In which I think about a whole lotta history

This Friday is release day for the brand new book from my alter ego, Juliet Bell. The Other Wife is out in ebook this week and paperback in January. And you can pre-order either (or indeed both) right here.

Outback Australia, 1981

After a terrible childhood, Jane comes to Thornfield as nanny to the adorable Adele, watched over by the handsome and enigmatic Edward. Plain and inexperienced, Jane would never dream of being more than his hired help. But swept up in the dramatic beauty of the Outback, she finds herself drawn to Edward. And, to her surprise, he seems to return her feelings.

But Jane is not the first woman Edward has pledged to make mistress of Thornfield.

As a child, Betty was taken from her English home and sent for adoption in Australia. At first, no-one wanted her, deeming her hair too curly, and her skin too dark. Until the scheming Mr Mason sees a chance to use Betty to cement a relationship with the rich and powerful Rochester dynasty…

When Jane discovers Betty’s fate, will she still want to be the next Mrs Rochester?

One of the most emotionally challenging parts of writing The Other Wife was researching how Betty ends up in Australia all alone after being born in England to parents who love her. Betty’s story echoes elements of the real stories of thousands of children who were sent to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other countries, by the British authorities who were supposed to be taking care of them. The fictional version of Betty’s childhood isn’t a particularly happy one  but it’s a lot happier than many of the children who were sent overseas. Betty is adopted. The majority of British children who were sent to Australia ended up in children’s homes or in work programmes that were unsafe for children of a young age. Many suffered physical or sexual abuse. Children were told that their parents had died, when this was often untrue. And this practice continued for centuries, well into the second half of the twentieth century.

I’m white. I’m British, specifically English. I’m sort of middle-classish. Historically people like me have not consistently been the good guys. I also have an MA in Modern History, so that means I’ve done five years of secondary school, two years of A-level and four years of university studying history, and from all that study a lot of the time you’d still think that the British have been universally enlightened and virtuous across time. When we learn about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world what we learn about a lot is Britain as saviour, Britain as last bastion of freedom, Britain as driving force in ending evils like the slave trade. What we learn about less is what the British did to establish a global empire, about Britain as driving force in maintaining the Atlantic Slave Trade through the eighteenth century, and about Britain as a country that routinely deported children thousands of miles across the globe to an unknown fate.

And that matters because you can’t understand the world as it is now, and Britain’s place in that world, without understanding Britain’s history in that world. And that means understanding the good bits and the bad, because no person and no country is just one thing. I’m very definitely a British person. I can’t imagine living anywhere else – I’m really not sure my sense of humour would translate. I’m proud to have been born into the country that abolished slavery in 1833. I’m proud to be part of the country in which so many owe so much to so few. But if you embrace the idea of being culturally British, I think you have a responsibility to understand the darker parts of our shared history.

Because that history continues to colour our present. Why is there a common travel area encompassing Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Why is English an official language in sixty seven sovereign states across the planet (including Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, the USA, Pakistan, Jamaica, Botswana, Kenya)? Why is the British monarch also head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth realms? All of those are questions that impact on how Britain interacts with the world right now – they colour things like why people choose to migrate to and from Britain, and why the British/Irish border remains such a massive issue if Britain wants to leave the EU – and all of them have long and complex answers that encompass some of the darkest parts of our history.

We live in a world that feels increasingly split down the middle politically. That’s dangerous. It reduces things to simple positions. Very few things about our history, our culture, and our nation are simple.

Child migration is just one example of the darker side of how the British have treated the vulnerable within our own country. We’ve also done great things – we invented the NHS and the national insurance scheme to protect the most vulnerable. We, as a country and a people, are not just one thing and we never have been. History, politics, culture – these are big complex amorphous things. If someone is selling you a simple version of any of them then they’re either lying or they’re an idiot. And you don’t want to be following a liar or an idiot.

So that blog post wandered a bit from the original topic. Sorry. Ah well, if you want to know more about child migration this is the place to look. 

And if you want to follow Betty’s journey to Australia you can order The Other Wife right here.

In which there are still three whole months until the general election

I generally consider myself to be a person who is quite interested in politics. I can usually generate a blog post about an issue of the day if pressured to do so. I have opinions on all sorts of things: page 3 – no; fox hunting – definitely not; same sex marriage – sure, if you want to. But I’m finding that three whole months away from the General Election I already have election fatigue.

I’m feeling, already, as though the bulk of the political news that I read or hear is washing over me like white noise, and, I think, the reason for that is simple – the news, as it is reported, is nebulous. There are precious few actual facts in there to get hold of. Take this story from the BBC as an example. The headline, technically speaking, offers factual information – David Cameron has been challenged about his claim that a new Tory government wouldn’t cut per pupil education funding, but the fact is simply that some people have said some things, and some other people have said other things.

The story itself jumps between announcements about per pupil education funding and announcements about numbers of schools becoming academies – yes those are both to do with education policy, but they are quite distinct issues.  That’s not my problem though. My problem is that essentially the entire article is made of up X said, ‘…’ but Y said, ‘…’.

To be fair, there’s a handy video clip from the Prime Minister’s speech at the top of the article so you can see for yourself a little bit of what he actually announced. That’s good, but watching the clip just makes the article itself look worse. For example, take this paragraph: ‘Mr Cameron, speaking at Kingsmead school in north London, said that every secondary school in this “requires improvement” category would be expected to become an academy.’ Well maybe he did say that at another point in the speech, but in the clip attached to the article he talks about schools that can’t ‘demonstrate the capacity to improve themselves’ – that might not be the same as ‘every school’ at all, or it might just be waffle to obscure the ‘every school’ element. There’s no way of knowing from this article.

This isn’t BBC bashing. I just happen to have picked a BBC article. I could have gone for pretty much any newspaper, tv station or website, because what we have here is a very normal example of current journalism. It’s journalism without the skills, or time, or inclination, or incentive, or possibly backbone, to do very much actual journalistic work. It’s a process that goes something like this:

1) A politician makes a speech. A journalist picks out a few choice quotes, or possibly just accepts the few choice quotes picked out by the party in the accompanying press release.

2) The journalist knows that’s not enough. Their story needs balance, so they add a few quotes from opposition politicians disputing the thing the first politician said.

3) If they’re feeling really dedicated they probably have some notion that they should be looking into the politicians’ claims, so they add another quote from a relevant trade union or academic or random passer by who’s prepared to reckon something.

4) They publish their story.

There’s nothing actually wrong about it, but the process of filtering all those quotes through a professional news reporting organisation hasn’t added anything. There’s nothing that goes above or beyond what the people giving the quotes wanted to say. None of those claims or quotes get checked or probed, because the story is simply the reporting what each of the people quoted said, and it’s definitely true that they said it, so that’s all fine. The problem is that nobody reading these articles actually knows anymore about what is true than before they started reading. If anything, they know less because of all the additional white noise they’re now carrying around in their heads.

Of course we need reporting on what politicians say they’re going to do, and what rival politicians see as the problems with those plans, but the reality is that not everything that is reckoned, even when it’s reckoned by a front bench politician, has equal value. Lots of things fall into the grey area of opinion or projection, but lots of other things don’t. Some things are simply true or not, and without a mainstream media prepared to call anything at all as ‘true’ or ‘false’ it’s left to each of us to filter out the white noise. The danger with that is that the vastness of the range of information and opinion that washes over us leaves us overwhelmed and in a position where, when faced with a ballot paper, it’s very easy to wrinkle our brows and just give up on the whole idea of being able to make any sort of informed choice at all.

So maybe that’s a thing I could do to try to break through my election apathy – my own little mini fact checks right here in Alison Blogville. It’s an idea, anyway.

In which I do a little bit of a politics catch up

During my period of non-blogging, on account of all the book-finishing and holibob-going, a range of politics has occurred. Three things in particular caught my wandering attention: firstly, David Cameron had a little cabinet reshuffle; secondly Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the government; and thirdly Mark Simmonds resigned from the foreign office.

The cabinet reshuffle was generally seen as a pre-election attempt to move aside some of the less popular figures in the government, notably Michael Gove, and to bring in some new blood, specifically lady blood, on account of how David Cameron is totally down with equality, at least now it’s been explained to him that holders of a uterus are also allowed to vote. What the reshuffle was trying to say was that the cabinet are modern; they’re in touch with the normal people; they’re just like us. What would be quite poor, from a PR perspective, then would be to lose one of your most prominent female, and most prominent non-white, minister shortly after the reshuffle.

Baroness Warsi resigned in protest at the government’s failure to come out with a strong response to Israel’s military action in Gaza. Since quitting she’s been pretty vocal about the difficulties she feels she experienced within cabinet in terms that only serve to exacerbate the image of a group of privileged, out of touch, old public school boys unable to engage with the wider world.  But that’s just one person’s opinion. So long as it’s not followed up by another minister complaining publicly about how terribly hard done by he is by being paid shedloads, I imagine David Cameron will probably still feel that things are going ok.

Oh dear.

On August 11th, Foreign Office Minister, Mark Simmonds, resigned citing the impossibility of housing his family in central London on his meagre expenses allowance as his reason for stepping down. Now I actually feel that it’s really important that MPs are reasonably paid and remunerated for their costs. If they’re not, then politics really does become an avenue only open to people who are already wealthy. However, this is Mark Simmonds, who was employing his own wife as his office manager on a salary of £20k+ on top of his own £89k salary, and refused to consider the horror of renting a property in outer London. This is an expenses system that allows for 30 return trips per year from constituency to London for MPs’ family members, and would have allowed Mr Simmonds around £28,000 per year towards rent on a London property. The reality is that however ‘intolerable’ Mr Simmonds found his situation, most people, in a country where food banks and rough sleeping are things that happen, will struggle to sympathise with someone bemoaning the meanness of only being allowed slightly more than the national average salary to pay for his second home.

So, if you’re a Prime Minister trying to look open to diversity, modern, in touch with the country at large, I would have to conclude that it’s not been a great couple of weeks. Having said that, part of me is slightly cross with myself for writing this post. If I’m going blog about politics it probably should be about stuff that matters: like education; or the NHS; or the feeble international response to the situation in Gaza.

But actually I think the other stuff – the stuff about perceived privilege and lack of equality – is more than just PR and Westminster bubble vacuousness. We are supposed to be a representative democracy, but the people who are supposed to represent us don’t reflect the range of people in the country, and I think that does matter. Diversity is one of those concepts that people pay lip service to. ‘Yes, it would be great to have more women, but they don’t apply.’ ‘Obviously we’d be open to more disabled candidates, but there are practicalities to think about.’ ‘Of course we want more black people, but they just happen not to have made it through the selection process this time.’ More diversity in government gives you a broader range of experiences to pool into policy making. That gives you a broader range of ideas, and a broader range of expertise. That gives you a much better chance of coming up with a good idea, and of spotting the flaws in the terrible ones. It makes decision making less cosy, but ultimately better, and that should be what matters – that our politicians make the best decisions and pursue the best possible policies for the whole country and for the gloriously diverse mixture of people who live in it.

So that was day 4 of the Week of Awesome Blogging. Come back tomorrow for some more, when I shall be writing about something. I have no idea what. Jolly good.

In which there is a little scandalette and it gets me thinking

Demonstrating the dizzying pace of the modern news agenda a small political storm has brewed and passed over just in the time I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what to blog about.

The Electoral Commission in the UK releases quarterly figures showing donations made to political parties. The figures released today showed a bequest for half a million which was split between the two Coalition parties. A little bit of light journalistic digging showed that the bequest was made in the will of a Joan Edwards who specified that the money should go to “whichever government is in office… in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit.” It was speedily pointed out that thinking fit to keep it for yourself was probably not quite in the spirit of the thing, and within a morning both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had conceded the point and agreed to hand the money over to the Treasury. Cue many editorials about the grasping nature of modern politicians and their lack of engagement with the notion of public funds for the public good. Some of those editorials may even be wise and worth reading, because, yes, if you’re the government and you get a wodge of cash to spend as you “think fit” and your first thought is that you could use it to pay for a better wine selection at your party conference then shame on you.

However, my first thought on reading this story wasn’t about how disappointingly grasping and self-serving the politicians involved seem to be, it was about the bequest itself. Somewhere out there a woman decided to leave half a million pounds to the government of the day, not knowing, presumably, which party that would be or how they would choose to spend the money. I can’t decide whether that demonstrates a refreshing faith in government and democracy or simple naivete. Maybe it’s neither – maybe the woman in question had fallen out with her local cats’ home and left the money to the government just to spite them.

What I am fairly sure about is that I wouldn’t do the same. If I had half a million pounds to spare (and a quick rummage under the sofa cushions confirms that I don’t), I can imagine wanting to use the cash for the greater good. I am a proper hippy bleeding heart liberal after all. I believe in outdated stuff like the welfare state and universal healthcare and higher taxes for the comfortably-off. But to voluntarily bequeath half a million to the government of the day like Joan? I don’t think so. And there are three reasons why not:

1. I’m a bit of a control freak. Sure, I want to improve the world with my money but I want to choose how.

2. I want to see what happens to the money. That kind of rules out the whole bequest thing. I think I’d want a scheme where I just went “Here is some money. Please tweet me if you’ve got something cool you’d like to do with it, and I shall pick stuff that sounds good/interesting/worthwhile…” Back to the control freakery again.

3. I don’t quite trust that any political party would definitely use my money for the greater good, and that’s a really bad thing. Polls repeatedly show that the British public lack faith in their politicians. This Ipsos MORI poll from June 2013 is a good example, showing the extent to which we believe our politicians to be self-serving. It is, therefore, really annoying when they act in ways that reinforce that belief. After expenses scandals, and previous question marks over party funding, politicians should be going out of their way to clean up their act, rather than opportunistically divvying up bequests between themselves. Perhaps that perception is that if the mistrust extends across the party divides then there’s no comparative loss if the public don’t trust you, because they don’t trust the other guy either.

And at this point I feel I should have a pithy conclusion as to how to fix the break down of trust between electorate and elected, but I don’t I’m afraid. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments. And feel free to share your spending plans for any unexpected (or, indeed, imaginary) cash you might have lying about.

In which I think about ChipLitFest and this very blog

So, lovely blog readists, I have had a delightful weekend. Simply delightful. The sun was out. The cake was chocolately. The wine was pink and sparkling, and there was a literary festival to attend. Really, what more could a prematurely middle-aged and unapologetically middle-class girl ask for?

Saturday was spent at Chipping Norton Literary Festival, stroking lovely books and eating excellent cake. We even managed to squeeze in a couple of talks. Both were aimed at writers, one discussing why writers still need agents, even given the self-publishing boom, and the other looking at social media for writers.

To be 100% honest it was really the agent talk that I was most interested in. The Social Media session was something I’d booked because it fit in well with the other things we were doing and I thought it might be mildly time-passingly interesting, but actually, that was the session that provided the most food for thought. Liz Fenwick, who led the session, is a fellow RNA member and a published novelist. She talked, interestingly and with great humour, about a whole host of social media platforms – twitter, facebook, pinterest, goodreads etc.

She also talked about blogs, and what we, as writers, should and (perhaps) shouldn’t talk about on our blogs, tweets and facebook pages. She suggested, quite rightly I suspect, that talking about religion and politics risks alienating at least some potential readers. Now, as the observant amongst you may have noticed, I do, on occasion, get a tiny bit political on this blog. I, it has to be acknowledged, Have Views. Now I try to ensure that those views are reasonably measured and researched, but I’m not entirely above having a little rant about Michael Gove either.

Now lots of you won’t find that off-putting at all, and I, of course, think all the views expressed here are entirely normal and  rational and right-thinking. So how could anyone find them off-putting? But then, if I found a writer who regularly blogged very right wing or reactionary material, I would probably find that somewhat tiresome myself. Generally, we are all much less prone to consider a person ranty and over-the-top if we tend to agree with what they’re saying.

So I guess the question is, what is the point of this blog? Is it just a place for me to write what I like in the hope that you might be interested, or should I be viewing it more definitely as part of my writerly brand? When I started the blog I said it would “be filled with whatever thoughts pop into my brain. My only commitment to you is that I will endeavour, whereever possible, to think only interesting thoughts.” The idea was that this would be a little corner of the internet where I could write things about stuff that seemed interesting or worth mentioning and that possibly there would be people (I was thinking anywhere up to about eight of you) who would find some of those things interesting too.

But I also want to be a published novelist. I have a full novel manuscript out under consideration with a publisher as I type. When that publisher (or any other in the future) googles me I want them to find someone who doesn’t look like a potential liability. So do I need to put a pin in the bigger rantier opinions and create a blogland more in keeping with the wannabe professional writer image I’m trying to project? Or is a bit of opinion welcome? Would losing it make for a duller blog or is it better when I don’t rant anyway? I have no conclusion today, so please, tell me what you think…

In which I struggle to muster the energy to get annoyed with Ian Duncan Smith

So Ian Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, thinks he could live on £53 per week. In fact he’s sure he could because he’s been unemployed before and is therefore very much down with the common man. If you’ve missed out on this little news titbit, it’s worth reading the Guardian’s version of the story, not least for the supreme piece of editing that butts IDS’s claim to have experienced poverty right up next to the additional detail that he’s married to the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe.

And clearly, he probably could live on £53 for a week or even a couple of weeks, but that’s not really the point. You can probably get through the first week without needing to go to the launderette and eating only value beans on value toast. The second week is more difficult. By the third week you smell bad, you’ve run out of stuff like soap and toilet roll and you’re starting to want to throw value beans at passersby.

All of that is so utterly self-evident and not really worth the energy it took to type, that it’s making me wonder if I’ve actually reached the point of anger-fatigue with the current state of British politics. I used to get mad about this stuff. There are sufficient ranty blog posts on this very site to show my ability to get a tad worked up about major and minor policy issues. But today I’m struggling to work up a good head of rant. Maybe the triple whammy of Legal Aid cuts, welfare cuts and NHS “reform” is just a bit overwhelming for my poor liberal bleeding heart, but I feel tired. Tired of complaining. Tired of virtuously keeping myself informed, writing letters to my MP, signing petitions, retweeting links to campaign sites, and actually turning up to exercise my democratic whatnot at every election from local council to Westminster to Europe, without it really seeming to make a blind bit of difference.

I feel confused by a political landscape in which poor people and immigrants are unquestioningly talking about as scroungers right across the political spectrum. I feel confused by a set up where jobseekers’ benefit rate is experiencing a real-terms drop, but large companies are allowed to negotiate how much tax they feel like paying. I feel confused by an Education Secretary who talks about the importance of evidence-based education policy only after he’s announced a whole set of major education policies. And I feel like, in voting terms, there’s nowhere for tired confused liberals to go and have out metaphorical wounds licked. Maybe we need a new political party, born out of disenfranchisement, like the early labour movement. A party peopled by slightly over-anxious liberals who’s main contribution to parliamentary debate would be to suggest that it might be a bit more complicated than that. Or maybe I just need to take a break from reading the papers and come back when I’ve got the energy to get properly wound up again. Ho-hum.

In which I think about Michael Gove and it makes me go “Grrrrrrr.”

Last week I claimed I was going to blog about MPs voting on a 30% pay rise for themselves in the same week as approving a 1% cap on welfare benefits rises. It turns out that was lies, not least because it would be a very short blog. It’s pretty much obscene. That’s all I really want to say.

So now I can move onto other issues, and the thing that has caught my flutter-minded attention today is the intriguing phenomena that is Michael Gove. Mr Gove, the Gove-ster if you will, is Education Secretary. Just to be clear, that means that he’s in charge of education policy for England, not that he does the typing.

Since taking office Gove has had three main headline-grabbing policies. First he decided that he would send a bible to every school. Then he decided that GCSEs were too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. Today, he’s decided that A-levels, in their current form, are too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. And yes, I do see that technically, that’s only two policies, and the first one of those is just silly anyway.

The bible for every school thing is daft, not least because it’s pretty much the most widely available book on the face of the planet. The whole thing’s available for free online in multiple different editions and languages. Amazon will download you the full King James, Gove’s preferred version, to kindle free and gratis. If anything is holding back the educational progress of British schools, I think we can say with some confidence, that it’s not the inability to access bible texts.

So let’s have a look at his 2nd policy – the idea that young people today aren’t learning enough proper hard academic stuff and that exams should be harder. In both the replacements for GCSEs and the current A-levels one of the key ideas is that assessment will be by a single end-of-course examination, set and assessed by an external body.

Now that’s something I should probably be in favour of. I was one of those annoying kids who was good at exams. I passed the coursework part of my History A-level by writing the full 5000 word course work essay over a single night, starting at 6pm the night before it had to be handed in. Essentially I reduced the whole research-draft-reflect-revise coursework process into a 12 hour high pressure exam.

But I’m not blown away by Gove’s ideas, and I’m not blown away because I have no faith at all that he understands what he’s actually doing. Designing assessment in education is hard. Good assessments are ones which have reliability, validity and fairness.

Reliability, is sometimes called replicability. Essentially it means that if the same student, with the same level of knowledge/skill, took the same assessment at a different time and place they would get broadly the same result. Similarly, results between similar groups of students should be consistent.

Validity means that you are actually testing the thing you are setting out to test. This is incredibly difficult. If you are trying to assess knowledge of a particular subject, do you do it by ongoing course work or by single exam? Ongoing coursework might assess subject knowledge, but it also assesses research skills, time management, organisation, and possibly, ability to copy from the internet or get your mum/friend/teacher to write it for you. Single exam assesses subject knowledge, but also ability to cope with pressure, ability to write quickly, ability to cram or revise, and possibly, creativity and imagination in your approach to cheating. Coming up with a form of assessment that solely assesses the thing you’re claiming to assess is all but impossible, and I don’t think Michael Gove understand that.

Fairness means that all your students have a fair crack at getting a good result – it relates closely to validity. It covers things like not assessing students’ descriptive writing by asking them to write a paragraph describing the taste of bacon. Jewish students, for example, are likely to find that significantly harder than a child who’s eaten a full english every day for the last 16 years.

So, yes, review assessment and education processes. It’s important that we make them as good as we can, but understand that doing that is really difficult. Simply deciding to make it “tougher,” or “more academic,” or – and this is what a lot of education reforms ultimately amount to – “more like it was in my day,” is lazy policy making. And it’s policy making with no basis in evidence, and no basis in an understanding of how learning and assessment work.

Several eons ago I had a little rant on this very blog about the rise of the career politician, and Michael Gove is a prime example of why this matters. Gove is a product of the political bubble. Prior to entering Parliament, he was a political journalist and the chair of a conservative thinktank. If only there was some sort of training or job one could do that would allow a person to enter politics with some knowledge of how education works, or doesn’t work. But no… I can’t think of any such career. Oh wait. Hold on one tiny little second. There’s actually being a teacher. There’s an idea. How about having an Education Secretary who knows something about education, beyond a general sense that things were better in the old days, and that every child’s schoolday would be best commenced with a gown and mortar-boarded master reading verses from the King James Bible before requiring the boys (and weirdly in the mental picture I’m creating there are only boys) to recite their 12 times tables out loud until their tonsils start to bleed?

I think that’s all. In summary – Michael Gove: grrrrr. Comments please!