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WRITER'S BLOG

A Foreword of warning to my new collection of short stories, My People, due out in a few days.

         I'm writing this in the summer of 2021 when lockdown restrictions, such as they were, are being lifted in England.

 

         Nearly all the stories included here were written before Covid forced us to change our lives. And I wonder how culture will be altered longterm. Will it be like the difference between pre- and post- World War II novels? Pre-War was, for instance, a world of toffs and servants. Post-War was far more utilitarian, and attitudes which had been taken for granted then strike ups as horribly sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic. This left space for ordinary women, like me, to put women of all sorts at the centre of their work.

 

         I don't yet know what a post-Covid world will look like. I'll have to wait and see what I'll have to work with in my stories next. How will cultural norms change?

 

         One change I'm already facing is a cultural revolution accelerated by the reliance we all placed on social media while we were isolated. I had seen it coming, but from a distance. I watched while people – professors, writers, journalists, media stars, sports men and women, etc. – lost their jobs, their reputations and their livelihoods: not just for real crimes but sometimes for voicing an unpopular opinion, or for something as simple as a joke or a careless word.

 

         'This can't apply to me,' I thought – confident that I'd always been on the side of the underdog and those who fight bigotry. But I was also scared, and thus wilfully blind to an assault on discussion, free thought and free speech. In retrospect it was there to be seen – a swelling atmosphere of criticism towards anyone who disagreed with whatever was deemed acceptable by opinion-makers. Although at the time it seemed paranoid and fanciful to compare this trend to Mao's Cultural Revolution or Soviet Russia – where nothing but state-approved work would be published and writers could be imprisoned, re-educated or executed.

 

         My blindness might have been caused by the fact that nowadays it is not the state that is responsible. It is ordinary people gathering on social media who are putting on the pressure. An unprecedented level of 'hate-speak', abuse, and on-line bullying is making people afraid to voice their opinions in case what they say is turned against them.

 

         While I was looking the other way publishers, media outlets, schools, and universities were beginning to hire 'sensitivity experts' to warn them of what the likely result would be of causing discomfort or offence to this or that group. Everyone, including those I rely on for my living, seems to be terrified of the punishment suffered by causing offence to anyone at all.

 

         This is a toxic environment for those of us who think about ideas, characters, consequences and following a story where it wants to go rather than where a sensitivity expert says it ought to go.

 

         What saddens me most is that a lot of this bullying has begun in support of just causes – those I've supported all my life. But the fight against bigotry seems itself to have engendered bigotry.

 

         If you want to live in a healthy society you do not want your creative people to be looking over their shoulders, terrified of the consequences of making a mistake: frightened that the next knock on the door may be for them.

 

Liza Cody, 2021

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Unfed

If, a year ago, I'd thought I would still, now, be diligently sanitising doorknobs and light switches, or scrubbing the skin off my hands, or leaving bags and parcels for hours before unpacking, or, or, or, I think I would've succumbed to depression or terminal anxt.

 

If I'd realised how dithery and incompetent our government would be I'd have emigrated with unseemly speed to New Zealand.

 

My hindsight is, as usual, faultless.

 

The last truly enjoyable public evening out was to see Matthew Bourne's gloriously camp The Red Shoes on the 4th of March, 2020. A fabulous last hurrah. But I feel, since then, unfed.

 

I need the stimulation of live performances and live audiences. Even more, I need the daily contact with friends and family. Skype and Zoom are great, but no substitute for the real thing. Virtual sucks, but it's definitely better than nothing. I just wish I didn't have to see myself, even as small as a postage stamp, at the top right hand side of the screen. There's something so distancing about that.

 

But meanwhile the would has gone through several really important upheavals: Black Lives Matter, continued pressure about Climate Change, the American election and it's aftermath, Hong Kong, disturbances in this country protesting about police powers over public assembly and disorder etc etc.

 

I watch it all from the sideline, otherwise known as TV, because I am supposed to be protecting the National Health Service, society at large, the aforementioned friends and family from myself spreading and/or catching C-19. Even after vaccination I'm told I must not change my behaviour. My rights as an individual take second place to my responsibility to society.

 

Okay. I get that. But somehow, even while acquiring some of the famous Covid kilos, I grow skinny in spirit.

 

And the irredeemably shallow side of me really needs its hair cut.

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From Red Shoes to Seeing Red.

The last time I went out in public was seven weeks (49 days) ago; about a week before lockdown became official (too late) in the UK. I went to see Red Shoes at the Bristol Hippodrome – joyously, brilliantly camp, huge talent, invention, colour. Everything I expected and more. I knew, because having watched the news from the East, that it was a risk, but somehow, if it was going to be the last show I went to for the foreseeable future (or, argh, ever) it would be worth the risk.

 

Since then I've battled with huge families with 4 trollies in my local supermarket, I've foraged secretly around nearly empty shelves, I've found 4 masks and a few pairs of gloves, and washed a lot of the skin off my hands. I've been to the hospital twice with a friend who needed surgery. I've had a couple of shouted conversations with my daughter and granddaughter from across the street and I've been sent streams of videos and jokes by friends. A lot of them feature the big blond imbecile from across the pond who, really, I don't find funny at all.

 

Actually I've done pretty well: writers are very well prepared for isolation: usually we live in an 'other' world anyway and adapt to the bizarre quite gratefully. But I do find that my rage at the way this pandemic has high-lighted the inequalities of society has sharpened to a dangerous point. The poor, the badly housed, the low paid, people with dark skin, the people who do the caring work, the old, the refugees, the prisoners etc are all suffering and dying disproportionately. It's just what they would expect and it's outrageous. We won't understand the full extent of this tragedy till there's a proper count that doesn't skew the figures, and the politicians stop lying about them.

 

Meanwhile our well-fed, well-cared-for leaders are beginning to bleat about 'getting back to normal' Well normal just isn't not good enough. It's not good enough for clean air, climate change, health and inequality. They're talking about 'business as usual.' Well business as usual is really bad, selfish, dangerous business – unless you're rich, white company men with lots of shareholders to please. Back to business is back to bad business. Normal is abnormal.

 

We need a whole new conversation where we actually listen to scientists, environmentalists and philosophers; not to politicians and money-men.

 

Nuff said.

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A Prize in Germany.

I've been lucky enough to have been awarded a prize for my life's work by a public radio station in Bremen. I'm enormously flattered and very grateful. But I'm also pretty jumpy.

 

I haven't spoken in public for over 10 years. And the last time I went to Germany was in 2004 when, during my stay, there was a huge terrorist attack on Madrid's railway. Of course this put German security forces on full alert at stations and airports. From my point of view, especially airports. At Munich airport, when leaving for home, I was searched 4 times and taken off the plane by a man with a gun. All because my passport is in a middle-eastern name. The flight was held up for over an hour and when I was allowed back on the plane I was greeted by waves of anger and frustration.  Which I understood well. I too am less than enthusiastic about sitting uncomfortably on a plane that's going nowhere.

 

History can't repeat itself, can it? All the same I'd politely like to ask those responsible to suspend terrorist activity till I leave Germany next week.

 

This is just a tad ironic because there are some who would say that since I joined Extinction Rebellion I have been responsible for countless travel delays and disruptions. Also, as someone aware of the huge carbon cost of flying, I shouldn't be flying at all. Well, fair point. But did I mention I've won a prize? That only happens once in a blue moon. And I really, really want to meet the people who are giving it to me. So, jumpy or not, I'm going.

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Wimbledon 2019

Wimbledon fortnight is like a holiday to me. I try not to work in the afternoons or make any appointments or write letters or blogs. Instead I spend hours watching wonderful athletes play their guts and hearts out at a game I loved but was never much good at. The stand-out event so far this year was Cori – Coco – Gauff in the third round playing Polona Hercog of Slovenia.

 

Wonderful to see such grit in a teenager. She'd lost the first set and was 5-2 down in the second, facing match point. Looking close to tears and even closer to defeat – nothing she'd done so far had had worked against a strong, tricky opponent who was playing wonderful tennis. Everyone was expecting her to fold; everyone was disappointed in her. But she didn't fold, she kept thinking & trying. And, with a little help from the other side of the net, she pulled herself together, thought out a different strategy and battered on.

 

A life lesson – it 's not that she succeeded; she might not have. But what's so encouraging to an old broad who's been defeated many times, she had the grit to stand up straight and fucking try.

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Tiger Woods, Medal of Freedom – Freedom for Whom?

Medal of Freedom, yes, that's what stuck in my cynical old feminist craw. My position on Tiger is ambiguous: on the one hand, considering toxic, curdling jock culture, I can't expect a supremely talented athlete to be a perfect man (no one is anyway), nor do I want to see him and his special gift destroyed, but I do resent him getting extra credit (a medal for fuck's sake) when one of the things he's famous for is beating on his wife. That looks like a typical Trump (with his famous respect for us wimmins) faux pas.

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It's Been A Long Time.

It's been a long time since I wrote. I'll explain this later. But first I want to congratulate Sara Paretsky for being the first winner of the Sue Grafton Memorial Prize last week. This is bitter-sweet because I really do wish Sue had not died. I wish she were still with us and writing – in which case there would be no need for a memorial. But I'm so pleased for Sara – no one could deserve honours more.

 

Two months ago, when I was rushing to the post office, I had a contretemps with one of Bath's notoriously uneven kerbstones. The kerbstone won. The result was a broken upper arm too close to my shoulder to be plastered. It hurts, so I've been self-protective and horribly self-absorbed ever since.

 

There has been something of an identity crisis too, because only 24 hours previously I had been on a squash court, leaping about like a young goatess. Then, suddenly I was an old lady lying helpless on the pavement being called 'dear' by several lovely but unwelcome strangers to whom I'm very grateful but who, at the time, I was wishing a long way elsewhere.

 

Meanwhile my beloved country has become even more of a thought-free zone and consequently a scarier place.

 

And there has been another attack and killing in a Californian synagogue on Shabat two days ago. An act of antiSemitism. This follows the utterly horrifying bombing of churches in Sri Lanka, which in turn had followed the shameful attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. No community, it seems, is exempt from the hatred of others.

 

This, tragically, is the zeitgeist we're all suffering from. This is the zeitgeist all thinking people should try, in their own ways, to contradict.

 

Shalom, salaam and peace to all.

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Clubbed To Death?

If you find yourself in the city of Bath with a yearning for a Classic Club Sandwich do not try to find one at the Kingsmead Kitchen in Kingsmead Square. If you do, you will be as disappointed as I was this Sunday lunchtime.

The menu said Classic Club Sandwich – expensive but perfect: just what I wanted. And what arrived was a fine sandwich: two slices of toasted bread filled, as advertised, with bacon, chicken and salad. But it was not the Classic Club Sandwich I'd ordered. Three pieces of bread (or toast), two fillings, right? Right.

The cafe was crowded, the wait staff were busy, so I ate my sandwich and was absolutely going to pay for it. But, in the interest of accurate advertising, I decided to point out the mistake.

Which was my mistake, because when I did – very politely – the waiter replied brusquely that I had been served exactly what I ordered. 'You gave me a sandwich,' I said, 'not a "club" sandwich.' He pointed to the menu and repeated that I had been served what was described on the menu. I said again that the menu was offering a Club Sandwich and not an ordinary sandwich.

English was not his first language, so just to be absolutely sure I knew what I was talking about I Googled the sandwich in question and nowhere could I find a picture or a description of a 'club' sandwich that did not have two fillings separated by a third slice of bread. I gently explained this to the waiter.

I should have left it there, of course. But the guy was looking at me as if I was stupid and trying to get out of paying. Which was insulting. Also I do not react well to frustration. So I had one more shot at explaining myself, this time to a young woman who described herself as a trainee manager. I can't remember exactly what she said, partly because English was not her first language either. But the upshot was that the original waiter came back an offered me a slice of bread.

That was too silly even for a connoisseur of silliness like me. So I got up and left with my remaining dignity, (not much, by then) and paid the full price. I wish I hadn't because I still find myself fuming rather than laughing – as this blog clearly demonstrates.

 

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In A Fog.

This silent foggy morning reminded me of Foggy, Foggy Dew, and I wondered for an instant about a blog entitled 'Whatever happened to the "fair young maid"?' Another mysterious absence in a bloke's song. But then I couldn't be arsed. Fog seems to sit too heavy on all my motivation. Be thankful.

 

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Talking Leaves.

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles.

But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.

Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."

Carl Sagan

 

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