Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 - a storming follow up

I've been hopeless recently about writing about books on here, because I was feeling too much pressure to write lots, so things were backing up. So instead I'm religiously logging each one on Goodreads (actually am a tiny bit behind there too) but wanted chance for a longer rave about this one. You know I'm involved with Mother's Milk Books, insofar as I help out behind the scenes a little when I can, and Teika is a dear friend, but it doesn't change what I think about the books (and I'd certainly not rave about something I didn't find rave-worthy)

The second volume of "The Forgotten and The Fantastical", published earlier this month, opens with a gloriously strong first three stories.

Rebecca Ann Smith's Rumpelstiltskin is such a creative take on the story, with an inspiring writing of the process of drawing a creative output from deep inside the self, at a horrible cost. The way she deals with the promising of the firstborn to Rumpelstiltskin, and its aftermath, has made me cry on each of several rereads. Then the wonderful Hansel's Trouble from Lindsey Watkins - I loved her story in last year's anthology, but loved this one even more. It puts the children's story into a real context, and speaks of the truth for those who suffer young: there is nothing as simple as an escape to ever-after happiness.
Last in these first three is Ana Salote's Grimm Reality, a more whimsical story but no less absorbing for that. Again, I'm a raving fan of Ana's writing, and this shows again her ability to capture magic even in the unpromising setting of Elephant and Castle.

I wanted to talk about these first three pieces in particular because they're such a strong start, and this matters to me in an anthology. I think Teika applied real editorial skill in how she has ordered the pieces, so there's a balance, and some shifting of mood. It also gave the chance for a gap before the other Rumpelstiltskin story, which I also found entrancing. Perhaps I'm biassed towards stories that capture the feeling between a mother and her baby; perhaps I like to tease myself with trauma. But this second Rumpelstiltskin, called Trash into cash (Becky Tipper) was modern, original, and deeply felt.
The other piece I want to mention by name was Nathan Ramsden's Icarus. I'd looked forward to it because his two stories in the last anthology were so original, and elegantly written. This one was, too - to my mind he's one of those writers who will have people saying one day "I knew him when he was starting out". There's just something about the confidence of tone, and the complete mastery of the whole story, that makes a reader feel in safe hands, willing to go wherever they are taken. 

Those were my top five, as it were, but there were thirteen other pieces too, all very readable, and with many other high points. As with any anthology, a few appealed to me less, and one or two were less skilled in execution, but much of this is personal taste. It's a meatier book than last year's, and an even higher standard in general. It's also given me some writing ideas: there were a few pieces in there I wished I'd written.

And, as ever, a beautiful book to look at and hold - Emma Howitt's pictures at the start of each story add atmosphere perfectly, without shouting for attention, but repaying it when they get it. I'm looking forward to filling my shelf with a row of these from year after year...

Mother's Milk Books

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Feminism, the workplace, and failed audacity

There's a lot in the news at the moment about women's equality, workplace rights, and so on. The dominant push seems to be for quotas and strictly defined equality, so either parent can take parental leave, meaning neither sex is disadvantaged by time away from the workplace, and all of this kind of thing.
I've been reading this thinking well, they're missing the point. "They" are moving counters around a board, allocating open and closed boxes, and not understanding the early days of mother-baby bonding; perhaps more importantly, though, they are seeking freedom within SUCH a tight and unimaginative set of assumptions.
Yes, if we really honestly believe that the best work is always done in offices between exactly 9 and 5 on a Monday to Friday and that permanent employment contracts are always needed and that every job change should be career-enhancing and give a pay rise and that every business's person-hour needs are an exact multiple of 37.5, then the answer to the problem might be just to treat all employees as sexless, to let each individual take leave on the arrival of a new baby, to put in regulations about discrimination and equal pay and generally to ensure that We Are All Treated Exactly The Same which is to put it another way that We Are All Treated Exactly As Men In The Workplace Always Have Been.

Here, I don't want to explore the issues of why being a mother might not be like being a father, and nor do I want to empty out my heart on my own urgent connection to my sons that makes the full time model impossible for me.

Instead, I want to observe the structural problem. I want to howl, why aren't you looking at other options? Employers, or those who need stuff doing for them and are willing to pay for it, why are you so fearful of stepping away from that path? Instead of recruiting the right number of people for your average busy-ness, so that they're bored for part of the year and stressed beyond measure for another part, why not have a core of full-timers (and many want it. I'm not denying that) and supplement with freelancers, part timers, short term contracts? Why would you choose to limit your options, or do you truly believe that everyone available for full time work has inherently more talents than anyone offering something else?

This, to my mind, is as big a problem for women as whether maternity and paternity leave are well shared. While "we" are stuck in a mindset where there is A Single True Path, and where everyone needs to be physically present at the 10am team meeting on a Tuesday, because This Is What We Do, then we're not letting ourselves access any value from those who, for whatever reason, can't or won't offer that. Women do have babies - we really can't get past that - and while of course lots of these women do, by choice or necessity, get themselves straight back into full time paid work out of the home, we don't all want or feel able to do that. Years of training, and thousands of pounds of investment in human capital, are set aside because so many women experience a sudden shift to offering something a different shape from the crude hole that so many businesses are holding open.

There are gleams of hope, and small setups trying to bring together those wanting flexible work with those offering it, but many of these opportunities are laughable - "part time" roles asking for "only" 34 hours per week, or those described in the top line as "home based" but disclosing in the body of the ad that "occasional home working may be negotiated after a probationary period". It doesn't cut it, though. A good flexible freelancer is an amazing asset to have in your contact book - she might not be visible at a desk, and she might do things at peculiar times of day, but she also might have a pile of skills that you'd pay a fortune for in a full time employee (and not need most of the time), and she might turn things round overnight or at weekends, and she might even reward you with immense loyalty because you've taken a risk.

We do need a societal change in this respect - a move from "how do we enable women to get back to work as soon as possible?" to "how do we match work requirements with those who are best able to meet those requirements, surrendering, as we do so, our artificial and mainly imaginary constraints?".

What about the failed audacity? A personal end to this rant. I thought I could do something audacious. I could show how this can work, holding down a part time job and freelance work, being always with my babies while keeping a sharp brain, meeting other conventional employees as equals, being just as relevant and useful as anyone at a desk all week. And I was doing it, I really was, but I fear now that it's turning out to be in the same sense as an amateur juggler is "doing it" in between the point where he chucks twelve balls in the air and the point when they all tumble down onto his head. It seems I couldn't, quite, and I don't know where things go from here. I can do my best to "be the change I wish to see in the world", but gosh, out on the plains it's cold and draughty.

Note: yes, men. I'm writing about women, and the she-freelancer, because it's what I am. But men too! I believe my point about how unncecessarily limiting these self-imposed limits about timing and location of work really are applies to everyone. It's just that women, particularly in the childbearing years (and I do not love that phrase), might be bringing more of their own limits with them too.

Another note: yes, modern times, first world problem. I'm aware I could be out hoeing fields 14 hours a day, and taking in mending at night, and still ending up in the workhouse. But it matters because in the world I used to fit into, a professional world, there is a constant stream of discussion asking where all the senior women are, why women don't "succeed" (fsvo success) and so on

A final note: I have a million posts stored up, on a million topics. Hang on in there if you prefer it when I write about books or making stuff or my entirely wonderful children.