the same problem because they all struggled to fit into the world around them.

And then Chloe heard a very faint flap of leathery wings and a gentle rustle of metallic scales. She heard another voice full of fear, though it tried to blend with those around it.


“You poor creatures.”

They all froze. A dark goat with ghostly eyes stood only a little way off. Clippity, Clara and Clarence shuffled their hooves, not knowing quite how to respond. They were beginning to realise that they were all being rather silly. But one voice hadn’t been silenced.

“Get lost, blinky!” shouted Boris. But this time the three goats looked at one another, certain that the voice had not issued from one of their mouths.

“And you especially,” said Chloe, slowly moving forwards again, “to be on the outskirts of everything, hidden in the dark. It must be terribly lonely.”

Boris blushed under his scales and clamped his little crocodile mouth shut with a snap. Clippity startled, jumped, caught his bandaged leg under himself and stumbled into Clara. She helped him up.

“I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but it sounds like you’ve experienced things we should all be able to understand. And if you share your problems with us, maybe we can help each other.” said Chloe, following Boris’ flightpath with her extremely mobile, tufted ears.

“And at the very least, we can all be together. As friends.”

Boris landed in front of Chloe and let go of the magic holding him invisible. The three goats behind him gasped at the sight, but of course, Chloe remained as she had been, just calmly listening.

“I’ve never had a friend before.” said Boris, sadly. He wiped a tear away with a wing, and hid his face.

“Neither have I.” said Clara.

“I had a friend once,” said Clarence, sadly, “but she died when I was still very young.”

“I have lots of friends.” said Clippity, ashamed. “But they all seem very far away.”

“Well,” said Chloe, smiling, “it’s the easiest thing in the world to make friends. You just have to find the thing that’s special about you and believe in it. Have pride in your difference. You’re all exceptional creatures - who wouldn’t want to get to know an exceptional creature?”


And all five exceptional creatures became firm friends. They were all different. But they also knew that, like all things, they would change and grow. They grew around the things that made them different. And their friendship was a part of that. Making them all members of a community. A community which remained intact, even when Clippity was able to walk normally again. Even when, after much hard work and with the support of his friends, Clarence was a little less scared of the pain he could feel in the world. Even when Clara was able to move beyond the high-fenced pen with Clippity to lean upon.

They all gained strength from each other and they all found a home. Even Boris who flitted through the hedgerows, the leaves and branches stroking his scales. Boris, the tiny green dragon, was home.

The End

A brief explanation

Download the MP3

Two years ago, I wrote the first Clippity story for BADD2012. That was a story all about how people react to those with disabilities that keep them shut away from the world. This year I wanted to address some of the issues about the disability community (or the sometimes fractured remnants of what it should be).

I believe very strongly in the social model of disability and believe that the only way to properly deal with both a life as a disabled person and disability issues within a society is to follow this model. It is common to think about disability in an extremely narrow way - be it ‘wheelchair users’ (a pretty diverse bunch in their own right) or people with deafness, people on the autistic spectrum etc. I was lucky to spend a lot of time in a hospital school as a kid and so, early on, was used to thinking of limitations in a very broad sense (including people with behavioural issues who might not have a medical diagnosis at all).

This story was inspired by reading someone who felt very upset to see so many people with invisible conditions dominating the disability community as she saw it. Her childhood experiences of being very visibly different meant that she felt in an entirely separate position. Which of course she is. But just because we’re in different positions doesn’t mean we don’t suffer because of the same thing (societal restrictions/prejudices towards disabilities) and in a way that enables us to understand each other.

Of course, I have ended up using a few disability clichés - the slightly ethereal blind person and the duplicitous person of restricted growth. I hope I can be forgiven for these for the following reasons;

1 - we see that the dragon of restricted growth has been made very unhappy by an uncaring society. As soon as love is given, the character flaws disappear. That’s not the ‘just can’t help himself’ character you usually find in classic literature.

2 - The ethereal blind person is only ethereal in comparison because other people are blinded by anger - as soon as they lose their anger, so they are all equal.

Also, I’ve written this over the course of a few days when I’ve been quite poorly - I always find cliché comforting when I’m particularly unwell!

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

World Book Night - Manly Books for Manly Men

It’s always wise to state basics. So here we go.
  • I am a man.
  • I am 31 years old.

According to the statistics, 42% of adult males (like what I am) do not read for pleasure. Because of this, World Book Night, an initiative designed to help boost the cause of reading all around the world, is specifically targeting its efforts towards the hairy-backed half of humanity.

How kind! As a man, I so often feel that the world doesn’t do enough for me. I do have a few questions, though...

Why, if you’re wanting me to read more, are you cutting down the number of female authors you’re promoting with your night of books? Is there a problem with me reading the delicately typed prose of a fragile little authoress?

I guess this, in all seriousness, is the reason - that, as a man, I will be put off reading if it has a feminine voice, or perhaps focuses on female subjects. A book about posies and nosies and kittens and the like.

Romance. Mills and Boon.  You can just tell that's what they have in mind.  But lets look at the lovey-dovey genre.  For one thing, I am sure there are a huge number of female romance authors. But look, I’ve known a few romance authors who were, in actual fact, men. Great big hairy men writing about romance. Can you even fathom it?

And it’s true - I don’t like reading romance. I don’t like watching romance either. Even though Groundhog Day and Moonrise Kingdom are in my top twenty best films ever. Nope, I don’t like romance. Not me.

Two young people holding hands.  Definitely not romantic.

Me being a man, I like war! Especially the really mucky ones, like the First World War. That was a great war! There were rats and shell-shock and people being blown up and stuff. Now that’s manly, that is!

And what’s the best book about the first world war? Birdsong, right! Wrong. Despite having been written with the help of a full beard, Birdsong has a horribly torturous “romance” (in the genre sense alone) plot line which sours the entire text. It is a mess of a book I truly wish I’d never had to read. But I did because there was no other way of getting an A* in my English Lit A-level.

 Bird Song
I do not want to encourage anyone to read Birdsong, but I do approve of listening to Bird Song.

Talking of that A-level, you’ll never guess what they made me do. Go on, guess. I was supposed to be reading a collection of WWI literature and what did they give me? Only a book by a woman! A woman! Can you imagine it! They didn’t even invent women until 1928!

But Pat Barker is a clever lady writerette. She must have imagined what it was like in the trenches and wrote, not one, but three whole books about it. Each book is five thousand times better than Birdsong. Which I guess makes Pat Barker fifteen thousand times more manly than Sebastian Faulks. Imagine what an amazing beard she must have grown!

The Regeneration Trilogy.  So manly you could shave with it.

Oh it’s all so frustrating! Being rather a sheltered soul, I’d never come across this kind of attitude before a few years back. I remember Deb asking me about childhood prejudice against female authors and I thought...why would anyone be bothered about who wrote their books? Yes, I believe there’s such a thing as a feminine voice, but that’s of no more importance than, say, a regional voice. It doesn’t make something automatically better or worse. It’s something that can be taken advantage of in some situations. But it is, I repeat, neither better nor worse. It is not more or less suitable for consumption by a specific gender. genre I can understand. I don’t do romance. I might have mentioned that before. Of course, I have read almost every Anne McCaffrey book ever written. But they’re not romances, you understand. They’re all sci-fi and fantasy. Spaceships and Dragons.

One of my favourites - The Ship Who Searched - is a story all about mecha-conversion; a girl becomes a spaceship after an illness which strikes down her physical body. Encased in the shiny shell, the girl grows and becomes a woman who experiences the world through her ship’s sensors. She works in a team with a normally able assistant who happens to be male. And yes, they might end up kissing by the end of the book, but it’s definitely not a romance, right?

The Ship Who Searched.  It's got a spaceship and weird viruses.  Definitely not romantic either.

When Deb told me that World Book Night was targeting men, she asked me how they’d achieve this. Being in a funny mood, I answered;

"World Naked Book Night? Or will they engrave a novel on an engine?"

These are sensible suggestions in comparison. You don’t make men feel more able to read by saying;

"Yeah, you’re right to be suspicious - if you read just anything, you might end up getting girliness in your eyes. But stick with us kid, and it’ll be pure testosterone we wire into your cortex."

And all this comes from such a dodgy set of statistics. 42% of men don’t read for pleasure. I know for a certainty that my father would say he doesn’t read for pleasure. And yet I’ve seen him sit with Woodworking Weekly for a good two hour stretch at a time. He will read the articles, ranging from simple instruction through to pretty deep biography and philosophy.

When Deb and I collected our consumption of literature last year, she read many more novels than I did. However, I got through more magazines, more instructional blog posts etc.  There is a lot more to a life of words than just novels.

Finally, I think it’s important just to emphasise this - Deb is a writer. In fact, she’s the best writer there is. And she’s a dudette. Anyone, even if they have chest hair, breasts, an overgrown sense of entitlement or tights - ANYONE should be able to enjoy her work.

For better constructed and less ranty examinations of this travesty, see The Shandy Media Project and For Books' Sake

Friday, 18 April 2014

Woodwork Therapy, the Power of YouTube and Community

The other night I dreamt that I saw a huge blue whale just 20 metres off the shoreline. The dark sand was cool against my feet and the water was calm. And then the whale exploded.

As the burning blubber fell around me, my heart raced and I felt the searing heat flash against my skin. I woke up with the smoky red sky still in my eyes. My heart rate and the pain in my skin were entirely real. The rest of the dream faded quickly with little upset. It was a good morning.

Sadly, nightmares are something I am used to. Most of the time, they are considerably worse than my incendiary sea mammal narrative. Heart rates are faster and pain is often much more intense. It is always harder to shrug off dream images when my physical state is worse. And so, over the years, I have come up with tactics; ways to break the dream cycles.

Almost all of these, barring Freecell, are internet based. I’ve followed in depth blog posts about engine rebuilds, kept up with a hundred different photographers and searched out the best nut loaf recipe in the world. YouTube, however, has been the single greatest success.

I remember years ago saying ‘Why on earth would any television channel worry about YouTube? No one has the sheer resources or ready-made audience of a television company - YouTube could never be a significant threat.’ And yet now, the majority of my televisual experience comes through the ‘tube. And, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most successful groups grasping the potential of internet broadcasting are woodworkers.

There is a large group of individuals who have set up channels in which they post videos detailing projects and tips. Their content and style (and, arguably, quality) vary tremendously, but they have created a very real thing - a community.

I intend to write another blog post detailing the channels I follow and why they are so special, but before that, I’d like to talk about the concept of community and the power found in that. I’d also like to look at quite why this amazing shift in the way I consume media has happened.

I remember a time when the UK television channel “4” was an exciting and individual broadcaster. It had bizarrly addictive programmes like Watercolour Challenge. It would show experimental, student created films early in the morning (which I would carefully video and watch the next day. Even the one about the suicidal fork lift operator). It made television, not with the single aim of matching well known formats and consolodating their demographics, but to give something to their audience to learn with and grow from.

BBC2 was much the same with its now dead Open University slot. My father did a post-grad degree with the OU and I remember all the recorded early morning programmes... although, this being the BBC, there were fewer fork lifts and many more beards. Either way, with the aid of VCR tapes we both learnt an awful lot from these outlets

Learning has gone out of style. Even the best programmes recently (The Great British Sewing Bee, for example, is one we all enjoy) are extremely light on instruction. Much more time is spent on personality, struggle and journey. There has to be jeopardy - people fail and leave a programme rather than staying, learning and eventually improving.

And you can see why this has come about. These massive institutions are expensive to run. They need people to engage in human drama so that they buy the books and matching cookery utensils. They need the phone-in cash, the sponsorship and, most importantly, the fame. If millions don’t tune in, then they’ve failed.

And in pops YouTube. It costs precisely nothing to create your own little broadcasting company. A little cash for a camera and a computer on which to edit and you’re away. A little more money and you can end up with videos which are a little scary in their professionalism. I recently watched a video meme created by a teenage girl about her book collection with special effects on a par with anything a mainstream television channel could do. Astonishing.

So why have woodworkers taken such advantage of this? Well, firstly, woodworking is a very visual process. We’ve recently rewatched Breaking Bad and my favourite scene remains Jessie’s hallucination towards the end of the final series - carefully working on a beautiful wooden box. There’s not much in wood work that isn’t aesthetically lovely. And it really is capable of providing an escape.

Secondly, woodworkers are used to creating groups. My father is part of a woodturning group which gathers mainly to gossip. But if he needed help with a certain project, they could provide it. There are magazine and books. Professionals hold days of tuition and guidance.

Third - woodwork is seldom about doing things in the easiest way possible. Necessarily, then, any wood worker is a bit of a show off. *And there is NOTHING bad about this*. Showing off our achievements and skill is a great thing and people should be very proud of the things they’ve learnt. And the thing about show offs is they often make good presenters.

Now, the other benefit you have with YouTube vs traditional television companies is size. Small, independent broadcasters mean many more broadcasters. I regularly (ie at least once a week) watch about seven different woodworkers. That number rises drastically if you include people who post less regularly - maybe closer to thirty. They all effect each other, causing quick growth and evolution.

Of course, the negative side of individuals acting as broadcasting companies can be significant. Criticism is necessarily personal and must hurt a great deal. It also means that petty arguments can spring up easily. If you’re a huge, amorphous broadcasting being, you are protected to quite a large extent.

But it also means that when things go right, the result is a very personal triumph. I think this video demonstrates this well. Woodworking for Mere Mortals is a fun channel which aims for relatively quick projects achievable with a relatively basic tool set. It is bright, fast and engaging. Steve Ramsey has expanded, creating a second channel for vlog style analysis of his life and what’s going on in the wood working community he sees so clearly from his position in the middle of it. We also get to share in the differences he makes to the individuals that make up said community

Here's a link to the section of the video I'm thinking of if you want to skip the rest.

Well, Steve, along with all the rest of the YouTube woodworkers, help me on a daily basis. I wake up, as I have said, in great pain, often disoriantated and, frankly, a bit scared. I get to share in their creations and skills even when I’m unable to get out of bed. And, despite not being able to exercise my woodworking skills as much as I’d like to be able, I am made to feel a part of the woodworking community, even if I seldom so much as comment. That’s a tremendous thing.

Blogging Against Disablism Day will be coming soon and, as I have the last few years, I’ll be helping Deb with collecting the deluge of posts and getting them all published on her blog, Diary of a Goldfish. It is seldom I feel as much a member of the disability community as I do the woodworking community. But every 1st of May that changes.

There are lessons to learn from woodworkers about pride, showing off and working together as (an at times disfunctional) family.  And I think that there are many people with disabilities who could learn from them. Pride is the key word - It’s hard for some to see how people with disabilities might be able to feel pride given that disability denotes a lack of something.

But think about it - a woodworker is basically someone who finds quarter-sawn oak and birch plywood more interesting than almost anything else in the entire world. They’re people who actually know the difference between a rip cut blade and a cross cut blade. What’s that if not a lack of something fundamental, right?*  But we ignore that and focus on the amazing things they produce. Those things usually differ in style, construction and subject. The only thing that brings them together is the spirit from which it’s produced.

Likewise disabled people do things every day which differ in style, construction and subject. The shared spirit is the thing that can bring us together into a community - a group of people who share pride in themselves as a collective and the individual things they achieve.

And yet pride is not encouraged or instilled in people with disabilities. There is an assumption that if a disabled person is not suffering, somehow they’re not doing their ‘job’. Their disability will be questioned. It’s such a shame - I constantly see people qualify the good things in their life with some sort of limitation just to hammer home the point that, yes, this might be a good thing I've done, but everything else is awfully hard. There is another extreme to this - the phenomenon known as the super-crip - an individual of such superhuman resolve and drive that they overcome the difficulties of their disability and become something amazing. And you don’t have to be following the news that closely to know how badly that can turn out...

We need to overcome these fears and believe in ourselves. And if you struggle to see that, wait until Thursday the 1st of May - Blogging Against Disablism Day is coming and it’s going to be amazing.

* I jest.  A bit.