Tuesday, 9 August 2011

This Is Not a Political Blog, BUT...

This is usually a writing blog. A blog about childrens books and myths and all that.  Usually, I say. But sometimes I make statements about stuff I feel strongly about.  This is one of those.  Feel free to look away if that sort of thing upsets you.

Last night I sat and watched as parts of  London were smashed to bits, set alight, looted. My husband and son were there (luckily safe, thank you for asking).  I also followed the riots as they unfolded via Twitter--admittedly through the lens of the (mostly) bookish or journalistic people I follow.  There I heard about more personal stories. Friends locked in and terrified by sounds of sirens and breaking glass (or by an ominous-seeming sudden silence--the calm before another storm?). Another friend told by a teenage girl who had just looted an i-Phone that 'I'm just getting back my taxes'. A whole road of Turkish people in Dalston who stood against the looters. Unconfirmed reports of restaurant guests who, when threatened by rioters demanding their jewellery, were defended by staff brandishing knives plucked hurriedly from the kitchens. A young woman escorted to safety by gallant youths 'because you're a girl, innit?' Motorbikes pelted with stones amid cries of 'who's next, man?'. A Waterstones bookshop left untouched, but a Gay bookshop smashed.  There was a lot more--I merely give you snapshots.  I didn't look at Facebook much, after I heard that an event page had been set up, inviting people to the 'riot party'.  (I'm pretty fed up with Facebook at the moment, actually.  It's turned rather nasty over the last weeks, what with the vile online bullying of my friend Amanda Craig, and some very unpleasant 'class-hatredy' comments about Horatio Chapple--the wretched 'polar bear' boy.)  But I digress....

This morning the papers are full of doom and woe. The mindless destruction has spread to other cities. The COBRA committee is sitting. The recriminations have begun.  Most of it is not at all attractive to witness, and I'm not proposing to go into the rights and wrongs or causes of it all here (though I just want to say that I did lose all respect for mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone last night, when he started using the riots as an election platform). But I'd like to ask a question.  What is going to happen when the police start arresting and bailing all the young people who took part in the looting and general smashing up (which they already have, because the incontrovertible evidence is out there in the form of all those clever 'trophy photos'--we live in an age where if it is not 'posted' then it hasn't happened)?  I say 'young people' because a lot of them were. (And to be very clear,  I'm not talking about beating people up, or injuring policemen or any of that--I'm talking about the criminal damage and the looting).  Are we really going to lock all of them up in our overcrowded prison system?  Because there just isn't room is there? And we can't afford to build more yet more places to detain people at Her Majesty's pleasure, can we?

We've been somewhere like this before, of course. There were the London riots over university fees last year, in which, for example, a young man called Charlie Gilmour got photographed hanging off the Cenotaph, jumping on cars and other drug-fuelled and destructive idiocies.  He recently got sent down for six months, and is currently locked in a cell for 23 hours a day.  His mother, fellow author and Twitterer Polly Samson says he shouldn't be.  I think I agree with her, but not for the reasons you might imagine.  I don't condone what he did one iota as far as the Cenotaph is concerned.  I am the daughter and grandaughter of ex-serving officers.  I was sort of in the army myself for a time (yes yes, it's a little known fact about me--get over it).  I think that what he did was a disgrace.  But here's what I would have done.  I would have tagged him, put him in a very cheap B and B near Headley Court (run by Help for Heroes), and I would have made him work with injured servicemen for those six months (or even three). Scrubbing floors, cleaning loos, changing sheets, talking to and being around those guys all day (and maybe some night shifts too), seeing just what sacrifices they have made (and no--I'm not getting into the rights and wrongs of Afghanistan here either).  Want to teach him a lesson about respect and civic duty, dear judiciary?  That would be a far more effective, cheaper and more salutary way of doing it than locking him up for those 23 hours.  But it's not how our system works.

So back to last night and those inevitable future arrests and chargings with looting and criminal damage.  What would I do with all those rampaging young people?  I'd make the punishment fit the crime. Make them clean up. Make them damn well apologise face to face to all those small shopkeepers and business who have had their businesses ruined and their staff's jobs put in jeopardy.  Make them work hard to repair the damage. I believe strongly that actions should have consequences. But I also believe that prison for this particular sort of thing is not necessarily the answer. Throwing those kids in jail will solve nothing at all.  But making them take physical responsibility for the mess they created and face up to what they did in a way that had a positive outcome for the victims would make damn sure the punishment fitted the crime, and would teach a much more valuable moral lesson than either a short stint in the pokey, a suspended sentence, a derisory fine or an ASBO. If I was Home or Justice Secretary, I'd implement it tomorrow (literally) and call it 'Positive Sentencing'. It's what I reckon any responsible parent would do.  That's what I think, anyway, but I'm not a politician, and (apart from in the case of the proposed disgraceful closures of libraries, about which I feel passionately) I am not a political campaigner either. Feel free to disagree among yourselves about all this, but please try and be vaguely polite if you comment. I did warn you this wasn't a normal post, after all!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Mars and Venus - 'The David Blog Tour': Guest Post by Mary Hoffman

I first encountered Mary Hoffman's David back in February this year, when Mary was kind enough to send me a very early proof.  Last year I 'met' the man himself, in sculptural form, when I visited Florence. To me at that time he was, though utterly beautiful and mesmerising to look at, still only a cold, marble statue in 3D.  Now, after reading Mary's marvellous book, he exists inside my head, 3D still, but reincarnated as a living, breathing, gloriously beddable Renaissance boy called Gabriele.  To be honest with you, dear readers, I could go on about this book for hours.  Not only is it a marvellously plotted story, taking known historical facts and interweaving them with nuggets of possibility into a seamless whole, but it also rekindled my long-buried interest in art history.  It made me look at Michelangelo's sculpture in a whole new light, made me, as a writer, think as well about the hidden things behind all art--the myriad histories lost in time and waiting for a teller to give them life. 

Mary herself is a magical teller and teaser-out of hidden histories. When I interviewed her for Mslexia magazine earlier in the year, she told me that David was the perfect story for her as a writer of historical fiction. 

Mary and David

"There were some incontrovertible facts, but absolutely nothing known for the crucial part of it.  Nobody knows who the model was--or even if there was a model. That was the ideal scenario, because you've got your framework and the ability to bring historical characters alive--but then you can get in and tell your human story any way you damn well like!"

I can tell you that Mary's 'any way you damn well like' is pretty damn good as far as I'm concerned.  I consider this to be her best book yet (and her previous books have all been fabulous). Buy it. Read it. Read it again. Trust me on this one!

And now, that's quite enough from me.  I'm going to hand you over to Mary herself, who, this being the marvellously mythic Scribble City Central, has chosen to talk about Mars and Venus for the very last stop on her David Blog Tour.  Welcome to SCC, Mary!

The David Blog Tour: Final Day - Mary Hoffman talks about Mars and Venus

“Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” – so says the book title.

I think that’s pretty much nonsense. But certainly back in Renaissance Florence women didn’t go to war as soldiers. And you wouldn’t have found many men being hands-on dads either. In other words, the gender roles were pretty clearly divided. We are talking about over five hundred years ago, when women could not vote or hang on to their own property if they married.

Aristocratic women might have had some say in the ordering of their lives but marrying for dynastic reasons rather than love was common. Ordinary people of both sexes had hard lives in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and life expectancy was not all that long.

So the story of Gabriele and his many loves should be viewed in the context of that background. He poses as artist’s model for the painter Leone, as Hercules, Mars, Bacchus and Theseus – all  mythological characters or legendary heroes. Like David, he is well suited to representing these figures, at least physically.

But he doesn’t feel heroic. He feel that he has betrayed Grazia  by accepting her help and not loving her enough, the way Theseus betrayed Ariadne by allowing her to help him kill the Minotaur and then abandoning her.. But as he tells Leone, he has posed for Bacchus too – the god who rescues Ariadne so, in a sense, Grazia, who also poses for Leone sometimes, ends up with him anyway.

‘I think all of us are part Theseus, part Bacchus,’ [Leone] said.
‘And part Minotaur?’ I asked. ‘That’s what I’ve been thinking.’

‘You are very young, Gabriele,’ he said. ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all make some mistakes as we are growing up.’

They are talking about the difficulty, as they see it, for men, to behave well in their love relationships with women. And it comes to them naturally to express this in terms of mythology, not just because of the subjects of Leone’s current paintings, but because everyone knew those stories then from the many representations of them in art.

And it is complicated for Gabriele by the fact that women – and men – throw themselves at him all the time! He means to behave well to all of them but it just too inexperienced and unsophisticated to handle the situations in which he finds himself. Thinking of himself as Mars – or any of the other classical figures – is a way of distancing himself from the actuality of relationship with a flesh and blood woman of his own time. And of telling himself that he is not the only male who has ever got himself into a pickle with females.

The god Mars has always struck me as rather stupid. And Venus was pretty dumb too! He did his he-man warlike stuff and she went around being beautiful. Apollo and Hermes (Mercury), Artemis and Athene (Diana and Minerva) are much more interesting, don’t you think?

Now if the book was “Men are from Mercury, Women from ...”  But there is no other planet named after a goddess, is there? Perhaps that tells us something too.

Fascinating and illuminating stuff, Mary--with much mythic food for thought too.  Thank you so much for visiting Scribble City Central.

You can find out more about Mary at the sites listed below:

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Novelty of Writing

Clementine and Mungo by Sarah Dyer (Bloomsbury 2004)
 You may have noticed I haven't been here much lately.  I know, I know, you've missed me and all that.  It's been a manic summer so far, what with all that ABBA Litfest shenanigans going on, and other stuff as well. 

There's also been quite a lot of writing excitement for me over the last month or so. I'm delighted to say that I've had two picture book texts accepted--one, with wonderful artist Sarah Dyer (see picture on left for her inimitable style), will be published by Bloomsbury in 2013, and the other with fab new publisher Nosy Crow (about which there will be more news later in the year, I hope).

I'm also in the last stages of writing a YA novel.  I'm very excited about it, and so is Lovely Agent, but she's sworn me to secrecy on what it's about, so mmmmmmm *sound of lips being firmly zipped*.  What I can say is that I have a new writing regime for this book, and I'm loving it.  Up at 6.30am, write in bed (very lady novelist, but without the fluffy Pomeranian), healthy brain-boosting breakfast, more writing till lunchtime, no Twitter or Facebook or blogging or any other damn thing till then. Target 2500-3000 words a day, which means that I should--should, I say--have it finished by the end of the month (and now that I've said that publicly, I'll have to do it, won't I?).  The last 10,000 words were tapped out looking over the island of Elba in a mixture of glorious Tuscan sunshine and very scary thunderstorms. But it's been nice to get back to my own desk and all my books.  Books in a rented house aren't the same, somehow, though it's fun exploring someone else's shelves, especially since they belong to another writer--Elizabeth Palmer.  I'll tell you more about the novel when I can--I promise!--and I know you'll forgive me if I'm absent with the Muse for a bit over the rest of the summer.

Meanwhile, this Thursday (4th August), I have a treat for you, as Scribble City Central is hosting the very wonderful Mary Hoffman on the last day of the blog tour for her novel, David.  Come back and visit again then!  
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