When I read Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ back in the early ‘90s, I thought she had done me an injury.
I enjoyed it, but the Ending (not the ending of the book, The Ending) was just too dark. Not fair.
I just read it again, here in 2020 and, when I got to the bit about the Ending (which she places in the 21st century, round about now) I just thought yes, fair enough – but she left out the climate crisis.
Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ offers hope, inspiration, and a tremendous call to action. It’s rich, it’s complex and – ooh, I don’t often use this word – it’s seminal. Next time I find myself looking at one of the more recent popular fantasies – Terry Pratchett perhaps, or J K Rowling, I’ll enjoy seeing the star-fire flashes of Tepper’s ideas in them.
Read ‘Beauty’, and remember – a fantasy book is as good or as bad as the ideas and the actions it inspires. Read it, then – as Ursula K Le Guin was fond of saying – go do the next thing. It may well be a better thing than the one you would have done if you hadn’t read ‘Beauty’, and you can’t say fairer than that.
In the absence of hard evidence of a divine engineer in the sky, I’d say the patterns in your mind are who you are.
This is my thought for the day because it became necessary to clean and decorate the back room, and to do that, it was necessary to move two wallfuls of books, including the poetry and the political sections.
It isn’t a chore. If you’re one of nature’s librarians (ie, your childhood created bookworm patterns in your mind) – if that’s your story then you’ll know that moving and sorting books is the third best thing in the world, coming after reading them and helping to make new books happen (for me, that’s publishing – for others, it’s writing, or buying, or borrowing, or reviewing, or forming clubs around discussing…) books.
Are books better?
Funny thing is, most people don’t read books. In a recent survey among some schools, kids were asked who reads books. “Old people and people with no friends” was a common answer. How much they are missing! To all those who say ebooks are as good as books, or browsing the internet is as good as any kind of book, I say – look to the patterns in your mind. Does bouncing around on the internet, slipping from link to link and forgetting where you started, really lay down a strong, comprehensible and retrievable pattern in your mind? How much do you remember of the stuff you clicked through yesterday, last week, last month? Can you flip to-and-fro, contemplate and come to know an ebook the same way you can a book on your shelf (not just when you’re reading it – all the time).
How gullible are you, how confusable are you, how well do you know your history, your environment, yourself? I suggest to you, along with David Didau, that people who read books have better lives – and the reason for that is the quality and retrievability of the patterns in their minds.
From Ely to South America and Back
While I was moving the political section (remember, we’re clearing out the back room so we can decorate) a hundred and one worlds opened their doors in my head, and reminded me of the richness of the forest in the mind. Here’s one: When I picked up The Open Veins of Latin America, I remembered a beautiful bookshop in Ely. It was a day of beautiful things – the cathedral, the river, the teashop with the samovar and the gunpowder tea – and this bookshop. And this book which, I confess, I picked up because the colours on the cover caught my eye long enough for me to notice what a startling title they presented.
And then, as I look at the book, more and more doors open in my head as I remember reading this tragic history, and how it led me to watch a film about Hugo Chavez, and how I learned that socialism must, and can only ever be, international socialism (act local, think global) because socialism is about people, not flags.
Socialism relies on ‘class analysis’ and you just can’t do that by the kinds of hats people are wearing, these days. Who is the ‘them’ in ‘them and us’ these days? Isn’t it the international corporations? Is it not the case that the ‘them’ we are up against are the world champion border-jumpers? If they can put the cause and the effect of their actions in different countries. And hoover the profits into their (global) banks while you’re watching the misery and chaos on the national news and wondering what it all means, they have already won. You’ll probably end up losing everything, and all the while looking around the neighbourhood for someone who looks a bit different to you to blame it on.
Narrativium – the drug of the post-truth generation?
And then another set of doors opened, and I remembered the more recent discovery that the author of The Open Veins of Latin America had expressed some regrets in later life, that he’d got caught up in what Terry Pratchett called narrativium, that if he’d had time to write it again, he would have written it differently.
That doesn’t mean the book is wrong, or bad, it means that a story can have the same start and a thousand different endings, depending what lines the author gets a-running along. But sometimes, like the author of that book, you need to retrace your steps, and take a look at some of the things that got lost along the way.
And that opened another, more recent set of doors, about all the things from recent years that are beginning to be forgotten in the daily click-fest – I remembered writing an essay for my CLP, explaining the theory of the ‘Overton Window’, of how the movement that gathered around Corbyn was steadily leading us back to socialism, to caring about others and our environment, caring about the truth – but they really didn’t need my essay – a tide was flowing our way. It isn’t now – and that brings me right back round to today, and reminds me how I need to talk to our local socialist group about the importance of getting that report properly investigated, so the truth will be known properly, and the size of the victory of the anti-austerity movement will be seen, despite the loss of that election, and so that we remember who the enemies were, which brings me to the importance of getting down to some serious political education so that our local socialists don’t forget that socialism is, and always must be, internationalist, analytical, and founded on strong, joined-up ideas – which requires an enormous bookshelf and/or regular, good-quality political education.
And that’s just one book, on one shelf. Going to go move the poetry books now. I wonder what’ll happen to the patterns in the mind then.
Think global, act local
And if you’d like to spend some time on enjoyable activities numbers one and two now (you know, the reading and writing ones) here are some links to Earlyworks Press comps and books…
There was a time back in the last century, when I gave credence to the idea of ‘colour blindness’ as a way of solving racism. It turned out to be a way of convincing yourself it had been solved – if you happened to be white British, that is. While we were being virtuously, wilfully blind, assuming everything was going to be rosy from now on, Liverpool was in turmoil, and school kids were passing around those “Boot Boys” novels. Many of us had completely blinded ourselves to the renaissance of fascism.
It doesn’t work because we don’t have a level playing field. I can see that you are black and act as though it doesn’t matter, but you can’t see that I’m white and act as though it doesn’t matter. I can pretend we’re the same colour, and the problems disappear – from my view. Not from yours.
But now, we have another form of wilful blindness to deal with. Understandable, and well-intentioned, a horde of would-be progressive academics, activists and politicians – to give a random sample: Dawn Butler, Philip Pullman, Owen Jones – and now Margaret Atwood apparently – are pretending to be sex-blind.
As with race, the problem with pretending to be sex-blind is that women have very real, very practical problems that can’t be catered for and can’t be funded unless our sex is recognised. The police, pretending to be sex-blind, record cases of ‘women’ committing violent and sexual crimes, and every time they do it, the statistics that women’s services depend on for their funding get hazier until they become worse than useless; women’s health and wellbeing groups are trying to get by without using any of the words that clearly denote the female condition, and as a result, the grounds for their funding and the efficiency of their outreach go down and down; and teaching on sex and gender has gone the same way – now so far from reality that we have a generation of young people who really cannot tell sex from gender.
What we need to know
Black people can’t escape the problems of being black unless we sort out our institutions and our racist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we see, and talk about, the realities of colour.
It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, colour – in fact we need to.
Women can’t escape the problems of being female unless we sort out our institutions and our sexist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we can see, and talk about, the realities of sex.
It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, sex – in fact we need to.
Like many people, I’m busy reading up on anti-racism now, because I realise we really, really need to talk about it and sort out the injustices going on around us. I was hoovering up Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” and agreeing with every word… but I ground to a halt on page 181. Feminism, she tells us, must work to liberate everyone. Yes, in a sense. I do believe that if we can deal thoroughly with sexism, we will all be living in a better, healthier society – but, to revert to my first example, does that mean we should be yelling “all lives matter” when black people have something to say? I don’t think so.
Eddo-Lodge says that feminists should be thinking about “disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGB people and working class people” – well yes, but am I allowed to add “if they’re female”, or is she doing the “all people matter” thing at feminists?
Having included absolutely everyone in the worklist for feminists, Eddo-Lodge then illustrates her statement by saying feminism will have won when we’ve ended poverty, and when women are no longer required to do two jobs by default (meaning the care and the emotional work as well as the money-earning – true, but that’s about female people, isn’t it?). Feminism must combat sexual violence (that is, almost always, males attacking females). Feminism must combat the wage gap (because females earn less). And it must be class conscious (true, absolutely, unequivocally true). And she says feminism must be aware of “the limiting culture of the gender binary”.
And she’s lost it. Feminism is, and has always been, grounded in challenging the social rules and practices based on ‘gender’ – that is, the social constructions that tell us how males and females should behave and should be treated – constructions that are different in different cultures, but that have some commonalities (based on sex). But like many commentators, she’s translated that into telling us we must also disregard sex – wrong. Then she slips from ‘sex’ to ‘sexuality’ and tells us feminism must recognise that sexuality is fluid – well, that’s a whole nother argument and I’m not going to go into that one here but the key point is that reality matters.
Eddo-Lodge tells us that feminism, like anti-racism, has to be “absolutely utopian and unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now”. And here, at last, we have the key to a clash that’s been causing endless pain and furore in recent years. Yes, we must deconstruct race and racism. But colour won’t go away, because people are different colours. That’s reality. We must deconstruct GENDER and sexism – but we can’t deconstruct sex, because biology won’t go away. That’s reality.
Rejecting reality in order to be wilfully sex- or colour-blind means blinding yourself to problems that need our attention. If you want to help find solutions, please don’t do either.
Reality matters. Sex matters.
Racism, sexism and classism are the errors to be corrected.
Do please read Eddo-Lodge’s book – it’s excellent, except for page 181. We need to think about, and act on, what she’s saying.
And if you haven’t already, do please go to J K Rowling’s website and find out what she actually said about sex. It is exactly what we need to be saying, and exactly what women are being repeatedly punished for saying.
Sir Keir’s recent comment on BLM (which he corrected apparently, after a lot of shouting) demonstrated that he can’t see why Black Lives Matter have made many of us want to change everything. He can’t see why people want to change or educate our institutions, including the police.
He’s a long way from being the worst on racism – just look at those Tories – remember Theresa May, Amber Rudd and their development of that ‘hostile environment?’ Remember the list of revolting, racist comments Boris Johnson has to his name?
I know many of us are busy learning to be anti-racists now. I see the books by and about black people leaping off the shelves in the bookshops. If you haven’t done so yet, please do some reading.
If you’ve started already,
please do this now…
Get a photo of yourself holding up a book you think would help Sir Keir understand. Spread it all over social media with these tags…
And then save the photo somewhere where you can find it again so that every time a politician does or says something that demonstrates they just don’t get it yet, you can post it again, with their name on the tag.
Virus response, climate crisis, for many of us, financial crisis – and now the new, national awareness of racism and other urgent social issues – these are definitely what they call ‘Interesting Times’. I hope all our authors and associates are getting through okay, and I remind you of the one compensation authors have against any kind of crisis –
May it all come out poetry
– or flash fiction – or stories.
Poets – a call to action
This year’s poetry comp closes in three weeks’ time. Click here for entry details, and get ready to send your poems…
Don’t forget, we have two categories for the short stories – up to 4000 and up to 8000 words.
It’s not clear whether we’ll be in a position to produce a paper anthology this time around, due to all the consequences of lock-down. If we don’t, the money not spent on the printer will mean more runner-up prizes for the comps.
We’d be grateful for any help spreading the news about our comps and books. It’s simply not been possible to run events or visit bookshops and libraries so far this year so, if you have social media accounts, or are a member of any online writing groups, please could you retweet/share this blog, and/or pass on this link to the Competitions Newsletter sign-up?
All the best – keep safe, keep well, and do keep writing!
Joc Simms’ book brought together some never-before seen photos of the soldier-victims of nuclear tests, some very personal histories and her breath-taking poetry about nuclear tests and warfare. Here are some of the events and some of the reactions…