In which I review the year gone by 2014

As is traditional at this time of year, this is the blogpost in which I summarise the highs and lows of the year gone by in a slightly premature New Years Eve TV sort of a way.

We shall start with the things that have made me irritable/sad/discombobulated during 2014. They were as follows:

David Cameron. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The distressing realisation that not really doing paid work leads fairly directly to not having any money. Nigel Farage. The inexplicable fact that there seem to be people who don’t think Nigel Farage is a knobber. David Cameron. David Cameron’s large shiny forehead (I don’t know why – it’s not by any stretch of the imagination his worst quality but it offends me with it’s large, smug, shininess.) The lack of left-wingness amongst the traditionally left-wing bits of Parliament. Throwing away 50,000 words of novel 2. David Cameron some more. Getting a chest infection during the RNA Conference for the second year in a row. Cold sores.

 

But enough of the miserablism. Here are the things that have made 2014 awesome:

The Commonwealth Games. The Edinburgh Fringe. The general wonderfulness of family and chums. The exciting realisation that not really doing paid work leads fairly directly to having loads of time. Finishing the draft of novel 2 (at the third attempt). Getting through my presentation at the RNA Conference without having a major coughing fit. Laughing so much with my senior sibling at reviews of NessieLand on the TripAdvisor that I almost peed a little bit. The publication of Truly, Madly, Deeply and of Cora’s Christmas Kiss. Being a contender for the RNA’s Joan Hessayon Award. Taking part in Rowan Coleman and Julie Cohen’s excellent writing retreat. Spending my birthday at Edinburgh Zoo, where you could almost totally see a panda if you squatted a bit and sort of looked sideways through the fence. Actually getting the new kitchen we’ve been talking about since about 2009. Not decorating the living room, because, you know, decorating is tiresome. Being invited to be involved in some fab short story collections. Almost perfecting my Giant Chocolate Fondant recipe – I’m so close, I tell you, so close. Zumba. And cake.

 

So there you go – some highs, a few lows, and no doubt lots of stuff I’ve missed out. That was 2014.

 

No blog next week because it’s Christmas Day and I shall be busy opening presents, and eating all the food. So have a fantastic Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Solstice/time of just sitting quietly not observing any particular festival, and I’ll be back on New Year’s Day, full of resolutions and plans for 2015.

 

In which I sing the praises of casual fandom

So Missy is The Master. For those of you who have no idea what I’m rambling on about, Missy is a character in Doctor Who. In fact she’s the latest regeneration of recurring Timelord character, The Master. You know how Peter Capaldi used to be Matt Smith, who used to be David Tennant, who used to be etc. etc. all the way back to William Hartnell. Well The Master is exactly like that, only evil and with different actors.

And the latest incarnation of The Master, is known as Missy, because this time around the character has regenerated with lady parts, and is played by, Green Wing and Bad Education star, Michelle Gomez. However, the gender switch has caused mightily mixed feelings amongst the Doctor Who fandom. This range of views and comments on the Kasterborous site is a good example, but this list is way funnier so read it first.

Now I’m definitely on the side of the pro-Missy people. I love the Master – he/she has always been my favourite Doctor Who baddy. A dalek is all very well, but their dialogue is kind of limited. And Michelle Gomez is universally awesome and entirely suited to the part.  In fact, I’m struggling to think of a TV programme that wouldn’t be improved by Michelle Gomez playing a mad woman somewhere during each episode. If I was in charge of the world (which, rather upsettingly, I am still not), I’d have Michelle Gomez, in character as Missy, presenting Question Time. I don’t think anyone can claim that wouldn’t make the world more fun.

Anyway, my liking for Missy is not the main reason I gathered you here today. The reason I gathered you here today is to point out that even if I hated the idea of a lady-Master (like a StairMaster but with boobies), that wouldn’t matter one little bit. I’m a fan of Doctor Who. I don’t own every existing episode on both VHS and DVD. I don’t quote old scripts as a leisure activity. I don’t spend large chunks (small chunks maybe) of my free time reading fan forums. I just like the TV show. I’m that sort of fan.

And that’s ok. There is, in fandoms off all kinds, a tendency to look down on the casual fan – the ‘I watched the whole series, but I ain’t paying that for the special edition boxed set’ fan, the ‘I’d love to go more often but it’s quite a long way and a season ticket’s nearly a grand’ fan, the ‘No, I didn’t buy the special platinum re-release of the album; I already own the special gold release from six months earlier’ fan. There’s a tendency for fans to try to prove their fannishness (totally a word) by showing their greater knowledge of the trivia of the object of their fandom, and there’s a tendency for fans to think they own the thing they’re fanning over. Well, you don’t. And us casual fans know that. We know that it’s fantastic to find a thing you really really like. It’s even fantastic to find other people that like that thing too. And that’s enough.

Casual fandom is ace. You get all the joy of really liking something, and none of the angst that more serious fans have to deal with when that thing develops in a way that they don’t like. You’re enjoyment isn’t ruined by scripts getting leaked on the internet, because you’re just not quite interested enough to go and read them. If someone tries to chat to you during an episode of one of your programmes you don’t have to kill them (well I say you don’t have to kill them – if they’re a repeat offender and it’s like a series finale or something, then maybe.) Casual fandom- it’s awesome. You should try it.

And here endeth the lesson. Tatty-byes.

In which I am a terribly ungrateful poorly girl

Day 5 of my 5 blogs in 5 days (aka Alison’s Awesome Week of Daily Blogging). So far we’ve been on holiday, we’ve been annoyed by open letters, and we’ve moaned about lack of diversity in government, and today I’m going to talk about me, because that is pretty much my favourite subject, and I am – at least in this corner of the interweb – a special and important little snowflake.

I suffer from IBS. For the uninitiated, IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. That fact should do two things: firstly it should tip you off that this blogpost might involved reference to bottom business; and secondly it should give you a mental image of a bowel with a face, reading the Daily Express and chuntering to himself. Yes – for reasons I can’t really explain my mental personification of my bowel is male. Male with quite a fulsome moustache, since you ask.

Anyhoo, IBS is one of those modern illnesses that some people don’t really think exists, and is what doctors refer to as a functional disorder. That basically means that your bowel doesn’t quite work in a tiptop way, but the reasons for that are as yet not fully identified. Diagnosis is done by a process of ruling out all the stuff that doctors already know makes bowels abandon normal function (coeliac disease, cancer, crohns disease etc.) This is generally achieved by the method of sticking a tiny camera into places that no camera ever had ambitions to go and having a jolly good footle about to look for badness. If no specific badness is identified, then congratulations – you have IBS.

In practical terms that means that I suffer from stomach aches a lot, often with added constipation and diarrhea (sometimes, weirdly, on the same day). Diarrhea, for me at least, usually passes pretty quickly (well, obviously) on its own. The stomach aches can be fairly well treated with a wonderful little IBS drug called Buscopan, but the constipation is a right pain in the… *Handbrake turns the blog away from a very obvious, and somewhat yucky, joke.*

So those are the symptoms but that’s not what this post is about. It’s not, despite everything that’s gone so far, about my irritable bowel. It’s about irritable me. And I get irritable with people. Specifically people who are neither my GP, nor my consultant gastroenterologist, who want to offer me medical advice on this problem.

‘It’s probably stress,’ they say.

‘I’m not stressed,’ I say.

‘You are. Stress is what causes it. I had a stomach ache in 1982. That was stress.’

‘I’m not stressed.’

They tip their heads and adopt a sympathetic tone. ‘You’re putting on a brave face. That means you’re not dealing with your stress.’

‘I’m not stressed,’ I screech.

‘Well you sound stressed,’ they say

I’ve had versions of that conversation in real-life and on the modern social media a number of times since I was diagnosed, and I’m kind of vaguely aware that my irritability reflects worse on me than on the poor innocent sympathetic passerby, but I do get irritated. I occupy a weird double space where I want to be treated absolutely normally and not have to deal with any sort of sympathy or helpful suggestion about the herbal remedy that really helped your Aunt Tallulah, but I also want people to appreciate that sometimes I feel ouchy and this can lead to grumpiness. And I do get that that’s probably not really possible. Ah well, into each life some rain must fall etc. etc. Other people have far worse things to deal with. Every cloud has a silver whatnot. And other similar platitudes.

So that’s it for my 5 posts in 5 days week. It’s been slightly random but I never promised coherence, so there you go. I’m going to try to get back to regular weekly blogging from now on. Probably on Mondays or Tuesdays but we’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, you can always buy a book

In which I look for something to get wound up about and am overwhelmed with options

After a weekend doing the fun, glam bits of being a writer – a book launch party in London on Friday night, and a writing workshop day at Birmingham’s very posh new library on Saturday – today is all about getting my nose back to the metaphorical grindstone, and making a start on my Christmas novella for 2014. In the spirit of moving on, from a lovely couple of days talking about writing, to actually doing some writing I’d promised myself that today would be an old skool blog post in which I would rant about some snippet of news that had got my back up.

The problem is that, at the moment, pretty much all the news gets my back up. I could go on at some length about why the Daily Mail considers ‘Woman carries baby while wearing skirt and hat’ to be news. I have even more questions about why the same paper considers ‘Comic actor gets in a car’ to be headline-worthy, and that’s before I’ve even started on the issue of why it’s appropriate to picture female murder suspects in their bikinis. Although I suppose that’s a slight, and rather niche, form of equality, as it’s long been considered fine and dandy to picture female murder victims scantily clad. All any of those thoughts illuminate though is that I maybe shouldn’t go to the Daily Mail website, even when I only do it in the hope of finding something that’ll wind me up enough to write a blog about. That is, after all, what they want me to do. An irritated click is worth just the same as an interested click in advertising sales.

The business of print newspapers has long been to reflect the prejudices of their readers back to them. Doing so encourages brand loyalty by confirming what people want to believe. Online papers work slightly differently. Unless you’re working a Times-style paywall model, there’s much less commitment on the part of the reader. Most people would be reluctant to fork out actual money everyday simply to be irritated and offended, but clicking a link that you know is going to make you roll your eyes is different. It’s incredibly easy to do; it costs nothing, and all you lose is time and a tiny piece of your soul.

That means that online papers can have it both ways. They cultivate one section of their readership by reflecting back their existing preconceptions, and another section of readership are lured in in order to feel aggrieved, offended or outraged. And that’s not only a preserve of the right-wing press. Sites like theguardian.com work in just the same way. On any woolly headed left-leaning article there will be a portion of the comments that bemoan the ‘typical guardianista’ attitude. Those people were happier in the day when the Telegraph was delivered direct to their door and nobody else’s prejudices bothered them, just as I’d probably be happier sticking to the Guardian and the Independent while cultivating a disengaged feeling of slight superiority.

Now the sensible thing at this point would be to conclude that I should stop reading news websites that wind me up. I would then be a calmer and more serene individual. In many ways that is the mature choice, but I think that if I’m going to do that I have to give up the papers that confirm my existing opinions and support my preconceptions as well. It is, ultimately, only fair that we identify biases and prejudices that we agree with and fall into ourselves, just as critically as we identify those which offend us. And that’s hard, because, obviously, my own preconceptions are right. In my gut that’s what I believe. That’s what we all believe, and it’s only by consciously exposing ourselves to contradictory views that we give ourselves opportunities to examine our own ideas. Logically that should mean that I  start reading the Daily Mail regularly. I’m not sure I can actually convince myself that it would be a good idea to go that far. Maybe I’ll start with an occasional Times or the Telegraph as a gateway media drug and work my way up…

If you like these periodic ramblings, and want to read more by me, this is the place.

In which I go to a science festival

Last week was the week of Cheltenham Science Festival. They like a festival in Cheltenham. They don’t really care what it’s a festival of – horse racing, literature, food, jazz – they are entirely unfussy. So long as there’s a bar and some quality use of marquees the good people of Cheltenham are quite satisfied.

But last week was science. I was only able to get to a few sessions but what I did was suitably fascinating, because here’s the thing. Despite everything that happened in secondary school physics lessons to convince me otherwise, science is quite interesting. Actually that’s unfair. Secondary school physics was also intereating, but that was because my physics teacher was a certifiably insane man who, if you asked for a new exercise book, would drag you over to a picture of then Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, and shout, “A new exercise book? You’d better ask Mr Baker if you can have a new exercise book. It’s all up to him these days!” He also used to demonstrate gravity by jumping off the table at the front of the room. So, from my secondary school physics lessons I know two things:

1. Education Secretaries personally sign off on all distribution of paper goods to school pupils, and;

2. The laws of gravity are mainly to do with what happens when insane people jump off tables.

Anyhow, what was I talking about? Yes. Science Festival. Right. At the science festival, we saw a live version of Dara O’Briain’s Science Club where we learnt why it’s much worse to drop a dog out of an upstairs window than a hamster. (At least I think that was the main point.) We saw some poor innocent victim (volunteer?) get MRI-scanned live for our entertainment. We saw a massive game of top trumps for science’s great unsung heroes, where it turned out that Hedy Lamarr (of siren of the silver screen fame) was also a proper top notch mathematician.

The best bit for me was seeing Dr Kevin Fong talk about the extremes of the human body’s ability to survive. He’s very clever and interesting, and it’s well worth seeking out his book on the same subject. He does a clever drawing of parallels between our exploration of the planet (and beyond) and medicine’s exploratory journey in relation to the human body during the past 100 years. It’s all jolly interesting and very much to be encouraged.

So science, it turns out, is marvelous, even if you’re a fluffy-headed arts and humanties girl like me. (My degrees are in History and Creative Writing – alternatively known as Old Shit and Makey-Uppy.) Instinctively though, I’m drawn to the belief that stuff is knowable. It’s a thing that frustrates me, in conversation, when the person I’m talking to says, “Of course there are some things that are just beyond our understanding.” It seems to be an attitude that lacks ambition. I also don’t accept that things get less interesting for finding out more about them. So the shape you thought you saw out of the corner of your eye wasn’t a ghost after all? It was your brain interpreting the shape of a face in a plume of steam, or shimmer of light. That’s fascinating. Why would your brain do that? What’s the evolutionary benefit of facial recognition and why would that extend to seeing faces that aren’t there? What else that we think we see is created in our brains rather than in the physical world we think we’re seeing exactly as it is?

So, in summary, finding stuff out is good. Another paradigm shifting conclusion for you there folks. Hurrah!

In which I go to the pictures, try to tidy my office and worry that I might not be a Proper Girl.

I’m writing this perched amongst the debris from my most recent attempt to tidy my office. My office is an important room for me. It started off, nearly ten years ago when myself and EngineerBoy persuaded a bank to buy us a house (that is how that works, isn’t it?), as our shared home office. Steadily, but decisively, the Boy has been phased out of this little bit of supposedly shared space, and the office claimed as my tiny box-sized writing room. At least it’s supposed to be a writing room. In real life, writing doesn’t earn me any actual money, and I’ve just discovered that we need actual money to give the bank so we can carry on living in the aforementioned house. Frankly, that’s a much poorer deal that I was imagining.

But the office, yes, it’s not just my writing room. It’s also the office from which I run my freelance training business and home to my folders of random business related receipts, and course notes and lesson plans on everything from Welfare Benefits law to writing a villanelle.

And it’s a mess. A proper, possibly infested, men-behaving-badly type of mess. Yesterday, in a fit of good intention, I cleared all the random paperwork off the desk and into a box, which is now sitting on the floor waiting for me to sort through the paper mountain. Somewhat dishearteningly, it’s sitting next to two full crates from the previous times I’ve done the same thing. Oooops?

messy messy office

 

And yes, that is a lakeland carrier on top of one of the piles. And, weirdly, it does contain cookie cutters. And no, I have no idea why it’s in my office.

All of which is a bit of a worry. I’m a girl, after all. Aren’t girls supposed to be clean and tidy beings? Sugar and spice and all that? Even this article defending the joys of raising sons concedes that they “do tend to be noisier, messier and more aggressive than girls.”

No matter. There have been plenty of chances to assert my femininity of late. For example, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been to see two of a the big film releases of December/January: The Hobbit and Les Miserables. Now these look like the sorts of films where you could expect a fairly predictable gender-split in terms of enjoyment. One of them is a searing epic of love, loss and redemption told through the medium of a fully sung-through musical, and the other one is about dwarves. Both are stupidly longer than they need to be, but apart from that, I did, as expected very much enjoy one and feel entirely “Meh” about the other.

However, the one I very much enjoyed was The Hobbit. It had wizards, and awks, and a dragon, and a range of recognisable actors with comedy stick-on hair arrangements. Really, what’s not to like?

Les Mis, on the other hand, left me underwhelmed, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. I didn’t mind the live-singing, even though that meant that it lacked the polish of most film musicals. I didn’t even mind the fact that you could see the pressure of trying to act and sing AT THE SAME TIME etched on Russell Crowe’s face. I very much minded the amount of noble dying, and I definitely minded the amount of gazing into the middle distance looking a bit wan. And at no point did I feel on the verge of weeping the copious tears that various (mainly female) friends had led me to expect.

Add to that the fact that I taught a creative writing class last night where my mere mention of Terry Pratchett (my absolute definite favourite writer) led to great excitement from the male students and absolute indifference from the women, and I’m starting to worry that I might not be a Proper Girl.

Happily that’s very obviously a stupid thought. I’m clearly a girl. I definitely have boobies, and I own more than two pairs of shoes. I like chick lit and baking and bubble baths and accessorizing, and also football and sci-fi and not tidying up. I’m girlishly pathetic about pretty much all forms of DIY, and blokeishly underwhelemed by pretty much all forms of romance. So probably it’s not me that’s weird. Probably it’s our tendency to think of some traits as masculine and some as feminine, rather than just thinking of people as individuals, that is weird. Yeah – that’s it. I’m not messy – I’m asserting my individual right to choose not to conform to gender stereotypes. Go me!

So how about you? Are you a rugby-playing make-up lover? Or a testosterone fuelled natural home maker? Talk to me people…

In which I look forward to yet another new year

So it’s January again. It seems, dear reader, to have come round a bit quick, but the calendar never lies. Actually that’s rubbish. My calendar says it’s 2010, so can’t really be trusted for anything very much at all anymore. But, depsite my calendar’s confident assertion that it is eternally December 2010, it is, quite clearly, January all over again, and time to do the whole resolution thing once more with feeling.

To get me in the mood for this I had a little lookie back here to see what I’d resolved last year. I won’t lie. It was a tad disheartening, because basically I’m going to be resolving all the same stuff again. I still need to lose weight, about half a stone less than I needed to lose at the start of last year, but the bigger picture is still rather unhealthily hefty. I still need to focus more on writing, and I still need to get over my utter phobia of being in control of a moving automobile.

Now that realisation might give the impression that 2012 was not a successful year. That would not be true at all. 2012 was great. I went to the Paralympics. I gained a very gorgeous niece.  I went to Venice (and Venice is, in my humble opinion, amongst the very best of the good places on the planet). I won a short story competition which earned me a year’s guardianship of a little cup. I saw a panda in Edinburgh Zoo on my 10th wedding anniversary. I joined a tiny little writer’s critique group all of whom say fabulously useful things, and frequently offer me cake. I spent time doing things with people I like.

It wasn’t a year into which no rain fell. My incredible, irrepressible grandmother died at the age of 97 in June. I was poorly for a slightly disappointing proportion of it (rather inconveniently I seem to have developed IBS). And, as we’ve already noted, I didn’t really achieve my stated goals for the year at all.

So maybe that should tell me that resolutions really are a waste of time. Maybe I should stop aiming for things I’m probably not going to achieve, and concentrate on enjoying whatever comes my way. Well, partly. The “enjoying whatever comes my way” sounds good, but I still think the resolutions are worthwhile too. Because, somehow, I absolutely believe that this year will be different. This year I will do better. I think it’s good to believe that – it makes us keep trying. I don’t really do bumper-sticker wisdom. The cute sayings and affirmations that people post on their facebook statuses leave me befuddled, but here’s one I do believe. I believe that it is, pretty much always, better to try and fail, than not to try.

So in a spirit of trying, and embracing the risk of failing, here are my resolutions for 2013:

1. Lose weight – 3 stone 10lb to be precise. And keep it off.

2. Finish writing a second novel, start a third, and submit a competition short story at least once per month.

3. Get over the driving phobia.

4. Get back to blogging every(ish) week. On that note – the all new blog day for 2013 is Wednesday. Mark it on your (possibly decades out of date) calendars – Wednesday. Wednesday. Wednesday.

You never know – this might be the year I stick to all my resolutions. And if not, I’m sure the failing will bring it’s own joys along with it. See y’all back here for a review in 2014?