Saturday, April 29, 2006

The shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction was announced this week. It is an international award for the best English language novel written by a woman and one which has introduced me to some fantastic current women’s writing in the past. The shortlist this year features:

“The History of Love” Nicole Krauss
“Beyond Black” Hilary Mantel
“The Accidental” Ali Smith
“On Beauty” Zadie Smith
“Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living” Carrie Tiffany
“The Night Watch” Sarah Waters

It is awarded on the 6th June (on which day I will be doing a criminal law exam) and the plan is to read the short list before then. I’ve got a head start having read “Beyond Black” by Hilary Mantel a few months ago. I’m going to try and blog about them – would be good to hear about your views on the books as well – but not in academic detail, just my personal response (and I’ll try to avoid any spoilers!).

Despite the critical hype I didn’t expect “Beyond Black” to be funny but it was. The novel follows the shared lives of a medium named Alison, and her assistant Colette. It also introduces Alison’s circle of fellow mediums and her constant spiritual companions. The characters are, without exception, deeply repugnant. Alison herself is tormented by memories of an impoverished and abusive childhood and the spirits who gradually gather round her as the novel progresses are all related in some way to this past. The novel begins with only one spirit guide – a lewd and sexual man named Morris. He gradually unites with other spirits from his seedy life on earth and their presence pervades the book and dominates the other characters. Alison herself is unable, and perhaps unwilling to escape, while Collette secretly desires contact with the spirits. Far too prosaic she will never achieve this contact – thin, boring, beige she contrasts sharply with fat, flamboyant, colourful Alison but neither are appealing. At the beginning of the book the spirits seem genuine but as it progresses a question mark hangs over these characters. The depths of abuse to which Alison was subjected reveal themselves and the spirits become embodiments of a past she can neither escape nor come to terms with.

Nevertheless the book is funny. This humour arises from the very darkness of the subject matter of the novel. Mantel is deeply perceptive in her characterisations and the weaknesses and sillinesses of the characters, in particular the narcissistic Colette are exploited to effect. Furthermore humour highlights the ghastliness of the situations the characters find themselves in. Alison’s spirits are almost exclusively male, and their sexual presence is both grotesque and oppressive. Morris is often to be found masturbating. This is simultaneously humorous and horrific. Nobody but Alison can see him. Her field of vision is perpetually dominated by Morris and his sexual obsessions while those around her are oblivious to what is going on. This difference is highlighted when, at one point, Alison shouts out “what testicles?” I laughed out loud when I read this, but it is also sinister. Collette cannot see what she is being subjected to and in fact refuses to see it. Sexual acts are seedy and humorous but they are also frightening. The clamouring voices of the spirit world represent the memories of abuse that Alison cannot escape from, and the power these men have continues to dominate her life.
My mom’s book group hated this novel. I’m not sure why. One member refused to read it because she is a Christian and disagreed with spiritualists. This book certainly is an exploration of the possible horrors that a spirit world could contain. Evil triumphs over good at every point, and the devil and his gang take over and attempt to infiltrate the living world in the most horrific of ways. However this novel is about much more than spiritualism. The horrors of the spirit realm merely reflect the horrors of our own society. The bigots in a hellish suburbia, the abusers, the dominating and destructive patriarchal structures as represented by the nightmarish Constable Dellingbole. Mantel’s novel is dense with meaning, yet nevertheless remains an enjoyable read. I couldn’t put it down and would highly recommend it to anyone.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hats off... everyone protesting against conviction rates for rape tomorow at Southwark Crown Court. Wish I could be there, hope it gets the coverage it deserves...

And a new post will be forthcoming when I've got on top of this damned revision.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Political correctness gone mad?

It’s taken me a while to come around to this, but Tiger Woods’ comment last week got me thinking (in case you didn’t hear about this, when his game went badly he referred to himself as ‘a spaz’). There is some interesting discussion about this at including a vote on the worst disability related words ( Some have tried to excuse this use of language by claiming that ‘spaz’ does not have the same link with disability in America as it does in the UK. They may not be aware of the link but the etymology is undisputable – a medical condition known as spasticity commonly associated with cerebral palsy. In addition the Daily Mail crowd had another field day over ‘political correctness gone mad’, but has PC really gone too far?

It is easy to feel uncomfortable with political correctness. It is a form of self-censorship and jars for those who advocate free speech. Furthermore the term has become prey to the same problem it aims to avoid. Intended simply to denote a form of expression that avoids offence, it has now become laden with negative meanings, and people often shy away from using it. It can also feel uncomfortable to discover a term that one has used frequently is considered offensive or derogatory and it is easier to be offended than to reconsider one’s own language use.

I like political correctness. It doesn’t hurt me to change my vocabulary, and I empathise with those who wish to be known by a certain name or term. I am a Ms. Nothing frustrates me as much as when it is automatically assumed that I am a Miss or a Mrs. Actually, one thing does, and that is when I receive mail addressed to Mr. It seems that some companies are incapable of understanding the term ‘Ms’, and interpret it as Mr. Why? I will never understand this but it is so irritating. For me Miss and Mrs denote ownership. The connotations of these terms are distasteful (and being called Mr is just downright insulting). I choose to be a Ms. and I want those around me to respect this.

The Daily Mail is right – some terms are not politically correct, they are simply euphemistic, patronising and farcical. In particular the plan to replace ‘failure’ with ‘deferred success’ announced at a teacher’s conference last year was ridiculous. However political correctness as it is intended to be can only be a beneficial concept. An awareness of the implications of language, and empathy for those around us is important. Language is a tool of power. It is for this reason that PC can feel uncomfortable, and for this reason that it inspires fear in some sectors of the community. Reclaiming language is a liberating experience and gives power back to the groups who are now naming themselves. How can this anything but a good thing?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Blog to raise awareness about sexual violence

Some topics seem too big to blog about, particularly when I haven’t any personal experience of them. But lelyons comment “I would be happy to see anything that isn’t silence” has given me the push to participate. After all it’s true - silence is a real problem. I have been lucky enough never to have experienced sexual violence, but it is something that I have been aware of for as long as I can remember. This awareness hasn’t arisen from open discussion or education, it hasn’t been raised through media attention, instead it comes from unspoken looks, whispered comments, and passive acceptance.

In my first term at middle school I was in a different class from the girls I had been friends with at first school. We all made new friends, and formed one big group at break time. One day one of the girls from the other class wasn’t there. I had only spoken to her a few times and no one discussed where she had gone. The silence was opaque. It was obvious something was wrong but no one was going to talk about it. It turned out she and her mother had left the area following years of systematic rape by the father. This stands out in my memory both because I was ten at the time and this was the first moment that I realised these acts of violence can happen to people you know, and also because it was broached only through whispers.

Since that day the silence began to seem almost normal. A friend stood up to her dad, and nobody at school asked her where the bruises had come from. Somehow people just know, and they don’t say anything. We live in a world where sexual violence isn’t a problem - not because it doesn’t happen but because it isn’t mentioned. So I refuse to add to the layers of silence that already exist, and I will not excuse myself simply because the problem is too big. Sexual violence is devastating on a personal scale and catastrophic on a global scale – it needs to end and so does the silence that surrounds it.

Check out these links for some statistics:
And for free, confidential support – no one need know you have been in touch and you don’t need to report the crime.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Thin thinner thinnest

So JK Rowling thinks stick thin models are "empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones" does she? Underneath all that misdirection she has got a point - it is after all fundamentally important that young girls grow up to be “independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny” and to understand that self worth will never come from achieving the ‘right’ kind of body. However criticism that focuses on the individual will never achieve this end.

My own experiences of this issue are fairly commonplace. I have only the ‘usual’, the ‘ordinary’ hang-ups. In recent years I became quite depressed and lost a lot of weight. Skinny wasn’t everything I had been led to believe it would be, particularly as it was a constant reminder of my own unhappiness, and as I got happier my body returned to its customary shape and size. I was happy, my body was happy, everything was hunky-dory. Then I went to see a doctor. Who told me I had put on weight since she last saw me. Quite a lot of weight. And didn’t I think I should watch it? Well, no, I had thought I was doing fine. Then sneaking misgivings crept into my thoughts. Which I hasten to add were promptly put to one side as I was reminded that the last time I went to the doctors I was very definitely underweight. So why didn’t they say anything then?

Friends have had similar experiences with doctors. One particular friend starved herself to the point where her periods stopped. She was tiny and it was frightening. Aware that she had gotten herself into a problematic situation she went to the doctor for advice. Who told her perhaps she should go on the pill. That would restart her period. I have received excellent treatment from GPs and am sure another doctor would have been more perceptive, realised that what was required was more than a ‘jumpstart’ from a pill. Nevertheless my own experiences, and those of people around me, all point to a normalisation of the need for thin. It is good that Rowling has spoken out about this. She discusses her own experiences, but nevertheless misses the point. It is the anonymous people at the book awards, the ones more interested in her weight than her writing, who are the problem. It is these she should teach her daughters and her readers about, not the individuals who for whatever reason have already succumbed to the pervasive societal pressure to be thin.

I’m not sure I’m expressing myself very well. This is such a big subject and perhaps not one to be discussed briefly – I may well make mistakes and certainly have not discussed the subject in the depth it deserves. Nevertheless I wanted to express the conflicting feelings I had when Rowling’s comments invaded the news on Friday. Satisfied that a public figure is voicing concern and also that her blog was having an impact, irritation that it seemed misdirected, frustration with much of the comment and debate that seemed to miss the point, and sadness that it passed so briefly through the coverage, forgotten by the weekend editions.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Justice and Equality

In a meeting with my essay supervisor today we discussed the role of language within the legal profession. I had told him that I get real pleasure from writing, and it was the law I had struggled with when getting this essay together not the expression. He agreed that familiarity and confidence with language is fundamental for a lawyer, and told me that he liked to think of himself as a wordsmith. I have been disillusioned with the legal world since beginning my course. I am aware that as I want to be a commercial solicitor I will be surrounded by corporate types, and the institution where I am studying is nothing if not corporate. However I had not been prepared for the total lack of inspiration from those studying the diploma. I had expected that as a ‘conversion’ course where all students have previously studied and worked in other areas there would be more enthusiasm for the subject, more motivation for a legal career. This has not entirely turned out to be the case. The conversation with my tutor today reminded me why I chose to do this, he reminded me that what I want out of this is a job, and that the frustrations and irritations of the diploma will be over soon. I am looking forward to working in the real world, giving advice, researching, and meeting new, interesting people.

So, inspired to continue with law and to continue with writing I sat down to read the Second Annual Review of the Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System. I was interested to read this as a woman, as a prospective lawyer, and as a volunteer within the system, but it is an equally difficult read from each of those perspectives. The report highlights the improvements that have been made since the Fawcett Society established the Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System three years ago, but there is still so much that needs to be done. A picture is painted of a system that is just not designed to ‘deal’ with women. The report discusses it as a complete entity, exploring treatment of female suspects from arrest to the court to prison, as well as the role of women working within the system. The two cannot be separated. For criminal justice to improve those managing it must appreciate the needs of women, and a legal profession and police force dominated by men will never do so. It amazes me that there isn’t a greater popular outcry at the gender imbalance and lack of ethnic diversity within the judiciary. These are the people who dispense justice, but such inequality can surely never truly be just. It is reassuring that the Government is taking the problem seriously and judicial appointments have recently undergone an overhaul to enable the process to become more open and less biased against women and ethnic minority lawyers.

In fact this improvement is one of the most optimistic areas of the report. Statistics relating to women as victims of crime and women as perpetrators of crime are depressing. A student on my course studied sociology before deciding the law was for her, and every time women’s prisons are discussed she looks so sad. After reading this report I begin to understand why. Furthermore the once shocking now familiar statistics relating to rape and domestic violence convictions are cited. I have never managed to find the time to attend a training course on either of these crimes, although Victim Support (who I volunteer with) have offered me the opportunity and now feel that I too am responsible for avoiding this problem. It has motivated me to get in touch with the office and find out when the next course is. Perhaps I haven’t emphasised this aspect of the report enough. The statistics are shocking and the picture painted is not pretty, but the report and the Commission are optimistic. They look at the challenges presented by the system and seek ways and means of addressing them. They are positive about the changes the Government has introduced, particularly the Equality Act 2006 and changes to the judiciary, and the tone of the report is more active and more forward looking than I have made it out to be. I’d recommend a read – as well as focussing on important issues it is succinctly written and gives much food for thought.

A copy of the report can be found at:

Monday, April 03, 2006


Slander of Women Act 1891 (1891 c 51)
1 Amendment of law
Words spoken and published . . . which impute unchastity or adultery to any woman or girl shall not require special damage to render them actionable.

Provided always, that in any action for words spoken and made actionable by this Act, a plaintiff shall not recover more costs than damages, unless the judge shall certify that there was reasonable ground for bringing the action.

Well there you go. What a strange act to still be in force. I don't quite know what to say.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Feminism and blogging

The horrors of Internet and copyright law persist but the week was brightened a little when I read Kira Cochrane’s article in G2 about feminist bloggers. It mentioned many of the fantastic blogs that greatly deserve the recognition given to them. It also addressed the often mentioned issues surrounding the privileged, predominantly white nature of the blogosphere. My own privilege is something I am aware of but don’t necessarily feel confident or competent enough to write about. Mindthegap recently discussed the concept of white guilt very astutely and it is something that seems to be the focus of many posts that I have come across. And thus I come to the purpose behind this post, which is really the impact the Internet in general and blogs in particular have had on me.

I have always enjoyed being part of online communities. For me it began with music. Fansites were a revelation and I joined up to message boards, learned about gigs I would never otherwise have heard of, spoke to members of the bands, and made friends. Needless to say I met a few strange individuals along the way and it was partly for this reason that I stopped writing a personal livejournal a few years ago. It is difficult to strike a balance between what you want other people to know about you and what you want to say in order to express yourself. The private and the public can easily get conflated on the internet and I’m cautious about placing too much in the public domain. I also became disillusioned with the emptiness of what I was discussing. There seemed little or no purpose behind the words I was putting on the page so my livejournal days came to an end.

Around the same time I was approaching the final year of my degree. I concentrated on writing my essays, reading course books, and really burned out towards the end. It took me about a month before I read another book after my final exam – which was a strange feeling for someone who consumes several novels a week. I began to work at a library and the job was not everything I had hoped it would be. Easy and regular access to the Internet helped long slow days pass by, and I discovered thefword. This was the resource that enabled me to branch out and gradually realise the extent of the feminist online community. It was a revelation and suddenly something that had always been portrayed as predominantly theoretical in nature, a tool for analysing the work in front of me, became alive and relevant.
The feminist blogosphere has introduced me to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It has encouraged me to question the way in which my white, western worldview impacts upon my opinions in a much more direct way than has ever occurred to me before. I have learned about issues and events around the world that would be glossed over, or perhaps never even mentioned in the newspapers that I read. I have been reassured to find that I am not the only person in the world who gets incensed about images of women that others around me seem not to notice at all. I have found that radical attitudes have enabled me to analyse the extent to which my liberalism may sometimes be more akin to inactivity. I have rediscovered my love of writing, and more importantly I gain genuine pleasure every day when I read the beautiful prose (and sometimes poetry), the passionate debate, and the informed opinion that make up the feminist online movement.