Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Seven Reasons to be Cheerful about 2016

2016.  What a year.  There have been times during the last twelve months when I’ve felt like shoving the whole of 2016 into the Chamber of Horrors and throwing away the key.  But three hundred and sixty-five days are a lot of days.  Not all of them made me want to scream.  In order not to let the shit things overshadow everything else, I’ve made myself sit down and think about the bits I liked.
1.  The Comeback Kids
In 2016, my cousin Julie and my friend Helen totally owned the words SPEEDY RECOVERY.  They both bounced back from major operations on giant space-hoppers.  Phew.  Hooray :) 
2.  The Olympics and the Paralympics
Ellie Robinson - totally rhyming small with cool.
This summer, I learned that nothing helps a frazzled head more than sitting in front of the telly and watching people win stuff.  I watched Max Whitlock do roly-polys.  I watched nice smiley Nicola Adams thump people in the face.  I watched divers in skimpy speedos stand under a shower and then dry themselves with a tea-towel.  I watched the two Ellies walk around the edges of swimming pools in massive coats.  The only bit I didn’t watch was the Tae Kwondo.  It’s that thing where two people shuffle about on a mat and then kick each other in the head.  I couldn’t watch that.  Maybe it’s one of those sports that are much more fun if you are actually doing it. 
3.  Belly at Norwich Waterfront
I can't remember if I took this photo or my friend Jayne did.
In 1993, the American indie-pop band Belly released the album ‘Star’.  I loved that album then and I still love it now.  And Tanya Donelly - Belly’s singer and founder – has been one of my favourite all-time Americans ever since.  So when she announced that she was putting her band back together again and doing a UK tour, I was quick to get my ticket.  It was a night of pure joy.  Tanya D is probably the coolest woman in the world.  And if she isn’t, it’s because Gail Greenwood is. [She is Belly’s bass player.] 

4.  Wales at Euro 2016
Wales v England?  My loyalties were always going to be torn.  Or so I thought.  Actually, there was no conflict of emotion at all.  When Gareth Bale scored against England from a free-kick, I jumped in the air and cheered.  What a team!  And it wasn’t just ninja-assassin Gareth, was it?  There was also the bloke who looked like Edward VII and the bloke who looked like the actor Toby Jones and the bloke who looked like Jesus.  I was sad when Wales didn’t get to the final - but didn’t they do brilliantly anyway!
Joe Allen - a Welsh footballer who looks like Jesus
5.  Hahaha!  But what’s the point?
I completed my MA in American Literature by writing 20,000 words on comedy and nihilism and got a distinction.  Hooray!  :)
6.  Yet more Telly
The year began with ‘War and Peace’ which was EPIC and TREMENDOUS and it ended with ‘To Walk Invisible’ which was two uninterrupted hours about the Brontës.  Total bliss.  In the middle was the final series of ‘Hinterland’ – finest Welsh noir.  Can you pass the peanuts, please?
7.  This Planet is Capable of Being Lush
This summer, I went to Sark.  What a beautiful place!  Sark has got no cars, no phone signal, no light pollution, no noise pollution, nothing much to spend your money on - and it’s where I’d be living RIGHT NOW if I could convince my husband that selling everything we have and becoming artists is a good idea.  But I can’t.
Never mind. 
A little after this, I went to Birmingham to visit my friends Jayne and Sue who live on a canal boat.  I thought I knew what Birmingham was all about but it turns out that I know nothing.  Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice apparently.  And these canals are a blissed-out world of total peace and quiet that are ignored by almost everyone.  What a life my friends have!  While I was there, I was treated to a glimpse of it.  We travelled really, really slowly.  We saw a kingfisher.  We went through a tunnel that was nearly two and a half miles long and was freezing cold, pitch dark and shit scary.  I beat everyone at Backgammon.  I barely washed.  I loved every second of my canal boat adventure.
A very happy dog who lives on a boat.  Jayne Morgan took this picture.
So then - taking all this into account - what do I think of 2016 now? 
I think my 2016 has been better than I realised.  In places, it’s even been great.  And writing this has made me appreciate just how very lucky I am.  For lots of people, 2016 hasn’t been anything close to alright and that isn’t OK.  I’m clinging to the hope that 2017 will be better.  Come on, 2017!  My fingers are crossed.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Dystopian Fiction or Scary Reality?

Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth?  The OED gives this definition:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief
Yep, it seems that we’ve arrived in an era where subjective feelings have more clout than actual facts and where anyone can make whatever fanciful claims they like so long as they garner enough public support to stifle debate.*
That’s pretty depressing.
So, like I’ve often done when truth is freakier than fiction, I switched off the TV and the internet and buried my nose in a couple of novels.  One of them was the dystopian thriller Cell 7 by Kerry Drewery, and the other was Morton Rhue’s international bestseller The Wave.  Both of them are teen fiction and both of them prove that “teen reads” can be as memorable, compelling, and capable of provoking thought as any other novel.  
So first let me tell you about Cell 7.  It is set in a UK which seems a lot like the one we are all familiar with - except that this UK has taken a different direction following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.  Drewery tells us that some years later - by popular demand - the death penalty is reinstated.  But this time, there is no criminal justice system and there are no judges - there are only daily episodes of a reality TV show called Death is Justice.  The decision of who is guilty and who is innocent is placed directly into the hands of the viewing audience.  Death Row is available to paying subscribers as a 24-hour live feed and the dull formality of sifting through facts in order to present a fair trial has been replaced by emotional manipulation, glitzy TV presenters and voyeuristic audiences.
To use a new word, it’s all very post-truth.  Sixteen year old Martha, the book’s central character and death row inmate, says of those who will decide her fate, ‘They don’t want to know the truth, they just believe what’s fed to them.’
This novel is also so entirely plausible that it’s terrifying.
And what a tremendous read!  I really like the way Drewery chops the text up with different voices and different viewpoints.  It’s like we’re watching Martha through multiple camera angles; which, of course, we are - just like the audience of Death is Justice.  The sequel Day 7 is out in June.  I’ll be tuning in.
And then I read The Wave. 
Crikey.  This was not a relaxing experience either. 
I first read The Wave when I was about 13.  I remember borrowing it from Felixstowe library and thinking ‘Oh my God – this book is brilliant.’  Unlike Cell 7, the scenario is not a parallel or future dystopia, it’s one based very much on real life.  In 1969, a history teacher in a California school attempted to demonstrate to his class how Nazi ideology was able to infect an entire country.  His teaching was too effective.  Within days, this teacher had turned the entire school into one collective movement of chanting, flag-waving followers - and anyone who questioned the majority or dared to be different was treated with suspicion, victimized and intimidated.  This is Morton Rhue’s fictionalised account of that real event.  It’s a very short read and simply told but it packs some powerful messages.  At one point, a worried parent tells her daughter, ‘… just remember, that the popular thing is not always the right thing.’
Wise words. 
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.  And post-truth is so illogical that it defies basic commonsense.  Michael Gove recently scrapped a load of A levels including Creative Writing and History of Art because he thought they were useless.  He should have read Cell 7 and The Wave.  If ever there were a couple of novels that might prove that art helps make sense of the world, then these two would be them.

 *Um... 350 million pounds a week to the NHS anyone?

The giveaway from my last blog was won by Sally in Worcestershire and Caroline in Westchester, NY.