Barbara Allen redux

Barbara Allen is a beautiful folk song.  That is to say, it has a lovely tune.  Pity the original words were so horrendously misogynistic… so I’ve fixed that for you.  Feel free to use.

In Scarlet town where I was born
There was a fair maid dwelling;
And every youth cried “Well-a-day!”
Her name was Barbara Allen.

‘Twas in the merry month of May
When green buds they were swelling,
Young Jemmy Grove on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbara Allen.

He sent a servant unto her,
To the place she was dwelling,
Saying, “You must come to his deathbed now
If your name be Barbara Allen.”

Then in she came and said to him:
“You won’t give up, lad, will you?
But now I’m here, I have come to say
That thwarted love won’t kill you.

You never listened in the past,
But thought it was my duty
To marry you and deny you not,
Since you desire my beauty.

But beauty fades, desire as well;
And, though you call me pretty,
Would you be glad of a woman who
Would marry you for pity?

So up you get, be strong and live,
And leave your gloomy dwelling;
And seek a heart who will long for you
Instead of Barbara Allen.”

Then up he rose and donned his clothes
And left his gloomy dwelling;
He lived again, and he loved again,
Thanks to kindly Barbara Allen.

I cannot swallow this

[Content note: food, food-shaming, fat-shaming, and all the toxic stuff that goes with it, plus mental health issues.]

I’m one of those people who loses weight under acute stress.  I also used to do it when I had depression, but mercifully I don’t get that any more; I just get anxiety, which is bad enough, but it still beats depression.  This is why I tend to prefer to be on the larger side of “normal” (a word which isn’t easy to define when it comes to weight, but I suppose for me it’s the natural weight range of my body).  This means that if I do happen to get very stressed and lose weight – and it can be a lot of weight – then it does no harm, and I’m not getting stressed about the weight loss in addition to whatever else I’m stressing about.

Well, a few years ago I had some really serious stress over several months, and I lost a lot of weight, as I do.  The stress was just starting to lift when I ran into… let’s call him Diet Man.  That makes it simple.  He was hovering around outside my usual supermarket trying to hawk diets to people, and I was coming out with a trolleyload of groceries.

So there I was, minding my own business, and Diet Man came up wanting to know if I was interested in his diet.  I looked him up and down.

“Do I look as if I need a diet?” I demanded.

He eyed my underweight frame a little nervously.  “Oh.  Well, no, but of course everyone could eat better…”

I said nothing.  I just let him tail off as his eyes fell on the contents of my trolley, which was probably about two-thirds fruit and veg, because, guess what?  I like fruit and veg.  There were also a couple of bars of chocolate.  Because I like chocolate, too.

I waited.  When he looked up at me again, he stammered something about how that was very good on the whole, except for the chocolate of course, and I should be proud of myself because “most people just eat what they like”.

That was it.  I’d had enough.  “I eat what I like, you silly man!” I snapped at him, and left him standing.  I was almost tempted to go back for more chocolate, but I didn’t; he had annoyed me, and I just wanted to get home.

Now, if he hadn’t caught me on the hop, there would have been a great deal more I could have said, and that’s even if you accept the validity of dieting.  (I consider it a highly problematic area in and of itself, but that’s a matter for another post, probably by someone else who is far more eloquent than I am.)  Let’s start with the fact that he was there in the first place.  Even if dieting always worked and the weight loss was always beneficial to dieters, selling diets by buttonholing people in a public place would still be wrong.  It’s simply rude to walk up to a complete stranger who is doing their shopping and imply that they need to lose weight.

Of course, the reason Diet Man and his ilk get away with this rudeness is that there are so many people out there who do want to lose weight, even if they are actually underweight, as I was at the time; that, surely, was the only reason why he would have approached me.  Let’s be clear; I don’t have any beef against any individual person wanting to lose weight.  That is, or should be, a personal decision.  I do, however, have an enormous beef against the amount of media and society pressure there is to do so, of which Diet Man was but one very tiny part.  We are constantly bombarded with images of people who conform to one very narrow ideal (and, let’s not forget, this is highly gendered; much more is expected of someone who is read as female than of someone who is read as male), and we are told in all kinds of different ways that this is how we are supposed to look.  It’s impossible in any case; the people who are held up as models of how we should look are invariably heavily retouched.  They don’t even look like that themselves in real life, so why should the rest of us bother trying?

Let’s be real.  Just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, so also not wanting to lose weight is a perfectly cromulent attitude.  If your weight is so far to one extreme or the other that it’s affecting your health, then certainly it would help you to gain some or lose some, depending on which end of the spectrum you are; and if you have an actual eating disorder and your life is at risk, then you’re going to need some medical help to do that and I wish you all the very best.  But, for the overwhelming majority of people, whether you want to put on a bit, lose a bit or stay where you are is entirely up to you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  It’s your body, not theirs.

And while we’re at it, can we all agree that food guilt basically needs to get in the sea?  I honestly think it’s the most toxic thing anyone can possibly swallow.  Again, I could write a whole essay on this, and many people have done so; they’ve looked at it largely from the point of view of economic privilege, and that’s certainly a huge factor.  To eat what is generally accepted as a healthy diet, you first of all need a living wage, because fresh food is more expensive than heavily processed food.  Then you need to be able to get to places where you can buy food at reasonable prices, which, if you’re short of money, probably means you’re reliant on public transport; lugging a load of shopping on the bus can be difficult at the best of times, but if you’re elderly and/or disabled and/or have preschoolers in tow, that’s bordering on nightmarish, so you’ll probably tend to go to the corner shop most of the time, although it’s more expensive and doesn’t sell anything fresh.  Then you need time to prepare and cook the food… and so on.  This has all been said, and better than I could say it.

What is said far less often is that it’s not just food that impacts health.  Health also impacts food.  Even among healthy bodies, there is a large variance in ideal diet; I, for instance, have low blood pressure, which doesn’t cause me a problem as long as I remember to keep up my salt intake.  I’ve learned from many years’ experience that I won’t get dizzy spells if I treat the government salt guideline as a minimum rather than a maximum.  That’s a relatively trivial example, though.  I have friends with serious gastric conditions such as IBS, who have to live on bland, low-fibre foods.  Those who tut-tut at white bread and fudge blondies on health grounds need to be aware that they’re among the very few things some people can eat in order to avoid suffering serious ill-health.  Again, people who are on chemotherapy often can’t eat much at all due to nausea, and the standard medical advice in such cases is to eat whatever they can get down.

And, let me tell you, the same goes for mental health.  When you’re depressed and you can barely eat, you shouldn’t have to feel you need anyone else’s permission to eat whatever you can manage.  You’re barely functioning today, so your total food intake has been a bit of leftover cheese, a litre of fizzy lemonade and a packet of Jaffa Cakes?  Congratulations; it’s keeping you alive.  That’s what food is for.  It’s awesome that you’ve managed to eat enough today to do that.  Get through the immediate crisis first, do what you have to do to stay alive, and start thinking about what you’re eating only as and when you feel well enough to handle it.  Don’t let anyone try to guilt you into doing otherwise.  They are not in your situation, they can’t tell you how to handle it, and they are not your boss.  (Even if they are your boss, it’s still none of their business.)

I haven’t seen Diet Man since then, nor any of his kind.  I hope this is because the company he works for has realised that this is a lousy way to sell diets and has put him safely behind a desk, where he is possibly doing something useful like research.  I don’t know, but it’s a nice thought.

In the meantime, please pass the chocolate.

Human rights and media mendacity

We’re all sadly well used to media spin and bias, sometimes descending into outright lies (at which point, if the paper is caught, it may publish a tiny correction at the bottom of page 23 to apologise for its screaming banner headline of last week).  One of the most blatant and terrifying examples of this, to my mind, is the way some of the papers have managed to convince people that the Human Rights Act is somehow a bad thing.  Because… human rights… are terrible, yes?

What these papers will never tell you is what is actually in the Human Rights Act.  You can find an accurate summary, with a link to further information, here.  If you don’t want to click the link, or you’d rather finish reading the post first, here’s the summary on its own:

1  Right to life
2  Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment
3  Right to liberty and security
4  Freedom from slavery and forced labour
5  Right to a fair trial
6  No punishment without law
7  Respect for your private and family life, home and correspondence
8  Freedom of thought, belief and religion
9  Freedom of expression
10  Freedom of assembly and association
11  Right to marry and start a family
12  Protection from discrimination in respect of these rights and freedoms
13  Right to peaceful enjoyment of your property
14  Right to education
15  Right to participate in free elections

I’m very tempted to say “I’ll just leave that there” and drop my metaphorical mike.  However, I think there is actually more to say.  Those who talk gleefully about abolishing the Human Rights Act, including the editorial staff at the Daily Mail, don’t seem to want to lose this list of rights for themselves.  Oh, no.  They want to deny them to others.

Listen up, Daily Mail.  It doesn’t work like that.  The Human Rights Act is already surrounded by all kinds of caveats and qualifications to ensure that nobody can take advantage of it to take rights away from other people; an obvious example of that is that if I were to depart so far from my usual character as to walk into your office and assault your editor, I would – quite rightly – be deprived of my right to liberty for a while.  That’s how things work.  It doesn’t take away from the original idea of the Human Rights Act, which was brought in following WWII with the specific intention of codifying universal human rights so that there would be clear legal recourse against anyone like Hitler who tried to take them away again.

Oh, wait.  The Daily Mail supported Hitler.  Maybe I’ll just leave that there.

No, Daily Mail.  You can’t just blithely assume that if the Human Rights Act is abolished, you and all your readers will continue to enjoy the same level of protection as if it remained.  The Human Rights Act protects all of us.  You want to get rid of the “freedom of thought, belief and religion” clause because it protects Muslims?  You’ve just lost your freedom to practise whatever beliefs you have if someone in power dictates otherwise.  You want to remove the right to marry and start a family because of all those LGBT people you don’t approve of?  You’ve just left yourselves wide open to attack from anyone deciding that some group that you belong to shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

All right.  I’ll stop talking to the Daily Mail now and talk directly to you, the person reading this.  If, having read this, you agree that the Human Rights Act is important and should be preserved, then the most important thing you can do is tell people what is in it.  Share the link above, this post, or both.  Talk about it.  Even if you’re not in the parts of the UK likely to be affected (Scotland, I hear, is safe), you can help by spreading the information.  If significant parts of the mainstream media want us to oppose something, the very least they can do is give us a clear picture of what it is they want us to oppose.  Instead, it’s the sections of the media in favour of the Human Rights Act which will tell you about it in detail, not those against.

I will at some time be producing materials which can be freely shared electronically or printed as flyers.  I’m not going to give a specific date for that because I suffer from anxiety, and it’s not good at the moment.  When they’re ready, I will share them via this blog and you are all welcome to use them as you wish.

I don’t know about you, but I want to keep my basic human rights.

When the answer is not “try harder”

The day after the election, I was in such a state of panic I could barely function.  If you don’t understand why, I’m not going to jump down your throat; there are plenty of good people who don’t, because the mainstream media has been at best neglectful and at worst outright misleading about reporting the damage that has already been caused by austerity.  If that’s all you read, and you’re reasonably comfortable yourself, then of course it’s going to be difficult for you to see how much is wrong.  Nobody has ever pointed it out to you.  Generally speaking, you will get much better information from local newspapers; also, the Scottish media tends, on the whole, to be better than the English media.

I don’t have a job.  I haven’t had one for quite a while now, and absolutely not for want of trying.  I am mildly disabled and not in perfect health, but nowhere near the level at which I would be unable to work; however, I am physically unable to drive or lift anything heavy, which disqualifies me from a lot of jobs I could otherwise do perfectly well.  There are jobs advertised, and I diligently go through them and apply for the ones I can do.  I also make a lot of speculative applications to compensate for the fact that my available choice is limited.  (I even got an interview from one of those once, so if you’re in the same position, they’re not a complete waste of time.)

Now, at least on paper, I’m pretty employable.  I have decent office skills, outstanding people skills (in the areas of negotiation, diplomacy, consensus-finding, counselling and training; I’m an introvert and my skills reflect that), and specific talents for proofreading and anything involving numbers or logic.  The health problems are a bit of a nuisance, but wouldn’t be a massive problem in a desk job. (The main difficulty they caused in my last job was that I needed a special small kettle because I couldn’t pour from the standard-sized one.  Hardly earth-shattering.)

The two things that are mainly keeping me out of a job are not related to my health.  The first one is the simple fact that I don’t have a job; employers are far more likely to select candidates who are already employed, and, once again, the mainstream media is really not helping in that respect.  If an employer constantly reads in the papers that unemployed people are “lazy” and “workshy”, and that living on benefits is a “choice” and a “lifestyle”, then they are far less likely to take on someone who is unemployed… even though the very fact that that person has applied for their job gives the lie to everything the papers are saying.  (Incidentally, anyone who thinks I can choose and I have a “lifestyle” is welcome to it.  We can swap.  I’ll have your job.  Thanks.)

The other factor is far more serious.  There simply isn’t enough work available for everyone.  When I last checked (at the end of last year), for every advertised vacancy there were around 5 unemployed people and 13 underemployed people (that is to say, people not able to work enough hours to get off benefits).  Those figures are from the TUC; the government will no doubt tell you something slightly different, but even the last lot of government figures I saw made it very clear that there isn’t enough work to go round.  Workfare schemes make that even worse; if employers can get profitable work done for nothing by unemployed people, that means there are even fewer paid jobs available for everyone.

Now, any sane and reasonable government would react to this by either instituting a universal basic income or doing its best to create as many jobs as possible.  I think the first option is the only reasonable one in the long run, given the fact that we have increasing automation; this country already produces enough to support everyone comfortably if resources were fairly distributed.  The second option is good too, at least in the short term; but this government is not doing either.  It reacts to a shortage of work by penalising the very people who are unable to get it.  The message is clear: “keep trying harder and harder, or we’ll take away everything you have to live on”.

I will cheerfully admit to a level of personal bias here.  The constant fear of sanctions – which can be, and are, inflicted for the most trivial and unfair of reasons – has probably done more than anything else to wreck my mental health.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who could say that.  I’m at least relatively fortunate in that I’m not dead yet; others have not been so lucky.  Unlike some, I have not starved to death, died of hypothermia (it’s true I can’t heat the house, but I can move around and I don’t get cold easily), succumbed to a health condition due to being unable to keep medications chilled, or committed suicide through poverty and despair.  But even if by some miracle nobody had yet died or had their health adversely affected, this is still completely Alice in Wonderland logic on the government’s part.

Think of it this way.  Suppose there was a shortage of food.  Most people would do their bit to ensure that nobody starved, and anyone who hoarded food would be censured by the majority.  But when it comes to employment, we’re all supposed to take the opposite approach: grab it for ourselves, and then be blamed if we’re unable to do so.  Then, to add insult to injury, we get told we don’t want it in the first place.

No.  Nobody wants to live in poverty and fear.  Everyone wants the chance to make a decent living.  I’ve tried to start my own business three times (twice on my own, once with a friend), and on all three occasions failed through not having enough capital behind me.  With a basic income, I would be able to start my own business, but it’s almost impossible to do it on poverty benefits.  Failing that, I want a job, and I will not be told otherwise.  And now, if that’s possible, I need one even more urgently than before: partly in order to become less vulnerable myself, and partly so I can be in a better position to help other people, because I assure you they are going to need it.

The Sun is quite happy to pay Katie Hopkins to be cruel.  Who’s up for paying me to be – among many other things – kind?

Young blood

I’m 51, which is old enough to have seen quite a lot of changes.  Many of them, without question, have been for the better; the Internet not only takes a great deal of the stress out of shopping, but, more importantly, has enabled me to meet a vast range of people I would never otherwise meet, listen to them, and learn from them.  But they have by no means all been good.  I grew up in a country where, if a person was unable to work for whatever reason, there was at least decent legislation in place to ensure that they could survive.  The legislation, I think, is still on the books; but it is ignored so much in practice that there is no longer any guarantee of survival.  I am having extreme difficulty finding a job, so this is terrifying even for me.  I can only imagine what it is like for those who cannot work at all due to illness or disability.  It seems that every week I hear about some poor soul who has died as a result of benefit sanctions, or as a result of being declared fit for work when they are manifestly not so.

I have anxiety.  The General Election has been making this worse for months; I have been living in increasing terror that we are going to end up with more of the same.  Today the voting is going on, and I am not in a good state.  I am, however, in a better state than I might otherwise have been in.  And that is, very largely, down to a teenage girl.  Although I’m not part of the present-day Labour Party’s natural constituency (I’m the sort who will vote Labour if it will keep the Tories out, but pick a more progressive party in a safe Labour seat), I have been hugely inspired and heartened by a 17-year-old activist on Twitter known only as Abby, who started the “Milifandom” and, in so doing, has got an entire cohort of young people engaging with political issues.  She is intelligent, articulate and positive, and a huge breath of fresh air in an increasingly scary society.

She happens to be in the limelight at the moment, but she’s not unique.  If she were, she wouldn’t be in the limelight, because her movement would never have got off the ground in the first place.  There are very many thoughtful, intelligent young people out there with progressive ideas.  What Abby has done is special; she has brought them (or, at any rate, many of them) together into a movement.  But – thank the Lord – all those young people were already out there, waiting for that spark to ignite them.  And that gives me hope.

Too often I see young people being put down, ignored, or discriminated against.  I find it shocking that it is not only legal, but considered generally acceptable, to pay younger workers less for doing the same job than older ones, and to pay out lower benefits to younger people who need them, as if younger people somehow had lower expenses than older ones.  I have heard all the disparaging phrases used to put people down simply for being young: “you’ll grow out of it”, “it’s just a phase”, “you don’t know who you really are yet”, and even “no, that’s not what you really want” (after having been told in no uncertain terms that it is).

Older people: stop it.  Please.  We need to be listening to young people, because they know exactly who they are and what they want, and they don’t yet have the experience to “know” that their inspired ideas can’t be done (granted, some of them can’t; but some of them can, and there is no way of telling unless someone is willing to try wholeheartedly).  Of course young people don’t have all the answers, but neither do we older folks, and it’s high time to stop pretending we do.  There needs to be a respectful two-way conversation, not us oldies spending all our time trying to tell the young ‘uns they don’t know anything.  That doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from our experience; often they can.  I spend a great deal of my time online reassuring younger people that certain things improve a lot as you get older, and telling them what society was like when I was their age so that they can make informed comparisons.  But it very much goes the other way, too.  I would have no idea how hard it is for young asexual people in schools these days if I didn’t listen to them telling me about it online, for the simple reason that when I was at school it wasn’t hard to be asexual.  It was, in fact, pretty much expected.

So.  Thank you, Abby.  Thank you, all Abby’s friends and followers.  Please keep going.  And don’t ever let anyone try to shut you up.

The right to offend?

I used to know someone – let us call him Sandbank, since he was the sort of person on whose opinions other people tended to run aground – who was very fond of claiming the “right to offend”.  I do rather wonder how he might have reacted if I had replied, “You are pompous, arrogant, totally lacking in all forms of empathy, and emotionally abusive.  There.  I’m claiming my right to offend.”

Well, I didn’t do that, of course.  Partly that was because it’s simply not my style; I’m the old-fashioned sort of British eccentric in some ways, and I tend to deal with things politely (though there is also such a thing as weapons-grade politeness, and I can use it when needed).  Mainly, though, it was for the sheer pragmatic reason that it wouldn’t have done any good.  Sandbank would not have become a nicer person if I’d directly called him out; if anything, he would have behaved even worse towards me than he generally did.  I’d have got my “right to offend”, but both of us would have lost.

Since I managed to break off communications with Sandbank, I’ve been thinking a good deal about why anyone would want the “right to offend”, and what sort of people tend to want it.  I’ve been quietly watching social media to see who uses that kind of terminology.  Let’s see, now.  Jeremy Clarkson and some of his more vociferous male followers.  Some of the louder members of GamerGate.  Certain right-wing journalists.  In short, these are people who have no problem making their voices heard.  They expect to be heard.  They have the privilege of a platform and a large audience.

What about marginalised people?  In particular, what about those whose struggle to get their voices heard is literally a matter of life and death?  I’m thinking of two particular categories here: black people in America, and trans women more or less everywhere.  I can honestly say I have never seen anyone in either of those categories write about “the right to offend”.  Marginalised people have a different priority: being heard.  Sometimes, they may offend someone in order to do that, but that’s a side effect of a system where people aren’t being listened to in the first place.  No marginalised person ever says “I have a right to offend people”, except, just maybe, in the larger context of “I have a right to be heard (and if I have to offend anyone to get that, so be it).”

But then, the people who want to be able to offend, full stop, don’t have that problem.  They confidently expect to be heard.  Why should someone like Jeremy Clarkson, or for that matter Sandbank (a man who didn’t have a large platform, but who did very much go through life assuming that his Y chromosome entitled him to automatic deference), find it so necessary to be allowed to offend others in order to get his point across?

To answer that, we have to look at who they offend.  Jeremy Clarkson doesn’t make off-colour jokes about, say, David Cameron.  Katie Hopkins is never snide about people who win the lottery and immediately give up their jobs (not having a paid job is unproductive only if you’re poor, gentlebeings, didn’t you know?).  Sandbank never said anything that could possibly be construed as offensive to straight cis men.  Those who think offending people is such a wonderful idea never do it to their own kind.

No; this “right” that they claim is nothing more nor less than a licence to say what they like about People Who Are Not Like Them (which almost always means marginalised or minority groups) without any comeback.  Often, it’s in the interests of so-called “humour”, and if anyone complains they get the response, “Can’t you take a joke?”  Most likely, that person is as capable of taking a joke as anyone else; what the “joker” doesn’t understand is that it isn’t just one joke.  They are unable to see from the other person’s point of view, and therefore it never occurs to them that their one thoughtless remark – which may well, taken on its own, be fairly innocuous – is, to that other person, part of a constant barrage.  Anyone who is regularly mocked, belittled, threatened or otherwise abused can hardly be blamed to reacting badly to someone joking against them, especially when the “joker” does not have to put up with any of it.

Ultimately, claiming a “right to offend” is a failure of empathy.  Those who do so are saying, “I don’t have to listen to these people.  I don’t have to pay any attention to their feelings.  They are not important.”  If you are brave enough to challenge that attitude, you are liable to be labelled “politically correct”, which, as we all know, is a snide way of saying that you are asking the speaker to respect people they don’t want to have to be bothered to respect.  There is generally no arguing with such people, unless you happen to belong to their own group.  Otherwise, your opinion will be brushed aside as unimportant and you will go away feeling bruised.

Seriously, though.  What sort of human being thinks it’s so important to be allowed to offend other people anyway, even if we don’t take into account who they are?

The music, the maestro and the meringue

Yes, I do indeed have serious things I could be blogging about; but I greatly doubt that my anxiety is going to let me do that before the election is over, so here’s a funny story instead.

I have a good friend whom I’ll refer to as Star Tenor, since it describes him appropriately.  He has one of those light, precise voices ideally suited to baroque and early music, so that’s what he mostly sings (though he has been known to bring the house down singing Vaughan Williams).  When I had the money, I used to get to his concerts quite regularly, including the occasional one on the Continent.  On this particular occasion, some four years ago, he was one of the soloists in a programme of Purcell in Ghent performed by a well-known early music ensemble which, for reasons which are about to become obvious, I will not name.

Now, when I go to a concert, I bake.  I started out by baking a little something for Star Tenor, but he’s generous and shares it with the other musicians, so now I tend to bake in proportion to the likely size of the forces.  If it’s a St Matthew Passion, there’ll be more than if it’s a small chamber concert.  I prefer to do something different every time if I can, and on this occasion I had set my heart on baking a layered chocolate meringue creation.  I made one in advance and tested it on my work colleagues (I think it’s fair to say I was quite popular in my last job), and it went down a storm.

At this point, you may very well be thinking, “But, Makepeace, you said the concert was in Ghent.”  Yes, indeed; but I wasn’t planning to transport the assembled creation on the Eurostar.  Even if I’d felt confident about doing so, it would have been a bad idea, as the test run demonstrated that the meringue went soggy within a few hours.  My intention was to pack the meringue layers and the filling separately, and assemble the whole thing in situ during the concert interval.  However, for that I knew I’d need some space backstage.

I’m used to backstage, because I’m known, so I had no qualms about e-mailing the ensemble and explaining what I wanted.  I was rather taken aback to get a panic-stricken reply from the maestro himself.  He really didn’t want me to do the meringue thing.  Not at all, in fact.  You see, he was afraid that his musicians would drop bits of it all over the venue and never be invited back.

I had no idea that this highly respected ensemble were such messy eaters, but what do you do?  I naturally e-mailed him back to reassure him I’d do something else.  In fact I made a rich chocolate cake, the kind that is moist and dense enough not to crumble much.  I trust that made him happy.  It certainly seemed to delight the musicians.  When I told Star Tenor what had happened, he was a little surprised to learn that he and his colleagues were messy eaters too, but he still found it as amusing as I did.

There will be other concerts.  One day, they’ll get their meringue. 🙂

Social Justice Fanfic

In my last post, I talked about why I identify with, and write about, Ardsley Wooster.  In this one, I’m going to talk about what I’ve been doing with the character in my fanfic.

I’ve written a number of stories set in the approximate present (with respect to the Girl Genius timeline) or the past, but the majority of them are set in the future.  I left a deliberate time gap so that I could, as far as possible, avoid outright canon clashes; the future stories start with The Ambassador, in which Wooster – now Sir Ardsley Wooster, the new British Ambassador – succeeds in re-establishing his old friendship with Gil, much to the relief of both of them.  That story is pivotal.  Everything else in my fanon from that point is built on it.

Sir Ardsley goes from strength to strength.  On the basis of that friendship, he turns the Wulfenbach Empire from a permanent headache for his country to one of its most valued allies.  Eventually, he is raised to the peerage, becoming the Earl of Heversham.  (Heversham, for the curious, exists; it is a village in Cumbria through which I used to cycle quite often as a teenager.)  By the time we get to Her Own Decision, he is powerful enough to have no fear of a run-in with the Intelligence Service, and even sends his old boss away with a well-deserved flea in her ear.  He is now, in fact, about as privileged as it’s possible for him to become.

And here’s the thing.  While part of this was undoubtedly about getting him out of the spying business for the sake of his mental health – his skills are far better suited to diplomacy than spying, because at bottom he wants everyone to win as far as possible – it’s also very much about how he becomes privileged, and what he does with all that privilege once he’s got it.  He gets where he does because he is an outstanding negotiator, and once he’s finally put into the position where he can use those skills to best advantage, he does so with aplomb.  And the reason why he’s such a good negotiator is precisely the reason why being a spy is problematic for him: he cares about people.

In this universe, you don’t tend to become rich and powerful because you’re a decent person, so there’s partly a bit of escapism there and partly a critique of our own universe.  I’m saying “well… maybe you should.”

And what does he do with his privilege?  Well, he uses it as far as possible to benefit those who do not have it.  He constantly speaks up on behalf of ordinary people, particularly if there is war or the threat of one.  In Law and Disorder, Gil sends him off to investigate the murders of a number of sex workers in a small town.  In stark contrast to the local police, he does this by working with the women, and has no problem at all when one of them takes the lead in suggesting a plan to catch the murderer.  Not that he is at all shy about taking the lead himself when he knows he is the right person to do so, as we see in How the War was Won, where he not only takes the lead from Gil and Tarvek but coolly gives Tarvek a direct order.  But he neither grabs it nor hangs onto it out of sheer ego; and, consequently, when he does take the lead, nobody argues.

In all of this, the take-away lesson for our own universe is that privilege, in itself, is not something anyone should be blamed for having.  What matters is how you use it, and Mr Wooster (or Sir Ardsley, or the Earl of Heversham, depending where you are in his timeline) is pretty much written as an object lesson in how to do that.  I have a not-so-secret hope that some of our politicians are Girl Genius fans and will find and enjoy the stories some day.

Sometimes I also use the specific contours of the Girl Genius universe to pull the reader up short over ours.  The example I’m most proud of is in Sikh and Ye Shall Find, where Lord Heversham and friends are trying to track down a young British Sikh (with an obviously Asian name) who has been kidnapped.  In fact, she’s one jump ahead of everyone, but when she sees Lord Heversham she has no idea who he is.  From his appearance and the conversation, she thinks he may be Indian (I have, in fact, made him a quarter Indian in my fanon).  He replies that he is, in fact, as British as she is.

That’s completely matter-of-fact in the Girl Genius universe.  Nobody bats an eyelid, which is as it should be.  In ours, various UKIPpers would be having kittens if they read that.  I suspect many members of UKIP would also have trouble accepting that a somewhat brown-skinned man with an Indian grandfather could be a loyal servant of the British Crown in the first place, which may well be one of the reasons why I decided not only to bring that idea in but also to lay a bit of stress on it.  I’m not a troll; I’m not actively out to annoy the right wing.  But I certainly am out to challenge the idea that there are people who are somehow of less value than other people, and if that winds up a few UKIP supporters, so be it.

The contours work the other way round sometimes, too.  Mr Wooster demonstrates regularly that he’d rather talk than fight, but there are often times when he has to fight and even kill to defend himself or others, simply because of the lack of organised policing.  (That does get better as time goes on.)  Within that universe, it’s not a contradiction to have a good character using force at times; what matters is how and when the character chooses to use it.  In our own universe, it is reasonable to believe he would avoid force altogether, especially once he manages to get out of spying.  But it makes little sense to try to analyse a character outside their own context, unless, of course, you happen to be writing a crossover; and even that can throw up some unexpected surprises.

This brings me neatly to the issue of mental health.  As I mentioned in my last post, I think Mr Wooster has PTSD.  I’ve written an entire back story to this based on one specific incident which is recounted in The Russian Princess, and Mr Wooster looks back in some detail about how that affected him in Letter to a Young Spy.  Again, I’ve laid a bit of stress on the mental health angle; Mr Wooster’s suicidal ideation is mentioned in several of the stories, and he becomes more open about it as he grows older.  It’s also strongly hinted that he suffers from nightmares.  There’s nothing obvious said about his having flashbacks; my personal headcanon is that he does, but only when he’s put in a position where he may be forced to kill someone, and he is increasingly good at avoiding that kind of situation.  What is clearly true is that he gets stressed very easily.  (I love the way that’s shown in the comics: he’s always well dressed, but his hair usually looks a mess, because he’s been running his hands through it.)  Stress or no stress, he manages to function, and function well, when needed; but, from my own experience, I’m sure he pays for that afterwards.

And that’s really important.  He does function.  He is highly intelligent, competent and kind, and he is also mentally ill.  There is no contradiction there.  I’ve explicitly made him into a standing rebuke to the school of thought that believes everyone with a mental illness is unintelligent, useless or potentially dangerous.  Yes, he’s a fictional character, but that aspect of him is based on so many amazing people I know who happen to have mental health problems.  It’s grounded in solid reality.

The narratives we have about other people affects the way we treat them.  Some of the narratives that some people have are, frankly, pretty toxic.  As a writer, I want to help change those narratives for the better… even when I’m just writing fanfic.

Why Wooster?

Full disclosure: I’m a non-gendered asexual.  Girl Genius stands out for its strong female characters, and there would have been nothing to stop me from identifying with, and/or writing about, one of them.  What in particular made me choose Ardsley Wooster?

To start with, a good deal of it is the very fact that the Girl Genius universe is as it is.  There is still discrimination in it, but it runs on rather different lines.  There is very little discernible sexism or inter-human racism (though it’s still unfortunately possible to be discriminated against for the simple fact of being a Jäger, as the Boyz will tell you).  There is, however, an awful lot of class prejudice going on, and, reading between the lines, nowhere more so than in Britain.

In canon, Mr Wooster is pretty much disposable, from the point of view of his own authorities.  He is, of course, an excellent spy, and they do stop short of throwing him out of the Service altogether, presumably because they don’t want to waste all that training if they can help it; but there is no indication that they are concerned about him as a person, or give him any more support than he technically needs to do the job.  During the recent story arc, his help is vital to get Agatha and friends into England, but that is not emphasised; often he looks, and probably feels, like something of a spare wheel.  Though he can fight when he needs to, he can’t do it as well as any of his female companions, and he knows that full well.

So, right from the start, he’s a bit of an underdog.  Read the comic carefully, however, and you begin to realise that he is not only extremely intelligent, he’s also remarkably nice.  That is easily missed, because he tends to stay out of the limelight.  Consider:

  • When the circus is attacked by the Baron’s forces, he’s the only one who reads the situation and slips through the ring to counter-attack from the rear.  That’s superb tactical thinking.
  • He is almost always the person who supplies the information dump when we need one.  He has an outstanding memory.
  • When Agatha finds him in the caves, he agrees briefly with her statement that he has been unfairly blamed, but then he immediately goes on to catch her up on recent events.  He doesn’t go off on a massive self-pitying rant, although I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had, and I’m sure neither would Agatha.  He seems to have very little in the way of ego.
  • He’s perfectly willing to smear his own character (by implication) in the interests of preventing Brother Ulm from trying to kill Agatha again.  Again, not a lot of ego there.
  • We see him regularly putting Agatha’s needs before his own in a number of small ways, and it’s very clear that he is not in love with her.  (He does admire her a great deal, possibly more than he knows; but that’s not the same thing.)  In particular, he’s willing to work with Krosp, whom I suspect he normally couldn’t stand, in Agatha’s interests.

And, as if all that was not enough to warm me to the man, I’m certain he’s got a mental health problem.  (I have anxiety.  I think Mr Wooster has PTSD, but I’ll talk about that in a later post.)  He’s highly intelligent and competent, but he’s also very prone to stress.  He is for ever running his hands through his hair when things get a bit much, which can sometimes happen simply because he’s explaining something to someone.  Yet, mental health problem or no, he still always somehow manages to do what is needed at the time.  I suspect sometimes he has to go away and sit somewhere quiet for a while afterwards.  Not that he’d tell us that.

That, then, is essentially why Wooster.  In the next post I’ll talk about how I’ve moved him on in time from the original canon, what I’ve done with him and why, and how he fits with the general concept of Social Justic Fanfic.  Please stay tuned!

A catalogue of fanfic

So I have rather a lot of fanfic here.  I’ve had one or two people ask me the best place to start reading, but that is quite a difficult question to answer because it depends very much on what they like.

I’ve therefore catalogued everything.  In the catalogue, the stories are arranged in roughly the order in which the events narrated in them happen (some of them involve Mr Wooster narrating the events to someone else at a later period).  This is not the order in which they were written, and therefore not the order in which they appear on AO3.  If anyone is enthusiastic enough to want to read the whole lot, that is the order in which they are best read; but, for everyone else, I have picked out six major subplots and indicated which stories belong to them.  The key to the numbers is at the bottom of the list.

I haven’t included any notes for potentially problematic or triggering content, because those are all attached to the individual stories on the site.  They are in the keywords at the head of each story, or (where the potential trigger is more complex) in an opening note.

Here’s the catalogue.  I hope you find it helpful!

Girl Genius fanfic catalogue