The Middle of Things

The Middle of Things

So are we in the middle, the late middle or the early-ending of our lives, I wonder?  Probably the early-end, for as the days go by the odds stack against it being the middle.

We drive the same paths, sing the same songs, and yet our minds and bodies are an ever-expanding network of experiences, sadnesses, joys, anticipations, regrets, and, yet, there is still hope, for without hope it would surely turn into some kind of an end.  Yet hope for what?  A better future?  That is quite hard to maintain as one ages and fears for one’s children and grandchildren in this world where war rages and where climate change eats up the resources we need for survival.

But hope we must, for it is hope that leads to innovation, to enterprise, to believing in a better future, or the creation of a better implement, or software system, or scientific solution, or a better way to heal the sick, or educate our children.  Without hope there would be no new enterprise, no new business, no policies, no books written or artwork painted.

Though in moments of hope-lessness there can be beautiful poems written, paintings created, music composed.

A terminal diagnosis puts us close to the end, though no one can be sure when the end will be, unless one chooses to go to Switzerland.  So it may still be a sort-of middle but equally a beginning – the beginning of a journey of experience through that diagnosis and one never knows when the middle occurs, perhaps until the very end when one might reflect that one has been through the middle of that journey last week or last month.

But a sudden death throws someone straight into an ending.  There was a beginning, of that person’s life, but they never knew when or whether they were in the middle, or the late middle, until the end is ruthlessly thrown at them.

In Ukraine they lived lives at many stages of beginning, middle and end but were then all flung into the beginning, of a war, and terror, and none of them know whether they are still at the beginning, in the middle, or moving more quickly towards an end.  But what might that end look like?  That is a cliff-hanger.

So we live on a cliff-hanger every day of our life, somewhere between beginnings and middles, in life, career, marriage, parenthood, illness, crossing a road, until we reach the end.  And some of us will be conscious that we are at that end and others may never know.

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We can’t Let it Go

Ukraine

This morning I watched a short clip of a young Ukrainian girl, Ankita Jain, singing Let it Go, from Frozen.  She sang to her family and companions in an underground bomb shelter.  It was heartbreaking, as I thought of my granddaughters, and other children around the world, singing this same song in the safety of their homes.  I am sure parents and grandparents of small children everywhere will be as moved by this as I was. 

There are common threads with children throughout the world nowadays that didn’t exist in the same way when we were young.  The Harry Potter books, Disney movies and songs transcend language, place, and culture.  We can be brought together through the childish delight of story, imagination, and dreams.  And, of course, Russian children love these too, I am sure.  But to see the fear and sadness on the faces of the Ukrainian children sheltering or running from Russian bombs is heartbreaking, and makes it very difficult to feel we can continue to sit and watch this war, without somehow taking more action.  But how to do this without triggering something far worse?

In our creative writing courses, we are reflecting on the middle of things, on how beginnings, whether of events, stories, relationships, can be dramatic, full of hope, or, alternatively, as in Ukraine, dramatic but shocking.  Endings bring things to a conclusion, either a happy one, disappointing maybe, or tragic.  But the middle is where the uncertainty lies, where there are more questions than answers, where one doesn’t know whether the decisions and actions one is taking are the right ones or the wrong ones, whether they will lead one towards that happy conclusion or towards something one can’t even begin to imagine.  And right now we are in the middle of things.

It made me think about how we can become desensitised to information when we watch it endlessly on television screens, and how important it is not to allow this to happen.  We cannot let this war go into some kind of normality, because to be invaded and bombed by an aggressive neighbour with an occupying force is not something anybody deserves.  We have become too complacent over recent decades, imagining, or not even bothering to think hard enough, about the fact that the world does throw up dictators from time to time and we need to be awake to that fact.  Perhaps we were too comfortable, having reached a place in the free world where life is fairly easy for the majority, despite inequalities.  Putin has never truly masked his intentions, for anybody looking.

It is important, of course, to give ourselves some respite from the ghastliness of this war, of watching the suffering of the Ukrainian people, the ruthlessness of Putin.  It is important to enjoy the day we have been given ourselves, to be grateful for a home, a comfortable bed, hot running water, drinking water, working drains and food.  Yet not to forget about what is happening in this not-so-distant country where people were enjoying all those same simple needs themselves only a short time ago.  We cannot allow ourselves to be anesthetised to unfolding events.  We must keep watching.

I hope that those who develop the legal and political structures and requirements of the institutions of government learn, yet again too late, that dictators should not be allowed to change a constitution to enable them to rule for long periods without a democratic vote.  Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of history might be said to have been reached by liberal democracy, but the reality is that we cannot ignore psychology or the human condition.  To do so is both ignorant and naïve.  There are bad people in this world, as has been witnessed in many different areas of the globe throughout history, for whom power is the goal.  Yet again, government officials should review the checks and balances of their institutional systems to ensure that these people do not get into powerful positions where we end up in a state where one ruthless man paralyses the rest of the world into a position where they do not know what to do.  I have written before about how wrong it is, in my opinion, that people can rise in politics without all the psychological profiling, qualifications and references that one needs to prove when applying for a job in business.  There seems to be extraordinarily little professional development, 360 degree-feedback systems, or challenges to prevent the people who lead the countries of the world becoming bullies and dictators.

In this war, it is so difficult to know where there is a compromise to be had in this situation.  As a Ukrainian said on the radio last week, if an invasion force came into the UK would you be happy just to give away Wales or Scotland?  Of course not.  So, the Russians should not be allowed to annex the Eastern areas without a democratic vote on the subject.  Sanctions and actions against oligarchs may make an impact in the longer term though the oligarchs can be prey to the Kremlin’s henchmen too, of course, so may not have as much influence as is imagined.

A week ago, I was fretting about whether I could write certain things about free speech in my blogs.  Today this seems petty, and yet it isn’t because what happens in our personal everyday lives remains important.  But now the priority has changed, and I feel so helpless as I watch this young child sing in her bomb shelter, watch families run from the bombs.  We give money, we sanction, we pray, but, in this middle part of this war, where we know not its outcome, we cannot let it go.

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How the hell did this happen?

The writer and provocateur, P.J.O’Rourke, has just died this week.  He wrote a book called How the Hell did this Happen? and I wake up every day and wonder the same thing.

How is it that, after a century where women’s rights progressed beyond all expectations, in the West anyway, our rights are now being depleted day by day?  That women’s spaces are being infringed, women pushed aside in their own sports competitions, the words that describe women are being deleted, porn sites are encouraging sadistic practices that endanger a woman’s life, misogynistic practices still exist in police and government circles? 

How is it that in an ante-natal class questionnaire the options given were “Pregnant Person, Father, Other Parent, Support Person, Other…”  yet the person who is actually giving birth, eg the Mother, gets no word to tick in that questionnaire?  How the hell did this happen?

How is it that Professors and academics in universities worldwide are being subjected to horrific harassment for stating facts?  That they are being surrounded by chanting students, dressed in black balaclavas, and hounded out of their jobs by young people who seemingly have nothing to lose, as there is no redress against them for what is outrageous, violent, and unacceptable behaviour?  In previous times I am sure they would have been ‘sent down’ as the phrase went.  Wouldn’t they?  And why not now?  I heard a teacher of twelve-year olds comment that ‘the boys are out of control’.  Again, are professional lecturers and qualified teachers to be bullied by children who know little of the world?

How the hell is it that J K Rowling, who has lit up the minds of children across the world and got them reading books of several hundred pages, is now cancelled because she spoke facts about womanhood?  That Professor Kathleen Stock is hounded out of her job for a similar reason, that the poet and writer Kate Clanchy is cancelled because she dared to describe a pupil of hers as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ yet Monica Ali in her latest book Love Marriage describes a character as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’ and yet I haven’t heard a movement to get Monica Ali cancelled?

How is it that when someone makes a simple statement, as Adele did recently, that she loves being a woman, she is suddenly accused of being transphobic?  Surely, we have been endeavouring for some time to get young girls to celebrate being women in order to feel empowered?  Enjoying being a woman, or enjoying being a man, does not mean that you are anti those who do not identify in this way.

How is it that students of books by Shakespeare, Jane Austen and many others are being given trigger warnings in case they read something that they might find offensive?  Surely that is the point of books – to draw attention to the many different facets of humanity.  We cannot whitewash history or whitewash the reality of human behaviour and the human condition, without failing in our efforts to educate young people about the history of the world.  Depending on your nationality, sex, creed and colour, the past may have been misrepresented, and it is right to correct this, but we cannot change the past or wipe it out, or we learn nothing.

Yet how is it that young children today, who are blameless of the specific crime, are being harangued in their classrooms, and blamed for slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism that occurred over a hundred years ago?  How can this be anything other than divisive?

There is little logic in these arguments we are ‘waking up’ to.  There is endless contradiction.

For how is it that if only Jewish actors should play Jews in theatre or film productions then surely only people of colour should play people of colour, and therefore, with that logic, only white people should play white people?  Which is where this all began … because our history in this country consists of mainly white inhabitants, but this left actors of other ethnic origins without parts (just as were there to be plays put on in Africa there would be few parts for white actors).  So theatre directors started to open up the possibilities, where male parts were acted by females, where English kings or queens were played by people of colour, even though this is not accurate to history.  Surely any actor should be able to play any part because that is what acting is all about?  Isn’t that diversity, rather than narrowing down the pool of actors to Jews or Catholics or anything else?  Where is the logic here?

How is it that writers are told they can only write characters similar to their own ethnicity and lifestyle for fear of being accused of ‘cultural misappropriation’?  This removes all fiction from our shelves, basically, as each book would only be able to have one character.  Inevitably writers of fiction have to inhabit the characters of people of different genders, race, age, backgrounds and more.  These dictats make no logical sense in the creative process.  Nor does the fact that a white model can be berated for cultural misappropriation if she braids her hair but when a person of colour dyes their hair blonde, or straightens it, they are not accused of cultural misappropriation.

How is it that if women are to be referred to as “people who menstruate” there is no call so far to refer to men as “people who ejaculate”?

How is it that we are not judging works of art by the artwork itself but by the artist’s perceived flaws?  Why can works of art be removed, plays discarded, books banned from library shelves, words deleted, by some anonymous, often junior, board of judges with little life experience?  They make these decisions like an invisible mob, but, again, often with many contradictory arguments as their so-called ‘evidence’.  Yet that evidence is not seriously questioned by frightened academics or wary politicians who do not want to lose voters; the often flimsy and ill-considered ‘evidence’ is not put through any just legal process or investigation.

How is it that the statues to slave traders are removed but there is very little protest on the streets about the modern-day slave trading, or today’s appalling treatment of citizens in various parts of the world by people of their own race or creed?  Why this endless harking back to previous centuries, instead of honestly facing the problems we see today in various parts of the world?

We only have to see what ISIS or Al-Shabab are doing in Africa, Mali or Mozambique, where it is not about race but about terrorism/religion, to wonder why there is not more coverage and protest at the barbarous brutality that is being meted out in these parts of the world?  There was almost no coverage of the barbaric murder by ISIS of mothers and babies in the maternity unit of an Afghan hospital last year.

How is it that those concerned for the climate can blockade the M25 and mess up the day of thousands of ordinary people but don’t take the trouble and expense to go to Moscow and blockade Putin’s roads in protest at his pollution of the climate through his military manoeuvres?

Are we seeing trigger warnings for The Kite Runner, or A Thousand Splendid Suns?  I haven’t noticed that we are, yet, despite being well-written and informative, they are deeply upsetting books.  But not written by writers who can be accused of white privilege.

The depressing, undemocratic fact is that these protesters are trying to disrupt our society and they seem to have enough spare time to try to destroy the institutions of law, the police, and government by focusing on history, on the past, and by undermining trust in the way things are run.  Of course, there are bad things that go on but there always have been bad things going on and we continue, as human beings, to endeavour to address them and improve matters.  Surely, we can find ways to live together that do not divide or cancel?

We should not be frightened into silence or agreement, we should not shrug our shoulders and disregard these infringements of our rights and liberties for that would be going back to the 1930s, to Nazis, or the Stasi, or to the incarceration in gulags of poets and writers during the Cold War, and we all know what atrocities happened after those early book burning mobs were not stopped.

We absolutely cannot let that happen again, for those periods of history were, indeed, utter hell.

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The website will see you now …

Are you as fed up as I am at continuously being told to “refer to our website”?  Whether it is a doctor, the local council, an airline, one’s insurer or more-or-less anyone one is trying to get hold of, one needs to be tech-savvy.  And incredibly patient!  There is an expectation that you will own a smart phone, that you will have easy access to wi-fi, an online computer and the ability to search the web and input data into a website.

I am not alone in getting incredibly stressed in filling out the forms necessary to go to the theatre, or travel to another country.  When we travelled for a short trip to Greece last year and I had to get to grips with the Passenger Locator Form both to enter Greece and then again to come back home into the UK I couldn’t upload the various documents I was supposed to upload, or the Covid Vaccine QR codes or whatever, and it led to some very tetchy and stressed moments at the end of our holiday as I tried to tick all the boxes.

Last night when I tried to call my health insurer, I was told there were “56 people” in the queue before me so “please refer to our website”.  When we were ill with Covid and tried to call 111 and our GP, again we were told to “refer to the website” for information.  As a member of the older generation, it seems to be a minefield and we are all expected to have learnt to deal with issues by computer rather than simply by talking to a human being – which is often far more efficient and helpful.

These systems are often set up by young people.  Very clever young people, I acknowledge.  But, being young, they don’t realise that one’s eyesight gets worse as one gets older so one often can’t read the ever-so-cool tiny print they design, and may not know how to enlarge it.  They don’t realise the stress it causes to be told that you have been locked out of a bank account or online service and that they have sent an authorisation code to your mobile – which is two stories upstairs and getting up there to retrieve it isn’t easy for those with bad hips or knees.  Then when you finally get the phone and hobble back down, slowly, step by step, to the computer, the allocated time for entering the *** authorisation code into your computer has run out.

But it isn’t just the older generation who have a problem.  It is those who have less money and therefore less access to a Smart phone or to a computer at home.  There is a rather arrogant assumption by those setting up these systems that everyone will abide by them and be happy with them.  But we aren’t, necessarily.  It might make life easier for the service provider, but it often doesn’t make life easier for the client or patient.  It just adds to one’s stress level, which reduces one’s immune system, which makes one’s problems or illness even worse.

I can remember the day not so very long ago when one could book a face-to-face appointment with a doctor without trouble, or call a bank without having to wait an hour or more in a queue to talk to a human being.  And very often a human being who can sort the problem out in a few seconds.

But I am not a complete Luddite.  I do see that technology can be of enormous help to us as we go through life and age.  In fact, I am surprised we haven’t got further with it by now as when writing the book AGE MATTERS, I was talking to several tech companies years ago about how technology can be used to alert people to health and other problems.  Of course, the Apple watch and other gadgets are available but again they are often expensive so those who have less money are unable to afford them.  These watches and other such gadgets can detect whether you have a fall and call the emergency services, can see whether you have atrial fibrillation, low oxygen levels, or are walking asymmetrically. It seems to me we should by now be able to offer, either on the NHS or very cheaply, gadgets that can detect movement or non-movement, so that if someone living alone has not gone to the toilet or boiled the kettle it sends an alert.  Or analyse one’s urine or stools in the toilet to identify any health problems.  I know that these gadgets are available, but many don’t know about them, and they can be expensive.

So, I guess my plea is that tech developers take these factors into consideration as they design new systems.  Consider that people contacting a service provider may be frail, blind, disabled or not that tech-savvy.  Or may not be able to afford the computer or phone required to do so.  In the coming era of AI this will be increasingly important so can those in the industry please consider those of us who find some of these online forms difficult and stressful and provide more help, and simplicity.  And as they develop the technology that will be supporting us by our side in the coming years, make it as human as possible – eg capable of adapting to those of us who struggle with it. Oh dear, this probably sounds like Grumpy of Kew!

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A Possible Dream for 2022?

Back in the year 2001 I bought an apartment in Nice.  I had inherited a little money after my mother died.  I had thought of buying a small flat in some less-than-salubrious area of London and renting it out, which could have brought in income but also could also have caused me stress, as managing rented apartments is not always plain sailing.  Instead, my mentor suggested to me that I consider investing the money in an apartment somewhere sunny.   It felt very frightening at first.  Could I afford it?  I was on my own, running my business Positiveworks, and not sure whether I had it in me to make such a move into a positive experience. 

Nonetheless, I took his advice and bought the apartment in Nice, a beautiful city with everything I could possibly want to relax, think, write my books.  I hadn’t imagined I would make friends there but, in the end, I did make many good friends who I miss today, now that I have sold the flat.  But this is an example of how, sometimes, one has to take a leap into the dark and go for something one isn’t sure about, that makes one anxious but is appealing in some way despite that.

One of the friends I made in Nice was an inspiring lady called Anne Naylor who ran a group called the Possible Dream group.  I went along to some sessions.  We sat around in a room and each person expressed a possible dream – it could be that they needed a new fridge but didn’t have the money, or a new car, or a relationship, or world peace, or to alleviate hunger.  Any dream was expressed and accepted and those attending joined their energy and good wishes to the person whose dream it was.

But there was one person whose comment has stayed with me all these years.  He said “I don’t think we can fully imagine a dream that we might be living because we may not have reached that moment where we can even envisage something greater than the kind of life we have now”.  He continued to say that he could never have imagined, a year beforehand, that he and his wife and children would be living in the hills outside Nice and having a dream life that he would never have thought possible even a few months ago.

I can relate to that, as I could never have imagined the adventures and experiences I enjoyed whilst running Positiveworks.  Had you told me even a year before I set the company up that it would take me around the world, meeting fascinating people and giving me a lifestyle of immense joy (and challenge!) I would not have believed you.  Had you told me in 1999 that I would own a flat in Nice I would not have believed you either.

I wonder if you can think of experiences and situations that have occurred in your own lives that turned out better than expected or that you could never have imagined at a previous time?

And so, I feel this concept of the possible dream is especially important now, as we enter 2022.  It has been another annus horribilis with Covid and many global events that have shaken the world.  It is too easy, and no help to anyone, to get into a negative spiral of helpless hopeless talk about how awful everything is and how incompetent everyone is, etc.  Where does it get us?

Of course, there has been loss and I am not minimising the reality of the stress, bereavement and challenge people have experienced over the last two years.  But might we not now consider how some possible dreams that we could not have envisaged some time ago, have come about?  I think an appreciation of what we have experienced can be a platform for launching ourselves further. For example, when the Coronavirus first hit the world, people assumed it would take years to make an effective vaccine.  Instead, it took a few months.  People assumed that individuals would not comply with isolation rules and yet the majority did.  In the UK both the vaccination, the testing and the booster programmes have exceeded expectations and outpaced other countries.  And if this is our ‘war’ then at least we have had heat, light, and plenty of television programmes to watch.  And none of the bombs that our parents experienced. 

And beyond that, the last few decades have seen large numbers of people around the world come out of poverty and hunger and into employment.  Focusing on how terrible everything is will not help to keep them there, nor help bring others out of destitution.   In the 1960s we thought we would be decimated by a nuclear bomb.  We weren’t.  In the 1970s we all assumed that the UK was finished, that we would become a third world country, but instead things turned around and the pessimism people were expressing then was not realised.   But pessimism is more likely to pull us down, even now, whereas realistic optimism is more likely to help us innovate, and create, and pull ourselves back out of the hole of 2020-21.

Better, surely, to look forward, to imagine possible dreams, and realize that we may not be able to see how exciting those events might be from the place we stand now.  Better, surely, to talk of possibilities and things we and others CAN do rather than what is going wrong?

So, I wish you a happy Christmas and suggest that maybe you spend a little time imagining a possible dream for your own future, that of your family, your community, your country, the world.  Why not?  It could cheer you up and you might even find that fate surprises you sometime in the future and gives you something even beyond what you are able to dream today.  Who knows…?

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When “kindness” can be cruel

Samantha Price, the head teacher of Benenden, who also holds the influential position of President of the Girls’ Schools Association is suggesting that parents – and presumably grandparents too – do not criticize the ‘woke’ attitudes of their young.  This sounds to me like yet another limitation on free speech, and this time within the family.  I already know several parents and grandparents who say they cannot discuss certain topics with their children or grandchildren and that there is little way of bridging the gap of perspective or understanding between the generations.  In effect, they are silenced because the young simply block their views.  Yet, surely, these kinds of debates and discussions within the home are an essential training ground for life?

There are always intergenerational disagreements.  It is a fact of life that those who are younger will have new ideas, different ideas, and many of those ideas are innovative and much needed.  As part of the Baby Boomer generation, our parents disagreed with much of how we dressed, the music we listened to, the way we protested.  Yet, as a generation, I think we were pretty woke.  We made significant changes in the arena of social justice, opening up equality and better rights for women, gays, ethnic minorities and more, and were concerned for the environment.  So, I don’t think we should be perceived as some kind of stuck or blocked old fogies who are not open to new and good ideas.  But we are, I think, critical of fundamentalist approaches and intolerance to just debate.

All generations benefit from intergenerational discussions around the dinner table.  It fosters analysis, communication, and critical thinking, as well as knowledge about different people’s lives and perspectives. Older people may have started off as radicals and adjusted their views.  But it doesn’t mean to say they aren’t open to the ideas of their children and grandchildren.  I learn a huge amount from both.  But I hope, also, that they will be open to listening to our own experience of having lived long lives, of living through periods of history, as my generation has, with much of Europe under communism or dictatorships, where freedom of speech was very much limited.  Of having parents who fought in World War II, of experiencing the Cold War.  But, also, of reading history and getting the broad scope of the human condition.  We can all learn from one another if we listen.

But where the Head teacher talks of woke being all about ‘kindness’, she is ignoring the fact that what is kind to some, is most definitely not kind to others, and I would put her own pupils within that group.  It is girls’ lives, more than any, that are being impacted by the acceptance of some of these woke views.  Specifically, the way that the language around girls and women is literally being deleted before our eyes.  The 35-year-old daughter of a friend is having a baby this month but is not called a woman or a mother but a ‘birthing person’ on the forms she has had to complete.  Girls and women who compete in sports will now be up against men who wish to live as women but have all the advantages of a male body – strength of skeleton and muscles, larger lungs etc.  This is kind to the trans women but distinctly unkind and unfair to the girls or women competitors.

Similarly, girls or women who need to take refuge from violent partners may now end up in a refuge where men also reside, living as women, but not being women.  This can remove the security that women have felt in these homes.  Then there is the question of prisons where women prisoners have been sexually attacked by men who identify as women who have been allowed to be housed in female areas.  We can go on to talk about hospitals, toilets, changing spaces.  All these impact girls and women and, in my view, their private spaces need to be protected.  If we can’t rely on head teachers of girls’ schools to understand how the rights that our generation have fought so hard for are being eroded by the woke agenda then who will stand up for our daughters and granddaughters?

I don’t believe that being ‘woke’ is this kind fluffy thing that Samantha Price seems to suggest.  It is incredibly intolerant.  People are losing their jobs, their livelihoods, their reputations and their mental wellbeing as a result of young people pointing their intolerant and accusatory fingers at those who have different views to them.  This isn’t kind.  It is positively cruel. 

Look at the students who ousted Professor Kathleen Stock from her role at Sussex University.  They weren’t even courageous enough to stand up for their own views.  They chose to disguise themselves in masks and paint, covering their faces. 

And Professor Stock was talking biological fact.  She simply says that a trans woman can choose to live as a woman, can have hormone treatment or surgery, but will never be a biological woman in terms of chromosomes.  They can live as a woman but they are not a woman.  How will these schools teach the facts of life and biology if the truth is to be cancelled?  Will they teach false science just to pacify this group of children?  Surely that is not kind as one day they will have to ‘wake up’ to reality?

One thing I am glad about is that she says we must not demonise boys.  Certainly not.  We all have fathers, sons, grandsons, brothers, uncles of whom we are fond and we know that the majority of men are kind and respectful.  Most of the men I speak to are equally worried that the words that identify women, and the spaces that protect women, are being eradicated by the woke brigade.  But there are men who aren’t, and it can help, I believe, to teach boys about the effect that testosterone has on their bodies – that raised testosterone can cause them to take risks that they would not take at other times, both sexually and with physical aggression.  This is helpful information for all boys and men. 

Just as girls and women can also behave badly and have to understand the chemistry of their own bodies through oestrogen, periods, pregnancies, menopause.  Knowledge of the biology helps us manage the behavioural effects of the chemistry that lies within us.  But this knowledge won’t be taught if we have to pretend the chemistry doesn’t exist and is just part of a chosen gender identity.

It is a tiny minority of aggressive lobbying groups who are influencing these movements, and teachers should educate their pupils as to who is behind these lobbying groups and what their political or other agendas are, not pander to them.

Social justice comes in many guises, and it seems to me that those who follow this strict woke agenda are only thinking in narrow terms.  They are not looking at the serious consequences of their policies to others, especially girls and women who have, to be honest, suffered, and still suffer, hugely in terms of equality of opportunity.  Less so in the West, but just look how quickly things are turning around in Afghanistan, as they have in other parts of the world previously in history where women’s rights are often the first to go.

So please, teachers, stop and reflect before you tell the older generation not to challenge the ideas of their offspring for this only encourages the already intolerant attitudes of those young people to shut us up.  I, for one, shall continue to question and challenge perspectives with which I do not agree.  And would expect others to challenge me too.  Surely that is the whole point of living in a liberal democracy where free speech is a part of our lives.  But we should never take that freedom of speech for granted.  It can be gone in a second if we don’t fight to protect it.

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Is the novelist a dying breed?

As many of you know, I have spent the Covid lockdown writing a novel.  This is a new venture for me.  I have written seven previous books, six of them non-fiction, in the area of personal and professional development, plus my collection of poetry.  But writing a novel is a completely new experience.  When I write non-fiction, I have a reasonably clear idea of whether I am doing a decent job of conveying my subject but with fiction, until someone else reads it, I simply haven’t a clue if it is complete rubbish or something that will engage the reader.  It is a daunting project and a steep learning curve.

However, writing a novel in 2021 is even more daunting, as on top of the normal writer’s doubts, there sit the censorious voices of today’s cancel culture.  So, it becomes twice as unnerving, with a feeling that the Orwellian or Stalinist thought-police are watching over my shoulder, looking for offence, seeking to accuse me of saying something that might upset or hurt someone, distorting my meaning or intention. 

I wouldn’t be doing my job, though, if I bowed to these voices.  Surely the point of a novel is to move you, sometimes to upset you, even to the point of tears, horror, disgust and, yes, offence?  A novel can broaden your experience, take you to places you have never been in real life, place you in situations you hope you will never experience yourself.  Through this medium, an author can raise the reader’s level of empathy and help them understand what it might be like to experience something different, horrific, tragic or, equally, joyful.  And open doors of perception.

Dickens took his readers to places they might well have been grateful for not experiencing themselves but which raised their level of awareness for the poverty and hardship on Victorian streets.  Jane Austen experienced quite a narrow social life but her powers of sharp perception of the human condition raised her readers’ awareness of the machinations of society, the ambitions, bitchiness, unrequited dreams, jealousies and rivalries that they may not have noticed without her brilliant observation.  Solzhenitsyn took us to all the dark places of the Russian gulags.  And, among many others, was cancelled.

I, for one, don’t want to live in a country where I feel that writers could be silenced just because a minority of people – who may not even be forced to read a particular book – should choose to feel offended by what they read. 

Where is the reader’s sense of responsibility for their own response to a book, to what they read or hear?  For, as the Stoics would remind us, it is not the book or situation itself that is a problem necessarily but our own response to what we are reading or experiencing that gives it meaning.  The reader requires self-knowledge to become conscious of their own prejudices before accusing the writer of prejudice or bias.

The wonder of reading is to broaden the mind, to take one’s mind into different perspectives and consider the views of those who see or experience the world differently.  That is why this whole concept of ‘cultural misappropriation’ makes no sense whatsoever in the arena of fiction.  No author would ever be able to write anything other than a memoir, and then only from the first person, as they could be accused of speaking for others whose lives they may not understand.   But none of us fully understand another person.  This is what imagination and creative writing is all about.

Every author has to put themselves into other people’s shoes – if one is a female writer then we have to imagine male characters, people older than ourselves, people who come from other backgrounds, other countries, other eras, different sexual inclinations.  It all takes imagination and no one is claiming that it is perfectly factual.  It is a work of fiction, so one is needing to describe and imagine situations beyond one’s own experience.  But in today’s world in the UK, writers are being criticised for writing about characters from other cultures, or about gays when they aren’t gay, or ethnic groups when they don’t belong to that group.

If we follow this narrow argument, we shall never have any more fiction to read.  Nor thrillers, because surely those advocating for no ‘cultural appropriation’ could not expect every thriller writer to have experienced the horrific scenes they describe.  And what about science fiction, or fantasy?   It is ridiculous and it is a gross infringement of freedom of speech and creativity.

Which takes me back to my own novel and the concerns all this raises in me as I start to edit and finesse the book.  If J K Rowling’s agent and publisher can punish her for her views about women, then I don’t have a hope in hell of getting an agent or publisher if they choose to buy into the current cancel culture of bullying and fear that insists that words such as ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ are now unacceptable.  For if a publisher should read my blogs and tweets, they will see that I firmly believe such words should remain a part of the English language, both written and spoken, and they may not like that.  

Then my novel is set partly in Russia, between the 1990s-2006, so will I be accused of cultural misappropriation in describing Russian characters living through that period?  Inevitably I include male characters in the book.  Will I be accused of writing about people and situations of which I have no personal experience?    But what else do novelists do but write about people who inhabit their imagination?

I heard this week that John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and even Shakespeare, are now facing the cancellation lists for their misogynistic views but how does it help us to treat people of previous generations, who had very different perspectives and norms, as if they were writing today?  They were men of a certain age.  Expecting people of bygone days to have the same cultural perspectives as we have today, does nothing to celebrate how we learn through the ages, how we are all, in our way, far more ‘woke’ than people were even two decades ago.  Surely the whole progress of civilisation is to become more conscious of the subtle factors of life and humanity that were not realised before.  Within this progress we cannot possibly expect that people of earlier times should have had these perspectives.  It’s rather like condemning a 3-year-old for snatching a toy when we know that as we learn and develop that child will become more empathetic and aware that this is not an acceptable act.

I sincerely hope that we shall soon return to a place of common sense where people recognise the fact that it is absolutely necessary for us to be offended, insulted even, as we go through life.  It can give us self-knowledge, can enhance our humility and help us understand that we may well not be perfectly correct about our opinions because there are always others who have different opinions.  This could give us an insight we hadn’t noticed before.  And it can develop that entirely essential skill of resilience.

So, I shall pursue the completion of my novel over the next few months and shall endeavour to silence these unelected censors looking over my shoulder …. and my own inner doubting demons too, of course!

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Where are the Safe Spaces for academics?

Universities used to be places where information and ideas were shared, in order to expand a student’s knowledge.  By sharing new facts and ideas it was intended that a student broaden their perspective, understand that many people in many different parts of the world and at many different periods of history, think and have thought differently to them.  The aim to be that they sharpened their own beliefs, questioned those opinions passed on to them by parents and early-years teachers, and developed cogent and coherent views that they could express articulately.

These days, students seem to want to shape the world to their own views, even though they are generally too young to have experienced much, read as much as their lecturers, travelled as much as those older than themselves.  They even want to force others, including the lecturers employed to expand their knowledge, to adhere to their own views, and are unwilling to listen to other perspectives.

In this process, academics, writers, politicians and others are losing their livelihoods and their reputations.  Usually at the behest of a small minority.   But a small minority who shout the loudest.  As Jonathan Haidt of the Heterodox Academy points out, small minorities are often better organised than the disorganised and disunited majority who disagree with them.

So, we, the majority who believe in free speech, need to get a little more organised and cohesive, in order to put a stop to experts and academics losing their jobs for saying something with which the students don’t agree.  We need, as Jonathan Haidt recommends, to speak up louder and not be bullied into going along with ideas just because we can’t be bothered to stand up to them.

Surely, we do not want to live in a totalitarian system where those with alternative viewpoints are cancelled or lose their jobs?  In other countries those people are slung into gulags and prisons.  We have just seen the Nobel Peace Prize going to two investigative journalists, Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, who are being awarded for following the route of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  Yet these young student bullies are doing the opposite.  In the name of ‘diversity and inclusivity’ they are silencing those who disagree with them, which is the precise opposite of the meaning of diversity or inclusivity.  They ought to look in a mirror more honestly from time to time and see exactly how hypocritical they are being.

The trouble is that they are using the language of the playground, doing all the things our teachers told us not to do – eg call people names, tell tales, push people out of friendship groups, shame friends and others into silence for fear of being the ‘outsider’.  How come our educational establishments are being so weak to let this happen?  How come the NHS and others are going along with these minorities who claim to feel ‘unsafe’, when such groups seem to be doing all they can to make others feel unsafe.

How would you feel as a lecturer or academic in a university now?  Terrified, I imagine, of having your words taken out of context, or even gestures used to illustrate a point (see The Chair on Netflix).  But we can’t let this happen.  Academics have stirred us up for centuries, been the ones to provoke thought, creativity, ideas, innovation, analysis.  We must not allow them to be silenced, and those in charge of the universities must speak up, as Sussex University’s Vice-Chancellor, Adam Tickell has done in defence of freedom of speech and of Professor Kathleen Stock, the latest victim of accusations of transphobia.

As Professor Stephen Pinker points out in his new book Rationality, our medical and scientific advances have come about through challenge, through peer review.  The justice of the legal system has come about through adversarial processes.  Leaders in business are developed through 360-degree feedback.  But the students accusing Stock and others are not interested in such systems.  “We are not up for debate” they say, calling for the sacking of lecturers who do not follow their precise way of thinking, using the antithesis of rigorous debate with phrases like “transphobic shit”, “I hope you die alone”.  And these people will be running our country in a few years’ time, which is not an edifying thought.

Of course, young students have new ideas and we must listen to them.  But equally they must listen too.  How will they ever learn anything as they journey through life if, at such a young age, they are closed to opposite opinions?  Learning comes through endeavour, challenge, and often failure.  It comes from being open to different perspectives, being willing to adapt one’s view or approach through taking many viewpoints into account and then shaping who you want to be, the action you want to take.

The Stoics suggest that we should all see life as though we are in a boxing match.  We should expect and welcome the daily punches and falls, recognising that these provide us with an opportunity to stop, learn, adjust our approach.  This is life and it is normal to experience problems, people who irritate us, be presented with things we don’t want to do but have to do.  We should not tremble or see these events as threats, and certainly not become ‘offended’ or feel ‘unsafe’ when someone articulates a view we don’t like or are unfamiliar with.

We all need to be resilient in the face of life.  Other people need us to be resilient too, as resilient people will look for solutions to problems.  We cannot become resilient unless we are robust enough to receive feedback, analysis, and critical thinking thereby honing ourselves to be able to articulate a viewpoint and provide the evidence to back it up. 

The world has become the amazing place it is through the very diversity of thought and approach that has been experienced through the centuries. And we continue to learn daily, what is helpful and what is not.  We are a far more tolerant society in every way than the world in which I grew up in the 1950s.  Dictators, such as Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, who insist on just one authoritarian view, demonstrate no tolerance.  If we were run by such leaders now, we would be living in a very different world, a world where academics, journalists, writers and artists are silenced, imprisoned, and potentially assassinated.

We cannot let it happen that students are given the power to sack their lecturers for holding a view with which they disagree, have misinterpreted, or misunderstood.  We cannot let publishers silence writers.  We, the majority who believe in the freedom of speech, must get ourselves more organised and speak up in the name of balance and debate.

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Call me by my name: Woman

Why is the language that describes the adult female of our species being cancelled?  Even the medical magazine The Lancet had a heading recently reading “Historically, the anatomy and physiology of ‘bodies with vaginas’ have been neglected”.  ‘Bodies with vaginas’?  Don’t they mean women?  It’s women who have been neglected in medical research, and more.  After all, trans men and women are a very recent phenomenon.  The science didn’t exist in the past so there is no historical neglect there.  It is women they are talking about, so why can’t they use the correct word?

In an interview this weekend, Sir Keir Starmer said that it is “not right” to say only women have a cervix, amid the row surrounding the Labour MP Rosie Duffield questioning whether ‘individuals with a cervix’ could include trans men.  I am told by a doctor that a trans man, born a woman, will have a cervix if they have not had surgery, but that is because they have a woman’s body but are identifying as a man, therefore in biological fact are female.  Trans women, born a man, do not have a cervix, as the cervix is part of a womb, which they do not have as they are male.  Even if they have had surgery, the skin tissue grafted from the scrotum and other areas is biologically male. 

In all these scenarios, science dictates that humans are born male or female – males with XY chromosomes and females with XX chromosomes, and only a tiny proportion with XXY.  But these facts, and they are facts, are continually denied.  I was pleased to note that the Health Secretary Sajid Javid and others have attacked Starmer for a “total denial of scientific fact”.

How, in an era of science and technology, can so many people deny biological facts?  And where is the logic to say that should I support the use of the word woman, mother, breastfeeder rather than ‘chestfeeder’, that makes me transphobe?  I have nothing against trans men or women or anyone else but why should the integration of this group involve such an intrusion on the language that is used to describe women?

It seems to me that politicians are getting their proverbial knickers in a twist on the whole subject, as a Green Party spokesperson was recorded as saying that being a woman is “an attitude”.  And Jo Swinson, of the LibDems, when asked if humans are born either male or female, apparently replied “not from what I’ve read”.

It is all thoroughly disheartening and makes me feel both disenfranchised and unsupported.  In my view, of course it matters that men identifying as women should not be eligible to compete in all sports against biological women.  It’s totally unfair, as men are stronger.  Of course, I can understand that women who have been raped should be able to choose to be examined by a biologically female clinician.  Of course, I can understand that you don’t necessarily want someone in a female prison, or a girls’ changing room, or a woman’s domestic abuse refuge centre, who has a penis.  There is both a visceral but also a practical sense that this is risky.  Why should the sensitivities of trans groups, including trans sex offenders, trump female safety? 

And why are schools and other institutions altering their changing and toilet facilities to be mixed sex before there has been a proper debate about this?  The Equality Act 2010 permits services to be provided for one sex only.  The act is clear that it is lawful in certain circumstances to exclude members of the opposite sex, even if they hold a gender recognition certificate.  So why are these changes happening so quickly, and at a time when school children, girls in particular, are reporting a huge rise in sexual harassment experiences at or around schools?  Women and girls deserve safe spaces.

Of course, you can have a male body and feel like a woman psychologically, and vice versa.  And I empathise with those who feel they are in the wrong body or wish to identify and be treated as a specific sex but at the same time there is a need to accept the reality of the situation.  The biological facts.  I might have had plastic surgery to try to look like Marilyn Munroe, or breast enhancement, but I never would look like her, nor be her, nor would my breasts be biologically the same material as if they were naturally large.  And I don’t mean this frivolously.  I am suggesting that we tend to be happier in ourselves when we accept who we are and whether a trans man or woman has or hasn’t had surgery, they are nonetheless different biologically.  And why can’t that be ok?

We need to be honest and realistic for everyone’s sake, and especially in order to gather accurate data on sexual biology and illness.  Otherwise we cannot plan the health, education, employment and other infrastructure services we all need for the future.

The advances in science are fantastic.  We are able to keep people alive way beyond previous years, heal cancers, vaccine against sickness, and provide those who wish to transition from male to female or female to male with the wherewithal to do so.  And yet in all those situations there can also be ethical conundrums and they have to be worked out quietly and compassionately to ensure that everyone involved is on board.

It doesn’t help us all get along – and I presume that is what everyone wants – for this group to be cancelling our language and our identity as women.  Politicians like Starmer are colluding in the conspiracy to pretend that neither the cancelling of the language used to describe women, nor the invasion of our safe spaces, matters.  Nicola Sturgeon apparently said that women’s concerns on this issue are ‘not valid’.  But men are also writing on this subject, uncomfortable with the fact that they may have married a woman, or have a daughter, and wish to be able to refer to them in the correct terms.

If we are to get along better, then this will require devising some way that makes both trans men and women and biological men and women feel ok.  Because at the moment I am feeling offended and abused by the suggestion that calling myself a woman is in some way a ‘dog whistle’ (whatever that is, exactly).  And I am not that happy to be referred to as cis-woman either, as many people are utterly confused by that term too, including me!  I am a woman.

Women are not a series of orifices or physical attributes.  We are not ‘menstruators’, or ‘birthing people’, or ‘bodies with vaginas, cervixes’ or what you will.  We are women and we matter.  We are half the human population and have been treated pretty abysmally throughout history but have finally reached a reasonably equitable position in the West (cast your eye to Afghanistan and much of the rest of the world and you will see there is still a long way to go), so I wish to maintain this position for women in the future, particularly for my granddaughters.  But along comes another misogynistic group who seem to want to cancel us, put us back in the kitchen, relegate us to being a series of orifices rather than women.  It won’t do.

But who, among the political apologists, is going to stand up for women’s rights here, for our safe spaces, for our privacy, for our language?  It isn’t any of the politicians mentioned so far in this article.  It isn’t the NHS, who are issuing guidelines to midwives and others to remove the language previously associated with females, mothers, maternity units.  It isn’t the academics, as the universities are colluding with the non-facts propagated in this debate.  It isn’t the schools, as very young children are being given all kinds of lessons with very dubious biological details – in fact, a 9-year-old girl attending such a class earlier this year, came home thoroughly upset and confused, and asked her father whether she was a girl or a boy.  How on earth will they teach biology if a teacher can’t refer to a female or her ovaries, womb, cervix without somehow pretending that these are also the features of a trans women or men?

Joanne Cherry, QC, described this trend as deeply sinister.  I agree with her.  This is a form of aggression and an undermining of girls’ and women’s rights.   Time to find a way through this without the heated aggression of the Twitterati.  Please, please, can we have an adult debate on the subject to protect the safety, privacy needs, and identity status of girls and women?  And asking for such a debate does not mean that I am a transphobe. 

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What an amazing job they did

Wow!  Is anyone else feeling pride in the achievements of Team GB?  I am not particularly into sport or athletics, nor even into being a spectator, but I was blown away by the number of medals we achieved and by watching the determination and skill of our young athletes.

Reading the press, one might be forgiven for imagining that all our young in this country are snowflakes – but no way.  These young people have come through hell and highwater to be in Tokyo, to perform and to win.

I hope one of the media channels does a documentary covering the life stories of some of these people.  I know that many have come through difficulties, have had to crowdfund their way through the competitions, have had broken bones, and gone through many set-backs in the course of their lives.  What a wonderful example of determination, discipline, motivation and skill. 

I would really like to know more about their journeys from childhood sports days to local then national competitions and on to the Olympics.  There’s a lesson for us all in this, in our various walks of life, I feel.

And it takes support – from parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents.  And sacrifice.  No-one can do this alone.

And the modesty and sheer joy of the winners was poignant to watch.  No bragging, just amazement and British understatement. A delight in having won, as if it happened ‘to’ them, rather than that they won through extraordinary effort.  From that amazing young girl on her BMX, and daring skateboarders, to equestrian riders of such precision and grace, at one with their horse, to swimmers, runners, cyclists, gymnasts, sailors and more, I am just so impressed.

This is going to be a short piece but it seems so important to take a moment to feel some pride in our achievements.  We don’t do it often in this country but watching the Olympics has made me feel that if these people are any kind of reflection of the young people in this country then we shall be in safer hands than I had imagined. There is more grit here than is spoken of on most days. Yet one knows that this grit exists also in our entrepreneurs and those who have been through so many different and difficult challenges over the last eighteen months of Covid.

I hope there is some general celebration of the efforts of our Olympic team, a moment of national pride in coming fourth in the league table against fierce competition.  Congratulations to them all, the winners, of course, but also to all those who were beaten at the post.  To have got to Tokyo at all is a huge achievement in itself.  Well done!

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