Jan 24

A fox in a hen house?

Whenever I hear the next, unintentionally hilarious, instalment of the Lord Rennard saga I can’t help thinking of the chaos that ensues when a fox gets into a hen house. I guess it’s the inevitable free association triggered by the name… Rennard… Reynard… Reynard the fox… Fantastic Mr Fox played with suave, sophisticated perfection by George Clooney in the film from Dahl’s book… WOAH!  How the heck did we get from Lord Rennard to George Clooney?  That’s just SO wrong on every level. Rewind, rewind… Oh, well, it must be down  to these women all squawking like chickens who have just been goosed.  And all because of a grope by the great man himself. Lord Rennard I mean. Not George Clooney. Obviously.

On a serious note, if the most abiding memory of the whole distasteful saga is women announcing solemnly that they are ‘traumatised’, years after a casual grope,  I can’t help feeling an important opportunity has just been missed.

Lord Rennard’s misbehaviour is obviously unforgivable and gross. To state the obvious, he appears to be a deeply unattractive and laughably deluded man who genuinely labours under the illusion that his powerful position in the party makes him irresistible to women, despite evidence  which universally suggests that his schoolboy ‘seductions’ are unsuccessful.  To put it mildly.

Clearly the Lib Dem image as a right on, forward thinking modern political party,  rewarding success and respectful of every minority group you can think of, has received a body blow. But can I just say the unsayable?

A few women received an unwelcome proposition. A clammy hand on the knee, a clumsy grab around the waist perhaps… But, come on girls, we’ve all been there.  I’ve had worse myself. A lot worse. And of course I hate the idea that my beautiful daughter will face what I faced, a distasteful abuse of power from ugly old men who think they are entitled to help themselves to women who are below them on the food chain. It is a frank trade off between youth and seniority which also says something unpleasant about the position of women in the working world.

However, to squawk about a single symptom of a greater malaise is to play into the hands of the most unreconstructed men in society. They are quick to jump on a mention of ‘trauma’ or ‘distress’ as a perfect example of women belonging to a species who are vulnerable. Women who are ‘too delicate’ to be included in a man’s world and must be ‘protected’ for which read ‘excluded’.

I’m with the tough and redoubtable Ann Leslie who spendidly announced on Radio 4 this week that women should grow a tougher outer shell and learn to react decisively and immediately when unwelcome propositions are encountered. And, to add my advice, speaking from experience, if hands wander during dinner, a swift stab with a conveniently available fork is a fantastic aid to reminding men of their manners.

We must fight the battle of equality, of course, but not through amplifying such pathetic behaviour and mistakenly making it central to the issues that really matter. It isn’t. It is practically beneath notice and certainly beneath contempt.

So, ladies, stiffen your sinews. Swallow your distress. Scorn is the answer. And a swift kick to the b****cks never goes amiss either.


Nov 29

Happy endings – nice or necessary?

When I decided I was going to write novels, I had no idea what I was going to say but I was absolutely certain of two things; the first was that I was going to write about love, in all its forms but especially romantic; and the second was that I was going to write the kind of endings I want to read. Endings where everything is alright in the… well… end. Happy endings, if you will…

In the inimitable words of that bloke from The Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be alright in the end. If things are not alright then it is not the end.”

If the romance genre is a key example of feel good fiction that must mean delivering on the expectation of the reader. For me the baseline absolutely has to be the girl ending up with the boy. In my book (if you’ll pardon the expression) writers are free to set up a dilemma as to which of two or more men that might be. I personally don’t mind if it’s obvious ‘who’ as long as we are kept guessing as to the ‘how’.  But there must be nothing more than a passing doubt over the ‘if’! It would feel the most awful betrayal if the writer were to whip the satisfying resolution out from under this reader’s feet by suddenly springing on them that the hero is a rapist, or  – worse – cuts his toenails in bed.  A romantic novel MUST be centred on the redemptive and resolving power of love.

I have a special fondness for the ones where the heroine overlooks the trusty, faithful lover because she is temporarily blinded by the glamorous cad – Colonel Brandon from ‘Sense and Sensibility’, for example, is a proper grown up hero for me.

I’m also not big on  heroines being ‘rescued’ by the hunky hero as the end in itself. Don’t get me wrong –  a bit of throwing the girlie over the shoulder and running from the burning building never goes amiss – but anyway, musings on what makes the perfect hero are a posting for another day.

What I can’t help noticing is that my own happy endings are at least partly about the heroine achieving her full potential, with the help of the supportive and frequently challenging and uncompromising hero who refuses to let her off the hook, rather than needing him to hold her up because she’s too fragile for this world.  Didn’t Bella get soooo much more interesting when she became a vampire who was Edward’s equal, or even his superior?  I was ready to poke her in the eye for all that stuff before, when she was a sulky little Miss who was always falling over and having to have Edward set her back the right way up. I thoroughly approve of how Stephanie Meyer’s journey for Bella was to become a fully realised form of herself – as well as hooking up with Edward, of course, and having mad, passionate sex in which the bed gets big bites taken out of it.

Which brings me to another important point – they don’t have to still be alive at the end. What about ‘Love Story’? OK so, from my point of view, the bit where she died WAS the happy ending.. at last! No more whingeing and looking all pale and wan. You’ll gather I’m really not fantastically sympathetic about illness. What about (spoiler alert) ‘One Day’? Oh come on, you must have guessed…? Nothing more than ultimately unrequited love would make a satisfying resolution there. It would have had to run on indefinitely if she hadn’t bought it. And, as the exception that proves the rule, I have always been absolutely furious about the ending of ‘Gone with the Wind’. What was that all about? There should be a sequel with a proper ending for heaven’s sake.

So, satisfactory resolutions are essential, pat happy endings maybe less so, but you fob this reader off with ironic, ‘clever’ sour endings at your peril. You have been warned.

P.S. In the interests of research and of avoiding unnecessary gender bias in this post, I asked ‘someone’ for the male perspective on happy endings… He assumed I was talking about massage parlours (I wasn’t) and also that I was offering (I definitely wasn’t).

Glad we clarified that.


Oct 30

Sally Bercow – the other way to deal with being a politician’s wife

in the aftermath of the Lord McAlpine libel court case poor Sally Bercow has spent the last few days trying desperately and unsuccessfully to put the media genie back in the bottle.

Love her or loathe her (and mean-spirited people love to loathe don’t they?) you have to admire a woman who refuses to put on a mask.  Unlike my heroine Emily in Politically Incorrect, Sally was, is and – I expect – always will be, her own woman. Unfortunately, as wife of John Bercow, Speaker in the House of Commons, everything she does and says is under scrutiny. Many would say unfairly so, as we have surely gone beyond a time where the wife was expected to be as committed to her husband’s job as he is.

This assumption that the wife was the second employee – two for the price of one – coloured my own childhood as I saw my father in the diplomatic corps and my mother, loyal but not always willing, by his side as they attended interminable events.  She spent years of her life making polite conversation with the other wives, an amorphous and international group of women with little in common other than their unquestioning devotion to their husbands and their husbands’ jobs. The quiet, unquestioning sacrifice that this entailed fascinated me and inspired my first novel Politically Incorrect.

John Bercow, on brief acquaintance, strikes me as a thoroughly decent man, a consummate politician of course, who doubtless does his best in his job, for his wife and for his family. My anti-hero, Ralph, came along before I met John but I see much of one in the other.

I didn’t watch Sally Bercow on Big Brother – not my sort of thing – but I am sure her involvement gave plenty of ammunition to the critics.  What few people know is that Sally donated her fee to charities supporting children with autism.

The reason John Bercow and I have met is that we have sons the same age and neither of them learned to talk. With intensive speech and language therapy both children later acquired language but will face life with a combination of the language disorder and other social communication difficulties which typify autistic spectrum disorder.  John Bercow is clever, well connected and generous in his support of charities such as Afasic who help children like ours.  I am sure Sally is equally dedicated to her children. I have never seen anything to suggest otherwise and I hope that she will not drop out of public life as she says she would like to. As an articulate woman and a mother, she has an important job to do raising awareness of issues which, by chance, affect her family.

Sally Bercow has been uncompromising. She pays a high price for her determination to be her own woman and have her own voice. My politician’s wife character Emily made the opposite choice. And that didn’t work out too well for her either.

What would you do?



Oct 29

Celebrating ‘scary’ women in the workplace

A few weeks ago Nick Clegg said something sensible. It was a bit of a shock to be honest – something about making men’s paternity leave rights the same as women’s, since you ask.

Of course I realise now this must have come from the quietly impressive Miriam Clegg who surely saw it as a gloriously simple way to prevent recruiters from wanting to choose men purely because all young women have an unequal right to disappear for months on end. After that, I should have thought equal pay will be a doddle.

This spark of brilliance, which Nick got the credit for, chimes with her other fabulous comment that it’s about time women in the workplace stop being described as ‘scary’.

I was called ‘scary’ once. OK, I’ve been called ‘scary’ a few times. As far as I can work out it’s because I’m five foot ten in my socks and have a penchant for high heels.  I’m assuming it’s the height thing because the blokes who call me ‘scary’ are invariably short.

I refuse to accept the notion that it’s not the shoes but because I try to do my job competently, part of which is assuming I’m just as entitled to an opinion as those funny little men. In other words that I can state my case without having to ameliorate the shock of a woman having an original thought by presenting it with a self-deprecating simper and a hair toss.  But it can’t be that, surely?

It IS????

Well. for goodness sake grow up you sad, sorry, inadequate, flat headed, troglodyte, misogynistic little boys…

OK, that last little bit might have been mildly scary. Sorry.

Being brave enough to say what you really feel – even when your husband is a politician – is the theme in my novel Politically Incorrect. My heroine Emily learns a lot about the importance of being true to yourself. If she had been a bit more like Miriam Clegg at the beginning… well, it would have made for a pretty short book.

Oct 28

Dialogue: Real or reactionary – that’s the question…

So, here’s the thing… how far do we allow ourselves to go down the road of naturalistic dialogue in our search for immediacy and realism? Do we venture into the grammatical bad lands of street talk with an entire first person 80,000 word book along the lines of “Me and me mates talk like that innit, tho’ ” or is an isolated use of “me and you” as opposed to “you and I” a grammatical solecism up with which we shall not put?

To turn our readers off so dramatically that they have to throw the book in the fire defeats the object after all.

A reviewer recently commented on the – er – grammatical ‘flexibility’ of the first person and dialogue sections of my first chapter, which is as far as they could bear to venture. http://authonomy.com/books/55243/politically-incorrect/ by the way. I take all constructive comment seriously – after all, people have taken the time and effort to give it – but when I think about locking down the grammar and sentence construction of the thing so it’s simple, ordered and correct I feel I’m sucking the life out of it…

Is it me? Let’s have a heated debate.

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