imageIt has occurred to me on more than one occasion in the last week that giving people two opposing choices isn’t always a good idea… History bears this out. Think about apartheid, espousing that white = good and black = bad. Never mind the fact that all humans are varying shades of yellow and brown, that there is a spectrum, and there are often more similarities between communities than differences. There is often more diversity within particular communities than most of us expect. The problem is that the human brain is limited, so we use a code in order to make sense of and classify the world around us. And sometimes that is ok. Sometimes however, it is disastrous.

A week ago the country was asked a simple question in a referendum that will now go down in infamy. We were asked whether to leave or to remain. The question was plain and simple, and campaigners on both sides divided voters in many ways. For me, the problem with this is that now, in the fallout of that national decision, the country is still divided, into the now well known 52/48 split. However you voted, you can’t fail to have been struck by the emotional and passionate response invoked across the UK. If you’re anything like me, at work you are wondering who voted in which way, and making judgements on those who voted differently. We’re back to binaries again – in = good, out = bad (or vice versa). The truth of course is that there are many good people who voted in and many good people who voted out. The issue at hand is that the final decision has legitimised for a minority unacceptable views and actions which we have all heard far too much about in recent days. Those perpetrating these actions think that everyone who voted leave is like them – out voters = ‘all people who believe what I believe’, in voters = ‘all people who disagree with me’. Once again, this is a gross simplification, when in reality we all have people we know and love who voted differently to us.

Sadly it doesn’t stop there. The Tory Party leadership contest is now being run as a competition between a ‘pro-remain’ candidate and a ‘pro-brexit’ candidate. The vote is done, over with, decision made. But the campaign will go to the Conservative party as between two people, who will probably be polarised by the media and their campaigns. This simply cannot be healthy. And of course it isn’t restricted to the Conservatives. Within the Labour Party a fierce division has opened up between Corbyn supporters who feel themselves to be on the left of the party, and the more progressive centre-left group. Again, if you actually speak to members, the truth is much more complex. There are people who don’t identify with either of those groups, but feel that they need to pin their flag to a mast by the situation and the vociferous campaigners on both sides. It is divisive, destructive and unproductive.

Throughout history we have learnt time and again the danger of dividing an issue, a group, or a nation into two. It never ends well. Think about East and West Germany, think of North and South Korea, native Americans and new settlers, the list goes on.

So I hereby make a pact and commit to not assuming you are on one side or other, and that if we disagree on something that I don’t assume we must disagree on everything. Let us embrace the grey areas – the areas where warring factions come together to play football, the healthcare staff who treat patients regardless of who they are and where they come from, the support we offer to the people next door who may be of a different faith, the people who choose to throw off the shackles of their physical gender and live as who they truly are. Life is more complicated than one correct way of doing things, and everything else being wrong. Yes, be angry, campaign, express your views. But never assume that the person on the other side of your particular argument is somehow subhuman, evil, or worth less.

*If you want to know more about the theory of binary opposition, read Jacques Derrida.

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I’m really excited to be able to report that I have contributed to a new book that will be published in Spring 2017.

Pinter and Martin are publishing Pride and Joy: A Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parents, by Sarah Eve Hagger-Holt and Dr Rachel Rose Hagger-Holt next year, and part of my *other* blog, Mama Not Mummy, has been included.

As a former journalist, writing non-fiction often comes more naturally to me than fiction, so it is heartening to know I’ve still got ‘it’. The blog originally came from a place of becoming a parent for the first time, and becoming a parent in a somewhat unconventional manner. I struggled to find any real writing about the situation I found myself in, so the blog came about as a way to express my feelings. I was surprised to find it gathered a following of others in a similar situation, once again reminding me of the power of reading and writing as affirmation. There’s a line in the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett about this, about the power of literature to reach out and touch you:

Hector – The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

I’m thrilled to be included in this new book, and really hope that this will help others feel a quiet hand in theirs.

Note in the image above, I am demonstrating pride and joy. Or something…

  
If you were born in 1978, like me, there are probably poloroid photos of you wearing brown dungarees, dribbling into a swirly carpet as a baby. You will remember a time when phones were plugged into the wall, and had a round dial, making each number dialled an activity in and of itself. You probably got that number from an address book with gold edged paper from the bureau the phone was sitting on. Mobile phones started off as car phones that only high powered business types had. 

Your first experience of television was probably Trumpton or Play School. Did anyone apart from that doll ever get called Hamble?

We were introduced to pop music by Boy George and the Human League, and became a teenager to Oasis, Pulp and Blur. Weekends were spent scouring the shelves of Ourprice, with my Walkman tucked away in my pocket and orange foam headphones on. 

We dated before mobile phones made reading between the lines of text messages a necessity. In fact, we didn’t call it ‘dating’, we were either ‘going out’ with someone or we weren’t. And even that was misleading, ‘going out’ didn’t actually mean going anywher beyond the bedroom floor or the walk to or from school. Phoning your beloved involved braving the gatekeeper that was his or her mum or dad.

Until we were 18, Government was synonymous with Tories, and mostly, Margaret Thatcher. AIDS was a word whispered by grown-ups and uttered as an insult in playgrounds. Being gay wasn’t a thing discussed in schools, teachers scared by section 28, leaving a generation to discover themselves alone. Unmarried mothers still received sideways glances in the playground and the word ‘divorce’ was often mouthed silently in the presence of children. 

As Cool Britannia reared its head, we were off to university. Gap years were things that other people did, and halls of residence had mildew on the walls. Student bars were still often brown, and every weekend I remember checking my pigeon hole for a letter from home. 

We were reaching adulthood as fears of the millennium bug spread, and tentatively entering the world of work. We were polarised by the Iraq war, and some of us took to the streets in protest. 

And now, in 2016, we are mums, dads, aunts, uncles, colleagues, staff, bosses and friends. What, I wonder, will our children think of when fondly remembering their pasts?

I read a wonderful article this evening by Jacqui Lofthouse entitled 12 essential ingredients of a winning first chapterThere are, as you might imagine, 12 rather useful hints, but the one I’ve focused on in particular is number 4:

Begin at an interesting point in the narrative. We need to have a sense that ‘something is about to happen’ or ‘something needs to be resolved’. It must not be static.

My new novel, which is still very much in an early iteration, starts in an opulent London apartment and involves a potentially compromising situation. What could be better? (That’s a rhetorical question).

Check out the first few pages of Major Gifts here and see what you think…

“So it was £10,000 I said wasn’t it?” She looked over her shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the open curtains that silhouetted her semi-naked figure against the window from where I was sitting on the bed. 
I nodded.

“Who should I make it payable to? I know cheques are a little passe, but the bank sends such beautiful ones these days, and it feels much more real to sign my name in ink on this occasion. It means more.” She scribbled away with a Mont Blanc fountain pen as she spoke, and I swiftly put my clothes back on. Sara was making no move towards gathering her Paul Smith suit, or shirt or bra, but I could feel the draught from the window, and the paperwork we needed to do waiting.

I reached for my satchel and grabbed the short form she needed to complete. I walked over and slid it along the edge of the desk to her, brushing her arm gently.  I could see from the angle of her ears that she was smiling.

“I suppose you have others to see this morning?”

“I’m afraid so Sara, although none will be in such beautiful surroundings.” The mansion flat in Whitehall couldn’t be her only residence, but the opulence of it, the original artwork that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tate Modern and the clean lines of the furniture said a lot about the woman who spent time here.

Sara laughed.  “Perhaps. When are you next passing through?”

“Next week,” I said, and folded the proffered cheque, slipping it in my jacket pocket. I looked at my watch. I was late.

“You going to kiss me goodbye?” I smiled, bent, and gently kissed her. She smiled.

“Call me.” She said.

The air outside had warmed up. At 8.30am when I had emerged at Marylebone there had been a chill, but the April sun was beginning to warm Whitehall. I walked quickly towards the river and pulled out my mobile. “Hi Tom, it’s Cam, can you call Sir Hugh’s office and let them know I’m running late?”

“Did she give?” I could hear him rifling through papers on his desk as he spoke.

“Oh she really did.”

“God, I can hear your smirk down the phone. I said you had a soft spot for her. Stop laughing at me and spill.”

“Ten grand.”

“Woo, good start to the day.” There was a pause. “And?”

“Let’s go for a drink later sweetie.”

“So mean! Ok darling, give me a bell when you’re on the train. I’ll get in touch with Hughie.”

I plunged back down into the underground and tried hard to wipe the smile off my face. I knew it made me look stupid and wouldn’t play well with Sir Hugh. I emerged back into the sunshine and my phone bleeped.

//Meet Sir H at the restaurant, he’ll meet you there. I mean it – I want the gossip! T x//

I turned on my heels and walked towards the bistro we often met at. I was welcomed at the door by a young male Eastern European waiter.

“I’m here to meet Sir Hugh.” He nodded.

“He’s at his usual table.” He led me to a quiet corner, where Sir Hugh was pouring himself a generous glass of red wine.

“Ah, Miss Strawbank, how lovely to see you again.” He stood to shake my hand and kissed my cheek, his bushy silver moustache and beard tickling my face. “Lovely perfume my dear.” I smiled. I usually don’t wear perfume, so the only fragrance on me must have been the sophisticated scent that Sara was wearing earlier on. I felt my face redden at the memory.

“Sir Hugh, it’s a pleasure as always.” I sat down opposite him, and without asking he filled the huge wine glass that had appeared in front of me.

“Oh, just call me Hugh,” he said, as always. He put his hand into the inside pocket of his silk lined tweed jacked and pulled out an envelope. “There you are my dear. Now we can just have a nice lunch and dispense with the ugly talk of money.” I nodded my thanks and tucked the envelope into my own pocket, pretending that I wasn’t keen to see how many noughts were on the end this time. I took a mouthful of wine, satisfied that this had already been a successful day for my professionally, and let it warm the back of my throat as it went down.

Sir Hugh thoroughly recommended the duck so we both tucked into the rich and refined dish delicately daubed in a plum jus. It worked well with the wine, clouding the edges of my thoughts slightly, which was no bad thing as Sir Hugh was regaling me with tales of his time at Knighton University College Medical School. My thoughts drifted back to this morning, and the way Sara had greeted me at the door, coffee mug in hand.

“There’s still some in the pot – weapons grade strength or weak and feeble? You are Cameron Strawbank right? Fabulous name on a girl.” I smiled at her.

“Weapons grade please,” I said, “and I’m glad you like it. Most people expect me to be a guy. It’s a tradition in my family for the oldest daughter to have a male name.” I paused. “It could have been a lot worse – they could have called me Dave.”

Sara Lorenzo MP threw her head back in laughter, her bracelets jangling. She handed me a cup of strong coffee and she guided me to a room she described as her study. It was twice the size of my apartment.

“Well Cameron, I think we’re going to get on well. Take a seat and tell me about Knighton and how things are going there.”

Sir Hugh placed his hand on my wrist, bringing me back to his macabre story. “So I said to Nobby, it’s one thing scaring a fellow medic with an unexpected body part, but startling a poor young English undergraduate with a cadaver’s finger in her lunchbox is just not de rigeur.” I nodded, trying to hide my disgust, and taking another sip of my wine to overcome the queasiness I felt.

“Of course he’s one of the nation’s foremost minds on heart disease these days. But then I suppose medicine attracts that sort.” I was wondering what sort that was when Sir Hugh spoke again. “But now then, here’s me going on about me and my old college days. You weren’t even born then! Heavens. So dear, are you courting?”

“Not at the moment,” I said.

“Ah well, the right fellow will come along my dear. They just get a bit scared off by your type.”

“My type?”

“Well, you know, brainy, trouser-wearing, that kind of thing.” I smiled uncertainly, deciding that feminism may have passed Sir Hugh by. His cheque was warm in my pocket, and I was still basking in the glow of the morning too much to make any kind of witty comeback. “Anyway, I like you Miss Strawbank. I think you’re splendid.”

I wonder what he would have thought if he knew about what had happened with the MP for Mallington South.

The coffee Sara made was good, strong and smooth, with a hint of chocolate. It was as decadent as my surroundings, and I felt at ease. My meetings were variously formal, informal, convivial and awkward. If I was lucky they were friendly – as this one was starting to be. My job was to work out which version of Cameron to be – formal, relaxed, witty, quiet or outspoken. The better the meeting, the better the outcome.

“Are you here to ask me for money?” She asked quickly.

“Well, I won’t deny that the subject will come up. But first, I want to find out more about you, what you care about, what you think about Knighton, and how we might work together.”

“You and me?”

“Well us and the college.” Sara sipped her coffee.

“I see. Well here you go, I studied biochemistry and hated every minute of it. I should have studied English or Politics or some such, but I was under the misguided impression it would satisfy my mother’s desire for me to be a success.”

“I, er, so you didn’t enjoy your time at Knighton then?” I fingered my coffee mug.

“Oh I loved it. In spite of the course you see. I did everything, played tennis in the summer, hockey in the winter, took part in the debating society and set up a women’s group. It was all about freedom for me. It wasn’t the degree, it was the experience.”

I relaxed again, and started to work through possible projects in my mind. I crossed off academic scholarships and scientific research straight away, and stared to think more creatively.

“I just feel I was so lucky.” I nodded, urging her to continue. It was critical that she was allowed to just talk at this point. “I got a grant and was able to live on it without working in some dingy bar every night. My parents weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich either, but I was able to be financially independent.” A light went on in my head.

“Yes, things have changed so much, even since I was studying.”

“That can’t have been so long ago surely. How old are you?” It was one of the less personal questions I had been asked in the course of this job, so I just answered her.

“32. Old enough to have seen a change.” Sara smiled as if weighing something up. “Sadly, we know that lots of youngsters now decide against higher education because of the fear of debt.”

“It’s just so tragic.” Sara poured herself some more coffee and topped mine up without asking if I wanted more. I smiled my thanks and wondered what the caffeine would do to me – I always drank too much coffee on my London days.

“Well, we’ve decided we can do better,” I said, leaning forward in my seat, “and we’ve established grants for those from low income families who are on course for good results at A level.” Sara’s eyes lit up, and she caught my free hand, with which I had been gesticulating.

“Brilliant,” she said, “how much do you give them?”

“£2,000 a year.”

“You know, I voted against the top-up fees.” I nodded. I did know, it had been in the research file Tom had prepared for me that I had read on the train. She shook her head. “It breaks my heart to think of those poor kids in school desperate to get on.” She dropped my hand and looked up, making eye contact. “What did you study?”

I smiled, ready for the inevitable put down as I said “Media Studies”. But Sara remained serious.

“At Knighton?”

“No, I never would have got in. I studied in Yorkshire.”

“You’re too modest Cameron. I think you’ve got it all worked out.” I raised my eyebrows, not completely sure what she meant. “Will ten do?”

“Sorry?”

“Ten thousand pounds? That will help five students right?” This was big for a first gift and I was taken aback. I worked to keep my cool.

“Well six actually if you include Gift Aid. I must say, that’s very generous of you.” Sara took a sip from her coffee cup, smiling ruefully.

“Maybe it is generosity. But sometimes I wonder it isn’t to assuage my own guilt.” She gestured to the room around her.

 

 

 Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

It’s been a while hasn’t it?

Writing has changed. It used to be one of many different things I did when I wasn’t doing my day job. Then, towards the end of 2013, my life changed. My daughter was born. To start with I thought my writing days may be over altogether, on the days when getting me, my wife and my daughter out of bed, washed, fed and sane was a full time task. It’s something all parents go through. Parenthood has a way of unceremoniously booting you from the self actualisation pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs down to the life support foundation.

This isn’t a whinge at all. I always wanted to be a mum. And I knew things would change. You can of course never be ready for the reality of the situation.

I wrote the first draft of Four Movements in just two and a half months at a rate of something like 1,000 words per day. It was a massive achievement, and a couple of times since my daughter was born I’ve tried to emulate that. I’ve failed each time. I am now responsible for a whole other human being, and regardless of the value of literature, she tops my priority list.

In the last few months I have been quietly beavering away at a new manuscript. 1,000 words a day is simply not practical. I now try to get a quality 20 min writing break once a day. This works out as about 350-400 words per session. I don’t always manage it, but now I’m almost 18,000 words into my new novel, it is beginning to feel achievable.

For those interested… The working title of the new book is Major Gifts.

Just in case you missed it…

Sally Xerri-Brooks

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Following the publication of Four Movements, I thought you might want to gain an insight into my world, my writing and the inspiration behind it.

When did you start writing?

I suppose I’ve always written stories, ever since I was very young. I remember putting together my own little story books – grappling with giant staplers and sellotape, tongue inevitably stuck out to one side. In my early career I was a journalist, and I found it fascinating how much of life can be encapsulated in stories.

So would you call yourself a story teller?

Yes! I think so. If I am, I have to give credit to my late Grandmother, who used to fascinate me with family stories from the past. Her yarns would involve caravans on sand dunes, unexpected illness, long and eventful journeys – the stuff of true drama. Ultimately, in my mind, the best writers…

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words graph

2013 was a year of radical change for me, as many of you will know. I started a new job, Rachel and I moved house and had a baby. My daughter is now nearly four months old, and throughout our journey I kept a blog. You can see it at www.mamanotmummy.blogspot.co.uk

Unexpectedly this blog has proved really popular with other parents, both gay and straight. So, my next project is non-fiction. When I wrote Four Movements I embarked on a project called ‘May You Write Your Novel,’ inspired by author Sally Quilford. The idea was to write 1,000 words a day for 80 days starting on 1st May. It worked for me – by mid July I had the first draft completed. So, although it is not May, and ‘January You Write Your Novel’ doesn’t really have a ring to it, I will employ the same technique. See above my progress graph!

And to get an idea of the book itself – here is the pitch I am sharing with literary agents:

This book is the story of how me and my female partner went about getting pregnant, and our journey from identifying a sperm donor to giving birth. Book shops currently contain whole sections dedicated to guides for mums and dads-to-be, and even tomes for those adopting children. Yet, there is virtually nothing in this market that tackles the issue of becoming a mum, as I have, to a baby my wife gave birth to. While she is biologically Rachel’s daughter and legally I am her ‘other mother’, I have no genetic connection to her. I had to make it up as I went along, dealing with issues such as knowing my child wouldn’t inherit any of my skills and abilities by virtue of my DNA. I wasn’t a mum or a dad as society identifies, and I was faced with questions from others that I simply couldn’t answer.
This is an honest and sometimes light-hearted account of my experience and feelings, and the creation of a very specific parental role and confidence through the nine month pregnancy, and the subsequent birth.

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