Most will think of poor maintenance, bad weather, old aircraft among other obvious reasons, yet none of these reasons are common; it is more subtle than that.
Could airlines be delivering the same awful standards that we experience in other areas of life? Could the corporate culture be behind accidents? Are they accidents at all in fact? Or simply crashes brought about by a chain of human induced events.
The answers are all in this book, presented in a readable form for anyone to enjoy. It is light on the technical jargon, but focuses on the human element in safety – or the lack of it.
The reader is offered a ride on my and other flight decks, turning dull accident statistics into readable detective stories. In addition to the main core of the book – why planes crash – are some anecdotes from my own experience that in the main, focus on what it is like in the cockpit
It may dash the commonly held notion that pilots live the life of luxury sunning themselves by a foreign hotel pool and partying with attractive crew members. Life at the pointy end is often a wonderful picture show of stunning vistas and night skies but it can also be a bit tougher when it comes to fatigue and time zone changes – could your pilots be sleeping while the aeroplane cruises on, on autopilot?
Corporate structures are profit driven and those who run them are not pilots. As with the medical world, the bosses could not do the job that those at the coal face do every day. Fatigue is an issue and is seldom recognised as such in the boardroom. Sadly, this is also true of the industry regulators.
Post Covid, lockdowns and “furloughs” mean that crews are rusty and have flown little. In responsible airlines – and the book tells how to choose those – recurrent simulator training and careful scheduling will get pilots back up to speed carefully. Others are less responsible.
Some airlines have made scores of pilots redundant and so as things open up, they are now pushed for crews. The result is overwork and fatigue. There have been two studies that equate fatigue with alcohol consumption and the shocking fact is that with poor scheduling a crew can be tired enough to be effectively, “over the limit,” were their impairment be down to drinking.
That said, flying is safe with a good airline and driving to the airport is far more hazardous, so don’t lose sleep, just read and understand what the priorities are and who applies them properly.
Oh yes and we can discuss Turbulence, which is most passengers’ pet hate.
I used to think I lived in a free country – born in the UK in the 1960s, it was a long time before I questioned the idea. Even when I discovered it wasn’t entirely true, I was still aware that as countries went, our country in the 20th century was relatively good on freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
My but it’s changed, and not in a good way. Politically, we now have pressures on our freedoms from both right and left, each in their own way, and for their own reasons. Can you tell which is which? Do you judge both varieties in the same way? You might like to test your attitude to one or two of these: (or skip straight on to ‘a failed workshop’ below, if you already know what I mean).
The first thing is to see that we are – understandably – very confused. Three examples from my direct experience…
A failed workshop
Long ago, before covid, I was at a literary festival (no wait – let me think – this matters – it was 12 years ago) I ran a workshop on freedom of expression. I did it because I’d recently published a book which I thought might be controversial. It was about child abuse, and incest, and other nasty things – but the arena in which these things played out was a small-town Christian community so when we published, I was kind of waiting for complaints.
I got complaints. What surprised me was that they weren’t about religion. They were accusing the writer of appropriation because she had a main character who was lesbian. It was only a handful of complaints, and every single one backed off when I said to them ‘do you know the author? Why do you think she’s not a lesbian?’
So, I figured, the complaints were ideological so, when I was asked to set up a series of festival workshops on issues relevant to writers, I decided I wanted to know what writers thought they could or couldn’t express. I set out to explore our writing and publishing world in search of taboos, and find out what the workshoppers thought could not be set down in print. The workshop was a flop. None of the attendees could think of any taboos. They were utterly sure that artists of all varieties could and should say anything they want to. I had to prompt them to get a grudging agreement that you probably shouldn’t name living characters and slander them.
I admit I concluded they mostly weren’t professional writers or else they weren’t being honest, but just think how different that workshop would be in 2021. The complainers about that probably-not-a-lesbian author were a small minority on the other end of email exchanges, no-doubt forerunners of the post-modernist tide demanding ‘authenticity’.
I think attempting authenticity is a good idea when, for example, a film director looks for black people to play black parts, disabled people to play disabled parts and so on – but to say that authors are only allowed to write about people like them – that fiction authors are only allowed to use their real life standpoint – is a step too far for me. As Ursula le Guin put it, ‘it’s fiction. We make stuff up.’
A Mantel Piece
In Hilary Mantel’s collection of her journalistic writings, she includes an essay on the censorship she experienced around her when living in Jeddah. Writing in 1989, she is explaining the concept of censorship, on behalf of a UK readership whom she assumes have not heard of such things. She gives examples: my favourite was the scouring of the recipes on the back of packets of imported sauce mixes, in order to strike out (and I quote) ‘that dreadful word, “pork”’. Mantel explains that
…you cannot abolish the concept of pork from the world, but if you are assiduous you can unsay the word; if your felt tips are busy enough, and numerous enough, you can take away its name and thus gradually take away its substance, leaving it a queasy, nameless concept washing around in the minds of unbelievers, a meat which will gradually lose its existence because there is no way to talk about it.
Does that situation sound familiar to you at all? She then moves on to talk about the UK’s reaction to the Rushdie affair. In case you’re not old enough to know, the Ayatollah of Iran condemned a book Rushdie wrote, called The Satanic Verses – in fact, he went so far as to condemn Rushdie himself, calling a fatwa against both Rushdie and his publishers.
Mantel observes that some authors and commentators in the UK responded by asking whether the book was, in fact, bad form in some way. Mantel comments, ‘politeness may be the ruin of the West’. She serves up a typically English (ie, devastatingly polite) verdict on those in the UK who ‘cast doubt on Rushdie’s integrity’ or called for ‘the withdrawal of the book’.
‘Perhaps,’ she writes, ‘it is understandable that the authors of children’s books and light social comedies should decline to defend The Satanic Verses. Their freedom of expression is not at issue.’
I cheer on Mantel’s view here. The authors she describes are an example of the ‘sheep’ of our society. Rather like the attendees of that workshop I ran, they probably don’t even tell themselves about self-censorship, so can’t possibly tell anyone else. In more recent years, in publishing particularly, we have seen what I consider to be an extremely craven backing away from any colleague who has been accused of anything that people seem to fear might ‘rub off’. The consequence is the enabling of mass bullying, which those authors appear to manage not to notice.
In recent years many women, particularly if they’ve been active in the trade union movement or party politics, have had much to say on the pressures being applied over how people talk about sex and gender. I for one have expended a lot of energy defending the vocabulary women need to describe our political and social experience, and to maintain safeguarding boundaries. Our statements on the topic are often met with determined efforts at making us stop it.
I did suggest to my sisters at one point that perhaps we should concede the whole pronoun thing – I’ve always been of the opinion that a gender-neutral pronoun would be a useful addition to our language – I suggested it because I thought it was more important that we get ‘female’ and ‘woman’, and the language of childbirth clear. (Not just because of the women’s rights v trans rights debate but it really is still very hard for people like midwives and doulas to converse on social media, because of the tendency of the sites to assume naming women’s body parts can only equal pornography).
But I have changed my mind. ‘Misgendering’ is being treated as though it was a crime. It has taken several court cases to assert that using ‘wrong’ pronouns is not a crime. (See Maya Forstater and Harry Miller ) The assumption that we are morally obliged to apply people’s required pronouns when talking about them is a whole lot different to politely referring to people according to their wishes when talking to them. The latter is often useful and usually harmless. The former is accepting censorship.
Fortunately, I believe, the refusal of ‘required pronouns’ has been more widespread amongst the young than many suppose. A recent survey reported in ‘Prospect’ magazine (‘Gen Z explained’ in winter special 2022) states that 75% of ‘Gen Z’ respondents would agree to a designated pronoun for someone – but these are university students. I’d put it at less than half if taking a sample from secondary school students I’ve mixed with lately.
I’m less concerned about that though, now we’ve established it is NOT a matter for criminal law – I will make my own decisions when presented with pronoun requirements, because I know can. We still need to push back against workplace and judicial bullying on the issue, though. Women in prison can find themselves punished for ‘misgendering’, and that report about ‘Gen Z’ somehow managed to have a whole section on attitudes to gender, identity and sexuality without using the word ‘sex’. It suggests to me that ‘sex’ has become a ‘queasy, nameless concept’ for the report’s authors (see ‘pork’ above). It suggests serious bullying has led to serious self-censorship.
Authoritarianism, bigotry and bullies
I reject censorship and compelled speech, especially when enforced by police officers and employers because it’s directly against our beleaguered human rights. I spoke to a woman recently who is considered one of the ‘extremists’ in the women’s rights v trans rights situation. What makes her ‘extreme’ is her practice of calling a male a male, however they ‘identify’. Speaking to her, I found her view both reasonable and useful. Many women struggle with the current constraints, especially if they have been abused, or need to express safeguarding concerns about a sex-related issue. This ‘extremist’ woman told me she had seen such relief on the faces of women hearing her forthright words. They needed a model of someone calmly and unwaveringly expressing what they could see but not say. She considers her stance far from extreme, she considers it a kindness and a necessity.
I think she’s absolutely right and, as long as no-one starts laying down the law about such situations, your decision about words you say is just fine, whatever it is. I suggest being diplomatic when it seems right to you, and being forthright when you see a need.
I reject ‘cancel culture’. I consider it anti-fa gone mad. Young people have picked up on the techniques their elders have used to contain genuinely violent fascist movements, and a noisy minority are adding rowdy bully-tactics to boycott actions such as were applied so successfully against apartheid South Africa, in attempts to put a stop to anything they happen to disagree with.
The inability to accept others having meetings, giving lectures or writing books you disagree with is called ‘bigotry’. I don’t know where this idea got turned on its head but bigotry means intolerance of others’ views. Those militant youngsters and their refuse-to-grow-up grey-haired apologists are bigots, and bigotry leads to bullying.
Decency and respect
I think the vital point which gets missed, as our country sinks into ever more authoritarian attitudes, is that you don’t need laws, or rules, or bullies, to maintain decent social behaviour. As an editor and a publisher, I was a ferocious defender of the author’s right to lay down whatever words and ideas they needed to but I would from time to time go back to authors and question what I considered to be unnecessary or harmful passages.
I abhorred a large proportion of what I saw on telly when I was a kid, because, long before I had the vocabulary to express the idea, I found both news and entertainment were regularly racist, sexist, classist and gratuitously violent and sensational. Many of the things I abhorred are now actually removed from viewing schedules, because decency has prevailed. At least I thought it had. I hope it was decency, because if it was enforced censorship, I disapprove. I refer you to Eveline Beatrice Hall: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
A decent society does not encourage gratuitous vulgarity and abusiveness, nor does it allow vulnerable minorities to become scapegoats or the habitual butt of jokes. We should be sensitive to how our national conversations are going. I actually left out a line in one of my quotes from Hilary Mantel above because I thought, on its own, published in 2021 as opposed to when she wrote her piece, it would look unnecessarily critical of Muslim culture as a whole. There is a nasty tendency for that in our society at the moment, therefore decency requires avoiding anything that appears to support that tendency unless that something is 100% accurate and necessary. (Please pay attention – I’m NOT saying Mantel said anything wrong. Don’t think of ‘cancelling’ her!)
You can’t easily made decisions like those I make as an editor in an authoritarian country full of bullies. That’s why defending freedom of expression is vital.
Now, if you don’t know why I’ve called this piece ‘Janice’s Goats’ but you were polite enough to read it anyway, this would be a great time for you to read Janice Turner’s article in the Times, 24th Dec 2021. Here’s a link.
Oh and one more thing…
Just in case I haven’t convinced you, neither official censorship nor mob-attempts at cancel culture work. Why is that…?
I’ve been reading a report called Blood Sweat and Tears, about a project in the 1990s, instigated to address rising racial tensions, crime and related problems on an estate in Bermondsey.
I have this temptation to make a terrible joke first, and I think I’m going to give in to it, and say ‘my but they had proper racism in those days’. It wasn’t about old Tories sobbing over imperialist statues. It wasn’t a spat over the appropriateness of a 1950s novel in the library. Back then, the National Front and BNP were recruiting – or trying to, and shiny-headed boot boys were around in our cities, drawing swastikas on walls, ganging up on immigrant kids and lobbing bricks at black families’ cars.
“Evidence of racist activity in the area suggested that black people were becoming easy targets for the frustrations and political impotence experienced by the local white community,” says the report, and “two cornerstones of the effort were work with young black people to develop confidence when faced with racism and work with young people with racist attitudes and street gangs to promote anti-racist ideas…”
Already, reading that introduction, two thoughts were rising in my head. The first was that someone assigned to deal with the situation would have a choice of two focuses: the “racist activity” or the “frustrations and political impotence experienced by the local white community”. As an anti-racist, if you choose “racist activity” the temptation is to see finger-waving, slogan-chanting and placard-bearing as the way to go. If you focus on the second, and ask yourself what are the causes of “frustrations and political impotence”, you are giving yourself a long, hard and wide-ranging job but that, the Bermondsey team concluded, was the job that needed doing.
My second thought was about current events in my own town, here in 2021 because seriously, I do know that racism, nationalism and related blindnesses are still a destructive force. We too are suffering ”frustrations and political impotence”. We are struggling with austerity and recession, and now people are getting themselves into a state over whether we can ‘afford to’ help refugees who wash up on the beach, and in some cases asking why they ‘come over here’, and now I hear it’s attracting the attention of those far-right groups looking to feed on people’s fears.
I feel we should be talking about austerity and recession, along with the larger, global issues that create displacement. I believe politicians’ chosen stance on those larger issues are the causes of our doubt that we can or should extend a welcoming hand to refugees but, as I settled down to read about the setbacks, lessons and triumphs that made up that three year, government-funded project in 1990s London, I felt my spirits sinking – where would a 21st Century council or NGO find either the patience or the funds to follow where this project led?
The report states that in the ‘90s there was a (possibly mistaken) view that racial tension was caused by far-right organisations such as (at that time) the BNP and the National Front, but that among the issues that needed addressing were socio-economic problems and establishment-led anxieties designed to discourage immigration, or to demonise particular elements of society. Those people would then bear the blame for government failings in welfare, housing and education provision. (Believe it or not, black single mothers were often blamed for all our woes back then. I can remember the crazy arguments).
Investing time, thought and planning
Looking at the detailed work that went into setting up and maintaining the project in Bermondsey – and the debate about how to get genuinely, constructively involved with the local community, I can’t help thinking that anti-racist efforts I’ve seen more recently are way, way too brief and self-serving. There is no way the kind of work these people did could be done, for example, within the span of an election campaign or even with a year’s funding with tick-box targets from some grant-farming organisation.
The project put time and a lot of thought into finding, stabilising and activating a team of appropriately skilled people and then into building awareness, trust and relationships in the community. Dealing with racist attacks, and other forms of misdirected (or just plain undirected) anger is a difficult and potentially dangerous occupation, and the staff had other forces – such as local papers – working against them, seeking to sensationalise and even provoke community problems for the sake of a story.
The young men
As for any hopes of black and white kids working together within the project – that took even longer because at the start, they would not see any black kids on the street at all. It simply and obviously wasn’t safe for them, but the project stuck with their work, talking to groups of young men they found hanging out, or playing football until, to use the words of one of those young men, “you lot have stuck it out, haven’t you – you don’t turn your back on us and walk away, you don’t think we’re all bad.”
Respect is a two-way street and responses like the above appear to have been the result of the project’s practice of politely challenging aggressive behaviour, but “there was agreement that challenging would not involve putting individuals down or belittling them in front of their peers”. The staff were resolved to stick by their own commitments, and demand the same of the young people they worked with, and to make “a clear distinction between the young people they were working with and their negative attitudes”.
The young women
It took longer for the project to find the girls. They were “more likely to be in school, less likely to be hanging round the streets” but in time, they did find them, and found the girls to be somewhat better at working together, and also more willing to spot and call out destructive behaviours.
The project team had been concerned that “targeting the potential and actual perpetrators of racial violence would reinforce the exclusion of the black young people who were their potential or actual victims.” This issue began to be solved as girls formed their own activities and relationships, and black and mixed race families began to take part. In the third year, as the project turned their attention to how to create a legacy, some of those girls wrote about the project, and turned up to meetings planning for the future, seeking to preserve new-found support and awareness.
The group were also enthusiastically endorsed by the local police, who reported an impressive reduction in racist, violent and other destructive acts on the estate as the project progressed. One officer also told of the frustration the police feel, when attempting to ‘move along’ potential trouble makers if they know there’s no-where for them to go. While the project was running, there had been somewhere.
Reading the report outcomes, my mind goes back, time and time again, to a stand-off I once had with an ‘anti-fascist’ activist who was seeking funds from my union group to hire a minibus to do what I suspected would not be a million miles away from lobbing half-bricks back at racists on a march. That might be good fun, and I’m not saying there isn’t a place for those parachute-in actions, (I’m reminded of when EDL or some such group tried to descend on Liverpool, and never even got out of the railway station because local socialist activists were there in force – that was, I think, an example of effective on-the-spot action) but this report convinces me that changing hearts and minds requires more, much more, and more sustained efforts.
How you actually counteract fascism has been on my mind lately because I have been the target of some of those parachute-in anti-fa groups in recent years. Seriously, yes, we have a generation that learned anti-fa tactics and somewhat over-applied them. In recent years, some of them added women’s groups to their list of targets, calling us ‘anti-trans hate groups’ and so I know exactly, deeply and personally just how much the targets of such actions (us) do not change our minds because a bunch of yobs turn up to yell at you.
Why am I telling you this now?
The report describes itself as “not just an account of an interesting and worthwhile project but as a practical resource that will be of particular use to community workers and activists, youth work students, trainers, teachers and others involved in anti-racist work with young people.” It provides detailed examples of the kinds of situations the team dealt with, and transcripts of their debates about those incidents. It offers “structured tasks and discussions … of particular use to people involved in training youth workers, as well as to others that are keen to develop positive approaches to anti-racist work in their own communities.”
I have discussed this, and other related issues with Leah Levane, who worked on the project, and she told me that the group were invited to give talks on their experience after its completion, and had hoped to see similar projects instigated elsewhere as a result. Unfortunately, as the ‘90s progressed into the ‘00s, we found ourselves with a government even less inclined to invest in local projects, and councils which, as local government grants dwindled away, could not have put up the funds themselves so here’s my appeal to you:
Don’t let the Bermondsey project work be forgotten
Please download the report and read it in full, and then go tell your local community, union, political or youth group about it. Maybe you can get a working group to study it, and consider how similar work could be instigated or developed where you are.
You too can be Battersea Poetry Home. It’s amazing the treasures you can rescue from potential oblivion, and give sanctuary to in your own head. When you pick up a poetry book and find something you love, ideas, images and phrases take root. You have enriched yourself, as well as rescuing a book that might not be picked up that much, not being a popular novel or a box of chocolates.
Three poems I have never forgotten
From Sky Breakers…
Photo of Mr and Mrs Daft
by Joe Fearn
The sky here
isn’t actually blue
it only appears blue
because it reflects the sea.
Which itself isn’t really blue,
it just reflects the sky.
It sounds daft, but somehow works.
Like the marriage of Mr and Mrs Daft,
shown here in Hastings in 1915.
Mr Daft is stunning in khaki,
Mrs Daft is peaches and cream.
She will run a shop in St Leonards,
he will board a troopship
and be blown to pieces
in the Dardenelles.
From Records, Rivers and Rats
The rock chamber
by Derek Sellen
A steep-sided gully
where the cliff narrows to a spit
and a fallen ram has left its bones;
It’s the ocean compressed in a box,
a cyclone of brine and spume,
a square cut maw,
it’s the breaking turmoil of the world.
From Misfit Mirror
by Jocelyn Simms
John Scott rubs square palms across apron stripes.
I finger a solid apple.
Together we regard the sky: sulphurous clouds, nacreous
sun, the moon a cinnamon curl. The Resurrection.
Apocalypse. Turner’s Fighting Temeraire?
I bite tart flesh, silver juices spill, the taste of almond
at the core. Removal of any item of school uniform
will result in nuclear fission.
What have we to lose, John Scott? Here at the end of the world …
And you with all these pheasants to sell?
Why not rescue some poems for Christmas? If you’re in or near Hastings, contact me to have all three of these books delivered to your door for £15
When my anthology Stories for Sale was published by Circaidy Gregory Press in 2013 I little suspected the changes to come: changes in my own life and in our geopolitical lives. We now live in a different world.
Let me start even further back. When Philippe Delerm published his bestseller La Première Gorgée de Bière et Autres Plaisirs Minuscules (The first mouthful of beer and other small pleasures) I was inspired to write my own book of small pleasures. This was published by Sunpenny Press in 2011 and I revised it under the title 100 Small Pleasures in 2017. This was before the Danish claimed hygge which resulted in the cult of mindfulness in Britain. I felt resentful and envious because Delerm and I had pre-dated the craze and besides, having lived five years in Norway I knew that Norway had originated hygge or kos, related to our word cosy.
That’s as maybe. As luck would have it, another of my books, Trying to Care, an account of my four years spent living with and looking after my nonagenarian parents who each had a different form of dementia. The book is not without humour and a growing self awareness. Again it was ahead of its time. Social welfare and concern for the elderly has become trendier recently.
A third book that also appeared at the same time was my novel Bribes d’une Identité Perdue (Traces of a lost identity). I love languages and European culture and I was so dismayed by the Brexit vote that, European as I thought I was, I resolved never to write in English again. To my surprise a French publisher accepted this novel. I have not translated it into English.
In 2018, then, I had three new books to launch and publicise. At the best of times I am useless at self promotion. I am no salesman, no performer. However I thought I had better make an effort.
But suddenly something happened worse than the national suicide by Brexit. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. We had just moved from crowded East Sussex to rural Cumbria to make a fresh start. What we saw of it for the next eighteen months was mainly the inside of hospitals. Anna died despite the added misery of chemotherapy and I had forgotten about my books.
Then of course Covid 19 struck and the first lockdown. I took up writing again and to lighten the mood published an anthology of comic verse Oh No! I did this in collaboration with Green Arrow Publishing ordering just 50 copies to cheer up my family and friends. Ironically it was a great success. I had requests for multiple copies to give as gifts and even orders from bookshops. It sold out quickly with no effort on my part.
My next project was to gather more of my short stories. Not as well edited as Stories for Sale where I had the invaluable advice of Kay Green. I published them myself on Kindle. I think the stories are all right but I feel ashamed of sinking to vanity publishing. I did the same for Four Novellas and felt worse. My vocation is to write. It is natural to want to share what we have written but almost pathological when we are driven to self publish.
The advantage of bona fide publishers, as I have hinted above, is that you open a dialogue with an editor. Our work needs this kind of scrutiny. Sadly several of those I have worked with, Babash Ryan, Sunpenny etc have disappeared and their books are out of print. I continue to write, but I no longer have the desire or the energy for the moment at least to chase up publishers and sales. I just exchange the odd manuscript with like-minded friends. At least they will not say, “Awesome William” as some did in the days before I abandoned Facebook.
Greetings to all the authors and friends of Earlyworks Press!
I’m sorry for the long silence on the competitions and website fronts. COVID blah blah recession blah blah need to earn a living – you know how it is. For those who signed up to our newsletter for competition news, I’m afraid there isn’t any yet. I do intend to look at the possibility of re-starting the main competitions next year but we are scattered, and funds are non-existent so no details yet but I’m still here, and still obsessed with finding interesting stories and promoting small press work, so there will be at some point.
In the meantime, there are still anthologies available – I am in the process of putting information about all our backlist into blog posts so people can still find them, and I am still, as ever, willing to offer bundles of books to the authors who have contributed to them until stocks run out – if this is you, and you’re looking for Christmas presents for example, feel free to contact me if you want any. Generally, I can supply ten books – of one or of a selection of titles – for around £60 to authors, post-free so long as they have a UK delivery address and can do discounts on individual title orders.
There are also write ups of quite a few of the Circaidy Gregory titles on the blog now.
There are more to come, so if you want to publicise the books your work featured in, please use the blog links, and do keep an eye on our Facebook account, or on Circaidy Gregory on Twitter (links below) for more. There will be announcements there, and via this newsletter, when I know what the future holds competitions wise. All the best,
Kay Green (editor, Earlyworks Press)
Other ways to keep in touch:
follow Earlyworks Press on Facebook, or our related publishing imprint @CircaidyGregory on Twitter or write to us at Earlyworks Press, Creative Media Centre, 45 Robertson St, Hastings, Sussex TN34 1HL
In November 2021, the news hit Hastings that a group of refugees had drowned trying to cross the channel. It hit us hard, because being a southern coastal town, the victims of failed attempts tend to wash up on our shore. This has never been a problem we are able to ignore. Local reactions are varied as they are everywhere but on this occasion, as the news came out that those people had had a mobile, and had called both French and English authorities for help and been denied by both, anger rose.
Quite where that anger was directed depended on people’s knowledge and political position. Some feel that looking after refugees is our responsibility because our society, our government are as much to blame as any for the number of displaced people currently crossing Europe looking for safe haven. Some feel that the UK have done all they can, that money and housing are short, so we can’t help any more. Others feel that we have room, and we have housing, but we have a government that won’t allocate resources to match needs. Many more, regardless of their political stance, are unbearably distressed by the arrival of cold, wet, terrified people on our beaches, and want to help whatever the cost and whoever pays it.
I was particularly struck by one man’s comment that managed to cut down the middle of all those views. He said something along the lines of “if I was in their position I’d do the same, but how are we going to cope with them?”
That’s a discussable position, and a good starting point. But why is a middle-of-the-road, negotiable view of current events – any events – so rare? Why are we so ready to withdraw into opposing camps and shout about things, rather than trying to solve problems?
Party politics? Social media encouraging anonymous, irresponsible scatter-gun commenting? Shortage of money, housing and work making people defensive? I’d say yes, all those things but what we need are answers, and I suspect cross-cutting is one of them.
Did you, like me, immediately think ‘oh yes, that’s the difficult way of cutting wood’ – but I’ve just seen the term in an entirely different context. I have just started reading The WEIRDEST book…
In (very) brief, Henrich and his colleagues had a startling moment when they realised that almost all the psychology studies they were relying on for information about humans had used US university students as subjects for study, and they had precious little to go on as to whether there were other kinds of humans in other places who thought in different ways.
There follow 500-odd pages of ‘us and them’ discussions about different societies, about how our own society developed and why, and what the alternatives might be. One of those discussions hinges on a study of a people in New Guinea called the Ilahita, a society that, although broadly tribal, seemed unusually good at growing and assimilating in-comers without strife. The key point, the study found, was how the communities developed interdependence. Not the kind of interdependence that is vital for survival – our modern society has no shortage of that – witness the panic whenever supermarkets run out of anything, or the power goes off – we’re really useless at shifting for ourselves as individuals, however many cans of beans we have in the cellar. No, this is about social interdependence.
Ilahita communities were crosscut, in that every village was sub-divided into extended-family clans, but also into ritual-organising groups that cut across clan groups, and groups who worked together for other purposes that cut across *those*. It meant that people were used to being ‘the same’ as another person on one issue, but ‘different’ on another. As a result, they had no problems with the idea of adopting non-blood relatives, or integrating new people into a community when they needed to.
The idea struck a chord, and I remembered reading Always Coming Home – It’s an epic by Ursula le Guin, whose speciality was writing ‘what if’ books about different ways of living. In this particular book, she builds a detailed crosscut world, where people’s ‘kin’ allegiances were crosscut by membership of community ‘houses’ – and other group allegiances both distinguished and interwove them socially and emotionally.
Like many of us, I got deeply involved in politics during the last decade, feeling that the time had come to agitate for change. I joined first the Green Party and then, when Jeremy Corbyn offered a new way of going on, the Labour Party. The switch from one party to the other felt odd to me. I was aware of changed perspectives, and also of a change in who was rude to me, and who gave me house-room. I made a point of still trying to talk to, and work with, Green Party people, and was enthusiastic about the ‘Progressive Alliance’ for a while.
And then the ground moved. I was also involved with the women’s sex-based rights campaign, and was shocked to find that sizable elements in both the Green Party and the Labour Party had decided this was not acceptable and worse, they had decided being rude and destructive towards gender-critical women’s groups didn’t count as bad behaviour, because we were ‘the enemy’.
I stuck around in the Labour Party and then some other lefty groups for while, and tried to build bridges, talking to trade union people, to shadow cabinet MPs and other party members about how they had been blinded by the demonisation of the women’s groups, and talking to women about how our views of the politicians involved were becoming skewed and polarised. I thought about how (former?) comrades were completely unaware of how insulting and dismissive they were of my views on this issue, or how infuriating that was for me and, as a result, tried to think more about the affect my words had on others.
In February 2020, Woman’s Place UK ran a Women’s Liberation conference at UCL in London, to which over a thousand women came. I collaborated with a woman from the Green Party to present a workshop there about how to work on women’s issues within political parties. The women who came to that workshop, and worked together for the afternoon, included Conservatives, Lib Dem, Labour, Green Party and Communist Party members. They worked well together because we were all feminists and, as women, facing a lot of common issues.
The nature of that group was in itself liberating and I tried to bring that mood back to my other political groups. The trouble is, political parties are more or less the opposite of that Ilahita culture. It became too much of a strain for me in my local Labour Party, and I left and soon afterwards, I left the other lefty groups I was in, feeling suddenly aware of just how worn down I was by tribal disagreements and blindnesses – I still can’t decide whether that was sensible self-protection or a failure of nerve.
I still try to maintain the diversity of stance in the women’s groups I work with. When I find a woman backing away, thinking a group is too far this way or that way, I sympathise. There are always going to be people at the extreme ends of every opinion within a group, and it’s hard work being one of those people – but I don’t want them to leave, because it narrows the scope of the group and someone else finds themselves being ‘the extreme’.
I don’t think that would happen in a properly crosscut society.
There are so many current issues and behaviours that encourage polarisation. Brexit, responses to COVID (here’s an interesting take on that – I don’t agree with everything said in this article but there’s plenty worth thinking about ), the sex-based rights campaign and, of course, how we deal with refugees and other in-comers. But is it actually the issues that are divisive, or the way we approach difference? It’s well known, for example, that the damage wreaked by racism is much *lower* in areas with well-mixed communities, where people maintain allegiances to ‘their own kind’ but also manage to function in different aspects of the wider community.
I hope and trust that Hastings will resolve its differences over refugees because there are huge overlaps between the fishing community, the RNLI, the refugee support groups and the coastal-dwellers generally. At the moment, a minor altercation on the beach has become national news, and the national media are world champions at driving a wedge into a small dispute to make a big story – but I see that members of all those crosscut local groups are investigating, and trying to heal the division. Good for them.
Let’s mix it up some more, and get on with what needs doing. I place hope in the politicians I see around social media currently looking to be (or forced into being) independent MPs and councillors. That could be a disaster, a fracturing of power – but it could also be the beginning of people mixing it up more, and having complimentary allegiances that *work*.
If you’ve read this far, please join me in resolving to crosscut our lives more. Look at your communities, your allegiances, and your attitude to ‘others’. How can you broaden it, and learn some new angles? Also (I guiltily say to myself) look at who you think it’s okay to be rude to, and who you assume you have nothing to learn from, then look again, a different way. This is the call to adventure.
Way back before I got involved in publishing, I had developed a fascination for small press books, glorious evidence they are of specialist endeavours that most people will probably never get to hear about. Someone commented once that there were probably more than a few books on my shelves that were the sole surviving copy of whatever it was.
I doubt that, but one of the reasons for my loyalty to small press is that I truly dread the success of the corporate world’s dream of everyone buying the same book, the same film, the same everything. It’s also why I loved producing the Earlyworks Press anthologies, collections of the best that had been offered up in our annual poetry and short story competitions. It was all brand new then: suddenly, desktop editing and publishing was within reach of the not-rich and not-leisured classes, and digital printing made small runs – not cheap perhaps, not exactly *easy*, if you wanted to do it well – but possible.
Every now and then, as well as the standard annual competitions, we’d branch out and call for different kinds of writing – and where the time, the inspiration and the print-fund allowed it, we’d produce anthologies of those, too.
Here are a couple that have earned their places on quite a few people’s bookshelves and, I can guarantee, will be on mine for life.
You are Here
Let’s try out some non-fiction, we said, and announced the Earlyworks Press Memoir & Journalism competition – and my goodness, it produced some unexpected wonders – and all true.
He’s a GI. She’s Pregnant. He’s recalled to New York… Her dad left home years ago: he wanted to be Robinson Crusoe – but now he’s back… From pork chop purloiner to community leader – who is best qualified to solve our problems…?
Dodging maths lessons, going to violin lessons; learning about love and life, war and death; dreadful accidents, extraordinary luck; growing up, changing your mind, changing your life; the stories came from all over the world, and some came with the most extraordinary photos – so the book is illustrated throughout, often with photos and artworks that had not been in print before – it’s a treasure.
Another time, we went off in the opposite direction…
Old Magic in a New Age
Standing stones and churches, trees and totems, fairy tale creatures: dragons, princes, gods, ghosts and elementals from Europe and beyond … We asked our writers and illustrators to find the mythic and magical figures that spoke to them, and show us why they have survived into the New Age.
The result was a fabulous collection. Some of the motifs are familiar and faithful, others have evolved as the world has changed. So if modern life leaves you hungry, enter these pages and find out which eternal classics still speak to your personal magical language.
According to poet and cover artist Cathy Edmunds, the search went something like this…
I need to find a druid
need to bind a long-beard be-robed figure of fun
to raise a smile
a poet a bard a hahaha-hazel be-twigged master
lurking in ash groves oak gown sites
of special scientific interest
ten cloves of garlic
Contact me to order either of these books or, if you’re in or near Hastings, have them delivered to your door, post free.
This short story collection ducks and dives through time and space with the speed of a tap-happy social media surfer. In the opening story, ‘Reading Tolstoy in Barcelona’, a young merchant sailor gets to grips with the world via some extraordinary midnight shore-leave encounters, setting the scene for a series of tales of immigrants and migrants, of misfits and visitors from every corner of the world.
Opening time in a shop in India, and nemesis arrives in the shape of a genial stray dog. In Britain, sons and daughters of immigrants seek ways of being British, whilst the indigenous Brits find the familiar – from office party to lighthouse beam – is not what it ought to be.
Taking in letters from Africa, from the Solomon Islands and from previous centuries, witnessing potentially murderous mountaintop encounters with goats and even trolls; navigating a European tunnel, an English bell tower and a social divide wider than the Australian outback, the mind of the reader must twist and turn, encompassing many miles and many moods, before coming home with a view from another planet as to what it might mean to be human.
Having chosen the title – Barcelona to Bihar – and the strapline – stories that travel with you – I could not resist sending my own copy on a tour to visit the far-flung authors. Here’s the title page, signed on its arrivals in Barcelona and Bihar, and by me on its return, a full two years later!
This copy is not for sale but if you’d like a copy, you can
There’s a story here I read about once a year. It’s unique, and it transports me every time.
This book is The Several Deaths of Finbar’s Father & other stories, published in 2014. It’s the anthology of the very best works that came to us through our international competitions the year before.
A moment contains an adventure-filled life, and a life is bargained for on a cliff-edge: one is glimpsed in the back row at a lunchtime concert, another smashed by a careless blink. In these stories, you will visit a sun-soaked castle, its towers in starry heavens, its basements deeper than the roots of trees. You will step into other worlds (minding the gap) and find new life in the everyday. These are stories of life as it is lived; life that can be snatched from mountain spirits or rewritten from the end backwards, blighted from the start or suffused with indelible blessings.
Magic moves in a music recital, the steps of a once-upon-a-time plains tribe and the boozy farewells of an urban evening class. Enjoy lives that were, lives that almost were and lives that might just be.
The authors whose work featured in this book are all worthy of attention but, I just have to tell you this: when I sent an email to the address Julian Holt had given us, to tell him he’d won our main competition with ‘The Several Deaths of Finbar’s Father’ and that I therefore wanted to name the next year’s anthology after his story, I didn’t get an answer for a while, and when I did, it came from a relative of his.
This story was Julian Holt’s one and only published work, and he died before he knew it had won a competition. It does not read like a first attempt. Rich, well crafted and complex, it is a story about a man who loved, briefly, and a boy who lived in books – it is a story about a life in a stolen moment and above all, it is a story to go back to again and again.
Well, having read it this afternoon, and told you about the book and its poignant uniqueness, I am now going to settle down to read some of the jewels that go under the title of ‘& other stories’ in this book.
As is so often the case with small press books from a year or so back, they say ‘not available’ but, if you ask, they can order it (that’s why it’s on their websites!) Our distributors *will* supply. Or….
If you’re in or near Hastings, and you’d like a copy of The Several Deaths of Finbar’s Father & other stories, please contact me to have one delivered to your door, post free.