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