North Star

You can hear me reading this here.

Keep your star in the north,
remember love.
You can only be you but remember others.
Open your arms and let them be
filled and emptied and filled again by the tide,
shhh let it move you. Lose your footing, lose your footing.
Find it again, look up.
Stand still buffeted, do not resist
dismay. Do not resist joy.
You can only be you.
Remember, love.

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History books

An audio version of this post is available here.

Oh oh oh! I’m on Amazon with my finger poised over the big yellow “Buy” button, when it strikes me. The full history of me stands up and checks me, like a border guard. And I stop.

The smell of book, an old, foxed hardback in my hands. Ex library, from my mother, its board cover sliding beneath a poorly fitted transparent plastic coat, worn semi opaque with use. The edges of the book’s closed pages are a series of ridges running the height of the book, betraying its hidden binding. Stitched, glued. Inside, it is tattooed as if it is part of a herd or interned in a prison camp, to be used until death. But it is in my hands now. Freed. Retired. Not retired. You have one more job ahead of you, book. One more.

And then

I take it with me everywhere. It is heavy, and I am small, but from the moment I discovered it, it became my bible. A book that doesn’t have a story in it. That doesn’t explain a topic. A book, a brick four inches thick, that exists solely to contain all the words, abstractly, in alphabetical order. A dictionary. 
I treat it carefully.  I carry it carefully.  Everywhere. It quickly becomes inconvenient for my family, me lugging the book about. Instead of looking on the shelf to find the dictionary, they first have to find the child who will be attached to it. It is as if the book has grown legs, or I have become a hermit crab whose home is somehow outside this solid object. And the edges of its pages betray its bindings. And when you open it, that smell.

And then

It only happens, or only seems to happen a couple of times a year. But time is a slippery thing, a wriggling thing, and who can say? The catalogue comes from the school and is full of books for children. Being one myself (technically), and with it being the 1970s, this is a thrilling event. Companies in the UK haven’t explored the option of marketing to children yet. Products other than toys – which one must deliberately go to a toy shop to seek out – aren’t aimed at us. The library has a corner for children, but the books there are colourful, shiny, illustrated, jam-tacky, and of little interest to me, other than Dr Seuss, but everyone loves Dr Seuss, not least because he is American and therefore inherently more exciting than anything which is not American. Consequently, Dr Seuss is always out on loan.  My other books are almost all adult books – very old ones at that, my grandfather’s copy of Defoe or Kipling (yes, reader, I have Kippled), or Swift; or children’s books inherited from my father, and therefore without exception, aimed squarely at boys or men. The most modern themes in these books are from the 1940s. The oldest are very old indeed. So this book catalogue is a very exotic bird. I spend days going through it. I have been given an allowance to spend and immediately discount any book that is illustrated or thin, however beautiful or popular, because I will read it in minutes, and I want a book to last me a few hours.  I make a list and cross it out and remake it and refine it.  The books are delivered to the school and on Wednesday, library day, when we go in, the desks are covered in boxes. Boxes of new books. They smell different to old books. Of ink, of solvents. There is no foxing, no ridging on the edges of the closed pages: there is no stitching, just glue. The bindings are tight, not floppy. The colours are bright, the covers, slick.  They sound different. Not the soft, flumpy sound of steam powered books, but an electric wick-wick!  You can cut yourself on them, I discover.

Then

Forward, to Fleet Street, and my new fat wages which allow me, each month, to spend a hundred pounds on books. And a husband who strongly disapproves of this, who would, I suspect, rather spend the money on weekends in the country. But frankly I find weekends in the country exhausting and they would do nothing to quell my appetite for worlds and facts and the next page. I tear through books like a circular saw, next, next, next. One a day. A hundred  pounds is probably about a third of what I need to spend, to keep my head fed. There’s me, my body, which people meet and which they think is me, which requires almost nothing except a comfortable place to sit and a cat: and there’s my hungry head, my pacing lion head, my circular saw head that sucks in all the worlds, that must be fed read meat.

Then

I can’t read. I am ill. It is 2006. The page, the words on it crawl away from my eyes, flinching, ducking. They shrink. Trying to read a word is like trying to thread a very tiny needle with cotton whose end is frayed. It just won’t. I push the sentence into my head, but it is dead, floppy, it contains no sustenance. It falls straight back out of me again. I pick it up, I am a monkey with its dead baby, trying to make it move, oh come back to me, move: but it will not move.

I do not remember when I put books down. I threw or gave away hundreds, keeping only those that I considered magical: Fraser’s Horse Book. My collection of dictionaries, which are my holy books. Rupert Thompson’s … all of Rupert Thomson’s. All of Jeanette Winterson. All of Patrick Hamilton. All of Wyndham. Golding’s perfect journeys through time, over sea. Van der Post’s blinding sentences. I could no longer access these countries.  But I could not forget them either.

Now books were strange objects of resentment. I tried re-reading easy, familiar books. No. I was in exile from the only country I had ever loved.

What changed, I do not know. My finger paused over that yellow button. “Buy for Kindle”, but however big the type was on my screen it made no difference to my ability to read and comprehend it. Suddenly what I wanted was a book. I wanted it the way you sometimes suddenly want another human body to touch yours, if you are alone. I wanted an old book, in my hands, foxed and crack backed, the quiet of much turned pages, the minute fur on the edges of its paper (have you ever put your lips against this? So soft). The smell of it. 

I bought it, second hand on eBay instead. Beautiful bashed up old Penguin Classics binding, the best-looking books in the world.  Pulp nonsense. Tiny print.  It should be impossible, doubly so, trebly so as I’m particularly ill at the moment. But this illness is strange. Facilities come and go. I can’t raise my arms to brush my hair at the moment. But it turns out I can once again step across the border between this world and the others. I read it in a day. And then I read another.

I started reading on the 28th of April, 2015. Four days ago. I have read four novels since then.

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Allotmenting

Sitting on the water tank drumming my heels on it like a slow heart beat, looking at this, I caught myself and realised that I was perfectly, perfectly happy.

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Three brown butterflies were engaged in a terrible war above me. The garlic was growing. I had marked out my asparagus with canes and balls, the globe artichokes all seemed to have taken well, and I was moments away from accidentally kicking quite a large bee. Things don’t get any better than that, my friend. They just don’t.

The trick to wonky allotmenting – that is to say, allotmenting with some form of exhausting disability – is to pick a job. One job. And go and do that. It’s very easy to get down to the plot and feel overwhelmed by all that needs doing. It’s very easy to go home after a visit to the plot, having spent all your energy working hard but not completing anything, and to feel that you’re useless and haven’t achieved anything.

No, the trick is in that one little task. Planning it. Taking the tools with you. Clean up the border on this bed. Or mow this little stretch of path. Or plant out these ten plants. Weed two foot square of that bed. Something tiny and thoroughly achievable. Something that doesn’t depend on you achieving something else first (for instance don’t make planting your task unless you’ve already weeded). Then if you’ve any oomf left, go ahead and do something else. Or better yet, do what I did and sit on your water tank and drum your heels and let your soul sink into the cool earth and the cool sky.

The important thing is to go home with a win. Then the allotment never becomes a chore.

The tiny little twig trees I planted winter before last are blooming. I will have pears, apples, dark red cherries later this year. I seem to have planted a recalcitrant apricot which shows no sign of blooming, but I don’t know the ways of the apricot people and I’m happy to give it another year or two.

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Thus far I’ve had rhubarb, asparagus, and a parsnip the size of Texas from my plot. I’ve also harvested Jack-by-the-hedge, young cow parsley shoots and young goose grass and had them in various broths (I’ve become Queen of broths lately). All very nice but watch yourself with Jack, he’s a bit acrid and better to have a few jolly sprigs rather than whacking great handfuls.  I’ve planted out four good size globe artichokes (two purple, two green), which are always so unaffordable in the shops. In the next week or so I’ve got nine rose bushes coming. Perhaps that seems daft, but (they were cheap and) cut flowers make a huge difference in the house. Everything’s alright when you’ve got roses.

The year is well under way. Grab your weeding knife and get among it.

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Killer.

An audio version of this post is available here.

Hello little sitter
Bitter little biter
Shitter, fighter.
Hello little shedder
Claw score shredder
6lbs of gangsta,
Shoulder rolling.
Hello mister misses
Kitchen twitcher
Witch’s kvetcher,
Calling.
Hello breakable
Tender, mannerly
Fool boxer, feinting
Unfakeable
Cannily, uncannily.
Leaper writher
Spiller
Half killer
Killer.

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Welcome to your new superpower.

Dear women,

Contrary to what you’ve been brought up to believe, your goodness, your worth, and in particular your sexiness, your attractiveness are YOUR properties, not a property of the person observing them. Their act of observation does not create or validate those qualities in you. They are merely noticing the bleedin’ obvious. You are not Schroedinger’s good person. You are not Schroedinger’s hottie.

Now take this news away and mull it over, crush it into yourself. Welcome to your new superpower.

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Swapping out a set of tuning pegs for a set of machine heads, on a uke.

So you picked up a bargainaceous uke on eBay, only to discover when you get it home that it has tuning pegs rather than cogged machine heads. You try to tune it. After half an hour of the friction of the peg causing you to shoot past the note you were aiming for in a wild jerk, or the LACK of friction in the head jumping the peg straight out of the note when you do find it (and yes, both these things can and will happen on the same string), you throw your uke across the room. Then, after a brief pause, you follow it and stamp on it until there are a billion little splinters in the air and no sign – none at all, that there was ever a musical instrument in your life.

OR

You get on the internet and buy some machine heads and replace those godawful pegs with something that works. I got a set of Stagg uke machine heads on Amazon (sorry) for about a fiver. There are cheaper, no-name ones, but Stagg is a pretty reliable name.

You will need a small crosshead screwdriver. A drill with a very small bit (I used a 1.5, a 1 would have worked perfectly as well, you’re only putting in a guide hole), or a very narrow brad awl, but I wouldn’t advise the latter. The potential for you to wiggle it about and make too wide a hole is too big. Get a drill with a very tiny drill bit.

This is what you’re starting with. The dreaded Peggy Head:

Peggy head

You want to undo the screw on each of the pegs.

Peg, showing screw

When you’ve undone it sufficiently, the peg will drop out of the uke’s head, leaving an unsightly hole at the back…

Thar she blows

And probably a little metal cuff on the front.

Little metal cuff

Leave the little cuff in place. Your new machine heads will slip right into it.

Now set up your drill. Make SURE that the bit is seated deeply into the drill, so that only 3/4 of a cm or so are sticking out of the end of the drill. If you seat the bit with more sticking out, what will happen is you’ll drill straight through your uke’s head and when you’ve finished the job you’ll have holes all over its face and it will look OMG TOTALLY AMATEUR. So get this right. Here you can see me measuring to see if the drill bit is seated at the right depth.

Ensure your bit cannot pass straight through your uke's head

Now unpack your new machine heads. Here I am, modeling the tiny drill bit I used – use the tiniest one you can find – 1mm or so.

New machine heads

OK, now take one of the machine heads and push it through the four cuffed holes in your uke head the WRONG WAY AROUND – front to back. This will push any little burrs in the wood or the metal through and will make sure your new heads won’t push the little cuffs off.

Push those machine heads through gently

Now seat your first machine head.

Head in place

There are left hand heads and right hand heads. The cog should be at the bottom. So you can quickly work out which head goes where, but make sure you have worked this out before you start drilling holes in your uke.

Put a head in place. Make sure it’s straight in relation to the side of the uke’s head. This is REALLY important, again, if you get this wrong you’ll end up with wonky tuners so take your time. Make a mark through each of the two screw holes (I used the tip of a sharp kitchen knife), remove the head, drill your two holes, put the head back and screw on. It really couldn’t be simpler.

Here you can see the job half done, with the guide holes drilled for the next head. Note the position of the cogs (towards the uke’s bottom end).

Half way there...

Finished product:

Machine heads

Now all it needs is a fresh set of strings (instructions for stringing your uke are on YouTube), and a few days to bed the new strings in.

Ta-daaa!

TA DAA

You may be looking at that and wondering “hey how come the G is red, what’s up with that?” – I’m trying out an Aquila low-G from the red series, which is basically their trademark Nylgut, but with added copper (hence the colour) to make the string far more dense, and capable of lower tuning. They’re notoriously brittle, but I wanted to try a low-G tuning and my verdict is that you’d have to go at the tuning like rhinoceros to snap it, which quite a few reviewers said they did. The ham fisted lummoxes.

I say that now. Give me a day …

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Naked selfies!! And online security as a feminist issue.

An audio version of this post is available here.

When you mention naked selfies, a lot of women (I haven’t canvassed men) aren’t comfortable with the idea and would prefer to do the whole “being naked” thing in person. Because when you send a naked selfie you have to accept that it may be leaked. It may be leaked deliberately by someone you ended up not having sex with. It may be leaked deliberately by your ex. it may be leaked deliberately by your ex’s new partner. It may be leaked deliberately by your ex’s current partner. It may be leaked by whoever finds your partner’s phone when they lose it. More recently, we’ve added to that list of potential disasters, and the new addition is horrible. Men might hack the cloud and steal your pictures, which seems unlikely unless your last movie grossed a few hundred mil, but we all know what 4chan is for, right? Right.

Even in the event that photograph of your lovely peachy bottom doesn’t appear on the side of a bus, there will almost certainly be sysadmins – the ones who maintain “the cloud’s” servers – cackling over it in a server room somewhere. You knew that. Of course you did.

The short version is: your vag or boobs may end up anywhere. The papers are full of it (yeah, you can take that both ways). They talk about the stars’ dismay and their distress after the event as a narrow issue, one that affects the person in question. They talk about privacy as a broad issue that affects everyone equally. Nobody seems to be talking about the fact that women are actually subject to a unique set of malicious sexual threats online and off, from the tiresome old offers of nose-rape on Twitter, to threats to hack, or actual hacks, of private sexual data.

The theft of (and subsequent propagation of) sexual images of a person is a crime of sexual violation.

The pictures stolen from various famous women recently were taken for the specific purpose – not of obtaining a naked picture of that woman – but of violating her. That’s what this type of crime is about. It isn’t a theft of property, where one may obtain items of value. It is a theft intended to unseat, to undermine that woman and by extension, all women.

The papers don’t talk explicitly about that, preferring metaphors that involve unlocked cars or banking data, as usual. But the lesson we learn from these horror stories – is a broader one than “don’t be a beautiful famous woman, because this may happen.” The lesson is: this could be you, so don’t risk it.

Naked selfies aren’t safe.

Well, I like naked selfies. I posted a little moan to twitter earlier today about the fact that the theft of famous naked selfies basically means that people – who will not stop taking naked selfies, let’s be realistic – are now just going to take disembodied shots of unidentifiable genitals. No faces. Nobody blowing you a kiss. No smiles. Just cock and cunt. While I like both very well indeed, and while that was always the smart thing to do with people you don’t completely trust – I think this being the only option is incredibly sad. This may seem a trivial complaint, but far from it.

These violations represent a tide-mark on human communications, the point at which trust of the internet – which had been hanging on by its fingernails – was simply erased from the list of possibilities with specific regard to women’s electronic communications. The only people sending recognisable naked selfies now are going to be the hopelessly ignorant and the entirely reckless (I’ll let you guess which camp I fall into). A recognisable naked selfie of a woman always implied a great deal of trust (NB: never ask a woman for this). And that’s an important thing, that’s a thing nobody is talking about. You can’t choose to trust someone now. Because the little hacker kiddies may get onto your server and if they find pictures of a naked woman that they either think is attractive or “gross”, they will propagate those pictures. The idea that women are having sex with people they can’t even trust with a photograph is one I find pretty … unsettling.

The option women had of building that trust with a potential sexual partner via the safe medium of photos has been deliberately taken away by the men of 4chan. And they know it. They’re thrilled about it. All this alarmism about naked selfies is just what they wanted. The downgrading of women’s sexual data from the highly intimate to the merely private is a major victory for them.

There’s another thing. Speaking entirely for myself here: I like naked selfies because actual naked human beings can be really triggering for me. While I probably don’t class myself as sexually mainstream, I certainly don’t imagine that I’m unique in this particular regard.

It’s not that I’m uniformly averse to naked humans. But if I don’t have a significant amount of trust with the occupant of that human body, the urge to hit them with an axe and then run is strong in this one. And that leads to really problematic sexual encounters. It’s a snowball effect where the more often you have to suppress the “axe and run” instinct the less emotionally present you can be during sex, the less you enjoy it, the less you want to bother, the less you bother, the stronger the axe reflex becomes. So I like to build up (and maintain) trust with a potential (or existing) partner by talking to them. This involves texts, emails, stupid photos of things I come across in my day. I WILL BOTHER YOU WITH BEETLES AND SHIZ. I expect to be bothered back. That little syn/ack syn “Are you there?/I’m here, are you there?” that computers handle so much more elegantly than humans. The vast majority of this isn’t sexual. Because trust isn’t really about sex. Sex is a side effect of trust (I don’t believe this applies to everyone, but this paragraph is about me). And yeah, at some point if it’s that kind of a relationship, it will involve sex and it will involve naked selfies. That’s important. It isn’t trivial. It is how I get from living in a bubble and wanting to hit anyone who touches my bubble with an axe, to letting someone put their hands on me. (Without secretly wanting to hit them with an axe.)

Because here’s the thing: naked selfies are safe.

Although photos have been used by bad people to violate, nobody ever got raped by a photo. They’re not a bad way to get to know someone.

They are a place where a woman has a terrific amount of agency. She can probably overcome difficulties or transgress socially imposed boundaries in a selfie that she’d have a hard time broaching in the flesh, and once broached electronically, they’re out there. You don’t have to have that awkward conversation about your weirdo nipple if he’s seen it and is still turned on. You don’t have to explain that you need to dress up as Pumbaa from the Lion King in order to get off, if someone’s seen it and got so excited they’ve already dashed out and bought a Scar onesie. A picture is often worth not a thousand words, but entire books. A picture is often the only route to liberation someone has, and this applies more to women than to men, because the weight of society’s disapproval rests more heavily on women’s sexuality than on men’s. Our sexuality is already imposed, reduced, warped, forbidden, truncated, restrained, punished: silenced.

Naked selfies are a door, ajar. A woman can choose how to represent herself. She can choose how much of herself to show. The timing is hers to choose (things happen far too quickly in real life for me: axe). The trust is hers to give – or to withhold, not as an absolute, but from minute to minute, hour to hour. She may stop. She may drive the exchange. She may say yes to this and no to that. She may make requests. She may bark orders. She may take time to think over ideas she could well have been railroaded into in the flesh. Identifying one’s own lack of consent – as a woman – often requires space to think. We are not given those tools, we have to claw them out of our bones, where society has buried them. This is the beginning of a safe negotiation that is often difficult or lacking in real life.

And when 4chan or anyone else hacks into a woman’s – specifically a woman’s – private account they damage the freedom all women feel to use that medium safely to explore their sexuality. They leave women once again with the option of going into meatspace with men they haven’t built any trust with, having probably not told him anything about her preferences or her sexuality or her hangups or her needs. It’s a truncation, another silencing, another punishment.

4chan knows this. That’s why they do it. This isn’t about the violation of any one person – those images as far as 4chan are concerned, are merely the flag hoisted over a very calculated undermining of the sexual agency and security of all women. If you doubt that a certain class of men are really that organised against women, I urge you to look into the events of #gamergate.

That security for this type of data needs to be far, far better is not simply an issue of data privacy in the way your bank account or first draft novel needs good security. This is an important feminist issue. As with online threats and the need for online anonymity, women have a specific set of vulnerabilities here, those who seek to exploit women’s online vulnerabilities have a specific incentive to obtain this data and that is the opportunity to sexually humiliate a woman for the approval of their male peers; and by doing so, undermine all women’s presence online. It is literally all win for these guys.

Firms holding our data need to demonstrate that they’re aware of this. It is time the electronic empires we all rely on woke up to the fact that women’s online security risks are different and require explicit identification and action: we have a specific enemy. He wants to drive us offline, or leave us online but feeling (and indeed being) vulnerable. This isn’t about property theft, it is about misogyny.

Women’s security needs are different, and they are not being met.

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