Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

Times they are a-changing (I hope) ~ on the prevalence of sexual harassment & on why we’re starting to speak up.

You’d have to have been under a rock not to have noticed the recent focus on sexual harassment, especially with a high-profile perpetrator (not giving names because I don’t want to give air time to someone like that by name) being finally outed. What I have spotted too is that virtually every woman I know has been on the receiving end of horrible harassment at some point. For those of the generation I belong to, and the one before (and before that too) it was so common in the workplace that there was a culture of silent acceptance. You didn’t rock the boat because you’d find yourself out of a job if you made a fuss about what was dismissed often as “That’s just what men are like.” I’ve also realised that probably almost every woman has lived in fear of harassment, and not just the verbal kind. I’m not detailing my own experiences (there are many) because it seems futile.

For me, not speaking up is also out of fear, and out of a kind of cultural conditioning that leaves me often feeling like I need to apologise for existing, for taking up space. In the back of my psyche is a version of my mother than constantly undermines attempts to be anything other than subservient, to know my place as a woman. It’s very, very hard to break free of conditioning like that even when you have become aware of it; everything is against it being challenged, even your own psyche. But I am trying, so very, very hard. We owe it to ourselves and to the girls growing up now not to keep silent any more, because it will never be addressed and changed if the sheer prevalence of it is not revealed.

I think I channelled my inner warrior woman who does fight back against harassment into Chloe from Square Peg. I’ve thought about her a lot lately as I started writing a sequel over a year ago, and the more I have analysed her, the more I realise she’s a powerful aspect of myself. She’s polarised readers; some have decided they don’t like her, dismissing her as rude (because she’s forthright and doesn’t take fools gladly) and others see her for her vulnerability. I also think she may well be an Aspie… In the novel she finds herself in conflict with her own profession, when a project she’s meant to be working on is very much against her own conscience. I’m sharing this extract because I really wish I were this tough, this able to handle myself under harassment.

She glanced up as a number of colleagues came into the canteen. There was a certain gung-ho attitude about some of them that irritated her hugely, so she wasn’t pleased when they came over to her table, all loud voices and bravado.

Hello, Red,” said Dave, who was the loudest of them all. “Hugged any good trees lately?”

She looked at him evenly, actually feeling her fists bunching with instinctive aggression.

He turned to his companions.

Red here is turning into a hippy, you know that, lads. She went off into the woods yesterday for hours, communing with nature and having a fumble with that other red haired bitch,” he said, and they all sniggered like over-grown schoolboys.

Chloe felt her face flushing.

Have you not got anything better to do than bother me?” she asked.

No, we haven’t, since all you hippy-dippy sorts have put a hex on this project,” he said. “Mind you, what else can we expect, employing a woman when we could have had a man. No point expecting anything from a girl.” He said the last word almost as a curse.

Chloe got up very slowly, and faced him. She was actually a little taller than he was but she didn’t feel it.

If you think I shouldn’t have this job, just go ahead and say it plainly,” she said. “I don’t like this sort of insinuation, and I’m not putting up with it.”

He glanced at his companions and then began leering at her.

Red’s got PMS, lads, or else she hasn’t had her leg over lately,” he said.

Grow up,” Chloe said. “You must have some sort of brain or you wouldn’t be here at all; try using it for a change.”

It’s a scientific fact that men’s brains are bigger than women’s,” he said, still in that jeering tone.

Yes, well size isn’t everything, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know,” Chloe said. “It’s what you do with it that counts.”

I know just what to do with it, love,” he said.

I doubt it.”

Want to try?”

Drop dead, moron. I’m not here to entertain the troops.”

That isn’t what I’ve heard.”

Then you should get your ears washed out as well as your foul mouth,” Chloe said. “If you’re the best example of the gene pool, then I’d hate to look in the shallow end.”

He went red, then, largely because his friends were listening avidly.

If you were a man,” he started to say. But Chloe cut him off.

If I were a man, you’d be on the floor begging for mercy by now,” she said. “You’d never dare to talk to a man the way you’ve just talked to me; and believe me, it’s not lack of brawn that stops me breaking your nose.”

Yeah? Go on then, try it, Red.”

No,” Chloe said. “That isn’t exactly fair; after all, you’d not hit a mere woman would you? Even scum like you usually have standards.”

Retrospectively, calling him scum was not the brightest thing to have done, because he swung for her then, palm open in token acknowledgement of her gender, and would have knocked her down even so had she not managed to get her own punch in first, burying her fist deep in his paunchy midriff and doubling him over as he gasped for breath. She put out her foot, and with a sharp kick on the bum, toppled him right over.

Right,” she said to the others standing behind him, open-mouthed. “Anyone else care to suggest that I’m not up to my job? No? Good.”

Her knees were shaking as she exited the canteen, but they couldn’t see that. As she passed the counter where the dinner ladies were still serving up, there was a ripple of applause, and Chloe grinned at them, and went back to her desk to try and think what she could do.

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No-one Should Be Left Behind

No-one Should Be Left Behind

August is now behind us and with it, my summer holiday. We managed to get away for a while (a big achievement, actually) and one of our destinations was Glastonbury. I’ve always loved the place, with its mix of spirituality, history, woo-woo and the best selection of metaphysical and alternative shops almost anywhere. We stayed in a tiny, quirky and rather fabulous B&B with the tiniest upstairs bathroom I’ve ever seen. Converted (I think) from a linen cupboard, I felt there was a danger of me getting jammed between sink and door if I had second helpings at dinner. The place had very comfy beds, superb breakfasts and interesting hosts, one of whom runs tours of various Avalonian locations. They also had a wonderful dog who reminded me of our long-gone Holly.

I digress a little, but it’s important you know (for context) that it was very much a place of alternative everything and despite being tiny (only two bedrooms for guests) it drew those guests from a self-selecting set of customers. When we got there, there was another guest who was staying, and she was there for two of the four mornings we were there for. It’s the conversations at breakfast that I’ve been thinking about since we got back.

You see, Morag (not her real name) was firmly of the opinion that as the cosmic energies (not sure how those are defined) forge ahead and the world changes and spirituality changes, those not willing to change and move on and leave behind “out-moded” beliefs, will be left behind or swept away, and forgotten. It got under my skin. I’m not someone who is able to hold an in-depth conversation before my second mug of coffee, and I’m also not someone who likes to argue or even fight, any time, let alone at breakfast. So at the time, I merely made some anodyne comments and continued to munch my very excellent breakfast. But I’ve stewed on it since then.

The human population is broadly divided into two camps: the risk-takers and the consolidators. In early human history, the need for both types is much more obvious. The risk-takers were the explorers, the people who leapt in and tried new things (sometimes with fatal consequences), found new places and so on. The consolidators kept the home-fires burning, kept the tribal histories and lore and taught the children. Both types are essential for a healthy society; various aspects of neuro-diversity also mirror this divide. Just as introversion and extroversion are hard-wired neurological aspects of self, this risk-averse/risk-taking tendency is also innate, though almost everyone becomes more risk-averse as they get older. It is possible and sometimes desirable to challenge one’s self to step beyond one’s comfort zone, but in essence, it is beyond the control of 99.9% of us to change that polarity.

So, in the eyes of people like Morag, those who do not gladly meet the changes are to be swept away and lost. Yeah, ta very much, Morag. How kind of you.

Sarcasm aside, it disturbed me massively. You see, in many ways, I’m risk-averse. I’ve explored a great deal into the metaphysical world for sure, but with a foot firmly in the camp of common sense and critical thinking and I’ve avoided swallowing whole the bovine excrement that’s on sale in the New Age market place. I’ve found myself returning to old truths and ancient, well-tried wisdoms from faith systems that are unfashionable now. You may or may not know that for the last 20 or so years I’ve been a Quaker Attender and the Quaker faith is one that very much believes in the idea of no one left behind. All Meetings for Business work on the model that unless there is complete consensus, then nothing is done. If just one person disagrees with the direction being proposed, no decision will be made. Surprisingly, this does not result in total stagnation; because Quakers are the people they are, it’s not unusual for someone to decide to agree to the will of the meeting, withdrawing their objection on the basis that the greater majority may be right and they themselves may be wrong.

There is a strange kind of snobbery about embracing new things; those who rush to grab the latest gadgets, systems, clothes, can be very disparaging about those who do not. Among the spirituality and alternative health movements, Morag’s attitudes seem ubiquitous; I’ve read tweets from advocates of “Juicing” that would not be out-of-place in a tract for certain brands of evangelical Christianity!

Life is not a race. Nor is our inner journey of spiritual discovery. We’re all on our own unique path; it’s not a snakes and ladders board and we’re not competing with others. It’s also impossible to gauge how far one person has already come on that journey because what might be a tiny step for one is a mighty leap for another. Those of us who are risk-averse should not be discarded as useless by those who are risk-takers, nor regarded as holding everyone back by our cautious natures. We are doing our best to follow our path, at our own pace. And that’s how it needs to be: no one left behind.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

No, I’m not reviewing the latest offering in the Fast & Furious franchise (incidentally, they are quite good escapist fun that pay no attention to either geography, the laws of physics and a variety of other things; if you can cope with that, go for it)

I’m at that point of complete overwhelm with life where I fear not only breakdown but total burn-out. The entire world seems to be intent on going to hell in a handy hand basket, singing all the way about such guff as sovereignty, taking back control and how experts are stupid and don’t know anything. In the mean time, they’re kicking the underdog, and demonising anyone who disagrees with them, and all the while economic turmoil & political strife create further unrest and disorder.

It’s not a nice time to be alive, quite frankly. I grew up during the Cold War, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland which spilled over into mainland Britain, during the Three Day week with strikes, power cuts, shortages and so on. I used to have nightmares on a regular basis about nuclear war. Despite being a child during much of this, I read the newspapers and I watched the news. There were bomb threats made against schools and public buildings of all sorts; there was even an actual bomb in my school when I was 18.

The information overload is such that unless you completely unplug and detach from the world (no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, not even talking to people) it pours into your psyche in an unending torrent of awfulness. And as our entire culture is now rooted in the use of the internet, even those of us who don’t have a smartphone, cannot escape the 24/7 exposure to literally EVERYTHING all at once. I regularly take days off internet use; since I only use my main computer for internet, this is relatively easy. But my work is online. To completely drop all my online connections and obligations would mean that I would vanish very, very quickly. I have had online friends say, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and deactivate all their social media profiles and disappear. Some have explained beforehand but many don’t. They just stop being there; and it can take a while to notice, because everything cascades past you at such a rate that it can take weeks or longer to think, oh whatever happened to old so-and-so. I try to care about my friends beyond my computer screen but I know I have been dropping the ball of late.

I’ve also noticed that alongside the paring away to virtually nothing of the mental health support system, has come a rise and rise of a culture of shallow, one-size-fits-all organised “self help”, often using the label of mindfulness, CBT etc. I bought a magazine the other day (for research) called Breathe. It’s new, and deliberately not glossy, but its tag-line is WELLBEING MINDFULNESS CREATIVITY ESCAPING. I’ve flipped through and skim-read the articles, punctuated by lovely pictures and it scares me. It’s the escaping part of the remit that worries me most. That’s because I want to escape. I want out. I want to retreat into a comfortable haze of nice things around me. When I started using colouring as a means of removing some stress, a friend commented disparagingly that she felt it was infantilising people. At the time, I filed the comment away for future thought, and since then, as colouring books became ubiquitous, they also became simpler, more focused on prettiness and light, sweet, NICE things (like cupcakes, fancy shoes and flowers), I realised the movement has been towards an infantilising rather than a form of creativity that allows the mind to engage with quiet while the body works on something gently absorbing but not terribly challening. It was the arrival of dot-to-dot colouring books for adults that I freaked and began to feel very uncomfortable. We all need R&R to step out of the fray and recuperate, but the very juvenile nature of some of the R&R that’s thrust constantly under our noses bothers me. There’s a massive and growing industry that keeps churning stuff out to keep us happy, and quiet and submissive to everything. So many people are saying “Oh I’m bored with politics now; let’s just ignore it all!” and retreating into whatever comfortable corner that they feel safest in. And I understand that; I really do. I’m so uncomfortable with life that my whole being aches with it, aches to walk away and completely and permanently tune out the dark, the dangerous, and the difficult things that are going on around me. I’m not living with war, but there’s a lot of things happening in my land that are secret wars that have real victims, and the insane decision to leave the EU is going to create a lot more as prices rise and poverty and shortages increase and this country isolates itself from her European allies and friends.

Every day I wake up, and within a short time, EVEN WHEN I DON’T LOG ON, I am hit by a wave of fear, of despair, of confusion and I think, Stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t. There is no Planet B and as we systematically trash this one, we’re shitting in our own wells and pissing on our own food. I can and I do take a variety of actions towards conservation, helping the poor, creating havens for wild-life in my own garden and a lot of other things. But my mind is close to cracking and my body close to shutting down. I’m pulled in two opposing directions at once: to retreat, give up on being a responsible adult citizen, or to stand up for what I believe in (but where to start? There’s so much I want to defend) and be that solitary figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (that’s what it feels like, frankly, but then perhaps we are all standing in front of a tank)

I’d like to end with something cheerful but beyond a plea to buy my books (go on go on go on) I can’t think of anything I can say that isn’t also me trying to be falsely cheerful and horribly fake. I’m doing my level best every day to do that thing of lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So, sorry for being a miserable, pessimistic moaner (a remoaner, even. Don’t get me started on THAT little insult) and perhaps soon I can be a tad more cheery.

Rumble-strutting

Rumble-strutting

Rumble-strutting

If you have ever had guinea pigs, you’ll surely have encountered rumble-strutting. It’s a behaviour cavies have for when they are annoyed, put out, cross, pissed off or just plain angry. Rumble-strutting consists of a rumbling burbling noise, quite loud, followed by the animal stalking off, stiff-legged and furious.

I’ve been doing it rather a lot myself lately.

There are so many things I’m angry, pissed off, furious and annoyed about that I can’t do anything about and a good old rumble-strut is the only thing that stops me exploding into a million sharp fragments like a sheet of ice being dropped from a great height.

You’d have to have been living in a cave not to have noticed the UK referendum and the continuing fall-out from what I consider to have been an ill-advised vote to leave the EU. I have seen many instances already of how this vote (and we haven’t left yet) has already impacted on life here. I work in the travel industry; the complications would have turned my hair grey if it wasn’t so already. It’s my opinion that the vote is a disaster, yet I (and many, many thousands who voted Remain) have been dubbed Remoaners, told to shut up, put up, stop being a sore loser….

RUMBLE-STRUT

More recently, the US elections. I’m almost beyond words on that one. I’m not going to call names or anything…but

RUMBLE-STRUT

NHS cuts. School budgets cut.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Endless, awful wars, millions of people displaced, disparaged, dismayed, dispossessed.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Dreadful right-wing rags purporting to be newspapers, so filled with vitriol they’re not even fit to wipe your bum with in case the acid burns your tender nether regions.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Pain. My pain, physical and mental, and no end in sight. No plan that works to ease it.

RUMBLE-STRUT

The lost, the invisible people, those no one listens to.

RUMBLE-STRUT

Rich, privileged politicians pontificating about how we must all tighten our belts while they guzzle vintage champagne and gobble caviar.

RUMBLE-STRUT

There’s a lot I’m angry about and I’m angrier yet because I’m pretty much helpless against almost all of it. I’ve signed petitions, I’ve donated to causes, I’ve raised my voice where I can, and I’m tired because it feels like that ruddy big rock that poor sod in Greek myth kept pushing up hill only to have it come crashing down over him for all eternity.

RUMBLE-STRUT

But in the end, there is only one thing I can do (apart from RUMBLE-STRUTTING.)

and that’s this:

dsci0046

“Never without my permission!”~ on consent, copyright and general good manners.

Never without my permission!”~ on consent, copyright and general good manners.

If you have ever seen the film The Fifth Element, you’ll remember the scene when Leelou, the beautiful alien “Supreme Being” is kissed when semi-conscious by Corban Dallas (Bruce Willis) and she responds by uttering a few words in her own language before kicking his ass all over the place. Those words, when translated by the character played by Ian Holme, mean, Never without my permission.

Consent is a big one, you know. Whether it’s for kissing, copulating or other things, it’s important. Most women (and some men) know what it’s like to have your consent ignored and even your right to consent/non consent disputed. But it goes beyond the physical. Intellectual property can be stolen, or misused, and that’s what I’m writing about today. I wanted to put into some context quite why it can be a huge deal for creatives to find their work used without their express consent.

A number of times most years I get an email or a message, asking if such and such a piece from this blog might be used for something. Sometimes it’s for a magazine, sometimes for a website. My answer is generally a positive one, asking only that my full name and my blog details be included, and that the piece is not altered in any way. I don’t ask for a fee; what I tend to hope is that the person asking will have the good will to perhaps buy a book or something of that sort. I don’t ask that they do, but I would have thought that common decency would suggest that there is a gentle quid pro quo involved. After all, they have been allowed to use my work for no money changing hands.

However, having recently discovered that a piece of poetry has been used and set to music, I was concerned. I had not been asked before it was done. I’ve had a poem set to music before; the Celtic Podcast Show asked me if they could do so, and I agreed. The Winter Queen was beautifully performed and the correct credits given, so all was well. But they asked BEFORE they did so, not after. It’s far better to seek permission than ask for forgiveness.

To some this might seem foolishness on my part, to be bothered by this. Perhaps it is. However, I sincerely doubt that anyone would nab a poem by Mary Oliver and do something with it, because the likelihood is they would find themselves in the hottest of waters and be lucky to get away with just a cease and desist notice. Because I am not a big name in the world of poetry does not mean I can be treated like I don’t matter, simply because I would not have the means (financial or emotional) to pursue breaches of copyright. Some would argue that I shouldn’t care because it’s exposure. Yes, sure, if they have included my name, perhaps there is some benefit possible. But it’s actually quite limited. Imagine a hundred people heard a poem performed. How many will actually register the name of the poet, go home, look up that poet and start to follow their work? And what if the poem had been changed to suit the musical needs or the philosophical stance of the performers? It’s a very thin line indeed.

Creative artists have a hard enough time of it anyway; theft on the internet is rife. That’s one reason why I have the No Pinning badge on the side bar. When Pinterest first popped up, I soon found several photos of mine from here had been nabbed, posted on Pinterest (admittedly, there’s a route back to here) and they’d put their own spin on the pictures. I don’t do searches for my name and my work because I’d die of exhaustion sending out cease and desist notices, I suspect. From time to time I know some school somewhere has been setting homework asking for “A poem on X,Y,Z” because that pops up on the search terms section of the blog dashboard. That’s one reason I’ve put up far less of my own original poetry and fiction here, because it’s unprotected.

Too many writers are getting so heavily discouraged by lack of sales, lack of reviews, general lack of interest, being pirated, that they have given up. To get a book out there one needs at some level to consider return of investment, even if, like me, they don’t consider themselves to be business men or women. I’ve had to stall my next collection of poetry because I realised it needed to be reformatted, and the back matter needs rewriting. It needs rewriting because I had included a short quote (well within fair usage policy guidelines) from Mary Oliver; I then realised to use such a quote on the back matter or in the blurb is dishonest. It misleads, implying that she has somehow endorsed the book. In fact, that short quote was a flashpoint that inspired one of the poems in the book, but even so, I cannot use it or her name like that. But because I have little energy to spare, this project is completely stalled. It’s frustrating because the business with the poem set to music suggests that someone (or many) loves my poetry but didn’t have the understanding needed to actually ask me before they did what they did. It’s not as if I am hard to find. There’s a contact me page at the top of the blog header; I have a Facebook author page. It means I have even less incentive to publish poetry or short fiction here, even less incentive to go through the work involved in getting a book together, because it would seem somepeople are happy to read, to “borrow” but are reluctant to support a poet in one of the ways that will keep them writing (buying a book, reviewing, telling others are just a few)

I wrote a poem today, too. But I won’t be sharing it any time soon.

Why I am self-published

Why I am self-published

(content note for VERY strong language)

Recently the whole self-published versus traditionally published wrestling match has reignited, following a post by Ros Barber in the Guardian online. I’m not going to address the article because that would be juvenile, petty and a waste of time. More than that, it would only be my opinion and that is of little real worth. I am no one of note, or of influence. I’m an author who self-published, which makes me mud on the shoes of many.

In the 90’s I spent a couple of years going through the rigmarole of jumping through the hoops set by publishers and agents. Combined with an absurdly low income at the time that meant affording printer paper and postage was a big deal, the whole time was intensely stressful. I got asked for full manuscripts many times, and some went through several readers and editors at major publishing houses. The fore-runner to Square Peg got to committee stage at one of the Big Six. They asked me to rewrite certain parts; I was about to sit down to start that when the worst headache on the planet descended on me and put a stop to it. I was rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage. After I recovered enough from that to carry on writing, I did what they’d asked with the book, sent it in and waited. A few weeks later, the Dear John letter arrived. Blah blah blah. It boiled down to this: we like it but you’re an unknown and we can’t quite take the risk if we don’t love it enough to have its babies. So, knowing the whole process had almost killed me, I quit. I quit writing altogether.

In 2003 I began writing again after a gap of eight years, because a novel was forcing its way out of me; rather than burst open like one of Ripley’s shipmates, I gave in and wrote the damned thing (it was The Bet, for what that’s worth) and was faced with being back on the submissions treadmill all over again. The explosion of creative expression I experienced (I can’t quite say enjoyed because it was so compulsive) lasted for three years and in that time I had a lot of feedback from publishers and agents telling me I was almost there, send us the next one, over and over again. I even had an agent (turned out to be less use than a chocolate fireguard). But nothing ever went the whole distance, not even the novel that kept an editor at Random up all night to finish. It always ended in the same way: you’re good, very good, but you haven’t yet written a book we think will be a break-out success, keep on sending us stuff and we’ll keep reading.

There comes a moment where your entire being says: Oh just fuck right off, and when you’ve got there, fuck off even further and keep on fucking off until you’re a speck on the horizon, and then fuck off some more.

That’s what mine started saying. Letting someone else, some other entity or organisation, hold you so firmly in the palm of their sweaty little mitt, that you cannot move, do anything, because they hold you so tightly in their thrall, is beyond BAD for the soul. It’s toxic, corrosive and suffocating. Publishers have authors exactly where they want them: bent over, subjugated and submissive. There’s always the awareness that if you, the author, don’t do what they ask, there’s hundreds if not thousands of other authors panting and eager to take your place. You, the author, are not a real living human being: you are a content provider, nothing more.

So I stepped away. I took back my dreams and my hopes and my soul, and I walked away. At that stage, self-publishing was in its infancy and I had no idea really that it existed. I equated it with vanity publishing. Some still do, and indeed, there are numerous so-called small presses that are really vanity presses. I came to self-publishing at the behest of someone else who offered themselves as a helper who would do it for me. That’s one of the reasons why now I find it difficult to trust anyone, because that aspect didn’t end well. It could have ended much worse, but I dusted myself off and got on with it myself, learning as I went. I made mistakes for sure, but I’d begun.

Since then, I have put out quite a number of books: four novels, a novella, two collections of short stories, a collection of essays on depression, a poetry collection and a little paperback of guided meditations. I have had many thousands of readers, some of whom read everything and buy it in both e-version and in paperback. Had I kept on plugging away at submitting to publishers that would not have happened. I would either be dead (probably by my own hand) or locked away wearing a fetching jacket fastened at the back. Publishing is a business; it’s primarily about the money; it doesn’t care that the Dear John letters can destroy someone, for a day or for all eternity. It’s a business transaction to them, nothing more. If a book isn’t going to have a good chance of making money, they don’t take it on, no matter their personal liking for a story. That way leads to losing your job. An author whose first book doesn’t earn out the advance rarely gets a second book through. Once, they might have had three or four books published, to build an audience, but now, you have six months MAXIMUM to make that first book a success.

I self-published because it was the way forward for me, because the road to legacy publishing was policed by entities that make Procrustes look like the perfect gracious host, and because I do not regard myself as a content provider or my books as products. Every book or poem I write is a glimpse of a world inside my head; it exists somewhere beyond this existence and being able to share it with others is a privilege denied to me and you by traditional paths to publishing.

On how words “Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.”

On how words “Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.”

Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still.” TS Eliot, Burnt Norton (The Four Quartets)

 

Language is a slippery thing; it will not stay still. Words that meant something a decade ago now seem to mean something else. Remember when ‘cool’ meant chilled but not ice cold? Remember when ‘wicked’ meant evil? Recently, everyone’s favourite Sherlock, actor Benedict Cumberbatch, managed to tarnish his reputation by accidentally using the wrong words. The world exploded with outrage. I’m not even going to try and explain what he said because while I am a bit older than him, we belong to those now over a certain age, and it becomes harder to keep abreast of all the changes in what is and is not acceptable in areas such as race, gender and other sensitive issues. I was gently corrected for using the wrong terminology when referring to people who are deaf or heard of hearing. It’s become a minefield and I’ve become acutely aware that using the wrong term through ignorance could bring down the skies upon my head. There comes a point when it becomes almost impossible to keep up and remember all the correct terms when you’ve seen them change several times and seen what was once acceptable and even polite become something that will get you vilified.

Not only does language change, but we debase it. Let me take a word I use here quite often: DEPRESSION. Frequently now I hear the word used to refer to a state that is a fair old way from actual clinical depression. Too often, someone will say, “I’m depressed,” to meet the response, “What about?” Someone who has been affected by this hideous condition is unlikely not to know that there is no “about” when it comes to depression. But people are using it when they mean they’re fed up, down in the dumps and out of sorts. By using it for these normal, passing human states, the word has become degraded and, sadly, it affects how the illness is viewed. It diminishes it. I’ve heard terms like OCD and bi-polar used in the same way (I’ve even heard someone use bi-polar to describe changeable weather). It saddens me.

Another term I have heard that seems to hold totally different meanings to different people is WRITER’S BLOCK. For some, writer’s block is a mild thing, a pause or a hesitation that merely needs a bit of a push to get past it. Indeed, Philip Pullman (author of The Northern Lights trilogy, among others) dismisses it as a disease of amateurs, saying how there’s no such thing as Plumber’s Block, and it’s a case of if you write for a living, you get your words down. Yet, for others (myself included) writer’s block is a dreadful existential crisis that can’t be cured by a few days off, or a hot bath, or using writing prompts. The term is used for both; the closest comparison is perhaps to the way people use the term “’flu.” Real ‘flu kills. The Spanish ‘flu after the first world war killed far more than the war did. Yet people call a bad cold, the ‘flu, perhaps because it elicits more sympathy and time off work.

Real ‘flu wipes out thousands of healthy people. Real clinical depression kills. Real writer’s block destroys writers. Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to the way language has changed and perhaps coin new and better phrases that describe devastating things in ways that cannot be co-opted to lesser uses.