Child Abuse: Tip of the Iceberg

I have a letter in The Guardian today, in the light of deeply disturbing allegations of a child abuse ring in Parliament, dating back to the eighties. Several other letters draw attention to the appalling lack of care of our most vulnerable children. So far, all we have had from successive governments is weasel words. Forty years ago, a groundbreaking study into the effects of being born poor (Born to Fail) concluded that children from poorer homes suffered educationally, mentally and socially, and today, it is worse than ever, as the division between rich and poor is getting bigger and our investment in mental health and in child care services is being cut to the bone. 75% of children’s care homes are run privately, for profit and abuse within this system has been endemic. The investigation at Kwowl children’s home was firstly raised in the eighties but it was suppressed. Again and again we hear of investigations into abuse at children’s homes being opened, then suppressed.
Those who are brave enough to blow the whistle are treated like scum. Alison Taylor who broke the North Wales Children’s Home scandal should have been given a Knighthood. Instead she was sacked and labelled a ‘subversive’. Because brave women like her highlight the spineless, gutless ineptitude of others who are happy to ‘turn a blind eye’. Really, if an alien from Mars was asked what we really think of children in this country, they would rightly conclude that we feel only white middle class pretty children are worthy of protection. Poor, vulnerable troubled children – the ones we weep over as abused babies, if they manage to survive their childhood (and it is survival) to grow up, we are quick to label and demonise. ‘Feral’, ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘the underclass’.

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Don’t Mess with Spellcheck

Your-cheat-sheet

For the past year I’ve been writing for and teaching other people, at the University of Hertfordshire, putting together a new course on Young Adult writing, and Adaptation from Page to Stage and Screen. I also had my regular gig at the Open University, teaching creative writing, prose, poetry, life writing and drama.   My lovely students have done me proud.
But . . . . .
When you have worked really hard on a piece, a story, a script, a poem and you know that a large percentage of marks depends on it, why do some students – why do some people – rely far too heavily on Spellcheck? I’m not sure it’s about laziness. I think it’s something to do with giving up just as the finishing line is in sight, even if you’ve spent months, drafting, editing, rewriting. Maybe you are just sick of the sight of it. And going over it again is just too much to bear and you’d rather trust a piece of software?

Well don’t because Spellcheck will fuck you over.
As this Ode to Spellcheck by Dr. Jerrold H. Zar and Mark Ekkman in 1991 shows:

Eye halve a spelling chequer

It came with my pea sea

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word

And weight four it two say

Weather eye am wrong oar write

It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid

It nose bee fore two long

And eye can put the error rite

Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it

I am shore your pleased two no

Its letter perfect awl the weigh

My chequer tolled me sew.

Instead, what I suggest to my students is:

Give yourself enough time to leave the piece for at least 24 hours. Get your head out of it.

When you’ve left your piece for at least 24 hours, come back to it.  Read it out loud. Good writing has a rhythm to it, like an undercurrent.  Doesn’t matter if it’s prose, poetry, or a script.  Also, you should be able to read sentences without running out of breath. If you can’t – you either smoke too much or your sentences need to be shorter.  Listen to your instinct.  If the rhythm sounds bumpy, ring the section and come back to it.

Check that spellcheck hasn’t helpfully inserted a different word for the one you originally intended such as:

booger

Or a made up word (can’t quite see how this happened.  Somking?)

smoking

I’ve also come across a bizarre assumption that if your work is really really good then the agent person will forgive you for bad grammar and spelling.

Imagine. It’s late on a February afternoon. An editor picks up your manuscript – the one you have laboured over for years.  Her eyes are stinging with tiredness but she’s promised herself she will read one more before heading off.  She swigs lukewarm coffee and pulls your manuscript from a tottering, coffee splashed pile of other manuscripts.  First page – decent – set out properly – good title.  Page one . . .page two . .   her heart thumps.  She could sell this.  Sinking into the story here . . . she’s aware a colleague has just left but the story’s pull is so strong she barely raises a hand to wish him? her? goodbye – she is being seduced into another world.  It’s no longer a duty.  She wants to be here with the characters . . . . .

BAM!

Grammar cock up.

She blinks. That’s what grammar and spelling mistakes do. They jerk her out of the fictive dream that you – Author – have spent so many hours trying to create.

But ok – one mistake. It can happen. She angles the light better and carries on reading, slipping back into the story.

BAM

Another one.

She shuts her eyes. Opens them – takes a swig of cold coffee. Horrible. Opens bottle of water. Realises how tired she is.

She might flick a look at the clock, her thoughts straying to the fridge at home. Perhaps finish the chapter tomorrow? No – keep to the schedule. Shakes herself and looks back at the page. Dutiful. Not the same eagerness.

BAM.

For fucks sake.

Depending on her mood, her degree of tiredness and the kind of day she’s had she may stop reading now. If she doesn’t it’s going to take a few more pages before she gets back into the story. About half a chapter before her mind uncurls again.

Months, maybe years of work down the drain because Author couldn’t be arsed to edit properly.

Most editors have a rule.

Jane Smith of The Self-Publishing Review has a rule of 15 spelling and grammar mistakes before she stops reading and five pages of ‘boring prose.’

When I worked full time in publishing ten years ago, there was an editorial department with copy-editors. Now there’s less no money for copy editors.  If your manuscript is clean and error free (as well as being brilliant and ground breaking) you are in with a chance.

Don’t rely on spellcheck.  Just don’t.

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Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time

Cherishing all the children, one unmarked grave at a time.

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The Nun Stripped Bare

Like many, I’ve been following the terrible case of the Tuam babies.  A report in 1944 described emaciated pot-bellied children and mentally sick mothers.  But there was nothing unusual in this – the girls were unwed mothers and therefore had to be punished.  If the babies were not attractive enough to be sold to rich foreigners, their deaths would go unrecorded.  Wrapped in a shroud, they would be tossed into a septic tank.  

How could the nuns be so cruel?  Really?  They couldn’t all have started out as cold, judgemental, unfeeling Daleks.  So why?  Here’s my theory, based on years of being an unwilling Catholic and having to go to Sunday school and listen to sermons on what you must do if you find an unbaptised baby at the side of the road.  (Answer – no – you don’t call an ambulance, you baptise the baby just in case.)

It was common in Ireland to have large families and also to gain some brownie points by ‘donating’ a child to the church, so who knows how many teenagers were bullied and harangued into entering a convent?  The life of a nun sounds hard enough if you actually want to be there. 

The training of nuns for hundreds of years involved stripping them of empathy and the ability to think as an individual.  Former nun Elizabeth Murad describes the long, painful path here.  The process of stripping away the old ‘you’ sounds uncomfortably like a cult.   Where the old ‘you’ with your personality and ability to think and make decisions, is crushed underfoot, and a new pliable, passive you emerges. One who keeps her eyes down, her ears closed and does not allow anyone to touch her.  

Nuns were denied the comfort of simple human friendship.  Many nuns were ordered to go round in groups of three, to guard against a ‘special friendship’ developing, and presumably also women falling in love with each other.   All their love was to be directed towards God – a particularly controlling and jealous lover, which probably left very little love or even empathy for their fellow humans. 

Nuns were not to question, or to think for themselves. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and were expected to go where the Church told them, and take jobs or training that had nothing to do with personal likes or dislikes.  They were not to question and not to think for themselves.

One of the main tenets of Catholicism was that the more painful and difficult your life on earth, the more you would be rewarded in Heaven.   So after four to five years of training you have a nun, who is denied the pleasure of friendship, whose ability to empathise has been ruthlessly crushed, and has been indoctrinated to the idea that an unmarried mother is a great sinner, regardless of her circumstances. 

The nuns are not entirely to blame.  There are also the men and boys who got these girls pregnant and got off scot-free, the men, including priests, who raped some of these girls who were then packed away to hide their ‘shame’, the families who threw the girls out for the crime of being pregnant, (seriously, how indoctrinated do you have to be to turn away your terrified, pregnant child?)  who allowed church indoctrination to override their instincts, the Irish Government who knew what was going on and did nothing over and over, the police who knew and did nothing.  And the good people who looked the other way again and again and again . . . . .

In Rwanda, there is a memorial to the genocide.  It reads: The Nazis didn’t kill six million Jews, the Hutus didn’t kill a million Tutsis, they killed one, then another, and another, and another.

As Catherine Corless, the historian who unearthed this horror, eloquently put it:

Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don’t insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are. There were homes throughout Ireland, outrageous child mortality rates in each. Were the Tuam Bon Secours sisters an anomalous, rebellious sect? Or were church practices much the same the country over? If so, how many died in each of these homes? What are their names? Where are their graves? We don’t need more platitudinous damage control, but the truth about our history.

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JIggery Popery

Pope Francis has made Saints of his two predecessors, Pope John, and Pope John Paul.  It made me think about how as a Catholic child I would pore over my copy of Lives of the Saints, drinking in the miserable pain racked lives of these fiercely devoted, entirely disturbed group of people.  Rose of Lima, fearful of vanity would blister her face with pepper.   Gemma Galgani ‘blessed’ by the stigmata, starved herself and suffered from spinal tuberculosis.  St Catherine of Siena drank pus.  (Not on a regular basis – I think she was making a point.  About what I can’t imagine).

For non papals, the process of becoming a Saint is arduous and requires both a minor and a major miracle. Pope John made heroic efforts to save Jews which is good enough for me, but in Catholic terms, I thought he was supposed to have cured a few nasties as well.  For Pope John Paul, a woman who suddenly recovered from a brain tumour was enough.  Although the other ‘miracle’ might have been how he managed to completely ignore the growing evidence of clerical abuse within the church.

Not a Pope?  Want to be a Saint?

It’s no good just spending your life tending others, or everybody on the coal face of the NHS would be sporting halos.  You have to be seen to be serving God.  If you’re a woman you can forget about having a few wild years first as well.  Remember that the religious Oscar has traditionally favoured passive and penitent women.  Had St Joan of Arc spent more time shivering in a convent, rather than striding around in men’s clothes and leading armies, she might not have taken nearly five hundred years to get canonized.  (St Joan was burned at the stake in 1431 and canonized in 1920).   Far better to emulate St Rose of Lima, a reclusive anorexic, who spent her life in prayer and abject penance, strewing her bed with broken glass, and apologising profoundly for being female.  Her reward for this lifelong misery was canonization only fifty-four years after her death in 1617.  Best to forget sex too.  In his Treatise against Jovinianus, AD393, St Jerome thundered: “The truth is that, in view of the purity of the body of Christ, all sexual intercourse is unclean”.  So regard his words as frustrated misogyny if you must, but any wannabe saint will see it for the piece of holy career advice, it is.

Die

Unfortunately, death is a prerequisite for canonization.   Martyrdom, however, may hasten the process, particularly for virgins, murdered horribly for rebuffing an appalling bloke.  Thus, the wise and educated St Catherine of Alexandria might be the patron saint of philosophers and scholars, but she’s better remembered for a peeved emperor’s attempt to torture her on a spiked wheel.  Don’t despair though (it’s a sin).  If martyrdom is not an option, self-neglect may produce a debilitating illness, which should make life commendably wretched before finally killing you.  (See Rose of Lima, Catherine of Siena, and Gemma Galgani)

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints

Before the canonization process, known as ‘a cause’ can begin, according to the Vatican Press Office, ‘it is necessary for at least five years to have passed since the death of the candidate which dissipates the emotion and allows greater balance and objectivity in evaluating the case.’  A diocesan tribunal is formed to gather documentation and witnesses which will (hopefully) testify to your heroic Christian virtues.  If you pass, don’t get too excited: at this stage, you’re only entitled to be a ‘Servant of God’.  Your case then passes to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  After intense scrutiny by various theologians, cardinals and bishops, your application finally lands on the desk of His Holiness the Pope.

 Appear in a Vision

Though not compulsory a ‘personal’ appearance never hurts.  Do, however, take a tip from the ultimate apparition professional, namely Our Blessed Lady herself.  Her appearances to simple religious innocents’ like St Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, and the three shepherd children in Fatima, meant no awkward questions.  Never appear to a journalist.  You want your audience in a state of religious fervour, not whipping out a notebook to demand an exclusive.

Sometimes, a fastrack approach is used.  In 1902, Maria Goretti and her family, out of poverty were sharing their home with the Serenelli family.  The son, Alessandro, had been sexually harassing the eleven year old Maria.  Her widowed, and dirt poor mother Assumpta was powerless to protect her.  When Maria refused again to have sex with him saying it was a ‘mortal sin’ (and rape – but she was a good Catholic girl and got her priorities right)   Alessandro stabbed her fourteen times with a corn cutter.   She died a few days later in hospital.  Alessandro was jailed and remained uncommunicative for three years, until he was visited by the local bishop with whom he had a private conversation.  Shortly after Alessandro claimed that he had seen Maria in a vision, carrying lilies and she had forgiven him.

 

This is one view of Maria

Maria_Goretti

This is what she actually looked like.

 

Maria

In Aileen La Tourette’s book, the narrative is one of grinding poverty, where girls and women have no power and Alessandro, although he later became an obedient mouthpiece of the Church, railing against ‘immoral pictures’ was also a victim of his father’s bullying and mockery about ‘being a man’.  Maria’s speedy canonisation was in part about the Pope Pious XII (the one who has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust) who wanted a saint as an icon of purity against the glamorous American GI’s who were marching through Italy at the end of World War Two.  Maria was canonized in 1950.

Let us presume you have managed to sidestep a decision between multiple stab wounds or impurity but to make up for being alive, have made yourself thoroughly miserable.  Gemma Galgani’s flamboyant suffering was too much for the local convent in Lucca and they refused her entry, so she lived a life of stigmata and starvation, an object of curiosity.  God was her lover and her saviour, but like the worst kind of abuser, demanded mind, body and spirit.  But she got her reward and was canonized in 1940.

So you’ve led a life of starvation, flamboyant suffering, and now it’s time to die.  But before you go, don’t forget the miracle clause.

The Miracle Clause

At this point, an element of spiritual proactivity is required, in the form of a proven miracle.  This is an event or effect that can’t be explained by the laws of nature, which may be why curing a terminal disease, has traditionally been a popular choice.  Once verified by the Vatican, the Pope confers beatification and the title of ‘Blessed’ upon you.  Unfortunately, another miracle is required before final canonization.

Maria Goretti while undergoing a hopeless operation for her stab wounds, without anaesthetic, forgave Alessandro

However, if you’ve been martyred for your faith, you’ll be let off the miracle clause altogether.  Ever the over achiever, St Joan of Arc reportedly cured two cases of cancer and a nasty leg ulcer.  Not one to take any chances with her application, she also saved France and died a martyr’s death.  But Joan was a rare female Saint, a go-getter, a doer.  No wonder it took so long.

Canonization

And once this second miracle is verified, the Pope will upgrade you from ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint’.  You will be honoured and prayed to by millions for all eternity.  Because for a religious celebrity, when it comes to pleasing your public, death is only the beginning.

I looked at a picture of Assunta Goretti,  Illiterate and deeply religious, she forgave Alessandro Serenelli.  She must have been overwhelmed by the sudden attentions from the highest echelons of the Catholic Church.  Would she have even dared to feel anger at her daughter being operated on without anaesthetic?  Or grief at her inability to protect her child – the first duty of a mother, but she was so poor that they were forced to live in the same house as a man who was openly harassing her child?  Would it have crossed her mind that her child was being used as a religious pawn?  In the stories about Maria Goretti, the word ‘rape’ is hardly ever mentioned.

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Crash helmets to protect you from life’s knocks

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I’m talking to a friend about roller skates.  Not the carefully designed ergonomic ones of today, complete with full body padding accessories but the seriously dodgy ones of my youth.  Held onto the foot by a single strap of leather, they were impossible to control, so we would stumble up and down the street, twisting ankles and crashing straight into the nearest parked car.’  And then in sync we both said, in unnecessary Yorkshire accents: ‘And it never did us any harm!’

At ten, I would go out to play with my younger sister and mum would tell us not to come back till tea time.  Once we came across a cachet of stolen stamps and decided to form a secret society.  My younger sister wanted to join us and regretfully I had to say no because we would be ‘jumping from building to building solving crimes.’  We also knew there was a weird man at the end of the street.  Mum referred to him as a ‘dirty old man’ and told us to stay away from him. My younger sister had her sources and said that he ‘tries to feel you up.’  I used to walk up and down the other side of the road.  He ignored me and I felt slightly put out.  Our local park was an unsavoury miasma of glass and dog shit.

And yet despite living in a neighbourhood of paedophiles, parks with hard surfaces and unsafe roller skates, I survived.  Now when you walk past a playground, you see most of them are covered in that soft tarmac which offers a softer landing if the child falls a full ten inches from the swing.  But even so, you still see small children wearing helmets.  And sometimes elbow pads, and knee pads like mini Michelin figures.  I mention this to my friend.

‘Ha!’ she says.  Have you seen these!  Toddler helmets.  For small children crawling round the house.  Soon I expect to see crash helmets that contain a built in ‘twat alert’ to protect them from unsuitable romantic partners, or crash helmets that feed a constant drip of affirmations to protect you from pain and failure: ‘You’re awesome!’ ‘You’re a winner!’

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A whole industry has sprung up which feeds on parental paranoia, even before the baby is born.  You can buy Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby cds that ‘educate’ your baby while still in the womb.  But during a scan I could see my baby playing with her feet.  And slurping the amniotic fluid.  Drinking her own bath water?  Bloody hell, I must have accidentally listened to the Chav Baby CD by mistake.  Then once they are up and about, parents can buy a lock for the toilet just in case.  Just in case what? The toddler falls down the loo?  What’s more likely to happen is mum or dad staggering drunkenly up the stairs, and being unable to get the lid up, peeing on the floor instead.

And it doesn’t stop when the child is at school.  More and more are driven, so they never get used to using their legs or traffic.  And direct one cross word at the little princelings, and helicopter mum rushes up to the school to berate the teacher for not recognising that Timmy’s habit of hitting other children over the head with a mallet is simply his response to not being creatively stimulated enough.

You can dive in when the child is young but as they get older you have to take a step back and let them figure out their own friendship problems.  So when my son was being bullied in primary school, I rushed up to see the Headmistress, breathing fire.  I also cornered the bully in the playground and ‘had a word’.  Actually I told him that if he carried on bullying my kid, I’d get him arrested.  Mean yes, but he had thrown my boy against a wall and landed him in hospital.  So if I scared the little shit – good.

But a few years later, I found out that a particular boy was being nasty to my son – inviting him to his house and then turning him away on the doorstep.  I ached with misery, but had to stand back.  So we came up with a plan.  My boy would write down every incident in a book, to build up a picture and I got him to join some clubs out of school so he was less reliant on his peer group in school.  It took time (and a lot of standing around on freezing cold touch lines on a Saturday morning) but after a few months, his ability to play football and crowd of friends outside school seemed to increase his confidence, and the problem melted away.  I would ask him if he was ok and he would shrug me off.  But he seemed happy.  I left it.

I know one mother (and father to be fair) who installed cameras in the garden to ‘protect the children from paedophiles’.  The daughter is now thirteen and has never crossed the road by herself.   Another who marched up to her ten-year old son who was looking forward to going on the log ride at Thorpe Park and marched him away saying, ‘No you’ll be scared.’  These parents are ruining their kids – infecting them with their own beliefs that the world is a frightening place, ensuring they will still be coming home with their washing in their thirties.

Because all the pain, all the suffering you protect them from now will not stop it happening later.  Your child will go out with someone unsuitable, someone you can SEE A MILE OFF will break their heart and there is nothing you can do.  They will fail.  Despite the ‘I’m a winner’ badges when they come last in the egg and spoon race.  The best thing I can do is make my child feel confident, curious and able to deal with things head on.  I try to remember this every time my daughter makes a half arsed job at making her bed or grumbles when I ask her to unload the dishwasher and I think – it would be easier to do it myself.  But five years down the line and I’ll have a stroppy little madam who can’t see any reason why she needs to make her bed and unload the dishwasher because mum will grumble but she’ll end up doing it herself.  And then she’ll go to college and be a crappy housemate, use up the milk, never make her bed, and nobody will like her.  So yeah – go make your bed madam.  And while you’re at it, you can hang up the washing.

 

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I certify that I know this horrendously ugly person in the photo

 

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Renewing your passport is a bit of a pain.  You have to fill in the form in black ink – and of course there’s not a pen to be had in the house, despite buying 100 0000 pens a few weeks ago.  Then you have to sort out a photo that doesn’t make you resemble Shrek with a hangover.  And THEN you have to find a friend who is willing to say they have known you for two years.  If you want a British passport this is all very reasonable – you just find someone who you’re neither sleeping with nor related to, and get them to write in teeny tiny writing: I certify that I know Shrek on the photo.

If, however, like me, you are foolish enough to want to update your Irish passport, it’s like jumping into a time machine and shooting back to the 1950s.  Because they have a list of people who are allowed to countersign your passport photo and you cannot deviate from this list. So when it came to getting my Shreky pictures signed I looked through the list of approved signers in growing despair.  Bank Manager?  These people don’t exist anymore.  Doctor? I hardly ever go to the doctor so my doctor hasn’t the faintest idea of who I am.  School Principal – not just a teacher, but the Principal.  Again, you have to be a busy member of the PTA for the Principal to know who you are.   Elected Public Representative – like a counsellor? No – don’t know anyone like this.  Priest – oh yeah because they never lie do they?  And I stopped going to church twenty years ago.   Or Policeman.  No – don’t know any police.

What are you doing Irish Passport People?  Why are you making it so difficult?

That’s it.  That’s the list.  The only person left on it was Accountant.  And she’s met me twice.  So I explained the situation and she said, ‘ok but next time you’re in bring me a bottle of wine.’

 

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