Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Worshipping Knowledge: Dipika Mukherjee looks at Churches in the Netherlands

I find the Dutch very pragmatic and therefore easy to work with: What You See Is What You Get. So when the International Institute of Asian Studies (a fabulous research institute I have been affiliated to since 2007) offered me a place to work for two months, I accepted readily.

This country is also a very picturesque part of the world; Amsterdam offers picture-perfect views of soaring spires and ancient churches at almost every turn of a canal. However, a large number of these churches are no longer houses for worship, but event spaces. 

Last week, when I was in Maastricht to catch up with a writer buddy, we stopped at the world’s finest bookstore located inside – what else? – a fabulous old church. This bookstore, inside a 13th century Dominican church, is a branch of the popular Dutch bookstore chain Selexyz. Built in 1294, the cathedral now soars above the three-storied bookstore, with plenty of open spaces for readers to browse. There is a café in the corner, but despite this being a weekday afternoon, we could not get a seat. 

Converting this rarely-used Church into a bookstore may have seemed heretical to some, but it now seems such a sensible idea. When Maastricht was invaded by Napoleon in 1794 and the Dominicans forced out of the country, the church had been briefly used as a parish, but then fell into neglect as a warehouse, an archive, and finally a giant parking lot for bicycles. The bookstore’s thoughtful renovation of an ancient space is ongoing, and has certainly given the awe-inspiring 14th century ceiling frescoes a new lease of life

On September 14th, the new Asian Library at the University of Leiden had an official opening in the iconic Pieterskerk of Leiden. Queen Máxima, as the patroness of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), presided over the opening ceremony at this late-Gothic church in Leiden dedicated to Saint Peter. The history of this church can be traced back to 1100 and Pieterskerk is also known as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers (the pastor John Robinson was buried here). The early European settlers of what is now Plymouth, in Massachusetts, had fled England for the relative tolerance of 16th–17th century Holland, and then continued to North America, where they established a colony in 1620.
However, Pieterskerk wears its long history lightly and now largely functions as a space for university and community events

Leiden University was founded in 1575 and has several ancient buildings within its own campus, but choosing this ancient church for the inaugural event gave the occasion an added gravitas. Within Pieterskerk, in this grand space dating back to 1100, under the vaulted ceilings and lush lighting, the Queen and the audience listened to speeches about the importance of libraries and international collaborative research, from the time of the Silk Routes and beyond.

I was delighted to see, during a visit to the Amsterdam University Press offices in Amsterdam, stained-glass windows celebrating reading and music in the way that churches once deified saints and messiahs. 

Many ancient civilizations -- including the Chinese, Indian, Norse, Japanese, Persian, Armenian, Mongols, Egyptians -- had Deities of Knowledge. Perhaps we should all venerate the search for knowledge in the same way we venerate our religious convictions.  

The world may even become a kinder, wiser place.

Dipika Mukherjee is an author and sociolinguist. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Pop It In Your Tummy - by Susan Price

There are some words which, for me, are annoying almost beyond words.

'Tummy' is the worst, especially when used by adults. Even the dictionary defines it as 'childish' and says it derives from a child's pronunciation of 'stomach.' The word to use instead of the horrible 'tummy' is, I think, 'belly.' That's your belly there, hanging out in front of you. It has your belly-button in it. You can do a belly-dance with it. Should you wish.

The 'y' ending might suggest that it's just as childish as (I screw my face up in distaste) 'tummy' but it is not. 'Belly' is an Old English word, worthy of respect for its age: belig, meaning 'bag.' That 'g' at the end of belig would have been soft, pronounced like our 'y' and so it's come down to us as 'belly.'

I might be wrong about this, but I've been given the impression over the years, that many people think there's something a bit indecent about 'belly.' It's a bit too fleshy, slightly rude.

For instance, there's Marlowe's lip-smacking description of Leander:

His body was as straight as Circe's wand;
Jove might have sipped out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the taste,
So was his neck in touching, and surpassed
The white of Pelop's shoulder. I could tell ye
How smooth his breast was and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back... 

When you say 'belly' the sound starts with a plosive at the lips and then moves to a sort of cough at the back of the throat before rolling out the final 'y.' It has a fleshy and sensuous sound to it.

Whereas, with 'tummy' the mouth purses. It has a mealy-mouthed prissiness about it. And I hate it. Leave it to two-year olds. Or, better, teach them to say 'belly.' (It often makes them fall about laughing, I find. Which further suggests that adults have taught them it's 'rude.')

Another word that makes me grit my teeth is 'pop.' I don't mean 'pop' as in, 'the balloon popped' or even, 'pop went the weasel.' I mean 'pop' as used by every TV cook: 'Just pop it in the oven - pop it in the micro-wave - pop it in the bowl - pop it under the grill...' 

A weasel, just popping out to find something to pop in its tummy. (Wiki commons Hillebrand Steve.) 

Pop, pop, pop. Within moments I am chucking things at the screen and yelling, "'Put!' Say 'put'! Saying 'pop' doesn't make it any more %£*&% interesting.'" Except in my house.

Honestly, all those cheery TV presenters saying, 'If you're popping out' and 'just pop us a line' and 'let's pop over' make me want to pop them one.

I asked those unlucky enough to be near me if there are any words which get their goats.

My Scots partner is incensed by the words which his Scrabble dictionary claims are 'Scots' and therefore somehow allowable while most of my English but Black Country words (fowd, jowel, whum) aren't.

'Aa' for instance, and 'em' which means 'uncle.' He's never in his life heard anyone use nine-tenths of them, even in deepest Scotland, and it annoys him that the Scrabble dictionary claims to know his la'land better than he does. Every time he uses one of these words to score 438 points and win another game he complains about it being made up. He suspects Walter Scott of being the culprit, as he cherishes an especial dislike of old Walter as a 'tartaneer' and professional Scot. (When I broke it to him that 'em' is Middle English and used by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde, it only made him madder.)

One of my brothers grits his teeth every time he hears 'lever' and 'leverage' pronounced with the first 'e' short and hard. The words, he says, are 'lee-ver' and 'lee-ver-idge.'

Not 'lev-ah-ridge.'

With a lee-ver, he can move the world. If he uses a lev-er, my brother will shove him off that cliff.

Does all American pronunciation annoy him, then? No, it seems not. Just that one word.

I never said it was rational.

I hand over to you. What words annoy you beyond all reason? Or without reason?

Sunday, 24 September 2017

When we put down our pens for the last time ... Jo Carroll

Last week I spent a few days looking after someone who is terminally ill so her partner could have a break. 

It was a quiet, reflective few days - for both of us. She spent a lot of time talking about her working life, the friends she has made and the legacy she leaves behind in her field. (I'll not tell you more than that as it would make her identifiable and I don't have her permission). She is - rightly - hugely proud of everything she has achieved and has been able to live long enough to see that systems are in place for her to be remembered, and celebrated, for all she has done.

She has no children. I have no idea if there were decisions behind that or if it is happenstance - though it did make me wonder if her need to talk about her working life would have been as urgent if she had children and maybe grandchildren to pass her baton to.

Which set me wondering. As writers, we will - inevitably in this digital age - leave our words behind. But, when stripped away, how do we want to be remembered? As writers? As mothers? Fathers? Sisters? Brothers? Bloody good friends? A bit of a laugh? Could be prickly but fine when you got to know her? Grumpy old sod? Maybe some people are more than happy to slip of this mortal coil and be forgotten?

I suspect there are as many answers to this as there are people. And maybe our answers change at different stages of our lives.

But as writers I wonder if it has a different significance. By publishing our efforts we are, maybe without meaning to, saying something about ourselves and our view of the world that will linger while we're busy pushing up daisies. And some of our readers might come to believe that our writing is all there is to say about us.

Which, I suppose, all comes back to why we write in the first place. Me - I write because I love it. I travel because I love it. As I spend time with friends and family because I love them, too - and that feels more important to me. But that's just my story. Yours may be very different.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

On Writing Good Bad Guys by Lev Butts

One of the things I am asked most often on writing panels and workshops is how to create intriguing bad guys. What they are really asking me, I've come to understand, is how to create antagonists as interesting to the reader as the hero. An effective protagonist needs to have a worthy antagonist. The antagonist needs to present our hero with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle such that the audience can reasonably expect failure and be impressed with the virtues of the hero once he or she overcomes them.

This antagonist can come in all shapes and sizes depending on the plot of your story. According to current narrative theory, there are only six basic conflicts in Western literature:

  • Man v. Man 
  • Man v. Self 
  • Man v. Society
  • Man v. Nature 
  • Man v. God 
  • Man v. Monster*

If your antagonist is Society, Nature, or God, your antagonist is pretty much set for you. You need only tweak the characteristics that are germane to your plot. If your antagonist is also the protagonists, again the work is already done. However, if your antagonist falls in any other category, creating a compelling antagonist can require particular care lest the character devolve into a two-dimensional caricature.

Think of the most effective antagonists in literature and film.

These are the ones that Spring to mind for me:

Darth Vader

The Joker

Lord Voldemort

Hannibal Lecter

Mr. Edward Hyde

Professor Moriarty
While most people would agree that these are among the greatest villains in the Western canon, many would say that they have one thing in common that explains their stature as the best of English baddies.

Through a Mirror Darkly

Each of these antagonists in some way acts as a dark mirror of their respective protagonist. Darth Vader, for example, represents the worst-case scenario should Luke Skywalker go of the rails.  The Joker represents unrestrained id to Batman's overly constricted superego. Voldemort was a promising young wizard, abandoned by his family and raised in orphanage until his acceptance to Hogwarts. He is quite literally mirror image of Harry Potter: actually orphaned and raised in neglect by his extended family, but also a promising young wizard when he is accepted at Hogwarts.

Similarly, Hannibal Lecter represents the darkest murderous desires of both his protagonists: Will Graham in Red Dragon and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Edward Hyde, too, is quite literally every negative emotion of Dr. Henry Jekyll partitioned off and given human form. Professor James Moriarty, the so-called Napoleon of Crime, is every bit Sherlock Holmes' intellectual equal and represents what would happen if Holmes were to turn his talents to crime instead of justice.

This mirroring effect creates a dynamic tension between antagonist and protagonist that closely mirrors the tension found in a Man v. Self conflict. The protagonist's triumph then becomes a metaphor for a triumph of their own shortcomings and fatal flaws. Now, I am not saying that this quality is unimportant in creating effective villains. I am saying though, that there is another quality shared by the most memorable antagonists that I find much more important.

We Can Be Heroes

When I am asked how to write compelling bad guys, my go-to answer is simple: When you are writing your antagonist, remember that he or she is the protagonist of his or her own story. When I write about Red Marten in Guns of the Waste Land, for instance, I have to remind myself that he doesn't know he's the villain. As far as he is concerned, his duty is to save his people, the Aticota tribe from annihilation, even if that means destroying every settler in Texas. When I write for Marten, then, Ardiss and Percy and Gary Wayne are the antagonists, the bad guys.

The same holds true for the villains above. Darth Vader is trying to bring peace and order to the galaxy, through the iron fist authoritarianism, true, but his goals are, for him, pure ones. The Joker sees chaos as the ultimate freedom, forcing people to confront their own desires directly instead of sublimating them in the name of a faked order and rigid control. Similarly, Hannibal Lecter wants only for Will and Clarice, whom he sees as his erstwhile "patients," to embrace the whole of their psyches instead of constantly sublimating what they want to do in order to do what they think they must (also he really hates rudeness). Voldemort sees himself as purifying magic after it has become watered down by allowing the wizard children of mundane humanity too much leeway. Edward Hyde is literally doing what he was created to do: He acts upon all of Jekyll's negative emotions so that the good doctor doesn't have to. Professor Moriarty, at least in my head-canon, is simply trying to make ends meet as best he can considering that public college professors don't make enough to feed church-mice.

To be clear, I'm not saying that every villain's goals are objectively noble and pure, just that they are subjectively noble and pure for them. If done well, even the most vile of bad guys can be at least somewhat sympathetic, and as a result, much more effective than simply anthropomorphizing Dr. Seuss' Grinch. As Atticus Finch would say, I have to walk in their shoes for a while. As Ed Gein would say, I have to put on their skins.

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 1957
Indeed, when done well, this technique can make even Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield, a fascinating and somewhat sympathetic character. If done incredibly well, the line between protagonist and antagonist can become so nebulous as to be nonexistent. This has, in fact, already been done with Gein:

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 1961
Norman Bates was a fictionalized version of Gein. While he's often considered one of the first slasher villains, I dare you to watch all four films and/or the recent television reimagining, Bates Motel and not walk away feeling that the actual serial killer was the true protagonist and the most tragic victim.

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 2013-2017
So that's it, my secret for writing good bad guys. When I write my villains, I have to pretend that their goals are also mine and write their story accordingly. It's really the only way to do an antagonist well. If you do that, everything else falls into place.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Is your prologue hook, line or stinker? Ali Bacon considers the chances

Prologues - why not jump right in? 
Prologues in fiction are popular with writers, though less so with readers, and I am of that very ilk. There’s nothing more likely to raise my hackles when I pick up a book than a few pages headed PrologueBefore, Then, or In the Beginning. And regardless of the fact I have read many good books with prologues, there’s always the suspicion that here comes something not strictly necessary, something holding up the story we’re about to step into. So why take the risk of putting your reader off on page 1?

Let’s think about the nature of the conventional prologue. First of all why is it there?  
1)     To create atmosphere and suspense – my mystery takes a few chapters to set things up,  let’s flag up what's coming or get a bit of creepiness/excitement in at the start.
2)     Because it’s in a different timeline – if the reader is going to understand the plot they need to know something that happened a long time before (or possibly after) the main sequence of events so let’s get it in right at the start (and if it’s something dramatic so much the better).
3)     Wow factor – whatever my book is like, I have given it a humdinger of an opening .

Image credit*
With the possible exception of 3 (improve rest of book, please!) these are all valid ways to open a novel, so what’s the problem? Partly it’s the issue of ‘promise to the reader’ i.e. expectations are set by the title, book cover and opening pages.  If the prologue is too far from expectations set by title, cover and blurb, it has failed to do its job of hooking the reader in. Conversely if the prologue is a marvellous hook but isn't backed up by the opening chapter, that will  feel like a let-down. 

A prologue needs to have impact but not so much as to overshadow everything that comes next. A particular dislike of mine is a prologue where the character carrying the narrative (first person or third) comes to a sticky end. This of course serves up a bucketful of atmosphere and in a detective mystery provides the 'inciting incident'. But excuse me, I’ve just spent several minutes investing in a character who isn’t going to appear again.
I recently encountered this in Sarah Perry’s marvellous, The Essex Serpent which opens like this:
 " A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under a full cold moon... 
... the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay."
Great writing actually (this is a tiny snippet) but clearly this is not going to end well, equally clearly this not going to be the main character. So why oh why …?

Luckily I persevered because it’s a great book, but I think I would happily have begun with the next chapter where we meet the intriguing Cora and her doctor. She after all is the one who matters

I blame the school of 'show not tell' for the popularity of prologues. If there’s information we need to impart early on, we don’t have to tease it out through a whole scene and overlay it with description and drama. My recent sojourn in the land of short story judging has made me a huge fan of clarity, of a line of exposition (shock horror!) to set the scene. ‘It was the summer of 1916’ is so much more refreshing than a paragraph of emotion-infested weather and a picnic on the lawn. You can have the picnic by the way, just tell us when and where we are!

But I digress.  One good thing about prologues is that they are short - or shortish. (From which my cynical self infers the author is worried about holding things up for to long!)  I can also let you into the secret. In the Blink of an Eye had a prologue ( of the ‘flash forward’ variety) which simply grew too long to be a prologue. The longer it got, the more I saw it wasn’t an adjunct to the book  but part of the whole, its keystone in fact. It became the first chapter . It grew some more. The end of it became the last chapter. Dare I say epilogue?! 

So can the P word always be avoided? Maybe not, but there’s a lot to be said for making sure it’s needed and keyed into the narrative rather than something prefatory.  Just this week I was at a talk by best-selling  thriller writer Gilly MacmiIlan. An audience member asked her how she knew where to start her stories, to which she replied she started with the bit that affected her most deeply, even if she had to ‘fiddle with the timeline’.
I can report that the opening of her forthcoming novel, which she read out, is riveting.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t called ‘prologue’.

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. Her new novel In the Blink of an 
Eye, about a Scottish artist who assists with the birth of photography, will be published by Linen Press in 2018. 

Ali with photographs by Hill and Adamson, subjects of her new book 

*Image credit: By Gustave Dore - Gustave Dore, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47206396

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Life, uninterrupted - Katherine Roberts

Since the beginning of August, I have been without incoming calls on my landline. I can call out with no problem, and the broadband is (mostly) there when I want it, but hardly anyone can actually call me. Ringing my number results in a message saying "you have dialled an incorrect number" or "invalid number" or  - rather more cryptically - three electronic beeps. The only exception to this rule seems to be when my phone provider rings to test the line or to apologize - they can get through just fine. Rather annoyingly, as it turns out, so can other call centres (so far a couple of random telemarketers and a robot survey) - although I have to admit things have been rather peaceful on the unsolicited calls front lately, so I assume most of them are getting blocked, just like my friends and family. The saga of investigations into this mysterious phenomenon could fill a whole book. Suffice to say that I have almost forgotten what my landline phone sounds like, to such an extent that when it does ring it takes me several seconds to identify the annoying noise, and then I think "YES! IT'S WORKING AGAIN!" - only to be disappointed when it turns out to be yet another automated test by my telecoms provider.

This experience, while deeply frustrating, has actually been quite revealing.
I don't get bothered by that many calls at home, but usually at least one unsolicited marketing call manages to sneak past my anonymous caller reject and blocked numbers list during the course of a day. Mum has a strange habit of calling for a chat when I'm in the middle of cooking supper or am in the attic at the top of a ladder... and then, of course, there are the estate agents trying to sell me a house, or still trying to sell mine (see last month's post). I had no idea how intrusive such calls can be - until they stopped. Suddenly, I found I could sit down at my computer to write without the fear of being interrupted by a ringing phone. I could take a candlelit bath without wondering whose call was being picked up by the answerphone, and if it was urgent enough that I should cut short my soak to answer. I use caller display to screen calls at home, but that's not the point - the very fact the phone rings can be intrusion enough to disturb a creative thought and kill it stone dead.

I do have a mobile phone, but I'm one of those annoying people who keep it turned off most of the time. I turn on my mobile only if I need to make a call, or if am on my way to meet someone and they might want to call me. In other words, I keep it for emergencies and deal with calls in the same way I dealt with emails when I only had dial-up. With no landline, I was tempted to leave my mobile on all the time as a substitute (since, obviously, not having a working phone line is a MAJOR EMERGENCY), until I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to experiment. If I were a nurse on call, or a fireman on duty (i.e. people dealing with real emergencies) things would be different. But I am a fantasy author, and not a very well known one. The chances of Hollywood calling me, or my agent needing my answer on a multi-million-dollar foreign rights offer before the day is over, are - let's face it - pretty slim. And who else is likely to phone me? The scammer supposedly from Microsoft offering to sort out my 'windows computer' problems can wait. So can the nosy robot survey wanting to know if I am on benefits. Even my phone provider, calling to assure me they are looking into my issue, does not need an immediate answer, especially as it has already taken them nearly two months to identify the problem, and goodness knows how much longer it'll be before they actually fix it. Yes, I would be upset to miss a friend calling, but a true friend will call back - or leave a message for me to call them later.

Where did this requirement to be contactable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, come from? When I was growing up in the 1970s, we did not even have a landline at home. Granted, we were a little behind the times, but I think my dad had nightmares of his teenage daughter on the phone all evening running up his phone bill. So I had to go to the call box on the corner and feed the public phone box with coins if I wanted to phone my friends. Naturally, we had no email - and the internet had not been invented. If we lived too far away to meet easily, we wrote letters (by hand) and posted them to each other and thought nothing of waiting a couple of days for a reply. When I wrote my first novel, I sent the manuscript to my publisher by post, printed out on half a ream of paper, and my editor worked through the marked-up text with me in a face-to-face meeting (since tracked changes had not been invented, either... bliss!). And did these methods take any longer? No, not at all. In fact - weirdly - now that we have 'instant' emails and mobile phones and are contactable 24 hours a day seven days a week, often a letter will invoke a much faster response. Perhaps it's the novelty value? But I suspect that, in reality, humans can only do so much at once, and expecting an instant response to an email, or even a phone call, is unrealistic. Most things just are not that urgent.

I have survived the past two months. Despite giving the poor, hard-working staff at my telecom provider's call centre a piece of my mind whenever I feel an urge to listen to half an hour or so of recorded music, I am secretly quite enjoying the unaccustomed peace and ability to control interruptions to my writing and my life. It is rather like going on holiday some place remote, where you get limited or zero mobile coverage and no wi-fi signal. Possibly not practical in the long term, at least not until I'm old enough to disappear off-grid completely, but it has certainly made me think about how even fairly limited interruptions, that come at unscheduled and unexpected times, can affect creative work and well-being.

Truth is, the fear of being interrupted is just as bad as the interruption itself. For example, it's extremely unlikely my mum will fall down the stairs (particularly as she lives in a bungalow), but I can quite happily spend all day worrying that she will, and that the next time my phone rings it will be someone telling me she's been rushed into hospital. I imagine it is a similar thing, only the other way around, for mothers when their children are away from home for the first time. It is even more unlikely that someone will call to tell me I have won the lottery, but the worry of missing such a call might well keep me connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On a lower level, the fear of missing my friend's good news will keep me religiously checking Facebook every morning... okay, every hour... and meanwhile, those pesky robots and scammers and telemarketers will take advantage of all this contact-anxiety to worm their way into my life.

Perhaps, instead of demanding compensation for not having incoming calls for nearly two months, I should be thanking my telephone provider for reminding me how much more relaxed we all were in the days when we didn't know (or, as a result, really care) what everyone else was doing, and could just get on with life, uninterrupted.
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction with a focus on legend and myth for young readers. Her backlist titles, originally published by Harper Collins and Chicken House, are now available as print on demand paperbacks. Find all the links at www.katherineroberts.co.uk

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Development by Sandra Horn

I’ve always loved working with small children. From nursery age up through early primary school years, when their world is expanding rapidly and they are working at making sense of it, talking with them is a delight. They vary so much in the conceptual  paths they take along the way. For every child who is sad when the autumn gales destroy Tattybogle, there are several more who ‘love the part where he gets blown all to pieces’! While most children accept that, in The Moon Thieves, the cat, the rat, the boy and his Gran don’t know what the moon is when they first see it, I remember one solemn little boy saying, rather anxiously, ‘But surely the Gran would know?’ We write the stories, the readers make of it what they will. Excellent.

I have sometimes asked a class what they would think the moon was if they didn’t know it was the moon. It’s a question Jean Piaget would have said they couldn’t answer, but in any class of 5 and 6-year-olds, there will be one or two who ‘get it’ and when they do, the rest follow suit. JP neglected to look at the capacity of some members of a group to share ideas and thus expand the knowledge of all. 

A colleague was once conducting a classic Piaget experiment with blue and brown, round and square beads. The idea Piaget had was that at a certain developmental age, children can only use one concept at a time.  That’s exactly what they did when he was in the room, sorting the beads either by colour or by shape, but when he left them alone with the video recorder still running, one child said to the other ‘There are other ways of doing this too, shall I show you?’ and proceeded to demonstrate all the combinations of shape and colour.  It’s interesting that the child waited until the Psychologist left before disclosing what s/he could do! It’s as if they were playing a game with him with a certain set of rules they had intuited. When he left, they reverted to their own ideas.
It’s a complex and expanding world when you are young. My oldest son, aged about three, I think, had a nosebleed. ‘What’s this?’ he asked – quite calmly. When we said it was blood, he was captivated. ‘Oh, really? I had no idea it was this colour!’

It reminded me of Ogden Nash’s poem ‘Don’t cry, darling, it’s blood all right’ in which he wrote about how children may consider gore quite nonchalantly, or even with glee, while being freaked out by a crumpled brown paper bag. We have to learn what to fear (possibly except being dropped and snakes, which may be innate).
Sometimes that learning results in strange ideas. I once invited James, my Nigerian post-graduate student and his wife and son to spend the day with us. James was a very strikingly handsome man, with skin so dark it was almost blue-black.

My youngest son Robert, at that time about the same age as his brother had been when he discovered that blood was red, was ginger-haired, with very white skin and freckles.

He and James took one look at each other and were mutually smitten. They couldn’t stop gazing at each other and grinning, like two people rather dottily in love. They sat next to each other at lunch, gazing and grinning. They held hands when we went for a walk, gazing, etc. It was delightful.

Some months later, Robert and I were in the car waiting to pick up another child. Robert was in the back strapped into his car seat. Suddenly, he gasped, undid the straps and hurled himself down into the footwell. ‘Quick! Get down! Get down! It’s an ugly!’ he yelled. He was obviously very frightened. The only person in sight was an African-Caribbean schoolgirl walking towards us. How he had gone from adoration of someone who could not have looked more different, to panic at the sight of brown skin, I have no idea. He was incoherent at the time, and I’m not sure he took it in when I mentioned James, but his new fear seemed to pass quite quickly. We live in a multi-cultural city and all kinds of people are everywhere; seventeen nationalities at his primary school, for example, and all manner of students coming and going to the house. The point is, it was an odd and unhappy and puzzling incident, but it was transient, as so many such reactions are.

Here’s a thing: we are in the middle of a nasty episode locally– well, on the Isle of Wight, in fact, just over the water from here. A couple have removed their sons from a C of E primary school because another boy at the school has taken to wearing a dress, sometimes.  They say it’s against their ‘Christian’ principles and their children are too young to face such issues as transgender people.  An LGBT  spokesperson has waded in on the other side. The couple are also suing the school, although I’m not clear what the grounds for that are.  It makes me want to shout ‘Stop!’ You don’t even know, any of you, that this is a transgender issue! Let him be, both lots of you! Turn the spotlight OFF children as they explore who they are and what that means!’ The boy in question is six years old, for crying out loud!
At that age or a little older, two girls we knew, both daughters of friends from different parts of the country and not known to each other, decided they were boys. This was announced calmly by both mothers: ‘By the way, J is a boy now.’ ‘Just so you know, H is a boy now– and not just any boy; a pirate boy.’

J and H wore trousers (and a pirate scarf on her head in H’s case), insisted on being called boys’ names, behaved as they decided a boy would. No fuss, no sweat at home or at school. It passed. At some point, they both reverted to girlhood. All part of the process of discovering who they might be, trying out different personae. I accept that a boy in a dress is more conspicuous than a girl in trousers, but even so, it’s the same kind of thing. A developmental phase requiring non-judgemental support from relevant adults while they keep the emotional tone low and even. That way, whether or not children are transgender will become apparent later and no traumas will have attended the issue.
‘They’re all queer but thee and me, and even thee’s a little odd’.  Include me, though. Something for writers to celebrate. After all, we know all about taking on a new persona, and adopting new and peculiar perspectives on the world  and its people and shedding them when they no longer serve.
Just like children.