No News is Good News: 9th October 2017

Intro to this whole thing 

1st update

I’ve decided to move to irregular updates as daily “there was news; I leaped away from it like a frightened gazelle” bulletins would get repetitive after a while.

It’s strange, being in a news bubble. I find it very disconcerting and I was worried that I would feel disconnected from the rest of society.

For the most part, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve had a few things going on recently, and they’ve required my attention. By not having the distraction of the world at large, I’ve been able to better focus, to prioritise.

OK, so one confession, though: I may have cracked last week.

This is the time of year for party conferences. Working in the sector I do, what’s promised or denied tends to have a direct impact upon me, so it’s kind of important for me to check in on them. 

I wish I could say that my motives were solely pure. However, one of the main reasons I tune into the conferences is that they are a veritable goldmine of “what the fuck”, total car crashes of insanity and embarrassing moments. So when I saw some headlines about Theresa May having a bad time on the podium, something inside me broke and I gave in.

I’m not proud of myself, but it’s taught me an important lesson: I may use the news as a distraction tool, but I’d forgotten it could also entertain me.

And I was thoroughly entertained. The cough. The shit joke about the Chancellor. The P45. Those letters. Oh, and that awkward, awkward applause.

It was glorious.

I packed it in after that. I’ve been keeping to my “no news” blackout and I have to say that it’s working. My anxiety feels more manageable, I’m not having to mediate just to get through the day, and I still feel connected to my fellow humans. I admit that being able to swap stories with Dad about the Tory disasters was lovely, but we talk about other things besides politics, so it’s not like it’s the only thing we can bond over. I think Mum may actually be enjoying the “politics-free zone” our car rides have become.

My only concern is that I’ve noticed an uptick in my use of mobile games, a possible fill-in for my news addiction. I’ve just deleted Hearthstone – Pocket Mortys is next.

I’ve also been looking at houses and cooing over 3 bedroom cottages with ample parking. I wondered the other night, as I faved terraces in a half mile walking distance radius of train stations, whether I was just distracting myself with a new project. It took me a moment to realise that I considered planning my future, or even thinking about it, as an obstruction to just living in the moment.

It is startling to realise you consider your future a distraction. It is stranger still to realise that your priorities have been mixed up for so long that you can’t remember when this started. We’ll see how this little experiment rides out, but I’m hoping (if nothing else) that I change some bad habits I’ve developed. 

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No News is Good News: 1st October – 3rd October 2017

Explanation of why I’m avoiding the news 

Sunday 1st October – Mass Distraction

I nearly failed before I started. It’s a habit for me to check Twitter, to browse news sites and flick through the latest updates online before I even get out of bed. However, I resisted the urge to look at the latest disaster from Trump and got ready for the day. Having driven my husband to work, I started planning out what I needed to do next. I quickly realised I had an abundance of time in which to do my household chores.

So of course I went back to bed, intermittently snoozing and playing mobile games for three hours. I wanted to distract myself, and so sleep became my refuge. I started to understand how much I used news sites and social media to avoid doing things I didn’t want to.

That shouldn’t be a shock, but it made me think about just why I was so invested in keeping up to date with the latest events. Was it really so I could engage in the world, or because I just didn’t want to clean the toilet and deal with life in general? The answer was a little from column A, but honestly quite a lot from column B.

I tidied up (which I’m sure my mum will be pleased to hear), did some gardening, went food shopping, and then watched a movie. I read a little, wrote up a review I’d been working on, and then picked up Ben. I even cooked dinner for us, which is kind of a rarity (I am not a good cook and once nearly killed my Gran with an incredibly soggy Victoria sponge. It was so dense it lodged in her throat and half-choked her).

I just don’t think it had ever occurred to me how much I was whiling away my time scrolling through news or Twitter feeds. Without having something to occupy my mind, I had to actually, y’know, do things.

Monday will be the real challenge as it’s hard to walk through London without  seeing some headline flash past. I’m also starting to feel worried about what I’m not aware of. I’ve heard this called FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), which is an anxiety that you’re not involved in some exciting or interesting event taking place at that moment. For someone who’s never relished social interactions, it seems so strange that I would actually miss this.

 

Monday 2nd October – What We Do

This morning, I downloaded a Podquisition episode from several weeks ago in order to listen to something in the morning. It’s a humorous podcast containing news, but only on video games (it’s also fairly NSFW, if you do decide to check it out). I justified this potential perversion of the rules by silently arguing with myself that, as the podcast was now a few weeks out of date, it didn’t technically constitute “news”. Right?

I sighed and admitted I was trying to pull a fast one, before grumpily deleting Podquisition off my phone. Instead, I looked for some story-based podcasts. Apart from the standard Welcome to Night Vale, I’ve been hearing good things about the Steal the Stars podcast, so have downloaded a few episodes to try it out. Frankly, they had me at “noir science fiction”, so I have high hopes.

Work was fine, chatting about the weekend’s past personal events. I found myself having to look up one piece of news as a colleague mentioned an imminent train and tube strike. That felt justifiable because otherwise I’d be stranded in London (or, God forbid, Shenfield) without a way home.

On the commute back, I found my eye drawn to newspaper headlines. Something about Las Vegas and some new, horrific tragedy. I stopped myself reading further. It was hard to do this as wilful ignorance is, for me, the same as saying you don’t care.

I found myself thinking about Grenfell and just what it would say about me as a person if I hadn’t read or talked about that story.

Then I thought about it. What had I done? I couldn’t remember writing a letter to the PM, signing a petition, or contributing in any way. I remember someone at work suggesting how to donate items and money and me thinking this was a very good idea and that I would definitely do this.

But, I don’t think I did. I think I was broke, and thought about donating once pay day came around, once I actually had some spare cash, but then I just…  forgot about it.

I know I talked about it online and shared stories. I’d been heartbroken over the lives lost and furious about the injustice of all those deaths. Tweeting online… Was that all I had done?

In the past, I’ve heard of disasters in the news and spread the word online, sharing links to charities. I would often donate.

I tried to think of the last time I’d done that. I couldn’t remember. I think I’d started to equate talking about something as doing something positive. I’m not sure when that happened.

On the way back from the station, I explained what I was doing in October to my parents as they gave me a lift. Dad and I always have conversations about the news, bonding over the latest terrible thing the government has done. I realised, as Dad stopped himself from launching into a tirade about Philip Hammond (with help from Mum loudly shushing him), that I was going to be missing a vital part of our relationship for the next month.


Tuesday 3rd October – The Old Gentleman 

It’s amazing just how much news appears unbidden in our lives. It’s ubiquitous and requires a very active attempt to avoid it.

On the train in, I was furiously typing on my phone, so managed to avoid the morning headlines. I was heading to a half day of training at a swanky external venue and encountered my first problem. Across from the entrance, and just outside my room for the day, was a massive flatscreen TV. On it was BBC News. I managed to cast my gaze downwards like some penitent believer, which I’m sure didn’t make me look weird to the reception staff at all.

As I scooted to the training room, my eyes fell upon a selection of newspapers arranged on a side table. One caught my attention: “Act of Evil”. I glanced away, but had already registered the all-too-familiar scenes of distraught, disheveled survivors. I guessed this was something to do with the Las Vegas story I’d accidentally absorbed the day before. I shrugged it off. If nothing else, I had to get ready for delivering some training.

It may seem callous and yet it was necessary. There are few tragic events that collectively stop us in our tracks, where the enormity of it overwhelms our ability to recognise it as reality. I’m not sure what it says about me or society that this was not one of those times.

Actually, I know exactly what it says, I just don’t like the implications.

One benefit to this whole thing is that I’ve been reading a lot more. I just finished The Twilight Pariah, and will hopefully be putting up a review on GeekPlanetOnline soon. The other benefit is that I’ve started listening to the Steal the Stars podcast and it’s outstanding. It’s an audio drama described as a “noir science fiction thriller”. It’s imaginative and well-paced, with excellent voice-acting. It is not what I was expecting, but in a very good way.

At the end of the day, I did my usual waltz around the Evening Standard sellers and successfully avoided glancing at any news tidbits. Instead, I dealt with an unexpected situation on the train.

At one station, we stopped in the usual way. What wasn’t usual was the elderly gent who appeared to be kneeling between the seats, shouting for someone to hold the doors. After a bit of confusion, it turned out that he had half-collapsed. He loudly blamed his knees, as if disciplining them would force his body upright. A man behind him tried to help him up, but succeeded only in pinning the elderly gent’s arms upwards in a Y shape like some Village People novelty tribute act.

At that point, I intervened as (if this continued) the collapsed man was about to be stretched like he was on a rack, albeit in a well-meaning way. Having nurses in the family helps as it teaches you to remain calmer than others, if only somewhat, in my case. I tried to get the man to balance himself against some seats, but he seemed confused. Careful not to bruise or injure him, I and another person supported and pivoted him so that he could rest on a seat. I wasn’t sure if he was drunk, confused, or embarrassed because he kept trying to get up despite his unwilling legs wobbling. I started asking him for his name as a distraction technique. I then popped my head out the (still jammed-open) doors and tried to see if anyone was coming.

Sadly not.

In the way most people do when faced with a weird situation, my fellow commuters all looked at each other, no one wanting to take responsibility. One bright soul by the doors asked if he should pull the alarm. I stowed my “why haven’t you done that already?” look and said, yes, please.

Alarm pulled, I started talking to the man again. He was definitely confused, so I asked him about who was coming to pick him up, what he’d done in London, etc, anything to stop him trying to get up. The guard came, and a few of us explained. The guard still looked bemused, but at least suggested a way to move the incapacitated commuter. A wheelchair and ramp were summoned, and I and two others helped support and pivot the gentleman again.

Off he went with a thank you and a wave.

We all went back to ignoring each other, apart from the people opposite who made wry comments about the gentleman stumbling onto the train. I mentally made notes that their contribution to the earlier incident had been to tell the man to stay put and not move whilst he dug his fingers into my arm as if to lever himself up. It reminded me of my grandmother desperately trying to escape her hospital bed.

The gentleman hadn’t listened to this Greek chorus, so they had repeated themselves, but louder. As effective as the first time, finally someone else had explained why he shouldn’t move i.e. that the wheelchair wasn’t there yet. That had done the job.

I sat in silence, watching everyone retreat into their own worlds again, hiding in headphones or phone screens or newspaper pages, and I couldn’t blame them. I felt the pull to distract myself with something, anything, but focused instead on the fact that I was nearly home.

No News is Good News

“Do you fancy doing Stoptober, but for news?”

Ian, one of my oldest friends, asked me this a couple of weeks ago. For those of you not aware of Stoptober, it’s a month where you try to give up cigarettes for health reasons. In this case, I’m actually addicted to information, and it was starting to have an impact upon me (I’m also a former smoker, so addiction is definitely in my nature). I’ve made no secret of my anxiety issues, how I have felt overwhelmed by everyday life. To be fair, when Wotsit Hitler starts antagonising a regime not known for its sunny disposition (and one freshly armed with nuclear capabilities), it’s reasonable to feel a little stressed. 

My friend suggested that the influx of news, non-stop and via multiple platforms, was leading to a state of constant worry, one which couldn’t be maintained. We had both recently taken short breaks from the internet, avoiding social media as much as possible, and we had found it helped us relax a little. There is a certain obsession, after all, in hitting refresh, one which doesn’t actually make you feel any better. It lets you feel engaged without actually participating. 

Ian proposed this: avoiding the news for the entirety of October. No social media for news, no TV or radio news, and no long discussions with friends, family or colleagues about the latest, terrifying story. I was initially open to the idea, but had some reservations. I grew up in a political household in the 80s, where information was king. It was important to avoid ignorance, to know exactly what was happening in the world, especially with a Tory government. My parents both worked in public services, and so spent most of their time fighting to do their job in an age where Thatcher exalted a “greed is good” capitalist mentality. Knowing they were about to be stitched up by public sector cuts wasn’t just about being well-informed, it was about survival.

In my family, it wasn’t a crime to lack knowledge. But being wilfully ignorant, to stick your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes? That wasn’t just a crime, it was a sin. You were turning your back on the society you claimed to be a part of, callously abandoning your fellow citizens. 

So, you can understand my trepidation at agreeing to unplug from the news. It seemed alien to not be involved, to not care about what was happening in the world. However, I started thinking about something I’d once heard, which was that when everything matters, nothing does. It means that if you don’t prioritise, nothing gets your full attention. Your responses become shallow because you’re trying to balance so many commitments and can’t give them the time they each deserve.

I thought about my stress levels, and how I had spent one recent evening obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed as I worried about one latest outrage, then another. I thought about the pains I was getting in my chest whenever some issue came up at work, how I had gone home early after having an anxiety attack in the office following a difficult phone call. I thought about how I might be using my worries about the world as a way of avoiding the anxiety I felt about my life (yes, I know that makes no sense, but anxiety isn’t a logical thought process). I knew I wasn’t coping, allowing myself to get overwhelmed with a constant news stream of fresh horrors.

Everything mattered, so nothing did.

Ian said he would set up some ground rules, which was kind of him to do. I was not expecting the thorough and very well-written memo he put together (it had numbered sections and worked examples and everything). It was impressive, frankly, and a much-needed guide. 

A little snippet of “The Rules” 

I still feel a little uncomfortable, and I’ll be keeping a diary about it so I can look back at what’s working and what isn’t. It is unnatural for me to be uninformed about the world and it leaves me uneasy, a hangover from my childhood. It is difficult for me to admit that I’m disengaging for my own well-being because it feels self-centred and selfish. However, I’ve been working on some mindfulness strategies recently, and it’s occurred to me that I still don’t give myself permission to not be OK. We live in a society where 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime; even with this knowledge, I feel guilty for saying I can’t cope sometimes.

So. This is me, giving myself permission to live in supposedly blissful ignorance, for now.

We’ll see how long that lasts… 

Nine Worlds 2017, part 1: Friday 4th August

              (T-shirt from Genki Gear

Note: apologies this has taken longer to write up and post than I had originally thought. Lack of sleep and anxiety are both bastards, but ones I’m starting to deal with again. So, onwards! 

Prologue here
My first day at Nine Worlds (9W) started off hectic. As I said in my last post, we were travelling/checking in on the day 9W started, so I was already a bundle of nerves before we even arrived. 

We got there reasonably early, around 9:00 am. This gave us more than enough time to register and get settled. The person on the registration desk complimented my dinosaur dress and asked if I was a big dino fan, which I am because of course dinosaurs are amazing. She told me the name of an author (which I stupidly forgot to write down) who was writing a book about time-travelling dinosaurs.


Suffice to say that, unless I can remember the name of the author, my Google search history is going to see the term “time-travelling dinosaurs book” crop up quite a bit in the future. 


We were each handed a goody bag, containing our programmes, lanyards, flyers and a book. Yes, you get a free book – mine was Guns of the Dawn, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and I’m going to be starting it shortly. Also included within were cosplay tokens – these are for attendees to hand out to cosplayers whose outfits impress them. For every 15 tokens handed in, the cosplayer gets a small prize. I remember giving mine to a miniature Luke Skywalker, the Glow Cloud from Welcome to Night Vale, a Lemming, Squirrel Girl and, of course, No-Face.


I then had the option to choose my overlay, pronoun sticker and lanyard colour. I went for the blue overlay (looking to engage in conversation) and blue lanyard; a yellow lanyard was for those who wanted to communicate they absolutely did not want to be photographed. It’s a small but effective change and empowers people to set their own comfort zones and requirements.


9W was held over several floors at the London Novotel West hotel, and the rooms were, from my experience, spacious and well set-up. The Tech Team would double-check mics and fix any technical issues before panels and presentations. There was priority seating outside and inside the rooms for those with access needs, in alignment with the inclusivity at the heart of much of what 9W does.


My first session was Podcasting 101, a talk by Matt Dillon, the GeekPlanetOnline Editor-in-Chief. GeekPlanetOnline is an online community and podcasting network which has been going since 2008. I found this to be the most useful session of the day, though all panels were informative.


Dillon’s talk was often funny, with humorous touches to his PowerPoint presentation. He also made sure that there were accessible copies of his presentation for those who needed it. The aim of Dillon’s talk was to give a rundown on how to set up a podcast with minimum equipment, and I gained a lot of information. I had no idea that I could use Audacity to edit, nor what hosting involved. I also had no idea I’d need album art to put a podcast on iTunes, but things like The Morgue File allows you to use photos for free as long as they are slightly altered. I came away with lots of notes, which I’ll hopefully be able to put into use soon (me and a couple of friends are setting up a podcast about films). However, if you’re looking to start a podcast about movies, games, anime, or general geekdom, hit me up! Dragon Age is a particular love of mine… 


The next session was the Shut Up & Write panel, featuring Dr Tiffani Angus (senior lecturer & course leader), Dr Val Nolan (lecturer), and Angus Watson (author). The panel dealt with writer’s block, or rather the importance of putting that term aside and getting on with the task at hand. As a serial procrastinator, I was looking for some useful tips. The overall message was that there were ways to get around it, and you had to pick and choose what worked for you.


One helpful tip was that, if writing about a place, go visit it. They conceded that, if writing about New York, hopping on a plane to the Big Apple wasn’t exactly within everyone’s means. However, it was about at least getting out to a different space or location that evoked that same sensation. True, you can’t travel to a fictional fantasy land, but maybe you could go to a forest or a well-known place of oddities (Forbidden Corner comes to mind). The other very useful tip I came away with was using these questions to examine your goals, and to provide motivation:


  • What project am I working on right now?
  • Why?
  • What will I have when I finish?
  • What’s the big dream?
  • What happens next?

The next part was about asking yourself what would happen if you didn’t complete the project, in terms of how you viewed yourself, your goals, how it would impact society, and on you professionally. The combination of this with visualising goals to drive you forward acts as an incentive to move past the block and just start writing.


Dr Angus mentioned that she was course leader on the MA in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. I believe it’s blended learning, with a lot of distance learning, so those wanting to hone their skills might want to check it out.


The next talk was Westworld: All the Feels, All the Thoughts, moderated by Tom Parker, featuring Samantha Jayne (Access Coordinator), Iris Fritschi-Cussens (artist), and Steph Rennick (lecturer in philosophy, who also wins extra admiration from me for having a Flemeth quote on her site). If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it as it was a breathtaking piece of television. Also, some mild spoilers coming!


I didn’t take any notes during this one as I was there more for geeking out. What followed was a fun discussion about our favourite characters, how they grew and changed, and the twisty nature of the plot. The Funko Pop Westworld character statues sitting on the panel’s table were put to great use demonstrating their alive or dead status. I asked whether Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), given his actions throughout the show, was a bad guy or a good guy, a la Dumbledore. I believe the conclusion (apart from Dumbledore was a good guy!) was that yes, Ford was good, or trying to be. The means were brutal, but he was trying to honour his friend. I think I agree, but with a LOT of “buuuut”s.



The last panel was Twisted Tales: The Darker Side of Fairy Tales. Karen Graham acted as moderator, featuring Chris Wooding (author), Charlie Oughton (lecturer and journalist), Sandie Mills (researcher), and Jessica George (independent researcher). The session focused on the origins of the sanitised, Disney versions we have today. The discussion about The Little Mermaid hit me hard as I remembered that was one tale I had read in its original Hans Christian Anderson form as a child, before the Disney film came out. The real ending is a great deal sadder and darker than the film, and is why I never loved the Disney version as much as my childhood friends did; though the original was bleak, it was the first time I had experienced a story where happy endings were not guaranteed, and I liked it for that.


The talk covered how fairy tales had been collected, noting that whilst The Brothers Grimm are often seen as the original writers, fairy tales had been going for much longer. The term “fairy tale” was originally coined by Madame d’Aulnoy in the late 17th century, when these stories gained popularity in Parisian salons. The Grimms also removed all premarital sex, but kept or even ramped up the violence. No sex outside marriage, but gory details, like slicing off toes or heels to fit a slipper, were seen as perfectly acceptable. My favourite fact was finding out that the ending of Snow White had the evil Queen dragged to Snow’s wedding, with her feet then encased in red-hot iron shoes. The Queen was forced to dance until she dies in agony. Makes the waltzing scenes in the Disney films just a little unnerving, now.


I think the only problem I had with the panel was that it covered quite a bit that I already knew. Having had a fascination with the darker side of storytelling for a while, I may not have been its intended audience as I was aware of quite a lot of what was covered. I think I might have enjoyed this more as a one-person presentation, where a bit of history was given, but then direct comparisons made between the original versions of several fairy tales versus their newer incarnations. The subject felt like it didn’t need a panel discussion, and perhaps instead more structure, though it was well-moderated. However, that would have just been my preference, and I believe that many in the audience got a lot out of the discussion as it was. 


I think the only real bum notes for me were when one of the panellists arrived late and departing this a bit, the same panellist who, during Q&A, acknowledged they were not the best person to talk about a question (I think it was about representation), and then proceeded to answer it anyway. At. Length.


The last event of the day was the one I had been looking forward to most: the Videogame Burlesque! I want sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of performers. The Bioshock Big Daddy strip tease by Artemis Queer (AKA Tab Kimpton) was sublime. Sadly, I didn’t get the game reference from John Celustus’s performance, but as I overheard once adoring fan tell John later, he looked like a literal piece of art. The show featured homages to Princess Peach, Watchdogs, with a special shoutout to Tanyisha Rusbridger for an outstanding Grim Fandango-themed performance.


It would be remiss of me not to mention some criticism I saw about part of the show. There were several angry tweets on Twitter during and after the show about a section where a performer dressed and stripped as Chop Chop Master Onion from the PaRappa the Rapper game. There were accusations of reinforcing Asian stereotypes, particularly as there was a segment of audience participation before it, where audience members had to play the Chop Chop part of the computer game to win prizes. I’m mixed race, with Asian heritage. However, I also did not initially understand the implications of using this character. After thinking about it for 5 seconds, I realised that this was of course a harmful stereotypical character, and one who really didn’t need to be used. I doubt that the segment creators thought it would cause offence, either. I think what is important, though, is that it did, and that those affected raised valid points which should be discussed.


9W day one was over, and I left feeling more energised and enthused than when I started. Day 2 would, of course, bring its fair share of surprises and randomness…


Nine Worlds 2017: prologue

So much happened over the 3rd-6th August Nine Worlds convention that I want to break it into days. Whilst Nine Worlds (9W) 2017 officially started on Thursday 3rd August, we were unable to get there for the very start due to work commitments, so I’ll only be talking about the Friday programme onwards. However, before I get into the actual content of 9W, including the panels, workshops, discussion groups, entertainment, and obligatory No-Face, I want to do a little introduction to explain why I love this convention more than any other event I’ve attended in the past (insert sound of fanfare and hopefully unironic cheers)! 

Nine Worlds is a convention/geekfest celebrating and covering topics ranging from anime, movies, comics, race, gender, neurodiversity, literature, books, history, gaming, disability, sexuality, LGBTQAI, and much more. It is unlike all others. It’s also relatively young, having started in 2013. My then fiancé and I heard about 9W too late that year, just missing out on attending. Nonetheless, I was hooked: I had heard about 9W’s focus upon not just all things geeky, but also inclusion, regardless of gender, race, or disability. I wanted to know more about this convention that stood out from the corporate comic cons and trade fairs. 

We’re both geeks (we met on a geek dating site, ffs) so we wanted to try and attend as soon as financially possible. When we finally managed to go in 2015 (a mini-honeymoon before our full honeymoon in Tokyo the year after), we were impressed at the level of organisation and commitment to creating a space everyone could enjoy. 

An example of how the organisers listen to the attendees: in 2015, there were some reported issues about how that venue’s staff were dealing with the convention guests. Along with other considerations, such as accessibility of location, Nine Worlds decided to move to a more central London site, with a hotel chain that was a bit more on board with the ethos of the convention. 

The organisers also started to offer a payment plan option, breaking the cost of tickets into a small upfront fee with the rest divided into monthly chunks. This is one adjustment I’m personally very happy to see as gathering together £85 x 2 in one go (and that’s the early bird rate) is a massive hit to finances when you’re already on a tight budget. Did I mention that kids and carers can attend for free? It’s just another example of how committed 9W is to ensuring access for all. 

The thing I love most about 9W, however, is knowing it’s a space I can enjoy being myself in, despite my own barriers. And I can put up a lot of barriers. You see, I was already in a mild state of anxiety even before travelling to London; when I had booked the cheapo hotel a few months back, the reviews had said it was average, basic but OK. 9W has a deal with Novotel West, the convention site, where you can get a discount on accommodation. I had instead tried to save a bit more cash, and gone with an option that was about £40 cheaper in total. 

Turned out to be a bit of false economy on my part. 

The problem was that, 2 days before we were due to travel to London for 9W, I had made the mistake of looking at reviews again. Within the last month, there had been 5 scathing reviews from guests dissatisfied with the cleanliness, the space, and the amount of damp in the showers. 

This set my anxiety off as I started to imagine sleeping in a filthy bed, and I developed a nice bout of insomnia. By the time we actually travelled to London, I was in a zombie-like state, increasingly worried about all the things that might possibly go wrong. 

The cheapo hotel was, well, let’s just say that should you ever want to spend the night in a room which stinks of cigarettes and is practically a corridor, I can recommend you a place to stay. 

It was not as horrifying as I thought it might be, and the staff were extremely friendly. However, it’s likely that next year I’ll stay in the convention hotel and write off the slightly higher room rate as the price I’ll pay for preserving my own mental wellbeing. 

We wandered down to the convention early to register and found it to be a stress-free affair. The registration staff member complimented my dinosaur dress, and I explained I was a fan of all things historical. They recommended me an author whose name I sadly forgot, but who was writing a book about time-travelling dinosaurs. 

I also discovered the location of the Quiet Room, where overwhelmed guests can hang out and escape until they’re ready to return. That’s when I started to relax, because, coupled with my nice little dino chat, I felt welcomed, like I belonged. 

It’s not always easy being a geek, especially being seen as a misfit. The world is changing, of course: in modern culture, things once considered the purview of nerdy outcasts alone are now mainstream entertainment *cough Marvel cough*. However, we do speak a different language. The night before, I had been at a workmate’s leaving do. I was chatting with a fellow geek colleague about the wonders of Rick & Morty, Steven Universe, and Hearthstone. Our other workmates remained politely bemused and let us get on with it, despite attempts by us to broaden the topics for the less geeky inclined. It was a strange reminder that I and my interests are, for the most part, still considered an oddity by the general public. And that’s fair, not everyone has to like the same things. However, what confuses me is the relative ease with which the things I care about can be labelled irrelevant to anyone else. 

That’s why it feels like coming home when I go to 9W; I’m suddenly surrounded by people who understand what I’m talking about, who have a frame of reference that matches mine, and it’s refreshing to not feel like I have to explain or, worse, justify my interests. 

Generally, inclusion and accessibility is a huge focus of 9W, including having a committed Access Coordinator. Besides installing a Quiet Room for people like me (who need that little safety valve at busy events), one of the other ways they promote inclusion is by having pronoun badges available. This is so you can tell the rest of the con how you would like to be addressed. It’s a small thing, to have a little sticker on your con badge, but it makes a massive difference for those often misgendered in society. It’s a way for the 9W organisers to empower the attendees, to show support, and to ensure others do too. 

Besides this, panellists and moderators are given strict guidelines about addressing attendees and not assuming gender. For example, instead of taking a question from “the lady at the back”, the moderator might instead say “the person with the red jacket, at the back”. It takes such little effort that it makes you realise how easily these changes could be made outside of the convention, and makes you question why it doesn’t. 

Another approach is the use of coloured lanyards to communicate a person’s feelings on photography. Blue was the standard colour, but the 9W photography policy is clear: if someone is wearing a yellow lanyard (available at registration), it means that they do not want their photo taken, and other attendees need to respect that. It’s a marked difference in attitude from other cons where permission to take photos is automatically assumed. There are many reasons a person might not want their photo taken, but all another attendee needs to know is that they don’t have a right to take that photo. Again, you have to wonder why this can’t be enacted at other cons; it would certainly help challenge some of the more troubling attitudes people can have over their rights to another person’s image or body. 

The other nice touch is the communication overlays. You could choose from one of three different types, to be worn on con badges. The purpose is to communicate to others whether the attendee is happy to be approached for conversation or not. For those with anxiety or social communication differences, it’s a way of allowing people to choose the level of engagement they are comfortable with. As someone who’s had anxiety throughout their life, knowing I had that option (and one that would be respected) instantly removed some of my social anxiety.

There are many, many other examples of inclusion and accessibility good practice, and hopefully I’ll cover all of them as I talk about the content of Nine Worlds 2017. Over the next three days, I saw many examples of attempts to include everyone. I saw a lot of things go right, and some not so much, but what struck me was how quickly the organisers, crew, volunteers and tech staff all sought to address and fix these problems. Yes, I was also at *that* panel, and I’ll get to that soon.

If you want more info on Nine Worlds, you can find it here. Early bird tickets are already on sale, by the way. Part 1 will focus more on what I did and saw on Friday, and I’ll throw in a link below for that ASAP 😄

Part 1 now here! 

Short Story: Here Lies My Love

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a Creative Writing Workshop at the London College of Fashion. The aim was to create stories, poetry or narratives generally inspired by pieces of clothing from the LCF Archive.

I can’t help but feel terribly privileged to have been able to view and handle things like exquisite lace dresses from the 1930s, or kid leather shoes from the 1800s. It feels like being able to step into a museum exhibit and literally get to grips to history.

It was fascinating to get an insight into how other people viewed each piece and the stories they wanted to tell. I wanted to share the story I wrote because I sometimes forget that I can write.

I was obsessed by a blue, velvet jacket. I’ll describe it in the story so you get a sense of it.

Here Lies My Love

He couldn’t remember the photo being taken, but there he was, framed on the mantlepiece, looking very handsome even if he did say so himself.

Wearing that beautiful blue jacket; my goodness hadn’t he been beautiful?

In the photo, his eyes were certainly less bloodshot, his hair more blonde than the strange, tobacco-stained locks he sported now.

The walking frame barely supported his weight, but he pulled himself up from the relative comfort of his armchair. It wasn’t like he had far to travel.

When they, those traitorous bastards, had imprisoned him here, they had made the cramped space sound like a positive feature.

He had thought of his home with its many wondrous secrets and he had cried then. They had told him to cheer up.

They had told him he needed to “downsize”, allowing him to keep little. However, he had fought for that jacket and he had won.

Step. Step. Step.

He stood in front of the closet. Carefully, he lifted one finger, then his hand, testing his balance.

It held, and he opened the closet door.

The blue velvet sparkled and shone amongst dull, sensible shirts and drab trousers which reached impossibly, unnecessarily high.

His ran his hands over the black lace of the lapels, the papery skin of his palms catching upon it, his fingertips juttering at every detail.

Years ago, a lifetime, he had spotted the jacket in a shop window and fallen deeply in love for the first time. He had saved for weeks to afford it, because from the moment it had appeared, he knew he needed it. It was an extravagant piece, true, but it was a statement.

And he had always wanted to make a statement.

He closed his eyes and let his hand fall away from the velvet. He glanced back over at the photo and smiled at his younger self and the dark-haired vision arranged beside him.

The jacket had certainly caught Simon’s attention.

He reached once more for the jacket and, holding it lightly between his fingers, he slipped it off the satin hanger.

God, he had forgotten how soft the velvet felt on his skin. He lifted it up and slid his arms through the sleeves with a rueful smile; he had also forgotten how much the lace cuffs scratched the shit out of him.

Grabbing hold of the frame once more, he manoeuvred his clacking bones backwards in order to admire his reflection on the closet door mirror.

He nearly cried when he saw himself. True, he was older, and Simon was no longer there to hold him up, but he could still see the face of the beautiful boy, the boy who had fallen in love and been loved.

Tiredness ate at his muscles and he suddenly found the armchair a terribly inviting prospect.

He collapsed into his meagre throne, and he felt warmer for the first time in years. His eyelids began to slide shut, but he didn’t try to fight it.

Let them find him like this, the beautiful boy in the beautiful jacket.

As his eyes shut for the final time, he thought about Simon and his stupid, lop-sided smile. He thought about what they would do with the jacket. Maybe they would let him wear it as they poured the soft earth upon him.

He would like that, to be buried with his love. And though it would decay around him and rot as he rotted, it would always be his.

Review – The Larkspur Series: Caught & Collared/ Bought & Sold

A couple of things before we start – I don’t read or enjoy “romance” as a genre. The majority of romantic or romcom films seem preoccupied with the notion that indecisiveness and poor communication methods are all that stand in the way of true love. Romeo and Juliet, for example, would have ended far differently if their mail carrier hadn’t just YOLO’d the day off work. 

However, please note I used quote marks around “romance”, because I think there is an issue with including all romantic stories within “romance”. “Romance” is a fantasy. It perpetuates some often very harmful messages about what we should expect from relationships. As a cis woman, a number of different media sources taught me that unrequited love was superior to any other type and not a potential gateway to unhealthy obsession (see: Friends); that if he truly loved you, he would humiliate himself to prove it (see: any bloody 90s romcom); and that if I could get him to open up emotionally, I would be truly blessed to see this side and thus have a duty to change him (see: any piece of romantic media EVER).

The thing is, I believe in romance and, more importantly, I believe in the romance at the heart of Bought & Sold as it takes some of these tropes and grounds them in reality; it emphasises that love isn’t just about big gestures but surviving the day to day challenges together.

To understand Bought & Sold, I need to discuss why I fell in love with Caught & CollaredBought & Sold is now available for pre-order as the second book in The Larkspur Series by Morgan May, the first being Caught & Collared, which introduced the reader to Aden Brand. Aden is a professor of Russian literature who is struggling to deal with the recent death of his father, Gale. Aden and Gale had a difficult relationship to say the least. To manage his deceased father’s affairs, Aden has to return to a house he hasn’t been welcome in for 17 years. Upon his visit to his old family home, Aden faces an awkward reunion with Kristoffer Rask, a man that Aden has tried very hard to forget for (oddly) 17 years, with little success. 

Their relationship is complicated, but Aden has needs that only Kris can satisfy.

OK, you know what? There’s no need to be coy about this. This is a novel where the main characters (and quite a few others, really) have BDSM sexual relationships. Aden likes to be dominated. He wants to submit and be “owned”. Kris is happy to oblige.

If you are of the opinion that BDSM is inherently wrong, then I’m not sure what to tell you. If that viewpoint is based on Fifty Shades of Grey, I could see where you got that idea because Fifty Shades features a character whose idea of caring is to be a jealous, weird stalker who randomly appears in women’s apartments, but LOL it’s OK because he’s rich or whatever.

Ever since Fifty Shades came out, I’ve read with interest the different takes from those involved in BDSM, mostly criticising Fifty Shades for lack of realism and portraying BDSM as a character flaw to be fixed. I am a Feminist and I believe that BDSM has consent at its core, more prevalently featured than in a lot of other “mainstream” sexual practices. There are rules and each partner needs to be clear on what they are. However, it is the submissive who determines what they are comfortable with. They set the boundaries. They are the ones who can say one word to stop everything.

If that’s not for you, that’s fine. I personally don’t get the obsession some have for feet, for example, but I don’t find it necessary to go around shaming anyone who takes an above-average interest in toes. I just don’t think you get to tell two consenting adults what they can or can’t do during sex simply because you don’t understand the appeal.

If your first thought when hearing the initial setup of the series is “Ah, so it’s Fifty Shades of Grey but for two men!”, I’d understand your initial reaction, but would vehemently disagree. For starters, the Larkspur series is written by someone who has actually researched BDSM rather than just maybe watching that CSI episode about a dominatrix (yes, it was a fun episode, but you know what I mean: it was BDSM as palatable for primetime). In both Caught & Collared and Bought & Sold, there is consideration about what consent is and why it is given, and Kris’s desire to dominate isn’t written off as shorthand for an abusive childhood like Mr Grey’s rather thin background story. It’s evident that Morgan May has put thought into the relationships and how the sexual elements provide a vital foundation for them. The sex isn’t just decorative; it moves the plot forward, and is used to convey a variety of emotions in the characters, including vulnerability, anger, need or rapture. The characters’ bedroom antics are an essential part of the plot.

There is another major difference between this and the slew of BDSM novels which erupted after Fifty Shades made bondage mainstream-marketable: the Larkspur series introduces characters, not archetypes. Kris is tender, affable, regret-filled, and resolute; compared to Christian Grey, whose two modes are controlling and, well, more controlling, there really is no competition.

What really impressed me about Caught & Collared, however, was that it was a touching exploration of grief. Aden has lost a father, and he struggles to reconcile this sorrow with their estrangement. Caught & Collared deals honestly with trying to mourn and bury someone who abandoned you, but someone whom you still love nonetheless. On top of this, Aden has to contend with his mixed emotions upon being reunited with his first real love, Kris. With flashbacks to the cause of their initial separation, the origin of Kris and Aden’s current situation is slowly revealed amongst a set of complex characters.

If you haven’t read Caught & Collared, I advise you to go find it now and stop reading this review because, by nature of me discussing the sequel, there will be some mild spoilers. Caught & Collared is a fantastic start to a surprising series, so go check it out.

Now, SPOILERS. Kind of…

Bought & Sold starts with Kris and Aden settling into their new domestic bliss. Dogs, lazy weekends walks, hooks and rings attached to the headboard for use during their playtime, and so on. However, all is not well: ex-partners (old and new) and Kris and Aden’s own bad habits hamper their attempts to try and build a life together.

The sex scenes are again fundamental to the plot and well-written; they are powerful and charged whilst also being natural, telling you a lot about who the characters are at that point. Thankfully, there is no ridiculous Red Room, just their sub/dom lives built into the fabric of their day to day activities. If you hate OTT, cheesy sex scenes and prefer your filth to be sexy AND believable, this will certainly meet your needs.

Besides this, there are a number of other things I found intriguing about this instalment in the series. The first was the realism of their circumstances: Aden was shown as still in mourning whilst navigating his new happiness, demonstrating that just because one thing goes right in life, it doesn’t magically erase the other issues. It feels important to point this out as the start of a romance is often portrayed as the cure to all of life’s problems. It’s not, and it was refreshing to see this dichotomy of real life acknowledged.

Yet again, the characters are convincing, likeable, and rounded. Celia, Kris’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, could easily have been a cardboard cut-out villain, a deceitful bitch who is the cause of her own despair. However, Morgan May manages to do what so many erotica authors fail to: she develops characters. This isn’t done with some ham-fisted “and he was good all along!” revelation. It’s achieved through peeling back the characters’ motivations to display what really drives them. Yes, Ceila has betrayed Kris, but the reasons why she continues her self-destructive behaviour are more nuanced than the reader might first think. You can still hate her, true, but Morgan May also allows you to empathise with characters who, on paper, seem easy to despise. There is subversion in a sense here, but only of the reader’s assumptions.

However, what I found truly fascinating was that Bought & Sold deals with Kris’s life without Aden. Caught & Collared was focused upon Aden’s past experiences, his viewpoint. In Bought & Sold, we get to see Kris’s life during their 17 year separation. His feelings of regret underscore his romantic decisions, fleshing out the person Kris really is at the start of the first book. These flashbacks culminate in a scene at the end of Bought & Sold that filled me with a sense of stupid optimism and, dare I say, joy. 

I cared about these characters and what happened to them, not something that always happens in what Morgan May herself describes as “fucky” books. However, with Kris’s flashbacks, May allows the reader to understand more about who Kris is, and what motivates him to care for Aden in the way that he does. It’s a genuinely illuminating insight into their relationship, as well as adding new dimensions to events from the first book.

Bought & Sold’s resolution thankfully steers away from overly-dramatic gestures; though there is a confrontation, what leads to it and the way it is played out shows the characters to be just normal human beings struggling against their own nature and circumstance. 

I’ve recently seen reviewers criticised for not giving “a balanced view”, as if it’s the reviewer’s job to present both sides of an argument. It’s really not. A reviewer’s job is to give their opinion and to say what they got from the experience. If you’re not sure if The Larkspur Series is for you, you can take my word for it, or you can take a deep breath and give it a try. You may well find the series to have genuine heart and charming characters, with well-written sex scenes and an intriguing story. 

You may also be pleased to hear that Morgan May is already planning several more instalments. You may then realise you’ve discovered your new favourite author.