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The Casual Vacancy

The review below is of The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. I reviewed it on Goodreads on 11th October.

I’m not sure whether the format was designed to make me think of a Jilly Cooper novel, with all these characters introduced, and a mix of upper-class twits, well-meaning social workers, and rough-but-golden-hearted working class heroes, but that was the echo that haunted me throughout.

The concept of a pervasive Parish Council in an English town is quite foreign to me, having grown up in a Scottish city, and although unfamiliarity of location isn’t usually a barrier to enjoyment of a novel, I didn’t feel like I connected much to Pagford.

The Casual Vacancy is a commentary on social values which isn’t original, but still has a place. The self-satisfied Pagfordians – particularly the Mollisons (who are implicitly raging Tories) – are almost comedy villains, while the Weedons are caricatures of every right-winger’s bête-noir. Such extremes aren’t unknown, but felt a little contrived for the sake of the story. Yet they each have a purpose in this tale, which bowled along nicely and started to wiggle its way into my brain. The denouement surprised me and actually changed how I felt about the whole story; the absence of any neatly tied loose ends felt authentic and encouraged me to examine my prejudices towards the characters.

Overall it was well-written, and some techniques – such as the extended sections in parenthesis which extended our understanding of a character’s thoughts or background – were unusual enough to give a fresh feel to the novel. Recommended to others – but you should have no expectations as you pick up the book. Harry Potter it is NOT – but it is no poorer for that.

Seen but not heard

This post is written to reflect some of the themes of Parenting Across Scotland, a charity partnership supporting parents. Their conference takes place on October 3rd. Follow #PAS12 on Twitter.

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On Sunday, as normal, my family was at our church. We have two services on a Sunday morning: one at 10 o’clock which is a quiet, contemplative service and includes communion, and a second service at 11.30, which tends to be busier, louder, and more family-focused. As a family, we try to attend both services, for several reasons – they serve different purposes, touch us in different ways, are beneficial to us in different areas of our faith. Not to mention that I have responsibilities in youth work during the second service, and so am rarely in the main church service during that period.

We love our church – it is a source of real encouragement to us in our faith, we have close friends there, and the church family is flawed but loves Jesus and puts him first, which I believe is the best any of us can be as Christians. The incident which prompted this blog post happened here at our church, which means everything and nothing – it could have happened anywhere.

My daughter, who is just short of four months old, was quite fussy on Sunday morning. She needed to sleep, and wasn’t for dropping off, so I took her out of the main hall and paced with her in the vestibule at the back of the church. She cried on and off – girning cries, not hysterical screams. In between her cries she settled into me and I was able to catch some of the thoughts, prayers, bible passages that made up that service. It wasn’t perfect but I felt I was at least taking a small part in the proceedings.

In the time inbetween the services, while my daughter dropped off to sleep in the sling, I was approached by an older gentleman who asked if he could speak to me “without me taking offence”. As I had been told upfront how I should be reacting to the chat, my back was already up, but basically he was ‘letting me know’ that being out in the vestibule didn’t muffle my baby’s cries at all, and that perhaps I could consider using the lounge during the service. I thanked him through gritted teeth for his advice and let him move on.

It seems like such a small thing, and yet in the days since it happened I keep coming back to it and dwelling on his words, and what they mean, both for me as a parent and for society as a whole. As I say, the fact that it happened at church is almost irrelevant; it could have been a coffee shop or a post office queue. Nor do I bear malice now to the gentleman himself who spoke to me – it was something he felt he had to say, and at least he spoke to me personally rather than grumbling behind my back.

How DO we as a society integrate children and parents into our day to day activities? The gentleman had a point; he was perhaps distracted by my daughter’s cries and found it took him away from his contemplations. If he spoke to me, then it is a certainty that there are others who felt the same but did not want to approach me. This is a time that is important to them, for their own reasons. Why should my desire to be part of the service, as one person – parent or not – trump the needs or comfort of umpteen others?

And yet. And yet. It would of course be easier for us as a family not to attend that service. Getting us all out with necessary accoutrements by 9.30am every Sunday morning is no mean feat. We go because it is important to us, to show our children that it is important to us. That we attend church not out of a sense of duty but of joy, to spend time glorifying our God and meeting with our church family. My son at 3 attends the creche where he plays for an hour, but my daughter is far too little for me to leave her yet, even if she would take milk from anyone but me. We tell our children that they are loved and accepted, not only by our Saviour, but by the others who attend our church.

Children cry. They fuss, they run, they smear chocolate on things. They are not always easy people to like – unless they are our own in which case we love them always, like them most of the time, and want to throw them out of a window only occasionally. Like it or not, they are the future. A church, in common with any organisation, will not grow and fulfil its purpose unless there is new life to continue it.

Should I not take my daughter back to that service until she is old enough to stay in creche and/or keep quiet when appropriate? This would of course also mean my taking no part in that service, as it is open and participatory, and the audio feed sent to the lounge does not pick up anything said from within the congregation. It would also mean that I am not able to take part in communion until some unspecified point in the future.

As a society we still prefer children to occupy their proper place. Absolutely they need boundaries, guidance and rules. They also need love and acceptance. To a certain extent there are two issues here – how we deal with children and how we deal with parents, but the two are of course inextricably linked. I understand how irritating and noisy children can be – believe me – but we can’t continue to expect them to be anything other than children.

No More Page 3

Unless you’re living under a particularly misogynistic rock, you may well have heard in recent days about a campaign called No More Page 3. It will come as no surprise that I wholeheartedly support the aims of the campaign, which can be found here (follow on Twitter here). Please do sign the petition.

An article in El Pais today explains more of the background and gives a European point of view – original article here. I engaged my rusty linguistics brain and made a decent fist of translating the article, as below. Any thoughts or opinions on either the campaign or my distinctly average translation skills are welcome!

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No more ‘Topless Girls’ in the Newspaper

One day in July, Lucy-Anne Holmes, an English woman in her thirties, saw The Sun, a Rupert Murdoch tabloid paper which is also the biggest-selling daily paper in Britain. The Sun on the day in question carried an article on the athlete Jessica Ennis, who had become a national Olympic heroine. Arriving at Page 3, Holmes was surprised; no sign of the classic topless girl which The Sun has carried for 42 years on its third page. “I thought the page had changed during the Olympic Games, or perhaps that the newspaper had decided to suspend the publication of the page as a sign of respect to so many visiting cultures during this period,” she says. But no. She arrived at Page 13, and here it was: a young woman in briefs, with her name, her marital status and her home town, as per usual. “I felt incredibly sad,” she relates. “Here was the largest photo of a woman in the entire paper, bigger than any of those of Jessica Ennis. And so it has been for more than four decades. I could not stop thinking that this picture of a woman, shown as a sexual object, was repeated day in, day out, in a family newspaper.”

From that point on, Holmes, who is an actress and the author of a book entitled The (Im)Perfect Girlfriend, began to write letters to the editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan. Letters which, predictably, received no response and had little effect. But about three weeks ago, she decided to send her campaign viral. She recorded a video and uploaded it to YouTube, opened one account on Twitter and another on Facebook called No More Page 3, and organised a petition on the change.org site. The majority of signatures have been accompanied by messages such as “Page 3 is the main way in which women are objectified in Britain. It’s there, on the kitchen table, on the couch. Young boys seeing this paper learn that women are there to serve their sexual needs and women believe that this is their purpose.” Holmes identifies with these messages and talks of the challenges of adolescence, when they hear their peers talking about Page 3. “Until I was about 35 I didn’t realise the amount of hate I directed towards that part of my body. Since I was young I had seen these photos and thought: wow, my boobs are nothing like these girls’.”

The more followers the campaign gets, the greater the media attention it has generated, and there are those who think that this time might finally be the last time. In 1987, the Labour MP Clare Short raised a question in Parliament and failed, due to lukewarm support from within her own Party, but, more than anything, due to the deplorable performance of the Tories, who made sure they interrupted and ridiculed her during her speech in the House of Commons. However it was this campaign of ridicule that she was subjected to in The Sun newspaper itself, which baptised her Crazy Clare and Killjoy Clare, and spent months talking of “jealous” people, who must feel let down by their own imperfect bodies. When, some years later, Short resumed her campaign, the Murdoch newspaper even sent a gang of Page 3 girls to her house, like bailiffs chasing a debt.

Holmes is not put off by such history. “I’m not appealing to the government. I’m offering a platform so that people who believe that these images are harmful can speak directly to The Sun and its advertisers. If the government begins talking about this it will only be when public opinion has become so strong that to talk about it will win them votes. I also believe that social media is a great advantage. If in the end we achieve something, it will be in large part thanks to Twitter,” she says, while she asks that campaigning be “fun and creative”, not furious.

The question of advertisers is not a small one. Between the 29th October and 4th November, the campaign has mooted a boycott of the main brands, such as the supermarkets Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsburys, who are amongst the main advertisers in The Sun.

The paper’s editor, Dominic Mohan, defended the controversial Page 3 this year at the Leveson enquiry which is looking into illegal phone hacking. “Page 3 is a British institution, with 42 years of history celebrating natural beauty”. Another protagonist of this media scandal, Rebekah Brooks, had the opportunity to end Page 3 during her decade-long time as first female editor of The Sun. But far from binning the section, Brooks strengthened it. On her first day in charge, she laughed at the critics by placing a semi-nude model on Page 3 with the caption, “Rebekah, from Wapping”, the birthplace of Brooks herself.

But the precedents are not all discouraging. The German equivalent of The Sun, the tabloid Bild, spent 28 years putting nude soft-porn models on the front cover, no less. But last March the paper, which was the biggest selling in Europe, buried the custom. “It’s a small step for women but a big step for Bild and for all the men in Germany,” wrote the editor in his editorial, in which he explained that the decision was taken on Mothers’ Day, when more than 300 female employees of the paper enjoyed a day off and so the paper was made solely for men.

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In the last few days I have started my quest to understand more of the debate about Scottish independence. With the referendum scheduled for the autumn of 2014, I have plenty of time, but I am growing increasingly uncomfortable at not yet holding a concrete position.

The things I know at the moment –

1) I am no fan of Alex Salmond’s – but that is no reason to vote No.

2) I am far less of a fan of the Tories – but that is no (t enough of a) reason to vote Yes. Politically I am decidedly left-leaning, but have yet to find a party which reflects my views. The days of right = Tory, left = Labour are gone, I think.

3) The exact formulation of the referendum question is still up for debate. It could be a Yes/No or it could be Yes/No/Devo Max (which is an extension of what we have just now, with full fiscal responsibility including tax-raising powers and responsibility for the majority of spending decisions).

4) There is a push by the SNP to include 16- and 17-year olds in the voting population.

5) It is very hard to find unbiased information on the issues surrounding proposed independence.

With most information and websites comes an agenda, so I will be attempting to sift the facts, figures, and the outright propaganda in order to decide my own opinion on whether Scotland should be an independent country.

 

Any resources, research, or opinions outside of the obvious sites (bettertogether, SNP etc) will be gratefully received, via comments here, email, FB, Twitter, or even good old-fashioned conversation.

The Lighthouse

The review below is of The Lighthouse by Alison Moore – one of the novels long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is published by small independent Salt Publishing. I reviewed it on Goodreads on 2nd August.

The LighthouseThe Lighthouse by Alison Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a tale Alison Moore has woven. The Lighthouse is written economically, but no less beautifully for it.

Futh is an almost entirely unsympathetic character, and yet I felt for him in this world he didn’t quite fit into or understand. He has a real affinity for smells; the memories they create for him provide a link to a world which doesn’t have a place for him.

The Lighthouse, and the journey Futh undertakes, is bleakly pessimistic – and yet I loved it. Moore has such a way with words.

Press perverse

David Dinsmore, managing editor of the Sun, today claimed that it would have been “perverse” not to have printed the naked pictures of Prince Harry, taken by camera phone while he was on holiday in Las Vegas. The argument is that the pictures are available on the internet and across the world, and it was therefore in the public interest that they be printed in the tabloid.

Leaving aside the needlessness of printing a picture which is indeed widely available online, its appearance in the paper is a huge two-fingered salute to the Leveson inquiry, and everything it stands for and was established to do. There is no public interest which could possibly be served by publishing near-naked pictures of anyone, no matter their rank, position, or who their granny is. However, for the pictures to feature a member of the Royal family is a front-page advertisement of the Murdoch empire’s belief that they are above the law – that they can print what they like in the pursuit of greater profits.

I am no monarchist, and I couldn’t give two tiny hoots what a single guy in his late 20s does on holiday – he does at least work to earn his own money as well as living off the country – but no-one should have to see their own body in the media unless they willingly agree to it.

Freedom of the press is a good thing. Free speech is vital to a healthy democratic society – but this is not free speech, this is voyeurism.

What is perverse in this situation? I don’t think it’s Harry, and I don’t think it’s a decision not to print.

Things I thought I knew

Thanks to a friend’s generosity, three of us and our assorted offspring went for a trip on the City Sightseeing tour today. TWM loved his trip on the red bus with no lid – “it’s like a rollercoaster, Mummy!” and we saw a few of Glasgow’s sights from a different angle.

Kibble Palace

However, I was disconcerted to find myself disabused of ‘truths’ upon which my childhood knowledge of Glasgow was built. I refer, of course, to the construction of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

The story goes that the museum was built back to front, with the grander front entrance mistakenly positioned at the rear. The architect, so distraught at his error, committed suicide by throwing himself from the top of one of the towers.

Today I heard via the live commentary that in fact the building reflects precisely the original design – the museum faces off across the Kelvin to the stunning University of Glasgow. This explanation rings far truer to my Glaswegian ears; few of my city’s grand old buildings are haphazard in either concept or construction, and certainly not the architecture of the late 19th and early 20th century. I looked for sources online to back up today’s revelations, and came across mainly re-tellings of the old legend. Snopes, however, seems to be of the same opinion as the lady from the big red bus.

The experience of long-held knowledge becoming myth has bothered me for the rest of the day. What else do I hold as accepted truth which is in fact product of word-of-mouth and urban legend? Have you had a similar experience?

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