In the hours after it emerged that Andreas Lubitz had deliberately crashed his plane into a mountainside, the media scrabbled desperately for traction. Initial reports contained basic information, and almost invariably added that police had given no details about the pilot’s ‘ethnicity or religious affiliation’; what wasn’t said became the news. The implication was obvious; they had set themselves down the terrorism road, preparing the way for Lubitz to be announced as a Turkish immigrant, a Muslim, a fanatic, a jihadist. Such rhetoric is easy meat nowadays, allowing for the recirculation of old news, lazy analysis and rampant scapegoating.
But then it became obvious Lubitz wasn’t either Muslim or dark skinned, and the other rhetoric emerged; he was, in the words of The Sun, a ‘Madman in the Cockpit,’ a ’crazed rookie pilot’. The Daily Mail, reporting Lubitz’ depression, asked ‘why on earth was he allowed to fly?’ If you can’t catch a Muslim out, it seems, go for the trusty backup of the lunatic.
There was an immediate backlash against this type of reporting, from mental health charities like Mind, Time to Change, and Rethink Mental Health, to reasoned and empathetic articles in the broadsheet press; on noticeboards too, casual prejudices were challenged.
But of course, in the wall-to-wall media age, the initial trumpet call is the one everyone remembers as the loudest, the one that got their attention. Depression, because of a few screaming headlines, is now associated in the minds of the great British public with mass murder.
It makes those who speak out about their issues – including, just last week, me – more than a little wary. If the biggest selling newspapers in the country are demanding restrictions on the ability of people with mental health issues to work, then that drip feeds into the public consciousness, despite the fact up to 25% of that public consciousness will be suffering a mental health issue at that very moment in time.
Think about that 25%. It means that of the 150,000 commercial pilots worldwide, 37,000 of them might be suffering from depression. If the screaming headlines and easy stereotypes had any basis in truth, planes would be falling from the sky; they aren’t. Andreas Lubitz says as much about people with depression – or about airline pilots – as Harold Shipman says about doctors or Peter Sutcliffe says about lorry drivers.
That’s because this wasn’t a suicide; it was a mass murder, a spree killing. Such occurrences are exotic, sensational, a tabloid’s wet dream, and the chase is always on to find the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s family, the motive, the cause. News agencies are lost when such copy isn’t available; I remember the almost total nihilistic vacuum after the Hungerford massacre, simply because no-one had any details and could tell nothing about the inscrutable Michael Ryan. Such a blank slate does not make good news.
So a hook is needed. Never mind that Lubitz was 150 times more homicidal than he was suicidal; his depression made him a crazed loon (despite the fact that the cockpit data clearly indicates he was quiet, breathing regularly, totally composed – much like Ryan was as he prowled the streets picking off his victims). He was depressed, he killed 150 people, so depressed people are dangerous.
Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, was a Muslim, a pilot and, according to criminal justice professor Adam Lankford, arguably a depressive. None of these, even combined, explains why he did what he did. Throw in the psychopathy of fanaticism, the influences of religious mania and political dogma, alienation, and we may just begin to find a tenth of an explanation for what he did, if any explanation could ever be adequate. Now, reports are beginning to filter through that Lubitz had told an ex-girlfriend that he would ‘do something… and everyone will know my name and remember”; and so psychotic narcissism is woven into the rhetoric.
And the rhetoric is carefully constructed. On March 20th, New Orleans airport was attacked by a man wielding a machete who was armed with Molotov cocktails. It was a classic attack using the classic weapons of the amateur terrorist; but given the man was a 63-year old and white, the prospect of him ever being dubbed such is minimal. ‘Mental health issues’ have been identified as a ‘component’, but the tone is one of sadness; no innocent was killed and the attacker, who was shot dead, is largely given a free pass. Similarly, the news media singularly fails to identify the 2010 Austin federal building plane attacker Joseph Stack as a terrorist, and right wing terrorists in the US have committed almost 6 times as many terrorist attacks resulting in homicide as Muslims between 1990 and 2010. The authorities and the media, though, drastically under-report these ‘because of cultural double standards’.
So we have to question every narrative. We have to ask not only what truth there is in what we’re being told, but also what truth we aren’t being told. We have to interrogate the political motives of those who want us to believe that narrative. And then we should probably reject it all, because such glib chattering does us no good, offers no enlightenment, adds nothing to our humanity.
Just released is Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, ‘The Price of Shame’. I’ve always thought Lewinsky to be a proud, beautiful, resourceful young woman who was thrown to the wolves, as women always are by men in power. She says, with a hint of a shake of the head at the stupidity of her younger self, that at 22 she fell in love with her boss, and at the age of 24, ‘learned the devastating consequences’, becoming painted in headlines and the ensuing social media shitstorm as a tramp, a tart, a slut, a whore, a bimbo and, by the very man she loved, ‘that woman.’
She makes an impassioned plea that I think has a lot of relevance here; she asks for a new culture of compassion and empathy. At one telling point, she asks the audience to ‘imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.’ That’s something that is lost on today’s tabloid journalists; despite the fact that 25% of them will walk in a headline that demonises a sufferer of depression, they are too well paid or too afraid of their editors to make the leap of empathy necessary to just shut the fuck up for a moment.
Lewinsky finishes with an explanation for her talk; it’s time, she says, to ‘take back my narrative.’ We should all follow her example.
Hot on the heels of finalising their list of Scottish writers to be studied at National 4 and 5, the SQA have announced the finalised structure of the Scottish Studies award that offers an interdisciplinary course of study for learners to “broaden their understanding and appreciation of the society in which they live.” And I’m all for that. Bolted on to the core mandatory unit – called “Scottish Studies: Scotland in Focus” and the least fleshed out of them all (learners will “plan and complete an activity that has a Scottish focus…. [which] will depend on the resources available in centres and the skills and interests of learners”, we are told) – are four “groups”: Language and Literature, Society and Environment, Arts and Culture and Business, Industry and Employment. Students must choose three units from at least two of these groups to complete the award.
First of all, I have a significant problem with the subjects under Business, Industry and Employment promoting a pro-business , pro-growth capitalist agenda, and I think it is a problem I have with much of the “Responsible Citizens” quartile of the Curriculum for Excellence. Quite frankly, it promotes acquiescence, the acceptance of social and economic norms that have brought the world to the brink of a precipice of injustice. Does any part of what is on offer celebrate New Lanark, David Dale and Robert Owen, the Red Clydesiders, the UCS sit-in? What about union studies? What about Co-operative studies? Worker rights? Economics for change? Green economics in an environmental Scotland? It sees to me that the syllabus looks back at preserving where we are, and doesn’t look forward to what we might be.
I have to say that I believe good citizenship goes much, much further than how it seems to be defined by Scotland’s educators at the moment: indeed, I believe that the good citizen should often be a difficult and cranky individual for those in authority. Was Jimmy Reid a “good citizen”? I certainly think so.
We are excellent at developing cultures in school whereby children expend a great deal of time, energy and emotion in running charities, from aid for foreign countries to Christmas boxes for old age pensioners. And they probably should. However, what we are not good at is creating the environment in which children can question the underlying context of these activities. Why, in 2013, do old people need charitable gift boxes to give them something to look forward to over the festive season? Why do working families need food banks? What are the geopolitical forces that keep developing countries in poverty and in need of charity from developed nations? What are the economic structures that create inequality and injustice and, more to the point, what can young people responsibly do to challenge and change that? For that reason, I believe good citizenship education in Scottish Studies should also teach children how to question, challenge, protest, organise and campaign.
But even bigger than that gripe is the content of the Language and Literature grouping. According to Matthew Fitt, that warrior who has, more than most, fought tirelessly for the regeneration of Scots as a language in a healthy, self-governing Scotland, reports, “The framers of the award are not planning to include Scots Units on the grounds that there is ‘no demand’ for them. Quite what a Scots Unit may contain should be open to discussion but I think that the claim there is ‘no demand’ is questionable to say the least.”
There are ten Gaelic and two English units in Language and Literature – and no Scots. None. At a time when Scottish literature is bursting at the seams with writers who are exploring and evolving the language – prose writers like James Roberston and Suhayl Saadi and Irvine Welsh and Fitt himself (for God’s sake, read “Butt n Ben A-Go-Go” if you want to see for yourself the dizzying possibilities of the language) – there is, apparently, no demand for Scots in Scottish Studies.
Quite how the framers of the award came to this preposterous conclusion is beyond me. I can only assume they consulted po-faced tweed wearing suckers of Werthers’ Originals (to which I am quite partial myself) Liz Lochead exposed in “Bairnsang” who complain about children using “yous” because it’s just not proper English. You are right, Daphne; it’s not proper English; but it’s bloody guid Scots.
Despite the fact that I can’t speak it, I love Gaelic, and am on record time and time again advocating it’s preservation like an endangered species. I feel the same way about Scots. With an English mother and a Silesian father, I am not a particularly prolific speaker of it, and only an occasional writer of it. I think one of its greatest difficulties is that it has become seen as the language of creativity, and has largely lost its former functional, expository usage; in other words, it is the language of “imagination” (never a comfortable concept for politicians and examination boards) and not of business or commerce or law. And yet it used to be, and is becoming again: hell, the Scottish government itself translates its document into Scots. So where on earth does the idea that there is no demand for the language come from?
And for all you non-Scottish readers – it most definitely is a language, not an English dialect. Had James VI not chosen to have his Bible published in English, and had English not been codified into a dictionary, and had the heroes of the Scottish Enlightenment not looked down their noses at the Scottish tongues they grew up around, we may well all be speaking forms of Scots around the globe today, rather than the mighty imperial English.
And to deny it its place in Scottish Studies while celebrating the heedrum hodrum of Scottish dance seems to me absurd, obtuse, elitist, stuck up and, godammit, English.
Well, I’ve gone and got myself banned from Huffington Post. I liked Ariana Huffington’s news site after discovering the US edition in 2009. There, it’s a place for moderate and liberal views, and is generally anti-Republican, anti-Tea Party and anti-Fox News. Posters there are intelligent and well informed, and I’m not just saying that because I agree with them; threads are no stranger to facts, figures, statistics, logic and insight.
The UK version, which started earlier this year, if so different. Yes, there are a number of posters who, like me, come from a largely liberal, anti-racist, economically left wing viewpoint; however, mainly it is inhabited by the most ignorant blowhards whose Daily Mail mentality and pro-capital punishment and anti-immigrationist stance is utterly depressing in its lack of wit.
The latest flame war began with a story about the EDL demonstrations in Walsall. Despite the fact that the EDL – odious as they are – profess not to be anti-immigrationist but anti-Islamic fundamentalism, the board quickly began to fill up with the type of comment that would have you choking back the vomit. How do you even begin to debate with someone who channels the spirit of Enoch Powell:
“There will be blood on our streets soon because the normally peaceful Brit is getting fed up and our patience is running very thin. If you kick a dog enough he will eventually bite you. Watch out Islam you are shaking the tail of a very dangerous tiger here. ”
All was there: Islamists are barbarians, state funded Muslim schools are taking over the country, Sharia law will rule us all. Of course, ask these half wits to name one single Sharia law that they have to obey, and the result is deafening silence or, as happens frequently, they point out that I must be an immigrant myself because I don’t have a British name. The cry is that if I “don’t like it”, I should “go back home”: but actually I am perfectly happy with multicultural Britain, and so it is the EDL and their supporters who should go elsewhere if they aren’t content with the nature of 21st century Britain.
And some of them do indeed suggest that emigration is the only way to maintain their “way of life”, that beer-swilling, flag-waving, shaven-headed intimidation that they think is so representative of “British culture”. Go abroad, they say, where they can mingle with like-minded people. So what they suggest is that Little Englanders who don’t like a multicultural Britain should become immigrants in another country where they will be welcomed in a way they didn’t welcome immigrants to Britain by people who share their view of immigrants. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course, what they really mean is they want to go where other white people are.
Look, I know I’m a bad boy on forums. I am so fed up with the accepted liberal stance of being reasonable, of being persuasive, of being gentlemanly with people who hate. I go for the jugular, always have, whenever I am faced with spite and bile that is backed by the shoddiest thinking. I gave up posting on the TES noticeboard when a clearly deranged poster who claimed in long ranting posts that pupils regularly stabbed teachers, rioted in classrooms across the country and defecated in teachers’ briefcases – seriously – complained to my employer that I was “overly aggressive” because I suggested that calling liberals “limp wristed” might get him a swift and firm-wristed slap from gays and liberals alike.
I also always post in my own name. Stupid, I know, but I contribute comment to journals like the Scottish Review and TESS, so I’m a somewhat semi-public person. On Huffpost, there are hints that the anonymous posters are actually trolls: a poster who claimed to be of mixed race but who had been made “very welcome” at BNP meetings – yeah, right – was also banned for I know not what. Immediately, at least three other posters had the information that this had happened – “a friend of mine”; “I spoke to him on the phone” – clearly pointing to multiple identities.
Naturally, this cabal accused me of complaining about the poster – I didn’t – and put in a counter complaint that I had made a racist statement. Me. Of course, it doesn’t exist, no-one could find it, but there it was. I’m off. And the hate-mongers win.
Their whole attitude to debate is typical of the right: to debate is to agree with me, to dissent is to be marginalised. The stupidity of this blinkered outlook is clear in these posts from the most weirdly nonsensical, two posters who no doubt believe that Muslims should learn English but can barely use it themselves:
“lol its like a buffons tea party on here at times. lol I love the seriousness of those whom demand “facts and stats”, they so need to get into the real world and see” how things are just how it is”. Xx “
“Yes, they cant distinguish between a discussion thread and a think tank. People can see with their own eyes what is going on in the UK…”
Yes, guys, let’s ignore any evidence that contradicts what we we hear, what we believe, what we tell each other. Facts are nothing: opinion is all.
Perhaps it’s good for me: arguing with such people is as intellectually challenging as scratching my armpits, but it is unfortunately rather distracting and irritating. Perhaps I need a rest.
** Holden Caulfield, in “Catcher in the Rye”.
The Jeremy Forrest saga seems to have our media whipped up into a prurient frenzy. Behind all the headlines, you can sense the undertow dragging at the tabloids’ sensitivities; you just know those hacks, while writing stories that focus on rightly weeping parents and the incompetence of a school that could have nipped this in the bud but didn’t, are sharpening their cheque books for the real bidding war, the sleazy and sexually explicit inside story of what the two of them got up to. I can imagine the centre page spreads in the Sunday redtops, and the bile is already rising.
Of course, we should not rush to judgement, and Forrest is innocent of all charges until proven guilty. In addition, we should not get ourselves so worked up that they both feel so backed into a corner that they resort to desperate measures to stay together; God forbid this should end in some sort of deadly pact. But there is a substantial minority out there who are saying that he hasn’t done anything wrong, that until it has been proven that he has had a sexual relationship with her, then he is guilty of nothing.
Of course, that’s unlikely. As I understand it, The Sexual Offences Act 2003 identifies a particular strand of criminal acts to address the issue of those in authority over the young or vulnerable taking advantage of that position . Thus, although it is not illegal to have sex with someone over 16, it may be illegal to have sex with someone over 16 if you are in a position of responsibility for them. Teachers certainly fall into that category. Even further, grooming is a particular category of offence under the Act, and it has been used against Facebook predators who have never even met their victims. To befriend a minor with the intent of committing a sexual act with them is an offence, even if the act doesn’t actually occur. But how do we know Mr Forrest intended to commit such an act with his pupil? Well, I don’t know about you, but quoting a song lyric to a fifteen year old girl through social media to tell her that you want to “wake up naked” beside her sounds pretty intentional to me.
But forget the Act for the moment: the second Forrest agreed to accompany his pupil anywhere without explicit parental consent, he made such a monumental fuck up of his professional life that he deserves little other than ridicule. We can all be led by our genitals, but when you are a teacher, you have to slap them down. Anything else is an abuse of trust, and that goes for any profession; is Forrest not on the same continuum as Stephen Mitchell and other police officers who use their position, resources and authority to prey on vulnerable women?
I’ve been a teacher and teacher educator for over thirty years, and there are some things you just do not do, no matter how smitten you may feel you are. In “Occasional Demons”, there is a story – “The Bus Fare Down the Tubes” – in which a key plot strand is a sexual advance made by a teacher to a pupil. Shortly after the book was published, I was interviewed by Alex Dickson for Radio Clyde’s book programme. Alex was great and I really enjoyed the show (I lost my recording of it years ago), but he latched on to “The Bus Fare…” and began to ask some pretty uncomfortable questions about the classroom dynamic, particularly about the way young girls dressed then; my goodness, if he could see them now! Isn’t there any temptation? Come on, isn’t it understandable? Don’t you sometimes look at them and think…? No. No, no, no, no, no, I kept saying. The character in the story commits an unforgivable act and he is totally responsible for it. Period.
And I mean that. Have I ever taught some very pretty – indeed, beautiful – young women in my classes? Yes. Have I even perhaps mentioned how attractive they are to some of my pals? Yes, I have to admit to that weakness, perhaps in my twenties. Did pupils ever develop crushes on me? Yes. But did I ever consider doing anything about it? Did I ever for one moment contemplate stepping out of that teacher’s role and encouraging a pupil to engage in intimate, personal contact? Absolutely not.
I was disappointed – in fact, really shocked – by a teacher I knew 17 or so years ago who was sent to prison recently for having consensual sex with two of his over-age pupils. I had travelled with him, and while I found him occasionally a bit immature, a bit gauche, he was just a pleasant lad. So I wondered what it could possibly be that fucked him up so badly he threw everything that publicly defined him as someone to respect down the toilet, and decided it must have been a defect in his character.
I’m not a particularly strong-willed person, nor am I a prude and I am certainly no saint; jings, am I no saint. I’m not saying that I can’t imagine me getting involved in such a situation, nor that under some circumstances, I might find myself making wrong decisions. But I cannot see how that situation could ever arise without some form of malicious intent underlying it. Teachers do not “fall in love” with their pupils – I can’t see how the context in which a teacher interacts with a pupil could possibly allow “love” to flourish – and so any teacher who does do this sort of thing is simply after sex. What the classroom does allow, however, is not “love”, but grooming. I can easily see how the unscrupulous can use that power, that authority – don’t let anyone tell you teachers don’t have authority any more, they are liars – to impress, to coax, to cajole and to seduce, and perhaps to be seduced by that power themselves so that they become deluded that this is the “real thing”.
I did date an ex-pupil once. Had I ‘noticed’ her while she was at school? Guilty, m’lud. But she had left school for over two years before we found ourselves out for a drink together, and ended up snogging in a phone box for one of the most giddyingly enjoyable hours of my life. Over the next few years, we sort of bumped against each other a few times, until I behaved reprehensibly once and she quite rightly told me to fuck off. But there were undoubtedly times when I felt a conflict about what might happen between us, because I had been her teacher and she had been my pupil.
Even now, I find it odd to contemplate the notion of university teachers having relationships with students. We are talking about articulate, successful, intelligent adults, but the idea of acting on any judgement I might have about how attractive they are feels wrong to me, despite the fact that some of my less emotionally and socially developed acquaintances sometimes ask me if I’m one of those university lecturers (usually pronounced “lecherers” with a sleazy wink) who shags all their students. No I’m not. I never have been. Even if they’d have me – and let’s face it, I’m getting to that stage of life where I don’t really have to worry about being the object of anything other than mild intellectual curiosity – I can’t imagine I ever will.
There are lines you just don’t cross. Perhaps mine are drawn thicker and blacker than others’, but I’m not exactly ungrateful for that. I suspect Jeremy Forrest might come to wish he’d drawn his a bit more clearly.
I can’t help comparing the hoo-ha over Julian Assange with that stain on the reputation of the Blair government, their failure to extradite General Augusto Pinochet in 2000 to Spain to face charges of torture.
I am as dubious as anyone about the case against Assange. The charges against him rest largely on him not using a condom during consensual sex with two women, one of whom threw a party for him after the event. Both women are linked to the US security services, apparently. But of course, charges of rape – even if that country’s definition of rape seems to be totally at odds with anything we would understand the term to mean – are hugely serious, and must be investigated. Assange must answer the charges, and has offered to do so if Swedish officers will come to the UK or if they will guarantee him safety from extradition to the US. They have refused.
But it’s nonsense to say it’s just about that: it is absolutely clear that the US has some stake in this, and will apply for Assange’s extradition when he is in Sweden. We’ve already seen that, while refusing to acknowledge international law in a whole raft of ways, such as the criminal court in the Hague, the US believes its law can be exported to other judicial systems; hence their demand for the extradition of hackers from the UK. In effect, international law for the US consists of US law being applied to preserve US interests wherever it wishes.
William Hague’s horrible “there will be no escape” pronouncements, then, are all part of keeping the US happy. It has nothing to do with international law or extradition treaties; it’s all about what the US wants. It was exactly the same in 2000, when, despite the highest court in the land ruling that Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face torture charges and despite a swathe of international courts and governments supporting that, Jack Straw delayed and delayed and delayed the extradition until doctors could concoct a case for him being too ill to go to Spain. Funny – he was too ill to go to Spain, but well enough to travel to Chile, which is a bit like me saying the journey to Edinburgh is a bit wearing, so I’ll go to Berlin instead.
But of course, Pinochet was a pal of George W. Bush, seen as a still influential US ally amongst the red threat in South America. There was a message to be sent out, since no dictator would ever cooperate with the US again if they were going to be held responsible for crimes condoned and actively supported by the US in the future. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher saw him as the man who was willing to turn his country into one of the first testbeds of the Friedman economics that has dominated the world since the 1970s. There was no way the politicians were going to accede to the demands of the law in that case; Pinochet had to be protected.
So: if it is permissible to let a torturer slip through the legal net, why is the government so vexed about the story of an albeit rather arrogant guy who might have slipped up with a burst prophylactic? Of course, it’s to do with the establishment. Pinochet was part of it, part of the global power elite who are prepared to repress and torture and kill to maintain the status quo; Assange threatens it by providing a mechanism by which their grubby secrets – great and small – can be washed in public.
And by playing up the charges against Assange, it obviously draws attention away from and discredits Wikileaks.
The messenger is being shot. Just what Pinochet would have wanted.
Today the Jordanhill campus of the University of Strathclyde had an official closing event, though the buildings will remain open for a few weeks longer before staff move to the refurbished Lord Hope building in Cathedral Street. I had lots of work to do and so didn’t attend what was billed as a “celebration of Jordanhill”, but I’m quite sure the 400 people or so who did go heard some inspiring speeches and had a very nice buffet while listening to the jazz band.
Jordanhill has been one of Scotland’s key institutions over the last century or so. I’ve been working in teacher education there since 2001, and it’s the one job in education I always wanted to do and the one place in education I always wanted to work ever since my own training in 1982. In the short time I’ve been there, I have personally been responsible for the training of well over 200 English teachers, and my English section has trained about a thousand. The potential for having an impact on how children have been taught is enormous and hugely rewarding.
Factor in all Secondary subjects, Primary teaching, social work, community education and a whole host of other graduate, postgraduate and professional courses, and we’re talking of several hundred thousand people in the history of the place who comprise a web of interconnectivity across Scotland and the world that is huge. So, despite the fact that most of what is still done there will be transferred to a new beginning on the city centre campus, there is a sense of the closure of an iconic part of education and the end of an era.
The process has taken some time, ever since proposals to build a brand new, £50 million “bespoke “city centre Education Faculty building with offices and state of the art teaching space were mooted in the mid 2000s. Times and priorities have changed since then. The Hope building houses accommodation for the School of Education staff to work side by side with many of the other subjects that have been subsumed into the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty in integrated working environments: teaching accommodation for the influx of the additional students is provided by the existing city centre campus stock. However, we are almost there now. I’m looking forward to meeting and working with people we have been dislocated from for so long, and having access to the facilities of the city centre; I’m also looking forward to the undoubted fun I’ll have delivering my annual Behaviour Management lectures in the Cineworld cinema complex!
As for the old campus: well, it seems it will be mothballed until the University can sell it to private developers, a transaction that will help finance the University’s ambitious aspirations to create a “leading international technological university” with a new £89 million “flagship” Technology and Innovation Centre. Most of the existing buildings will be bulldozed I imagine, but I’m sure the grand old lady that is The David Stow building, along with perhaps the beautiful red brick student accommodation, will be retained, possibly for development as luxury flats. It’ll be a pity that I’ll never be able to afford one of them – I reckon they’ll be out of reach of all educational professionals below Directors of Education or University Principals – because it would be lovely to live in a place that has had such an important influence on my life and my career.
Of course, the University of Strathclyde will continue to provide the very best teacher education you can find. You can find out about the School of Education and the courses it offers here:
I’m very chuffed to have been accepted for the next edition of “Chelsea Station”, a magazine of gay writing from New York. Edited by Jameson Currier, the whole enterprise seems very ambitious; they’ve published several novels and the magazine is now in its third edition.
I’m especially pleased that the story I submitted, “The Beauty that Brendan Sees”, was truthful enough in its setting to be accepted by a New York based magazine, given that I’ve never been to New York. It’s usually said that US magazines are rather protective of their turf, and tend to be suspicious of anything from outside the country; I believe that’s especially true of academic journals. However, Currier is obviously an open-minded guy looking for good writing from anywhere, and I’m pleased that the story was convincing.
Although sex and relationships are pretty powerful drivers in my work, this is only the second purely LGBT themed story I’ve written. The first was “Drowning in the Shallows” from nearly twenty years ago now. That was a pot-boiler of a story about a jilted lover that was so highly personal, I had to find some way to distance myself from the subject matter. Just out of a hugely damaging relationship in which I’d been kicked around like some pathologically devoted stray mongrel for most of my twenties, I’d responded to a bit of kindness and a few treats the way a spaniel puppy might, and got myself into a relationship any emotionally mature person wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. After six months or so of intense passion, I was then dumped in what one could describe as a fairly shitty fashion.
It served me right, of course. I’d deluded myself about what it was and what it could be, and, justifying it all as “going with the flow”, my behaviour was pretty reprehensible. The resultant freaky breakdown I had was a response not just to those six months but to the misery of the previous ten years that I still hadn’t dealt with. In the ensuing chaos, I bumped around as if in a pinball machine, being embarrassing and needy and miserable and drinking too much and hardly sleeping. I made a wrong decision professionally, and fucked up a third and final chance with a young woman who might have been very special to me. So – just desserts.
The story, then, told of that break up, but first versions were just so outrageously self-pitying, I had to do something with it; so, the ‘dumper’ became a bisexual games-player, and the ‘dumpee’ a lesbian. I think that allowed me to look at it much more objectively, and I managed to do things symbolically and structurally that I couldn’t have managed otherwise simply because I had the distance of writing about someone who wasn’t me.
I think that fictionalisation of our lives is essential to capturing the truth of our existence and making it universal to the reader: it’s a theme I explored in the videos for young writers in school published by Learning and Teaching Scotland a couple of years ago. Here it is again:
The finished story appears in “Occasional Demons”, but I do remember entering a version of it anonymously for a Radio Clyde / Glasgow University competition judged by Janice Galloway. When I was placed first equal, I was quite proud of her comments: she said while she wasn’t absolutely sure it had been written by a gay woman, she was amazed that it had been written by a man, and that she hadn’t expected the ending at all. I took a great deal of heart from that (although a few years later she backtracked on those comments somewhat). Of course, the other winning story – which I can’t remember but which was terrific too – didn’t have swear words and gay sex scenes in it, so it was a shoe-in for the title and broadcast on the radio. At least I got an equal share of the prize money, which was enough to buy my then partner Geraldine and I a pizza and a bottle of wine in the local Italian restaurant.
I’ve heard lots of debates over the years amongst writers concerning ownership of the work we do. Should straight men write about gay women? Can whites write effectively about blacks, or non-Muslims about Muslims? There are a plethora of magazines, events and competitions that are becoming more and more exclusive – women only events, gay anthologies, immigrant literature competitions – and that’s all absolutely fine by me unless it encourages the potentially preposterous Esquire’s “Men’s Fiction” e-series, as if men are some disempowered minority who need affirmative action. And I’ll wager most of the stories Esquire publish will be by and about straight, white, professional men at that.
A lesbian friend did look askance a bit about me writing a “lesbian story”, but I think the reaction from women, gay and straight, to that piece has been generally positive over the years, even though it is, I have to stay, still more than a little overwrought. I do think there are certain groups within society who have the right to identify their own agendas and protect their own boundaries, simply as a bulwark against the discrimination they have suffered and still suffer, or to provide an environment in which they can grow. I hope, though, that those boundaries can be blurred enough to allow genuine dialogue with and sincere responses from those who lie nominally ‘outside’ them.
The problem, I think, is in where we draw the lines of those boundaries. I remember the advice the Writer in Residence at Glasgow University gave me when I took a sheaf of my stuff along to him as an eager first year student; I won’t mention his name, but he’s a major Scottish literary figure and a lovely writer. “Write about what you know” was the old faithful he trotted out. What does that actually mean? Does it mean that writers can never write from the point of view of the opposite sex, of different genders, of alternative lifestyles? That we can’t write about people who are not us, people who are older or younger, richer or poorer? Should we avoid writing about drunks and drug addicts unless we’ve been there and got the vomit-stained t-shirt? Are serial killers off-limits unless we’ve a few bodies buried under the floor boards ourselves? And what, then, of vampires, werewolves and zombies? It was all very confusing for a rather awestruck 17-year-old me. Luckily, I realised I’d misinterpreted the advice (I think), grew out of that phase and decided to branch out into characters I could never be.
As for “Drowning in the Shallows”, I once got a card from the real life ‘dumper'; she congratulated me on getting my collection published, and signed it with the name of “her” character in the story. I found I couldn’t forgive her for that presumption, for taking ownership of my story, of my work, of my catharsis.
I felt she’d had enough of me already.
Day 2 of the Write Now conference is devoted to panel discussions and research papers. The first I attend is on Fact, Fiction and History, with three historical novelists talking about the process of writing. All – especially Sally O’Reilly talking of her research into a re-imagining of the “Shakespeare legend” – are really interesting. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with this form of reflection on the methods of writing, not because it is not useful but because it seems to me to perpetuate a monolithic university structure that actually has more to do with a self-referential and self-perpetuating academic culture than it has to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. More of that later.
My own session goes well: however, with my “little often” approach to stimulating writing of teenagers at school, fellow presenter Maeve Tynan worries that we are in total disagreement, given her “strategic imitation” approach that is based on using the work of “master” writers to hone craft. Of course, we’re not: I’m absolutely in favour of learning from exemplars and models as essential practice in school or university. She describes her own practice, which sounds fantastically stimulating; it’s a far cry from the practice I’m trying to change, whereby school teachers spend two weeks forcing every child in their class to complete a twist-in-the-tail story “for their folio”, and giving them no other opportunities to write creatively for the rest of the year.
The Scottish Writers Centre also announces itself. It’s a relatively new venture driven forward by lovely people like Gerry Loose and Ron Butlin. They are absolutely passionate about providing a non-academic forum for writers and it is, I think, much needed.
A lot of activity now revolves around university creative writing courses: magazines are springing up as undergraduate projects to provide outlets for students at particular universities to publish their work (Octavius, for example, will, in its own words, “feature a range of prose and poetry written by student writers from colleges and universities across the country”); many of the fine new publishing houses have close links with universities; and live events such as the excellent From Glasgow to Saturn (linked to an online journal) and Words per Minute (along with some other quite dire live projects) arose from university student activity. This, I have to say, makes me worry about access, diversity, inclusion and democracy.
While no-one who works in the university sector has any intention of excluding anyone – I know and respect hugely a great many individual university creative writing teachers, and they all have the very best of motives in everything they do – nevertheless, the structure of universities is essentially hierarchical and elitist. Looking at person specifications for posts in any department, the prime consideration is research. Therefore, to become a university creative writing teacher, you first have to be a researcher, second a creative writer and third a teacher.
I have always suspected that what this does is fuel activity which supports an industry of academic articles, peer refereed journals, conferences and promotion structures leading to professorial chairs based on research “output”. Many researchers I know and respect in the education field blithely talk of “playing the REF game”, and it is a game in which the rules and access to play are made up and controlled by those who are already at the top of the leader board.
Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this: if it is what universities do, it is what universities do. And there will always be a demand for acknowledgement, accreditation or certification by those who learn in that way. But by collaring the market – and let there be no doubt, universities are interested primarily in the bottom line – then those who have no access to universities will be excluded. In addition, courses which become “unviable” or which are deemed not to fit with a university’s strategic plan may find themselves “disinvested” or even closed, and the corresponding infrastructure can be drastically affected; if it can happen to courses in nursing and community education, it can certainly happen to creative writing.
The end of the conference is marked by talks from three big guns in Scottish literature, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Zoe Strachan. Strachan ably defends the notion of universities being involved in creative writing programmes, and points to her own course which, she says, was populated by a mainly working class cohort (although David Kinloch, at the SWC meeting expresses concerns about the demographic of creative writing courses). However, she also casually admits that publishers and agents like to build relationships with writing departments because they have access to a pool of talent which is already developed, already edited, already vetted. That worries me, because in a world in which publishing opportunities become more and more scarce – Morrison paints the bleakest of pictures of a so-called “democratized” industry – it may soon be the case that a creative writing degree is the minimum qualification to even get into the slush pile.
At events such as this, I am often asked, “And where are you studying creative writing?”, as if a graduate qualification is the only worthwhile mark of a writer. On a couple of occasions, eyes have glazed over and gazes have swept the room for more worthy and interesting contacts when I say I have never studied creative writing at university; on one occasion, someone came back to me and breathlessly said, “Raymond, I didn’t realise you had a BAFTA!”. The first magazine I was ever published in was Rebel Inc.: it wouldn’t have been seen dead in a University department. At that time, there was a vibrant community group culture (magazines like “Cutting Teeth” from the Castlemilk group was another great publication) that I am worried may now wither as a result of swingeing public sector cuts combined with the rapacious acquisition of creative writing activity by universities.
I speak as an academic, and as someone who may in the near future embark on a PhD, not, I hope, because I need a job in the university creative writing sector or because I want to call myself a Doctor, but because I want to have the support to help me develop my writing and my novel: and I am absolutely sure that is why everyone does a PhD. But, as I say, I worry about the culture that is being created, simply because universities are the biggest kid on the block. Only proper government funding for community arts activity in general and writing in particular through organisations like the Scottish Writers’ Centre can prevent what would amount to a privatisation of cultural development.