Tough Husband, Mean Cat

I have two cats, and one husband.  Three are warmly furry, two a delight, and one is mean, indifferent to touch, bored by strokes.  One is Stan, one is Bunty and the third is Husband.

I adopted the kittens around the same time and from the same place – one a male tortie, and his sister, a tiny ink black female, with Clara Bow eyes.  I took both because she clung to her brother.  But despite coming from the same litter, and going to the same home, the boy, Stan, is laid back and friendly without being needy.   He gently butts my leg when he wants feeding.  He purrs when tickled behind the ears.  Proper catty.  And he rolls over obligingly for me or Husband to fluff his undercarriage.  Bunty however, has the soul of a Victorian poisoner.  She shrieks for her breakfast in the morning and then winces when anyone strokes her.  When I pick her up she pulls away in contempt as though it’s MY breath that stinks of cat food.   If I refuse to put her down she grumbles, a low level whining growl.  When she lies in the sun washing herself she grunts like a fat old dowager.   I bent down as she wriggled onto her back and softly stroked her stomach.  She stopped grunting and gave me a malevolent stare.    This must be what it feels like, working for the Royal Family.  You might get the odd crumb of recognition but you are still a servant and don’t you forget it – you pleb.

The only other living thing Bunty likes is Stan, on whom she has an enormous crush, even though they have both been neutered.  When he saunters in, she jumps on him, desperate for attention.  He either brushes her off or sometimes gets her in a head lock.  She adores this and starts to wash him respectfully.  Or they roll about together on the carpet making grunty love noises.  Sometimes she holds the side of his face and washes him neatly.  On other more skittish days, she sneaks up behind him, bites his bum and then runs off.  Here we see Bunty doing her ‘Stan Hold’.

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Outside the flat is a large terrace, overhung by several large trees.  It’s the time of year when the birds are building nests and persuading their teen fledglings to bugger off.

So a week ago my Husband and I were in the middle of a Game of Thrones binge when I flicked a glance outside, a desperately flapping wing, and saw Mean Cat had grabbed a fledgling bird, while Nice Cat crouched menacingly behind it.  Both were about to Go Lannister on the poor thing.  The baby thrush was still very much alive, so I grabbed the cats (by their alarm birds’ collars – yeah big deal) and hauled them inside, but before Husband could pick it up, the thrush struggled into the bushes.  Neither of us could find it and unsurprisingly the bird wasn’t waving a flag about with ‘Here I am’ in his beak, so we left the cats pacing behind the big glass door, hissing and chattering, and aiming the occasional bad tempered swipe at each other.  Husband gave me the standard ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’ lecture and we went to bed.

Early next morning, I noticed Husband was outside on the terrace carefully carrying something.   A little bird head poked up and Husband softly stroked it, before putting the tiny thrush down on the outside wall in full view of the parents’ tree.

I smiled and hugged him, made him coffee.

‘It’s all down to whether it can fly,’ said Husband.  ‘If it can’t then it’s done for and I’ll have to kill it.’

I sat drinking coffee, thinking who was it who said that if we are not prepared to kill and cook our own meat, we shouldn’t buy it?  I killed an injured bird once.  It was horrible.  One of its wings had been torn off, so I picked it up, stroked the head and then twisted its neck hard and fast.  I heard a small crack, and the bird was instantly limp as I threw up, a violent gush of disgust.  Not just animals, what about those poor people who were executed by beheading, with blunt instruments, held in trembling, frightened hands.  It took three goes to get Mary Queen of Scot’s head off.  And our memory of Henry VIII is mainly of how he made so many women’s lives miserable, but since he ordered a French swordsman to behead Anne Boleyn, and it took one clean stroke, this in retrospect does seem like an act of love.

When I was five my cousin tore the wings off a butterfly.  Frozen with misery, I heard the terrible tearing sound and a rush of nausea shot through my threat.  He then trod on the tiny creature as it tried to move.  I remember launching myself forward and then my cousin’s face was a mass of blood and crunching bone and screaming.  Mum didn’t tell me off or even say it was a sin.  Instead she said I was brave and bought me an ice cream.  This was between meals so a Big Deal.

If the bird couldn’t fly it wouldn’t live.

I glanced up as mummy bird swooped down with a large worm and fledgling scarfed it up.  Mummy flew off.  I held my breath.  But still the fledgling didn’t move.

‘Are you sure this is a fledgling and not a teenage bird?’ Husband asked.  ‘It’s just sitting there doing nothing and expecting to be fed.

I was about to suggest putting a mattress down underneath the wall so if the fledgling did fall . . . . . . .  .  .  .  then I stopped.  I was too embarrassed to finish even the thought.  Instead I sniggered to myself, Husband asked me why, I refused to tell him, he of course, wormed it out of me, I explained about putting a mattress down, and he barked and snorted with laughter.

The fledgling was well hidden, the parents could see it and the cats were still skulking indoors, so we went inside.  Ten minutes later I went back to check. The fledgling had gone!

I checked over the balcony my eyes screwed shut, expecting to see a little body.  I should have put a mattress down! But there was nothing.  Then I glanced up and saw that the fledgling had flown to the opposite garage.  By the time we came home later that afternoon, it had gone.  Stan was pleased to see us, head butting our ankles.  Bunty stuck her tail in the air, showing us her neat pink little bottom, exactly the same colour as her collar.  I didn’t care as she stalked past us and marched to her food bowl.  Bird – One, Bunty – Zero.

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The Daily Mail Sidebar of Shame

That reality star with those plasticky whoppers
She lies down on the beach, they stick up like space hoppers
In the picture she’s stumbling out of a nightclub – again
And guess what – she’s a mum – how dare she have fun.
On the Daily Mail sidebar of shame.

Jen’s blowdried and glossy but spinstery sad.
Our body language expert says she’s thinking of Brad
Jen can’t be a spinster and happy, that’s not playing the game
She’s got bad movies she’s got bling but every woman wants a ring
On the Daily Mail sidebar of shame.

We click through the daily Kardashian booty
Or the twelve year old girl, called a long legged beauty
Endless fat shaming and paedophile naming, not news but journalistic crack cocaining
She’s got a trout pout and her tits have gone south
On the Daily Mail sidebar of shame

No one wears clothes, they flaunt curves in a dress
Or parade their trim frame, bottom lift or new breasts
Click on death and disasters and orange peel arses, as grey matter drips out of my brain
Who is she snogging and he’s been caught dogging?
On the Daily Mail sidebar of shame

Must click off now then we see a celeb
She’s walked out on her husband her marriage is dead
She’s not red carpet perfect she must be distraught
They have crisis talks celebrities do
Not a chat or a row like me and you
And we click and we follow these strangers we don’t know but blame
It’s addictive it’s grating – and all woman hating
On the Daily Mail sidebar of shame

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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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