Please don’t be Political!

As a writer, I know others who avoid what they’d brand as ‘political’, and that is fine for them. But, I came into writing to be political – being political, having awareness of ‘stuff’ is why I write – not crime (cosy or violent), not romance, not whimsy, not fantasy – I began writing my first novel prompted by some thoughts about what drives social change. How can a person not be themselves?  Above all I want to be objective, (even if the concept of objectivity is denied to be possible today, I believe it is possible): and especially not to “preach”. 

Change has complexity. Initially good and compassionate attitudes and changes have this way of slipping towards something less than perfect. How does this come about? New possibilities can look wonderful, progressive… they’re also open to manipulation for profit. To exploitation. These interact… some people fear change, or have special reasons to resist…

How do we stop that happening? Would we want to? Is cracking down on society and forcing traditional values and behaviour – often longed for, in a nostalgic terms, by some people – a solution? Can the clock be turned back?

Social change can never be turned back. We may be able – or think we are able – to change the future. But we can never return to the past. Not because nobody wants to, but because too much has changed, and  become different, over time.

For example, we can’t easily reverse climate change by “cracking down”. That won’t bring back the lost species. The ruined rainforests. I say we can’t easily, as with care, international cooperation, and willingness to do without the comfortable ways we’ve learned to live with, we might. But that’s unlikely to occur, given that most countries will have special interests. Fast air travel, foreign holidays, cheap food, clothing outsourced to be made in poor countries, are what we have come to expect. It would take an enormous commitment in the face of huge opposition from those who benefit and profit to change. And the beneficiaries include all of us – you and me in our small ways, our governments and multinational companies in their powerful ones. 

Progressive, beneficial medical advance can’t help driving social change. Some will disagree, but reliable *contraception and safe clinical abortion were introduced by idealists passionate to improve the lives of women, particularly those caught in poverty, the ‘less well off’ majority. Not to offer easy recreational sex to both genders without consequences. Its opposers argued on both moral and religious grounds that ‘misuse’ was inevitable. It has indeed resulted in huge shifts in public attitudes. Personally I detest the phrase ‘sexual revolution’, since there’s so much more than ‘sex’ going on…also has removing ‘sex’ from ‘relationship’ been helpful and without consequences for women? (Think #MeToo, for example.) Genetic research, combined with legal abortion, has also changed public attitudes, in a way which could be seen as sinister. Introducing safe legal abortion opened up new possibilities in eugenics. Moral and ethical questions shift about. Few people now would consider it better to carry a dysmorphic foetus to term. (And this future may be applied to female foetuses, and to what other groups among the ‘inconvenient’?) Is this murder? The furore surrounding ‘pro-life’ can influence voters.

But back to my writing.  My first novel tended towards a scifi mystery, its roots in the story of Dolly the sheep, successfully produced by cloning at the Roslin research centre near Edinburgh, in 1996. As I read up the historical background, and learned more about the scientific process, the story changed, evolved, and became domesticated. Where it works better. Hopefully the mystery concerning a shockingly dysmorphic baby, investigated (illegally as it would be now) by two Cambridge students, from very different family backgrounds, highlights several moral and ethical questions, not wholly confined to the field of science and medical advance.

A follow-up story goes on to look at an on-going everyday problem: ever since women gained equality in education and opportunity, we expect to be able to successfully combine career and family.  However, who then cares for the kids? When career opportunities and family crises clash, what and whose ambitions, talents, and goals take precedence? 

My prompts have always come from the effects of social change and the pushback from traditionalists. An ever present ‘dialectic’. History is increasingly driven by a combination of invention, its usage, and most significantly our desires. Our desires may be to eliminate suffering and improve life. But equally they may be hijacked by ambitions for profit or pleasure. Leading to destruction.

 Objectivity, though it ‘doesn’t sell newspapers’, can be useful. I may be political, but I also try to simply lay out life as it is, not what ‘my’ Utopia might be. Asking the awkward questions does tend to look political.

*women’s lives in the 1920s? Follow this up! COMING SOON: This Thursday, 29 October, Who’s left holding the baby? – class & contraception in the 1920s, a guest blog by writer Fiona Veitch Smith, author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series... to celebrate the publication of Poppy’s latest investigation, The Art Fiasco, set in 1924…

Wearing Pyjamas to Church

Change is always creeping up. Recent change has rushed ahead ….

In the 1980s, now ‘history’ to schoolchildren, we used to go to church every Sunday. Dressed up. Always a skirt not trousers, never jeans. A day for make-up and a navy blazer – navy blazers de rigueur for smart mummies. Sloane Rangers, Preppy clothes. …Children in their tidy best – our daughter made to wear a pretty dress. Dads in suits.

me at Granny's 80th
Me late 1980s style …

There was a neighbourhood babysitting circle (pay by the hour with little plastic tokens). We met monthly for coffee and a chat, taking our small kids along to play together.  We never thought of CRB checks or the danger of our kids being left with a neighbouring parent (‘potential abuser’), in charge… We just didn’t. None us did. CRB hadn’t entered our lives.

The whole family were on the same doctor’s list at the local GP practice, and he (always he) was counted a family friend. There was no email to speak of.  I kept in touch with my best friend from uni by handwritten letters, which passed between my home and hers about twice a month. Fat letters with scribbled family news, reviews of books we were reading, photos… Often using a recycled envelope.

I studied sociology in the 1990s …

… taking a special interest in the NHS. The lecturer said it was in a mess (already) – though he supported the idea of foundation hospitals, begun in 2002 under Tony Blair’s government.  He was enthusiastic about the emerging practice of evidence-based medicine. Change happens … I worked a bit in the NHS: our problem was moving elderly people on into an environment they’d be safe to go home to … (that’s still one of the NHS’s problemsplus ça change?)

The kids grew, and saw a lot more point in practical caring and saving the planet than lining up each week to sing hymns in church (even wearing jeans). The shops changed as the area grew more obviously wealthy. Costa Coffee replaced the newsagents, a French patisserie opened where the butcher and greengrocers used to be. People carriers and ‘Chelsea tractors’ carried children to school, to avoid the dangers of other traffic, strangers, and the weather. Though the streets regularly featured homeless people now, huddled in sleeping bags, sitting or sleeping in doorways. And Big Issue sellers.

Huge societal change was creeping on… Some was good, like inclusiveness. Some was scary, like making sure everyone working with kids is CRB checked, as we learned the truth about Jimmy Saville (as a kid, I’d found him creepy – did anyone else? Yes. The morning the News began the story, my Yoga class all agreed: creepy guy…) And, people began to come to church in jeans and old trainers. Instead of dressing up to meet with awesome God, the idea was to dress down, because it was the weekend, time to ditch the city suit and heels, and reach for old and comfy clothes. God, who accepted us, would of course understand.

Times had changed…

Some change is for the better. CRB rating is wise, especially in a society where neighbours are strangers to one another. Email is fast and efficient. And without social media I wouldn’t be in touch with other writers all over the country—even the world. ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) is a world-wide organisation. As a writer, I have a webpage, and I blog. Internet shopping is preferable to battling around the supermarket and sitting in traffic. And organic vegetables can arrive, weekly, by van, in a box.

No, we are not people who want to turn the clock back. Social and societal change happens, it’s normal… But catastrophic change is unsettling… Nostalgia for how it was is fine… but it won’t be like that again… (leaving the EU won’t bring back how it was!)

Hams closeup copy
Family photo, 1907 – so much change on the way … World turned upside down, 1914-18 …

Change is part of life. It was for the Victorians, and it is for us… but recent change has been sudden, worrying, and revealing. 2016 was like the world turned upside down. Is there a choice, or do we have to accept we are living in a “post-truth era” and whatever consequences that brings? Must the lessons of history be abandoned? Has the present generation in power decided to ignore the past, draw a line, and run headlong into the unknown? Prompted possibly by a combination of fear and ambition? As refugees flee war-torn areas, and apprehensive populations resort to nationalistic solutions?

And while schools are complaining that parents are wearing pyjamas when they drop off their children in the morning?

We still go to church. Most people usually arrive late. Possibly this problem could be fixed if the new dress code for Sunday best was to be pyjamas.

Shall we vote?