Writing news 22 October 2018 (Part Two): Resist

Sometimes things just fall into your lap. Sometimes you have to struggle to make stuff work.

And sometimes the two combine to give you an opportunity to do something mad and exciting and all-but impossible, something that leaves you feeling exhilarated and alive and glad you did it.

It’s only been just over a fortnight since SF author Christie Yant asked who her Twitter followers recommended for proofreading, and I semi-flippantly answered “Well… me”.

But today, when the Resist anthology is exclusively released as part of the “Get the Vote Out” Humble Bundle and starts raising funds for the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, it’ll in part be because I threw caution – and my fee – to the winds and agreed to proofread 350+ pages in PDF format in an insanely short period of time, even though I knew that I’d also be spending a week in the UK, including a full day at a conference, during that fortnight.

Because sometimes, when the time’s right, when the cause is good – in fact, even when the time is wrong, if the cause is a good one – you have to act.

In today’s world, you may think that your actions can’t possibly achieve anything. You may think “Oh, I can’t contribute. I can’t stop global warming or help prevent human rights abuses, or stop the Saudis killing journalists and getting away with it”.

And maybe your contribution can’t be very big. My contribution to this anthology is a small one. But I made it all the same, and it’s helped a bit, and I’m proud that I did it.*

This week I’m also launching a new website for my business (or will be if I can get it to behave). On it, I explain my philosophy in life, which sounds grand, but it’s quite simple:

“If we all helped other people and made their lives easier, the world would be a much better place for all of us”

It’s that simple. Just do that. If you do nothing else today, this week, this year, just do that. As well as complaining about the state of the world and sending cat gifs to your friends to cheer them up, do something small and positive to make the world a better place.

You can pick up three pieces of plastic every time you visit the beach, or a park.

You can invest in solar energy projects in Africa.

You can contribute to raising funds for an ocean-going plastic recycling factory.

You can do something local and important to you, like teaching elderly people a new language (good for keeping brains active – both theirs and yours), visiting people who live alone, or helping out in an animal sanctuary.

If you’re in the US, you can vote (if you haven’t been removed from the electoral list, that is). And you know which way to vote, don’t you?

And, of course, you can help raise funds for the ACLU.

Because the important thing is simply to resist.

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*I’ve got to say too, that seeing emails whizzing into my inbox from people like Christie Yant, Hugh Howey and Gary Whitta has been a blast. I’ve also discovered a truly excellent book designer in the person of Matt Bright, who had the unenviable task of converting my proofreading notes into reality in the finished layout.

Drowning in “resealable” plastic

Apart from the total lunacy of our politicians, one of the big topics for discussion at the moment is, of course, plastic. I gather the BBC have just shown a depressingly realistic programme about how our planet is drowning in the stuff.

I’ve also recently started doing translation and proofreading on a voluntary basis for an organisation called We Don’t Have Time. You may have heard of them before; they’re the people helping Greta Thunberg to get her message to a wider audience.

Reading their material, and above all seeing this article in the Washington Post, about how the Trump administration not only recognises that climate change exists, but thinks the planet is already so screwed that they’re not intending to do anything to mitigate it, has made me even more angry. Maybe it is too late. I don’t have kids, so to a large extent I don’t even care. But even if you’re heading towards the cliff edge and you’re sure your brakes don’t work, you don’t just give up trying to stop the vehicle.

So here’s a thought about how to save on plastic. How about the companies selling us products with “resealable” packaging just save everyone’s time – and our planet’s resources – and stop pretending that this rubbish actually works? Because in my experience, it never does.

I encounter umpteen examples of this particular myth every week, but here’s the latest one.

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This is a nice quality organic, fair trade tea, from La Route des Comptoirs, a company that clearly cares about its products and customers. The packaging is paper. But they’re still using one of these sticky plastic labels that seals exactly once and then never works again.

And I wonder what’s the point of this thing? What’s the total cost of designing, selling, manufacturing and applying this completely useless piece of plastic to every packet? Can we not just skip this in future – for as long as we actually have a future?

Meanwhile, if you really want a resealable packet, simply apply a clothes peg (wooden, obviously).

Or alternatively, use tins, or something like this. Genuinely resealable, and recyclable too!

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(Of course I’m well aware that tea should be kept in an opaque container, but this is all I had to hand at the time – and in any case, they normally live in a box under the kitchen counter.)

Magic is not age-related

Yesterday I read this interesting and topical post which, ironically, I found highly offensive. Why? Because of its implication that everybody born before 2001 is some kind of blinkered idiot simply because they don’t belong to Generation Z, and have not, therefore, been endowed with the ‘magic’ powers of that age group.

I don’t care one way or another about gender or race. I’m not interested if you’re Catholic, Muslim or atheist. I don’t give a shit if you’re upper or lower class, providing you’re not an idiot about either. I’m certainly not a rabid feminist. Because, oddly enough, even though I’m a contemporary of the author of the article, I have a really simple view of the world. I think we should all be equal.

I’ve often looked back at my childhood and marvelled at my sheltered, apolitical upbringing. I was born on the Isle of Man in 1968, which meant that as a kid I experienced a kind of Famous Five existence largely denied to my peers growing up on the mainland. Everybody I knew was, by most people’s standards, pretty well off. Now don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but for those of us whose families have come from there for generations this entails nothing positive. There was council housing and unemployment there just like everywhere else. But at the age of 11 or 12 my friends and I would spend our summer holidays travelling around the island by vintage steam train, electric tram, bicycle or foot, visiting medieval castles or scrambling on the cliffs. We could go anywhere safely, and did.

Isle of Man
The Isle of Man – not exactly a battlefield, to look at it.

I was 5 when the island had its first murder for 43 years. In many parts of the world this would have been unheard of, even then.

Aged 10, I went home from school one day and asked my mother whether we were Catholic or Protestant, because I had no idea what the distinction meant. 50 miles across the sea to the west, this would have been engraved on my brain from infancy.

In May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, I thought a female prime minister was a good thing, because I had no idea of the difference in political parties.

Whenever we travelled to the mainland, I was always shocked at the number of burglar alarms, on even the meanest grimy terraced houses. There were, of course, burglars on the Isle of Man – my father was a policeman, and he was at one time part of the Ports Unit, responsible for spotting ne’er do wells on their way on to and off the island. But burglary wasn’t so prevalent that an average homeowner needed an alarm.

I was startled at the age of 14 when I realised that the burnt out buildings and vacant plots littering Liverpool, where the Manx ferry docked, were left over from the, to me, long previous World War II, which the city had never been prosperous enough to rebuild.

But it was at about that age that my innocence came to an end.

I’d already seen through the pitiful instructions for how to survive a nuclear war in “Protect and Survive”, the UK civil defence booklet published in 1980. Living on the Isle of Man, I learned early on what nuclear power was, and what effects it could have in the hands of the unscrupulous and negligent, regardless of what shiny new name you gave the processing plant. And Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” finished off any illusions I had left on that score.

The Falklands War and the miners’ strike taught me very quickly what a Tory was, and how they would do anything to profit from and mislead their fellow humans. News coverage of these events taught me that I couldn’t trust the media, either tabloids, TV or even the ‘serious’ papers. (Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Falklands War was covered ‘in a neutral fashion’. That’s not how I remember it!)

The Toxteth riots opened my eyes to institutional racism in the police force, so I wasn’t surprised that Stephen Lawrence didn’t get any kind of justice until long afterwards.

I was pretty well acquainted with the history of World War II, so I was horrified to discover that, not only did some people deny its worst atrocities had ever happened, but some others – who really ought to know better – were still fighting over the land they’d been allocated at the end of that conflict, illegally trying to expand its borders. And that the Western world was, for some reason, turning a blind eye to this.

I learned of climate change and animal cruelty, sexism and racism. I learned of pollution and the sickness we were spreading through the natural world by our thoughtlessness.

I realised how quickly people could fall through society’s safety net, no matter how comfortable they’d been before. During my master’s degree, I also discovered how rapidly society could collapse when a country is run by a government whose only real policy is to feather the nests of the rich. When I started my course, in September 1990, I was heading for a career in museums. By September 1991, museums were closing at the rate of several a week, as a result of funding cuts stemming directly from the Conservative government’s poll tax.

And then I left the Isle of Man for good and was immediately swamped by the sea of misery and hopelessness that was Britain in the early 1990s. I lived in inner city Birmingham and learned how the social services treat those in need of their aid. I learned how to make a little bit of MOT go a long way to keep an old car on the road ‘legally’, and how to survive on just a few quid a week. I saw people stealing from each other or turning to prostitution to fund their drug habits.

But I also saw people coming together and creating a new kind of society – a self-proclaimed underclass with new music and new forms of mass entertainment, where barter was self-evident and creativity rife. People living lightly in the landscape, taking their small homes with them as they moved, using minimal resources and causing no harm. That new music, those new forms of entertainment and that new way of living were deliberately targeted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

But I was still pretty well off by many standards, and I soon worked out that it was better to be poor somewhere wealthy like Malvern than somewhere impoverished like Sparkhill.

Then came the Iraq war. I remember sitting in a pub where I was a regular, scoffing at the pictures of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which so obviously showed earthmoving equipment and minor industrial buildings. The ensuing reaction from everyone in that rural pub other than the four people at my table demonstrated that – despite what they would insist today – they all thought I was naive at best and a traitor at worst.

Eventually I got a job. But I soon saw that I had no chance of ever having a decent house, or even a decent quality of life, in the UK. So I moved to France as soon as I could scratch together a few thousand pounds for a ruin in an impoverished area of the country. I think of myself as a European these days, and I’m proud to do so.

But I haven’t stopped despairing over our collapsing ecosystems or the plastic in our oceans, animals being transported long distances in hideous conditions or bankers being paid bonuses for fucking up the economy of the entire Western world. I haven’t closed my eyes to sweatshop countries producing designer labelled clothing for anorexic idiots to wear once in the pages of Hello! then discard like sweet wrappers. I firmly believe that we’re rapidly heading for man-made disaster of some type – though whether climatic, major inter-continental conflict or simply cheap-flight-induced-pandemic, I wouldn’t like to say.

I’ve done very well for myself. I have a home in Sweden and – if the renovation is ever finished – one in Normandy. I have my own business, which is doing better every year. I have friends all over the planet. I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having been able to get Swedish citizenship, thereby freeing me from the clutches of the ravening Brexiters, whose narrow-minded jingoism and sheer ignorance have the UK on a direct course back to IRA bombings and widespread rationing.

So I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. But that doesn’t make me ignorant. It doesn’t stop me protesting against injustice. It doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s suffering, or accepting of the greed and stupidity that still others wield to create and excuse it.

Just because I was born half a century ago doesn’t mean I don’t see entrenched attitudes and privilege just as clearly as the kids from Stoneman Douglas school.

So, Mr Tallon, don’t include me in your sweeping generalisations. I may not have grown up in the years since 9/11, but that’s not to say I haven’t been in the trenches. And I haven’t been alone. Maybe you’ve never had any empathy. Maybe being American gives you a different experience of life – let’s face it, everyone outside the USA, adults included, thinks that your attitude to guns is totally fucking insane.

Or maybe you’ve just never opened your eyes to what’s really going on in the world around you. Because you clearly haven’t noticed it, but many of our generation have been soldiers too.

The antibiotic myth

 

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There’s a programme on the radio this morning about the history of antibiotics. It was quite interesting while they were talking about the discovery of penicillin, but I’ve just had to turn it off.

Because, as I knew they would, they’ve got to the bit about antibiotic resistance all being our fault. “People became addicted to antibiotics” is how they phrased it.

By which they mean the following dialogue, which I know you recognise because you’ve played the part of the villain many many times:

Patient: Doctor, I have a cold and I really need antibiotics to cure it.

Doctor: I’m very sorry, but antibiotics don’t work against colds so they’re really not appropriate. I suggest you take an over the counter painkiller, drink plenty of liquid and rest.

Patient (threateningly): But I insist on having antibiotics! If you don’t give me antibiotics now, I’m going to get very very angry!

Doctor (cringing): No, no, please don’t hurt me! Here! (scribbles prescription and hurls it across the desk at the ravening patient)

 

I don’t know what the point of this myth is – although my cynical side tells me that it’s to distract us from the agricultural use of antibiotics which mean that most of us are being subject to constant low-level doses whether we want to or not – but isn’t it about time that the media stopped blaming antibiotic resistance on ordinary people? If there’s ever been over-prescribing of antibiotics for inappropriate uses, surely that’s down to the people doing the prescription, not the poor bloody patients?

Worship

The broad black low-ceilinged room is pretty full by the time I get there; pairs and groups of bearded men, mostly, talking in a variety of languages. It’s already quite warm so I shed my outer layers of clothing in the cloakroom and drink my wine – from a glass! A real glass! I can tell I’m in Sweden and not the UK.

Then I wait. There’s a tension in the room. People are talking, but you can tell that they’re also listening for something.

And finally it comes. A rhythmic drone emanates from the soundsystem, and the lights go down. There’s some movement among the spectators – I make my way to the centre, near the back of the crowd – and then we stand there, in the dark, silently with the exception of the various Danes behind me, who tell each other loudly that nothing’s happening. My opinion of that particular race immediately plummets.

Because something is happening. We’ve responded to the noise like a group of Morlocks, obediently moving into position and facing the front of the room. The drone continues, and we stand immobile, hands by our sides, waiting. Waiting for the touch of the sublime that we know is coming. Waiting for something to fill up the empty space within each of us.

Sporadic applause and cheering greet a movement on the cramped stage, and I rise on tip-toe to see what’s happening. Someone, a woman, is standing in the corner of the stage. I know this must be the violinist, but I can’t really see her or the violin. The problem with Scandinavia is that everyone’s so unfeasibly tall. If I was doing this in France I’d be the tallest woman in the room – possibly even the tallest person of either sex. Here I’m looking at the neck of a guy a metre in front of me. The drone is increased by the sounds wrung from the violin. The woman onstage is joined by a man with a double bass, also squeezed into a corner. The screen behind the stage is showing a moving image of some kind of inchoate, black-and-white mass, like thousands of eye floaters.

Gradually more of the band weave their way among the equipment and into their places, but I can’t see much of anyone. It’s not important. By this time the Hope Drone has built to a frenzied wall of noise and the rapture has truly begun.

For the following period – I’m not sure how long exactly, but close to two hours – I stand, rooted to the spot, swaying slightly from the intensity of the sounds being hurled at me. At times my chest vibrates to the bass. At times I want to throw myself around in convulsive movements. At times the crescendos of pure sound make me smile broadly. I see, occasionally, the images being projected onto the screen; images of moving grasses, of electronic stock exchange ticker-tapes, of glaring suns and blank-eyed empty buildings. But mostly – like many others in the congregation, I think – I have my eyes closed, which makes things difficult for the few non-believers in the audience who want to move through us. Near the end of the set I realise that many of the people behind me are no longer there. Presumably for the Danes nothing ever did happen. But for the rest of us, despite the bleak knowledge that the human race is doomed, the vision of pointless waste and environmental disaster, the incoherent rants of Blaise Bailey Finnegan III in the final track… we know that someone understands. We know that humans aren’t entirely without merit. Because the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, drifting back off the stage as they arrived, twisting dials and leaving us – bereft yet fulfilled – with a dwindling hypnotic drone, have produced something truly divine.

The problem with capitalism, in one easy lesson

“Capitalism affords economic freedom, consumer choice, and economic growth”, apparently.

Let me prove that this is wrong.

For several months now I’ve been trying to buy a white shirt, to replace one that I bought in 2009 and which has now seen much better days.

It has to fit the following criteria:

  • White
  • Long-sleeved
  • Longer than waist length, and with a curved hem
  • Buttons all down the front
  • Cotton or linen
  • Thinnish (this is to wear over a vest top or something in the summer, largely)
  • With a collar

In other words, a very simple plain white thin long shirt.

“Easy!” I hear you cry. “I could get you a handful from one trip to the shops.”

Oh yeah? Just try it. At least in Sweden, what is on offer are shirts with the following features:

  • Patterned/coloured
  • Short sleeves
  • Short and/or with a straight hem
  • Only three or four buttons
  • Nasty artificial fabrics
  • Material so thick you could use it as a duvet
  • No collar, a plunge neckline, or a bow (a bow! Who am I, Thatcher?)

And to respond to your other suggestions,

  1. No, I’ve not looked at men’s shirts as my days of wearing blokes’ clothing because I can afford nothing else are over. I want something that complements my shape, not something that drowns it in a tent.
  2. Buy clothes off the Internet? Not likely. I’m not a particularly standard size, and given the price charged by the Swedish Post Office for the inevitable returns, it would be cheaper to clothe myself in material made from diamonds.

So my point is this – if I can’t even buy a really simple basic garment like this, despite several months of looking, then what of consumer choice? This consumer wants something slightly different to the latest fashions. It’s not like I’m asking for an adult sized pink bustier with My Little Pony on it.

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Why are we continuing with the capitalist system, using up the world’s resources, forcing people to work – and in some cases die – in sweat shops, filling our roads with lorries and our seas with oil and plastic… if we aren’t actually fulfilling the promise of capitalism?