The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

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Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

Pah!

This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

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A Short Letter

To all the priests, doctors, teachers, politicians, atheists, faith healers, snake oil salesmen, dictators, rebels and rabble rousers who think they have the right to tell people what to think or to believe or to not believe: You Do Not.

To all those who think they have the right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body: You Do Not.

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To all those men who think they have more rights than women: You Do Not.

To all those who think they have more rights than others of a different race or caste or religion: You Do Not.

To all those who think they have the right to tell people that they cannot change their mind about what they believe: You Do Not.

None of you.

No matter what you believe yourselves.

It’s really very simple.

Indian Salt Miners

salt-workers

Salt workers pose for a photograph at the salt pans near Marakkanam, just north of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry, its original name before the French arrived, although everybody continues to refer to it as Pondicherry, or just ‘Pondi’). The sea is allowed to flow into ‘pans’ (not unlike paddy fields) and then it evaporates over several days under the hot sun, leaving behind a layer of salt which is gathered by hand. Salt has been gathered this way in India since time immemorial.

Even when I took this photograph in 2006, on my first visit to South India, it struck me as a harsh environment in which to have to earn a living. Since then, I have learned more.

Salt is, and always has been, an essential commodity, especially for a population living in hot conditions, but when the British in India imposed a salt tax, this eventually led to the ‘Salt March’ led by Gandhi to Dandi, on the Gujarat coast, where he symbolically gathered salt at the coast after a 200km march, an action that contributed to the loosening of the hold that the British Raj held on India.

In Gujarat alone, approximately 112,000 labourers are employed in the industry (Gujarat State Law Commission figures).

In all, there are approximately 1,000,000 people employed across a total of nine states harvesting salt. Typically, women and girls make up most of the workforce.

But the conditions that the salt miners labour under today are little better than they were then.

They suffer eye problems and blindness from constant exposure to the sun reflected off of the brilliant white of the salt pans. Skin lesions from the salt are common. After a while, feet become septic and absorb salt; so much so, that according to some accounts even after death the salt content in their limbs are so high that hands and feet are difficult to burn during cremation (Daily Telegraph 24/2/10).

In addition, the labourers suffer from many of the other problems common across the labour force, such as exploitation by contractors and money lenders, and poor educational opportunities for their children. There is often inadequate housing, drinking water and food, and an absence of primary healthcare (Indian Express 26/4/16).

It is frequently said that saltpan workers have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness.

Their life expectancy is 50 – 60 years.

The hardships and problems they face are slowly being brought to the public’s attention, but clearly there is still a very long way to go before they enjoy what most would regard as decent working conditions.

Comments, anyone?

This was a writing exercise I did some while back. The premise was to find a couple of unrelated articles or adverts in a magazine or newspaper, and make up a piece of fiction from them.

I found an article about women delaying having children due to career choices, sitting serendipitously next to a piece about child brides. I know there is a bit of a connection there, but I couldn’t resist it.

Those who follow me will realise that this was written entirely tongue-in-cheek!

But, does anyone have any strong opinions on the suitability of treating this subject with humour?

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Dear diary.

Goodness me, it’s been a busy day. So much has been happening that I might almost forget who I am! Perhaps I need to remind myself; my name is Elizabeth Wilson, and I’m ten years old. Well, ten and three quarters, really. Very nearly eleven. Anyway, we had the careers teacher talking to us in our class, today. It’s never too early, she said.

So, we talked about careers. Well, in these enlightened times, we’re now being told: ‘Delay marriage until you’re sixteen, and get a career.’ Quite a turn around, eh? Sixteen! I’m sure I don’t know what my mum is going to say. I mean, a career is all well and good, but while I’m out being a career girl, she’ll be at home and all broody for grandchildren and worried that she’s heading towards her thirties and in the meantime all her friends will be cooing over their grandchildren.

I say that I don’t know what Mum is going to say, but that’s not actually true. I can hear her now; ‘It’s not natural, all this waiting. It’s a woman’s duty to have children – it’s her function, after all, both biologically and socially. What would happen if all you girls said you were off to have careers, rather than getting married and having children? Society would collapse, that’s what would happen. It would just consist of old people, and who would look after them?’

Plus, of course, I don’t want to leave it for too long; my biological clock is ticking and I’m not getting any younger.

But on the other hand, I could be in a responsible, well-paid post by the time I’m sixteen. Really, a whole world of experience is going to be opening up for my generation that my Mum could only dream about. In a way, it is no less than the final emancipation of women, and how exciting is that?

It was so much more than just a talk about careers, though. It has helped me to understand that there is more to life than just getting married and pleasing a husband. Just because I will be a woman, doesn’t mean that I am not an individual in my own right. We dare to say that the days of being owned by men, of being their mere playthings, are well and truly over!

And, I’ve got an interview already! The Mayor needs a new mistress; it’s only a two year contract, but it will be good experience and could perhaps be a stepping stone to something better. He’s big and fat, but rich as Croesus, and apparently he’s very good in bed, which is a bit of a bonus.

Perhaps, in a way, it’s a bit of a compromise. I’m sure that my parents will be pleased.

The Book is Released – Hurrah!

 

Making Friends with the Crocodile‘ is now released!

Making Friends with the Crocodile cover                             POD cover

Kindle edition                                                     Paperback edition

Anyone who has already pre-ordered it on Kindle / Amazon should have received it by now, and in countries where there is no pre-order facility, such as India, the Kindle edition is also now available to buy.

The paperback is available from the Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.eu sites only – this is a quirk of Amazon – but can also be ordered from the estore at CreateSpace, at the following link:

https://www.createspace.com/6301808

And now, I wait to see what people think of the book, with a considerable amount of nervousness.

If you do buy a copy, please consider leaving a review either at Amazon, or on Goodreads, if you are a member (better still, at both!). Reviews are genuinely the lifeblood of a writer, and do help to sell books.

Finally, the blurb again…

‘Siddiqa was only just into her teens when she was forced to leave her home to live with her new husband and his family in another village. The years have passed, and now Siddiqa has three children of her own. Her grown up son has brought his new wife, Naira, to live with them, so Siddiqa is no longer the lowliest in the household, for she has a daughter-in-law.

Life in rural India is particularly harsh for women. This novel explores themes of female oppression and tradition and asks whether the next generation will find life any easier.’

 

 

Ooh, it’s nearly finished!

I’m getting excited, now.

My novel, ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ is hopefully ready for its final edit.

This part of the journey seems to be taking a great deal of time, but this might be because it is my first foray into publishing. I know that there is still much to do – formatting, advertising, proof-reading, the publishing itself, amongst a plethora of smaller but no less important tasks – but I am finally beginning to feel that I am getting there.

Curiously, after what I wrote in my last post, I never found any of the characters threatening to hijack the plot in any way. Although I never planned it out in any detail, I had a rough plan in my head, which, remarkably, I kept to. Perhaps it is because the subject matter is strong. I don’t know.

And I think that I have settled upon the cover (the artwork is my own).

Making Friends With The Crocodile cover 1

I may play around with the wording, slightly, for example I might take out the words ‘A Novel’.

For some background; the story is set in a village in Northern India, some fifteen odd years ago. It is about the deteriorating relationship between two women in a family: the mother and her daughter in law. Like this relationship frequently is, it is a strained, fractious one, not helped by that society’s attitudes towards women and their roles in general. And when one of them gets caught up in events beyond her control, these attitudes become dreadfully destructive.

As always, your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

Dull day

It is a particularly dull and miserable day, today, with unbroken thick grey cloud overhead, an unpleasant, damp cold, and a very thin rain in the air. I read bits of my novel, and I yearn at this moment to be in India. That I am looking through a few of the photographs I took in India, at the moment, does not help.

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I am now at the stage of giving my short novel its first edit. I have written the book from the point of view of an adult female in a rural community in Northern India. It is primarily about both the relationship between the two main characters; a woman and her daughter-in-law, and about the roles and the treatment of women in a male dominated society. The way that I have written it, it is essential for the reader to be able to get inside the head of one of the main protagonists. So, for this reason, I felt that the narrator had to be one of them.

It is a little unusual, of course, but hardly unheard of, for a writer to write with the voice of someone of the opposite sex, although it is more usual for female authors to adopt the voice of a male narrator, rather than the other way round.

(Is that because we are so shallow and easily understood? Don’t answer that, it might be a post for another time, although if I did attempt to write it, I probably wouldn’t have the courage to finish.)

Anyway, whether this voice I have used in my novel sounds authentic or not, might be quite another matter.

I can imagine several areas where I might have succeeded less well than I would have hoped;

a) It might sound like a male voice, especially to female readers.

b) I may have painted a vague, shallow picture of my narrator, subconsciously avoiding difficulties.

c) I may therefore have painted minor characters more brightly than the protagonists.

d) By doing this, I may present as an arrogant westerner, thereby fulfilling images of ex-colonial stereotypes.

On my CV, however, I do have a few months when I was living and working in a small town in Northern India, much of the time spent in rural areas, amongst a dozen or so visits to India in total.

It probably goes without saying that I also have a keen interest in most things Indian, many books about India and, of course, we all have Google.

And writers do, all the time, write about places and situations that are outside their experience, and it is never really possible for anyone to fully understand the thought processes of someone from another time, another culture, or another gender, and so it is a level playing field in that respect.

So, with a glance out of the window at the gloom outside, I’ll get on with it. I do wonder how many male writers have tried to write with a female voice, though, and how successful they felt they were…

…anyone want to come in at this point?

How to Write and Publish a Book

Well, this is a bit cheeky.

I have been asked to write a blog post on writing and publishing a book. My first reaction to this was ‘Hmm…you’re asking the wrong person, really, as at the moment I am only at the editing stage, having recently completed the first draft of my novel, and very conscious that I still have a huge amount to learn on the subject.’ And so I intend to change the parameters slightly, and post about how I have written this novel, and the options that I have for its publication. I hope that this will fit into my remit, and I ask all of my writing friends not to be too critical of my efforts.

The writing process is basically working out your plot, your characters, locations, researching details for accuracy, etc., (this all for fiction – factual writing is naturally a different process). Some writers will plan everything in great detail, and others will tend to ‘wing it’ as they go along. Generally, I tend to be one of those that ‘wing it’, although I do try to plan stuff at times. For my novel, which is entitled ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, the original inspiration came from ideas and images that were running through my head one night when I found that I wasn’t sleeping very well. Consequently, I spent several hours manically writing pages and pages of scenes and incidents. They hadn’t arisen entirely independently, though, since they were all influenced by a topic that I feel strongly about.

In a way, then, the starting point was this topic, which is how society treats women. I have, of course, written a previous post here on that topic.

I decided to set the story in India, since it is a setting that I enjoy writing about, and there are, of course, many ongoing discussions about the role and treatment of women in Indian society. Is this acceptable for a westerner to tackle? I think so, as long as I treat all of the characters with respect, and allow the story to put across my message, rather than having a narrator hectoring. For this reason, I am writing in the first person, but as an Indian female.

Research for scene-setting consisted largely of going through my travel journals and photographs to jog my memory, since I have spent a fair bit of time in India (indeed, I would not attempt this voice and setting otherwise), and a good deal of trawling through books and websites for details that I was uncertain of.

The first draft was finished just over a month ago, so now I have begun the first edit, looking for spelling and grammatical errors, obvious boo-boos like details contradicting each other, being physically impossible, or just plain wrong in that setting, and the whole feel of the plot, the writing, the characters…it’s a long process. Next it will be read by someone I trust, for their opinion on the story and a fresh pair of eyes looking for errors. There will certainly be further edits after that.

It is at this point, that publishing begins to come into the equation. Traditionally, one tried to get an agent interested in one’s work, in the hope that they would persuade a publisher of the merits of the work and get them to publish it. Then the money rolled in, fame and glory followed…well, it was never quite like that, of course. Even if accepted, it frequently took a year or two before being published, and even when that happened, many books then sank without trace.

But to get to that point, as well as having a good, original, manuscript to send to agents, the author needed to know which of those agents to target, needed persistence, and a goodly (huge) slice of luck. The advent of self-publishing, though, has completely changed the parameters. The good news is, if you want to be published, nowadays, it is simplicity itself. Anyone can do it. The bad news? You’ll probably make very little money, if any, from it, since the market is now pretty well saturated with e-books. It is cheap to do, and there are many ways to publish an e-book. You can, of course, pay to have it printed and published, or set up as a ‘print on demand’ book.

Before this, you will need a cover design, which needs to be professionally done, even for an e-book, then, before the publish, it will need to be formatted to suit the publishing medium, proof-read, and then finally, as soon as it is published, it must be promoted and advertised, or no one will ever hear of it. Even if a traditional publisher brings out your book, though, you will need to do most of the promotion and advertising yourself, unless you are already a very successful author.

Naturally, there are scores of books out there to guide you, and many good websites and chatrooms. If you really mean to do it, then good luck.

You’ll certainly need it.

The Treatment of Women

Having just completed the first draft of my novel ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, which concerns in particular the way women are regarded in society, I feel inspired to put out this post today. I previously published a version of it on my travel and photography site, and republish it here with a couple of changes and updates.

It would be impossible to document all of the humiliations, injustices and degradations that women throughout the centuries have had to put up with in almost every part of the world. That they should continue to do so, even in the 21st century, is an absolute disgrace. The way the Taliban treat and regard women is well documented and needs little further comment. They routinely deny women education, healthcare or any freedoms. They can be bought and sold and married against their will. They have no legal rights. They can be killed with impunity. It is difficult to imagine how a society in which women are actually treated worse could ever be constructed.

However, the so-called Islamic State go one step further than this, and are happy to buy and sell captured women in slave markets as sex slaves, surely the ultimate degradation.

Yet, over a huge part of the globe, women are subject to treatment little better than this, and there is probably no country where they can be said to be genuinely equal to men. Certainly in the west, we like to think of ourselves as modern, liberal, forward looking and fair, so how can it be that such a situation still exists?

There are three basic reasons why men have always been able to regard and treat women as inferiors:

1) They have controlled and governed communities and societies through their greater physical strength. This, in turn, has led to their creation and codifying of the rules surrounding and governing these societies, and, in turn, the creation of their religious books that gave an even greater authority for the subjugation of women. This strength also effectively prevents any ‘rebellion’ by women.

2) Men’s stronger sexual urges. This (the ‘testosterone effect’ in male teenagers, for example), coupled with their greater strength, has allowed men to both physically dominate women and also to subject them to almost constant pregnancy and motherhood.

3) Women bear children. Neither pregnancy nor motherhood are helpful in resisting men’s dominance.

In the west, centuries of brainwashing have led to a situation where, although women no longer daily face a physically perilous existence, inequality lives on in other, often demeaning, ways. Although no longer in danger of being burnt as witches, being sold into servitude or (generally) forced into marriage, they are still way behind men when it comes to the labour market. It is comparatively recently that they have been allowed to train as front line troops in the army or join the clergy in the Church of England, and still encounter stiff resistance if they wish to do so. The Catholic Church still forbids them to hold any post and so we see an exodus of many ‘traditional’ members of the Church of England to the Catholic fold, which has enterprisingly created a ‘special’ niche for those who cannot bear to see women treated as equals.

There are still very few women in high-powered jobs, and those who are still struggle to earn pay similar to a man in a comparable job. Interestingly, the reason often given for that is that ‘market forces’ dictate these pay scales. This is, naturally, a male-dominated market. Women are vastly over-represented, however, in low-paid and part time jobs.

Centuries of brainwashing have also trained them for a role as mannequins, or Barbie dolls; putting on make-up is essential before they go to work, attend meetings, go on a date or almost anything else. Their natural selves are not fit to show men. And if there is anyone who might be in any doubt about this, they need only take a glance at the blizzard of adverts on television or in magazines. And high heels are the obvious descendants of oriental foot-binding; a painful, dangerous and degrading practice designed solely to appeal to men and make running away impossible. I do not understand why any woman still falls for it. And those magazines; the ones aimed at women still manage to create the impression that life is all about make-up and home-making.

In many other parts of the world, though, life as a woman is not only demeaning but can still be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. One of the most common ways to control women, is to deny them the right to work. This might be justified as being degrading for the woman and her husband, or that she must be kept away from other men (because she will ‘stray’), or that she needs to be at home to raise children. This effectively means that she is then working full-time at home, but obviously without any financial reward or freedom. Along with refusing females education, this is another way to force them to remain at home in a state of virtual slavery. Commonly, they will have to work on any land that the family have – weeding and planting, looking after animals, etc – yet will be denied the chance to earn a wage.

This segregation is invariably justified on the grounds that women are sexually provocative and evil. They are temptresses that must be kept away from the eyes of all men except the husband. Hence they are dressed from head to toe in all-enveloping clothing, they are not allowed to speak to any males except close relatives, they are locked up in Zenana – women’s quarters, where they have to peer out at the world through heavily carved screens, whilst men are free to go around at will. Even in more humble dwellings, they are largely confined to the house, having to hide when male visitors come. Hence they cannot go out and work within the society. And this attitude, that women are naturally evil, tempting men against their will, is reflected in the punishments that many societies mete out to those that break their taboos.

The most extreme example is that where, in one or two societies, if a man is accused of rape, the woman is commonly held to be culpable since she must have tempted the man concerned, otherwise the incident would not have happened. The woman then is sometimes executed, although being the victim, whilst the perpetrator is either set free or given a minimal sentence. Rape, also, is frequently used in war situations to ‘control’ a population. Another medieval survival is the practice of confining women to their quarters during menstruation, on the grounds that they are ‘unclean’. Although the ‘punishment’ is not particularly onerous, the insult is that it further demeans women for simply being women. And then, whilst it tends to be perfectly permissible for men to walk around with bare arms and head, and frequently torso and legs, women that do not cover up from head to foot will feel the full rigor of society’s displeasure – usually physical punishments such as lashing or incarceration.

Suttee – who would still believe that the practice still exists? Yet there have been cases comparatively recently of women being forced onto the funeral pyres of their deceased husband, possibly due more to the family not wanting an inconvenient daughter in law in the house, than to any religious urges. There are also still cases of bride murders, when the dowry has not been up to the expectations of the groom’s family. That the dowry system still exists at all is an insult; the bride’s family having to pay the groom’s family for taking an unproductive woman into the household.

Then there is the lack of healthcare, education or voting rights, the forced marriages, the child brides purchased by the old men, the genital mutilation, the sexual trafficking…the list seems depressingly endless. 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations – 40 years ago. Not much seems to have changed since then.