On PPE – and why we’re asking the wrong questions

Every day we see a slew of reports and opinions about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment. PPE has entered our vocabularies in a way that none of us anticipated and everyone seems to have an opinion on why we should, or shouldn’t, be using it. The debate heats up daily and it is clear that the confusion about its use has spread into our lives and is leading to mico-aggressions. I’ve been insulted and mocked for wearing a mask and have been bullied by people coming too close to me and invading my personal space.

We are moving rapidly towards the reopening of more public and shared spaces like libraries, community buildings and schools and this has raised the discussion about the “need” for PPE. Many organisations and employers are carefully picking over the evidence about how effective PPE really is, but are they asking the right questions?

Over many decades we have seen improvements to working spaces and practices that are designed to make the quality of our working lives better. Thanks to persistent campaigning by unions and good employers (and enlightened MPs) many bad or discriminatory practices have been removed and replaced with ones more suited to supporting the real needs of employees. We still have a very long way to go, but overall we have seen a steady pattern of improvement in working practices and in the spaces in which we work. Many of these improvements have been ostensibly small, but have made huge positive differences to employees.

CV-19 is not going anywhere and we should accept that any workplace changes we make now may need to be in place for years. The long period of furlough and isolation has left us all feeling confused and scared. Most of us are grieving, or scared, or vulnerable, or shielding, and are now worried that we will have to step back into the world of work as if nothing happened. There is a significant risk of not taking these mental and physical health issues seriously. When we ask “is PPE effective against the virus?” employers are actually asking the wrong question. What they should be asking is, “what do my employees need to feel safe enough to return to work?”

Yes, this may well be costly (and this is why we need to campaign for Government support for this equipment) but that is almost irrelevant. Once upon a time, it was costly to remove asbestos from workplaces, or to install fire escapes and fire safety equipment, but everyone would agree that this was absolutely necessary to ensure safety. I remember the huge upheaval and expense of installing fire safety equipment in one of the buildings in which I worked. That was over thirty years ago and that equipment has never once been used, but if it was ever needed it would save many lives and it made us all feel safer working there. If the argument is only about cost, then this should be clear. If it’s about money, say it’s about money and don’t try to say it’s about what’s right for your staff. Going around and around in circles examining conflicting reports about the effectiveness of PPE is doing workers a disservice because it ignores one key question – “would PPE help you to feel safe at work?”

This is the most important question of all. People are scared, and with everything that has happened over the last few months those fears are deep and real and to ignore them is to throw out all the good work we have done to recognise issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Repeatedly telling your workers that they are wrong and that their fears are not valid is bullying, and it dismisses all the progress that has been done to push back against bullying in the workplace.

We need to stop asking, “is PPE necessary?” If PPE makes employees feel safe in the workplace as well as supporting their mental health and wellbeing, it’s absolutely necessary.

 

Dawn Finch is a writer and activist.

 

Making the invisible visible

I live with pain.

Most people will still be reading this article after that comment. I think I will probably still have some readers who are curious to know what sort of pain I live with.

I suffer from endometriosis.

There it is. That’s the switch-off for many because now they know that I am about to talk about the unseemly things, the “women’s things”, the “downstairs” stuff, the things that should be unspoken. I’m going to plough on, hopeful that people who also suffer will identify with this, and people who are curious will feel better informed.

1 in 10 people born with a uterus suffers from endometriosis. If you’re reading this on public transport, look around you. Do those sums in your head. Chances are a good percentage of the women around you are in pain right now. If you are not sure what endometriosis actually is, best have a read of the details on the website of Endometriosis UK. But what is it like to live with it? For me, it predominantly means pain.

What do I mean by “pain”? I had nightmarishly heavy periods right from thirteen years old. I bled through my clothes and often couldn’t afford to leave the house as period protection was too expensive. With those heavy periods came crippling pain. I fainted a good few times at school but managed to keep it a secret. For roughly ten days every month, I spent more time in the toilet than the classroom.

I finally got my courage up to talk to a doctor about it, and he put me on the pill.

That was all he did. He told me that heavy periods are “normal” and at 16 he put me on the pill.

Over the next couple of decades, the periods got worse, and the pain too. It was only after I had a child that I realised the pain I was in was exactly the same as the early contractions of birth. I’d realised with some horror that I’d grown used to dealing with pain that was every bit as bad as having a child (and I did not have an easy birth).

After my daughter was born, the pain became worse. It no longer only came monthly, it was all the time. I kind of dragging ache as if my organs were being pulled downwards by hot hooks. Sometimes it was so bad it made me vomit. Sometimes I couldn’t walk. I had warnings at work about sick days, but how could I work when I couldn’t stand upright? How could I work when the pain came in waves that made me faint?

I kept going back to the doctor, but each time was told it was “just bad periods”. I was given stronger painkillers and told to “try yoga” and various other things. Hot water bottles. Long walks. Running. Stretching. Acupuncture. Hypnosis…. Then more drugs to arrest the bleeding in the hope that would also stop the pain. It didn’t. Norethisterone is normally prescribed to arrest periods for 4-6 months. I took it for over five years.

I wasn’t sent for any further tests for another five years.

Five more years in constant dragging pain. Five years in pain that some days would literally take my breath away. Five years of bloating, and backache, and anger and exhaustion and the depression associated with feeling as if I couldn’t take the pain for a moment longer.

Finally, I found a doctor who agreed to send me for tests. Blood tests first, then scans. Standing alone in cold rooms in backless hospital gowns while faceless men told me to “lie still, turn over, on your side, the other side, thank you, you can go.” Only to have “inconclusive” results. Then internal scans, scrapes, biopsies, more blood tests, more scans… Told repeatedly that it “probably isn’t cancer”. With the pain eating away at you for years it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the “probably” in that sentence.

Eventually, the doctors (so many by now that I’d lost track) gave me a diagnosis of endometriosis. I have two ovarian cysts, and some polyps, and some scarring. It took me over eight years to get that diagnosis.

I wish I could say that with a diagnosis came a solution, but that would be a lie. I was fitted with a coil to prevent bleeding and that helped a bit. The other things I’ve been offered included hysterectomy and uterine ablation. If you’re not familiar with these options, feel free to look them up. It’s definitely making a choice between a rock and a very very hard place.

I’ve lived with this for so long and heard so many terrible things from friends who have taken the surgery route, that I’m living with the devil I know. Me and this pain are old adversaries. I know what it will do. If I have surgery there is no guarantee I’d be better off, so for now (like many sufferers) I think I’ll stick with the pain. I’ve had it for so long that I don’t think I’d remember what life is like without it. I understand this pain.

I know that I can’t stand for long, or sometimes at all. I know that if I sit for more than an hour I will limp for a while as my pelvis will seize up. Cramps can often make me limp. The cysts press against my bladder, so I can’t go for long without visiting the toilets. When the endometriosis flares up badly, it can also give me diarrhoea, so long distance travel is definitely a challenge. When the pain is at its worse it is like a hot blade in my guts. The pain at times is literally breathtaking and I’ve often wondered how it is possible to bear it. Most days it’s like a dull ache, a lurking bear of pain waiting to take a savage bite of me when I least expect it.

There are also the days I breathe through it – panting through contractions. The days I walk and walk (slowly, shuffling, limping) because there is no comfortable sitting position and I’m afraid my hip bones will seize up. You can always tell which women have endometriosis because they probably own a number of hot water bottles. On the bad days, I sit with one on my lap, and two tucked behind me. I avoid painkillers until it’s absolutely necessary because I don’t want to become accustomed to them. I did that once, and breaking the painkiller habit was awful.

I know that when we try to talk about the pain, people still don’t believe us. How can it possibly be that bad? If it’s really that bad, how can we cope?

Because we have learned to, and because we have had to.

We have been told our whole lives to “deal with it”, and for those of us of a certain age being born with a uterus has been a complicated journey. We have this complex set of monthly conditions that dominate our lives, but for some reason, we are raised to feel shame talking about it. Our blood is dirty and we have carried that shame since our early teens. We didn’t talk about our periods, we bled in secret and when we felt pain, we had that in secret too. We felt it was our cross to bear because we were encouraged to be that way. When the doctors told us it was “just one of those things”, we believed them.

This is why this conversation is so important. We have to break the silence. We have to give the future generations more options and better choices. Education is essential so that young people no longer have to feel as if this is some kind of a private shame.

When I was asked if I would endorse a new exhibition supported by Endometriosis UK and sponsored by Standard Life UK, it didn’t take me long to agree.  These exhibitions in London and Edinburgh, Beyond the Invisible, are part of the greater plan to create a wider conversation about endometriosis and its sufferers. The photographer, Rankin, has taken a series of photos around which the exhibition is based. These highlight real life stories of endometriosis sufferers, and hopefully, this will help people to talk more openly about their plight.

Join the conversation, share #RealLifeStories about #Endometriosis, and visit the exhibitions if you can (full details below). Those of us who feel comfortable talking about issues like endometriosis and periods can do a great deal of good simply by not hiding away any more. The next generation coming up behind us will, perhaps, grow up not hiding natural bodily functions and illnesses. If they feel more comfortable about talking about their periods, maybe their openness will have a positive impact on things like medical awareness and diagnosis.

Let’s all work hard at making the invisible, visible.

Dawn Finch is an author, librarian, and activist.

This post has been sponsored by Standard Life UK who are in collaboration with Endometriosis UK in creating the Beyond the Invisible exhibitions in London and Edinburgh.

Admission to both exhibitions is free. Please share and use #RealLifeStories
#BeyondtheInvisible
#Endometriosis
#InvisibleIllnesses

London – 21* – 28 March, 2019
La Galleria Pall Mall
Royal Opera Arcade
5B Pall Mall
London
SW1Y 4UY
Open 11am-5pm each day

Edinburgh – 1 – 8 April, 2019
Stills Photography Centre
23 Cockburn Street
EH1 1BP
Edinburgh

Open 11am – 5pm each day

*Open 12pm-5pm on launch day to public

 

 

 

Mind-expanding tips for twenty-somethings

Last week the Independent newspaper published a list titled “30 mind-expanding experiences you should have before you’re 30.” “Entitled” would have been more apt, as the list was one that was so dripping with privilege that it was impossible to take it seriously. As a (not rich) parent of a (not rich) twenty-something this list made me so cross that I thought I would write my own.

I have no qualifications for this advice other than being the parent of a twenty-something, and being 50 with a good memory and lots of life experience. I’ve had wild times, and bad times, good times and sad times – and these have brought me to a list of things that really are “mind-expanding” for a twenty-something.

Of course you can ignore it all and just be you – and that’s the first bit of advice that really matters. You’re not a child, make your own decisions and if it doesn’t work for you, ditch it. You’re probably doing most of this stuff already.

For what it’s worth, here is my list of twenty-something tips that might be genuinely mind-expanding for twenty-somethings. It’s not a bucket list, or a list of things to purchase or spend money on, it’s just a list of things that will make your life a bit better. They are certainly things I wish I’d known in my twenties.

Sort out your friends.

School and (possibly) university are done and now it’s time to take a long look at who you consider a friend. You are under no obligation to hang on to friends who don’t give a crap about you. History doesn’t bind you to your friends, loyalty and love does.

Learn to love your body

You’ll probably never be fitter or stronger than you are now. The shape of your body is irrelevant, so learn to stop caring about what other people think of it. Do you feel well? Then that’s a good thing and you should take the time to appreciate that.

Stop caring what other people think of your tastes

Like whatever music, books, films, art, comics, clothes etc you want to like. Stop accepting the judgement of others. If your tastes make you happy, then indulge and enjoy them. You’ll soon find other people who like and value the same things.

Get outside

You’re going to spend a lot of your life cooped up inside for one reason or another, so when you get the chance, get outside – and I mean really outside. Walk in the wild. Climb a tree. Feed the ducks. Sit in moonlight. Search in rockpools. Swim in a lake. Sleep in the open air. Breathe…

Learn how to be alone

You’ll probably spend most of your time in the company of others. This is great, but it can strip you of the ability to be truly alone. Go to see a movie alone, or eat alone, or just clear time so that you can sit in peace with your own thoughts.

Embrace silence

Our lives are very noisy. Once in a while sit with your own thoughts and do absolutely nothing. Turn everything off and learn to be comfortable in silence and to stretch your thoughts to new corners.

Stop smoking

If you’ve managed to get into your twenties never smoking – awesome. If you are a smoker, stop now. Your fifty-year-old self will thank you for it.

Make a difference

Find a cause and support it. Make a difference to the world that you will occupy in the future. Think of the bigger picture and make a stand. Volunteer for something. Don’t just moan about it, work to change it. Vote, but truly understand what you’re voting for and against. Advocacy matters.

Learn to spot fake news

The world is full of lies – learn to spot them and expose them. Don’t let fake news and lies ruin your future. The more we accept them, the worse your future will become. Always carry out the CRAAP test; currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose. This link will help.

Seek advice, and learn how to take it

Don’t think or feel that you have to do everything and know everything. Ask for help before you are desperate for it. Take advice if you respect the person giving it, and be gracious when ignoring those who mean well but don’t have a clue.

Every day, be kind just for the sake of it

In every situation there is the opportunity to be kind. We have drifted into a society that is chock-full of micro-aggressions. Be aware of them, and act against them. When that lady in the lift is frantically pushing the button because she doesn’t want to share a lift with that old man shuffling towards it – stick your foot in the door. Every day think how you can stick your foot in the door.

Do something creative

Doesn’t matter what you do, just do something creative and imaginative. Doesn’t matter how bad you think you are at it, just do it. Creativity expands the imagination and a more powerful imagination will make your life better. Paint, write, knit, bake, craft, dance, sing, take photos…anything that is creative for pleasure and not function.

Read for pleasure every day

Doesn’t matter what you’re reading, just make some time every day to read just for the hell of it. Might be a book. Might be a comic. Might be a newspaper. Make sure that you read simply for the pleasure of it. Not for study or instruction, just for pleasure. Join and use your library – free books! What’s not to like?

Listen to live music

It will change your life. Hear how a band really meant you to appreciate their sound. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the back room of a pub, or in a huge stadium. Go out and listen live.

Never stop learning

Learn something new every day. Find something that pleases you and learn all about it. Your brain will thank you for it, and so will the rest of the world. Study the world in which you live because it will be yours one day, and we’d very much like you to take care of it. We really dropped the ball on that one. Sorry. 

Plan based around who you love, not on a price tag

Some of the best times you have will also be the cheapest. Make your plans around people and not prices, and acknowledge that what really makes you happy is not an expensive venue, but the people who are there with you.

Let it go

Nothing will churn you up more than bearing a grudge. Is it worth it? Are you harbouring hate over something that in ten years you won’t even remember? Let it go, you’ll thank yourself for it later.

Experiences are more important than things

That expensive thing that you have to have right now? I can guarantee that in a year it will be under dust or in the bin. Gather experiences and not belongings. Your whole life will expand because of them.

Feel the fear, and do it anyway

I know. It’s a bit cheesey. Okay, so you’re afraid of stuff, we all are, but sometimes you should just throw yourself in and do the fearful thing. My grandfather used to say that you’ll never know if you’ll walk this path again. Don’t pass up exciting opportunities because you’re afraid of them. Get out of your comfort zone. Unless it’s a plan from that one friend who is trying to get themselves mangled – then use caution. Be brave, be bold, but there is no need to be stupid.

Say sorry

Not “I’m sorry, but…” or anything that has extra strings or qualifiers. Learn how to accept when you’re wrong and to openly apologise for it.

Learn to be even more tolerant

In friendships or relationships, don’t narrow things to fit an image that you have created. Just because you have expectations for yourself, don’t apply these rules to people around you. You might reply to a text immediately, but that doesn’t mean everyone will. You might be strict and tidy, doesn’t mean your flatmates are. That work colleague might always leave their dirty cups in the sink, but does it really matter if they’re great people? You don’t have to put up with crap, but you also don’t have to pick apart every little thing. Celebrate differences.

Being embarrassed is not a bad thing

Who cares if you look a fool sometimes? The only person who looks really foolish at that Karaoke evening is the one who doesn’t join in. Care less, be foolish more often. It’s liberating.

Organise your debts, and don’t get into more if you can help it.

Don’t spend more than you have, and try to put a little aside for important things. Be brutally honest in your spending priorities. If you are lying to yourself, stop. Plan in advance and then you’ll maybe have a little leftover to be spontaneous.

Be spontaneous

See point above, but remember that spontaneity doesn’t actually have to cost you anything. It might just be calling someone to go for a walk, or having a long chat with an old friend.

Plan your independence

The bank of mum and dad can be really helpful, but ultimately it’s not going to help you to feel free or to take control of your own life. Think ahead and plan your escape.

Check your privilege

Your life has possibly been harder than some people’s, but definitely a lot easier than others. Never forget the privilege you have benefited from, and acknowledge it. Support others who have not had the opportunities that you’ve had.

Know your rights 

And stand up for them. No one has the right to walk over you. It’s not always going to be easy to stand up for your rights, but if you tolerate it, things will only get worse. Get help before you get desperate (see point on seeking help above) You really don’t have to struggle on alone. 

Look up!

Life doesn’t happen through the lens of a camera or through the veil of social media. It’s happening now, all around you. Look up and see the sky, the stars, the human race, and the real world. Walk among the living.

Don’t rush to grow up

There is a big difference between being childlike and being childish. We spend a long time being old, and serious, and carrying the worries of the world on our shoulders. Hang on to the joy of childlike pleasures, in fact hang on to that for your whole life.

Above all, to thine own self be true

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t lie to yourself, and don’t change just to fit in with fashion or peers. Ignore lists that make you feel bad about your life. Don’t try to be like the liars and deniers who fill social media with their so-called “awesome” lives. They’re full of crap. Be honest. Be truthful. Be you.

You’re amazing.

 

Dawn Finch, author, librarian, middle-aged person.

 

 

 

Trolls, Grim Truths and Parapet Posts

I am a children’s writer, blogger and library and human rights campaigner, and this means that I have an online profile that is fairly recognisable (alarm 1). In the last few years my presence in the virtual world has become more established, and people know me as someone who regularly writes about literacy and is outspoken about human rights issues. People also know me as someone who writes bestselling non-fiction (alarm 2) and my novels do okay too. I support many environmental campaigns and am proud to say that I am an outspoken feminist (alarm 3). Physically, I’m not exactly model material, and am a long way from being the prescribed size 8 that seems to be the socially accepted size for anyone who steps out in public (alarm 4)

I am a great lover of fairy tales. Not the sparkly singing-bunny variety, but the original folk tales that crept out of forests and nightmares. These stories fascinate and inspire me, but they don’t represent a place I want to live. The language of fantasy and fairy tales seems to be currently misused and applied to people who are, in fact, bullies (alarm 5). We call them trolls, but in fact they are simply bullies and to call them anything else is to suggest that they live only in a world of fairy tales and stories that don’t really have any impact on the real world. This is not true, and this is not a fairy tale. We are real people with real feelings and we can’t keep pretending that the virtual world is not the real world.

Many people are aware that I have been the victim of online bullying as I have been open about this before, and have written about it, and so I won’t rehash it here. I got past that bout of online bullying and it seemed to go quiet again. Now my profile is a little higher and this (apparently) has given the bullies an excuse to attack me again. I now seem to have attracted a group of men who have taken it upon themselves to hurl abuse at me (alarm 6). I’ve had death threats, hate mail and more general online confrontation and abuse. I’d rather not detail the worst of the things that I’ve been called, but the general tone seems to be that I am an “uppity bitch”, “fat ugly bitch”, “pathetic slut”, “ugly whore” and (my personal favourite) “feminazi”. So far 100% of the people who have abused me have been men. I don’t know why these men all hate me, but it seems that they really do. I also know that by saying all of this I will, somewhat ironically, be the recipient of even more abuse.

Recently (April 2016) the Guardian newspaper conducted a survey of 70 million comments left on their articles since 2006 and found evidence for something many of us suspected all along – that the people online who receive the most abusive comments are women. The report found that of the ten most abused journalists online, eight were women. The ten least abused writers were all men. The most aggressive blocked comments were those directed at women and connected to articles about female issues or feminism. (alarm 7). These findings are supported by many other studies on online bullying. It seems that online bullying is predominantly a female problem.

I have taken the standard advice about online bullying – ignore, block, delete. This bothers me. This means that I am actively discouraged from standing up to bullying.  That goes against everything I know about bullying. “Don’t poke the trolls,” we are told. Well, this kind of online bullying has been going on for a very long time now and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better with that tactic, so maybe we are going about this all wrong? If this was in any of the schools that I have worked with I would not be advising teachers to just ignore it, I’d be telling them to confront it, talk about it, challenge the bullies and deal with it. I would not expect a parent of a bullied child to be told “that’s life, just ignore it, get a thicker skin, move on, it’s just a joke, don’t let it bother you,” and yet this is what we are told to do every day in the virtual environment. What if we challenge them? If we challenge the bullies, we are afraid that things will get worse. We are afraid that they will expand their attacks and damage our work and our private lives. In the virtual world the bullies have all the power, and we are letting them have it.

All of this has left me wondering what makes someone do this. What makes a perfectly normal person go online and hurl abuse at strangers? Is it because it’s easy? After all, we’re not real people are we? If we set ourselves up to do something more public, are we not asking for abuse? If we offer our opinions in public, should we not expect to be confronted? If we choose to do something more public, should be not just take it? (alarm 8)

I decided to take a longer look at one of the people who recently abused me. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was sent a direct Facebook message from a total stranger that said (and I apologise for the language)  “I hope you die a horrible death you f**king c**t”.

This message went to a filtered mail box and so I did not notice it for a couple of weeks. My instinct was to hit delete and block and leave it at that, but something made me look further. First of all I reported it to Facebook as I assumed this sort of harassment was against their terms and conditions. Then I wondered what I might have done to deserve this. I scoured my Facebook posts to see if there could possibly be anything that might have made this man send me hate mail. But all of my public posts were mundane, or silly, or about saving public libraries, or about book awards – nothing that would make someone wish I would die.

Then I thought I would take a look at the profile of the person who had sent it to me. I wanted to know what would make a stranger sit down on a Tuesday early evening and tell a stranger that they they wished they would die. I could not check the Facebook profile of this man because the brave bully had blocked me, probably right after he sent the message. That did not deter me, and I had my family look him up for me. Instead of discovering the profile of a violent moron or confused and ignorant child, I saw the profile of a regular looking family man. He had a nice smile, and so did his wife and children. He had holidays that looked like the holidays I take, and he had even changed his profile picture to the rainbow filter that I had previously used. I saw the profile of an obviously proud father who loved his daughters and his dog, and someone who seemed perfectly normal. I could see nothing about his profile that would show that he is the kind of person who sends death threats to total strangers. I’m sure that his family have no clue that he secretly does things like this. I wanted to ask him why he did it, but I didn’t want to make his family suffer by exposing his actions.

A few days later Facebook got back to me about my complaint, and apparently they too believe that I am wrong to challenge things. This message, I was told, did not violate their “community standards” – so they too give all the power to the bullies. I checked their list detailing “unacceptable content” and found that it precluded “violence and threats” as well as “bullying and harassment” but it seemed that calling me a “f**king c**t” and wishing that I would “die a horrible death” did not fit either of those categories.

What can we do? In a school I would be advising teachers to talk about the issues and to challenge them head-on. Speak to the bullies and their families and try to discover why they are doing this. I would be advising the school that they should work towards creating an environment where bullies feel driven out, where other children feel safe challenging bullying behaviour, and where they are regularly challenged on their behaviour by others around them.

This is what we should be doing online. This is not right and we should stop ignoring it. We should take back the power from the bullies. If we see it happening, we should challenge the behaviour and speak out against it. I’m not for naming and shaming, but I am for creating an environment where positive dialogue drowns out the negative. Don’t get into arguments with people, and it’s fine to disagree with people and share a contrary opinion (alarm 9) but if the comments become personal or disconnected with the original topic, then don’t be afraid to ask someone why they said it. Don’t tell them they are wrong, just ask them why they said what they did. I think that is something we all want to know – why. Why have they done this?

We are told that behind every bullying child lies a story of their own struggle and their own darkness, it is possible that this is the same with online bullies. I do believe that everyone is fighting a battle that we know nothing about, and possibly this is the same with the people who bully me? The man I mentioned above, the one who wants me to “die a horrible death”, maybe he too suffers in his own way. Maybe he suffers from a crippling inferiority complex and acts out macho posturing to strangers because society stifles his ability to express himself? Maybe he’s just a git.

battle meme

I may never know his reasons, but I certainly don’t wish a horrible death for him. I hope that he finds a way to be a nicer person and to enjoy his lovely family. I hope that he feels shame for what he has done, and realises that behind every comment he leaves there sits a real person and not just a screen. I hope that he realises that every woman he sends death threats to is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, and that we are just like the other women in his life. Beyond that screen we are all real people with real feelings, and things like this both hurt and scare us. I hope that he is happy in his life and does not continue grind his teeth with internalised anger and hatred for random strangers.

Today I heard that the daughter of a friend of mine has also been targeted by online bullies, she’s only a teenager and shouldn’t have to grow up with this. My own daughter has been targeted too, and so have many of her friends. We would not tolerate this in our schools and working environments, but apparently it’s fine in the virtual world? We all have to find our place in the world, and if you feel that your place in the world is one where you set out to cause sadness and suffering in others, then I feel deeply sorry for you. (alarm 10).

Footnote and alarms –

I was tempted to not open the comments up on this blog, as this post is what I refer to as a Parapet Post. This means that I am sticking my head up and, to the bullies, this is asking to get shot down. I have, however, left the comments open but will be filtering for abuse.

Throughout this piece you will notice that I have flagged certain phrases as “alarms”. These are the points that I know from past experience are likely to be the points most targeted in abusive comments – this is just how fragile this situation has now become. For those of us who have become targets we now feel we have to modify our behaviour, when clearly it should be up to others to modify theirs. These alarms are the phrases that I was most tempted to either remove or reword as an attempt to avoid being further abused but, in the context of this article, I have decided to leave them alone.

 Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian

 

 

 

Tardis Destinations – Part Three. A party, London, 1774

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Our destination today is a London party somewhere around 1774 hosted by the genius John Joseph Merlin. This extraordinary man was talented at creating clockwork devices from a very early age and was plucked from the Academie des Science in Paris aged twenty five by the Spanish Ambassador who decided that the young man’s gift […]

A brilliant bundle of questions from Burlington Danes.

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Every year during the week of World Book Day we authors get out and about doing all sorts of book related things. One of my visits during this week was to Burlington Danes Academy in North London. I’d read a lot about the school before I went and was greatly looking forward to visiting an “Outstanding” school.
I had lots of contact with school librarian Elizabeth Gardner before the visit, and so I was confident that I would be visiting a well run library and some keen and eager pupils – and I was not wrong. It was easily one of my favourite school visits and I felt very welcomed. I had two sessions with year seven, and in the middle a brilliant picnic lunch in the library with the pupils who make up the school’s Literacy Squad. I must say, I love the idea of the Literacy Squad. They help out in the library, go on buys for library stock, and work hard to keep up the profile of books and reading in the school. The Squad are a mix of all sorts of people and they were superb fun to spend lunch with. As we ate and chatted they wrote down their questions for me and I was handed a bowl full of slips of paper. The questions were brilliant, but sadly we ran out of time before I could answer them all and so I’m putting them all here on my blog with my thanks to the dazzling pupils of Burlington Danes Academy, and their wonderful library staff.
Thank you so much!
A few people asked what influenced or inspired me and where I get my ideas.  (Felix, Aishni, Polinu, Maisie, Jai, Christian, Mariam, Zahra, Beth, Kareem)
I love stories and my whole life has been spent either hearing them or telling them. To me the best stories are the ones that lift you from your world and place you somewhere else. I’ve always written stories, right from when I was small, and writing them is one step better than reading them! To read a story is to be Somewhere Else, to write a story is the be the master of the Somewhere Else. 
I find my inspiration everywhere, but the best inspiration comes from the world around you. I think it’s important to keep your eyes open and your head up and spend as much time as you can in the real world. The world is strange and amazing and in it you’ll find all the inspiration you’ll ever need.

What are your favourite things to write about and what’s your favourite genre? (Felix)
Even though Brotherhood is fantasy, I feel that I’m still writing about real people and their varied life (and death!) experiences. I like to write about real life, but with a twist. I like to think of it as the world out of the corner of your eye – the world that might possibly exist if only you could see it. I write in my favourite genre and so the books that I read are along these lines too.

When you write and read scary stories does it scare you at night? (Polinu)
Fear is a strange thing, and we are often most scared of things that can do us no harm whatsoever. Human beings are incredibly brave and can overcome the most extraordinary things. I am sometimes scared at night, just like everyone, but it is possible to take those fears of things that are unreal and turn them into a thrill and enjoy it. It’s a bit like that fear that you feel at the peak of a rollercoaster just before it plunges down. I think it’s important to understand that fear is part of our lives and can make us stronger.

What would you tell a pupil who wants to be an author? (Jai)
Oh that’s easy- write down all the things! Writers write, all the time. When you see something interesting, funny, intriguing – write it down. When you get an idea – write it down. When you have a flash of inspiration – write it down. You need to have a big store cupboard of ideas so that you have the ingredients to write a story when you need it. It seems like a big task when you start but writing and reading are habit forming and if you let them into your life it all becomes a habit and no longer seems like work.

What influenced you to write about ghosts? (Christian)
I’ve always loved ghost stories and love any story about the unknown and the unexplained. The world is full of the most amazing mysteries and I’d love to write about lots more. I think that we all secretly want to believe that there is more to the world than what we can see, and that makes for great stories.

What do you like about horror? (Moo ha ha ha! Evil laugh from Mariam)
To be honest I’m not a huge fan of what people think of as horror because I’m a total wet blanket and easily scared. I find that the horror genre is full of blood and gore and I’m not a splatter fan. I do like creepy suspense that makes me jump and makes me wonder what that movement was in the shadows…. I’d like to read a lot more horror that wasn’t just about slaughtering teenagers and was more about spooky situations and creepy mysteries. There is a lot about, and most of the best stuff is written for young adults so it’s a great time to be a fan of that kind of book.
Oh-and I don’t do zombies (*shudders*) because there is just no reasoning with them, and now they can run!! Ghastly.

What is your objective with your books? Do you want to entertain or change things in the world? (Reece)
Hmmm, that’s a tricky one. I think that every writer wants to do a little of both, but if pressed for an answer to that question they would really just want to tell a good story. The other details come in later when we are refining the story and thinking about the mechanics of it. At the heart of it we get an idea for a story and grows and grows until it’s all we can think about, and then we want to tell it. I think that maybe if you started off trying to tell a story that was designed to change the world it could end up preachy and patronising.

How do you publish your stories and where do you go for this? (Johnley)
First of all, finish your book. That’s the best advice I can give you, actually finish it properly. Then give it to other people to read. Make sure that these are people who you can trust to give you an honest opinion and not just say nice things about it!
There is a wonderful book called the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and you can find it in every good library. It will give you all the advice you’ll ever need to get your book out to publishers and it has lots of great contacts.

How do you feel when you finally complete a book? (Tamara)
Relieved! Honestly, it’s hard work writing a book. It’s not hard work like digging holes or building houses, but it’s hard work on the head and eyes, and you don’t get much time for socialising and fresh air. The first thing I do when I’ve finished a book is take a day or two off and catch up on some sleep and seeing friends. Then I start with the editing process and so it’s a deep sigh and back to the beginning!

What has growing up been like? (Tamara)
Not always easy, not always hard. It’s been a challenge at times but challenge in your life makes you a better person. If everything was easy in your life you would be a dull and boring person. We need lots of different things to happen to us in our lives to make us interesting people.
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this question as I’m not sure I’m quite grown up yet!

How long does it take from a publisher agreeing to print your book, to it reaching the store shelves? (Aaron)
Well, that’s a question with many answers! It can take a few months, it can take a couple of years. Publishers try to think of the best time of year to publish books and so that might mean that you have to wait for several months for them to get your book out. There is a long process before a book is published too – all the editing and design stuff – and that can take a very long time. One of the first things you learn when you start working in this area is that you need to be very very patient.

What do your parents think about your book? (Jamal)
Honestly, they could not be more proud. I think that my dad’s friends are probably sick of hearing about me as he talks about me all the time. My parents have both been incredibly supportive and they love my book – but then they would say that, they are my mum and dad!
I’m very close to my sister, Angie, and she’s great at making me get out of the house and away from my computer. She keeps my feet on the ground and is great fun to be with. She is proud of me too, but never let’s me get too big headed and I love that.

What do you have to do to get in “the zone” with your writing? (Maisie)
One of the most important things to writing a good story is to spend a good deal of time just thinking about it. I’m a great believer in the importance of daydreaming and staring into space. I often find music that ties into the work that I’m doing, and I sit and stare into space listening to music. When I’m clear on my ideas then I have a splurge of writing lots of things down. When I’m doing my writing I have to make sure that I’m not facing the window. Human beings are fascinating, and if I am facing a window I will end up sitting watching the world go by instead of paying attention to what’s going on in my head!

Do you have a favourite book? (Jordan, Juliana)
I have thousands! I have books for every mood and every season, and what is my favourite one day might not be my favourite on another. I do love classic Gothic novels, so books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are pretty high up on my list of favourites.
As a child I loved Edgar Allan Poe, but that’s a bit on the creepy side. I really enjoyed writers like Ray Bradbury and John Christopher as they wrote about these amazing worlds that were completely different to my life, and for the longest time I wanted to go and live on another planet.
Generally speaking my favourite book is usually the book I’ve just finished reading. If I don’t like a book then I don’t usually stick with it to the end, that means that if I’ve finished a book I must love it.

What tips would you give when trying to create suspense in writing? (Alice)
Firstly, don’t give your reader all the details. Hold back some of the key details so that your reader can speculate and guess at some of the things going on. Give them some spooky suggestions that things are going on behind their back, and then let their imagination fill in the details. Generally speaking people are very good at scaring themselves!
Secondly, make your villain just human enough to believe in, and then take away their humanity. It is our humanity that makes us good people with a sense of right and wrong. If you take away a character’s humanity, their ability to judge what’s right and wrong, then the normal rules of society don’t apply to them and that’s very scary.

If you could have a super power (that is not invisibility) what would it be? (Jamal)
Gaahhh!! I was going to choose invisibility! I’d love that. Hmmm, let’s think… I love to travel and have been lucky enough to visit some amazing places around the world, but getting to places is incredibly tiring and expensive so I think I’d like to be able to travel by just clicking my fingers.
I was going to think of something noble and world improving, but I’ve opted for something thrilling and fun instead!

12 Words Of Winter competition.

I do love a good story competition for children, and this one is inspired. The 12 Words of Winter competition from the School Library Association asks children to write a festive or seasonal story in just twelve words.
Impossible you say?
Here is an example from their site – and it’s last year’s winner!

Mr Snowman needed a cuddle, the sun agreed, now he’s a puddle.

See, it can be done!

Schools should run their own competition in-house and decide on a winner to send through to the national entries. Award winning writer for children Alan Gibbons is part of the judging team, and there are masses of fantastic prizes.

This would make a wonderful quick competition to get everyone in the mood for Christmas, and it takes almost no prep or set up. You can announce it in assembly and have the entries in a day or too later. It’s free to enter – but get moving because the closing date is Dec 6th so you’ll need to email the entries in sharpish!! If you are a parent, draw attention to this as the prizes for the school are wonderful and I know how much children love this sort of thing. The idea of telling a story in just a few words suits children of all abilities, and I’ve always found results from this sort of task both rewarding and entertaining. For a child who feels that they can’t write stories, this little task dips a toe in the waters and can be a huge boost to literary self-esteem.

All the details can be found on the SLA website.

Looking forward to seeing what comes out of it this year!

Vintage public information posters.

This gallery contains 20 photos.

I do love vintage posters and this set offers advice for things that you shouldn’t really need advice for. However, there are a good few here that really should be brought back. Speaking as someone who routinely runs the gauntlet of those who seem to have taken up germ distribution as a hobby – I’d […]

And the Geek shall inherit the Earth…

It can’t have escaped your notice that I’m a geek. I make no excuses for this, I’ve have been a geek all of my life. Well, I make no excuses now, but this was not always the case. When I was young, a scared teen, I made lots of excuses, and I hid from my geekdom. Each time that insult was hurled at me I wanted to be like everyone else. That word hurt. So much.
I just wanted to be normal.

But I was never cut out to be the sporty cheerleader type, it just wasn’t me. I tried to have the right clothes and say the right things, the dumb things, the bland things… but I couldn’t be something that I wasnt. I didn’t have the hoards of friends or the cool social clique. I wasn’t invited to parties or allowed to hang out at the cool places.
I had piles of books, not sporting trophies. I had comic book characters, not gangs of friends. I had the library, not the school disco.
I tried to be the same, but I was different.
This was not a good thing.
Not then.

Time rolls forward (as timey-wimey things tend to do) and things change. Well, not all things, I’m still a geek – but today I’m not afraid of people knowing that.
And nor are others.
As a writer, I go into schools and I meet teenagers and they are seizing this word – geek – and laying claim to it with pride. It is no longer a fearful thing to be a geek, now they can stand proud and glory in their geekdom. Oh it’s not easy, and it never will be, but I have such admiration for these young people. They are doing what I never felt strong enough to do. They are standing up for their life choices and their intellect, being so very different and unique and I couldn’t be more proud of them all.
It’s good to be different, and it’s better to be weird.

This is the day after the country ground to a halt to watch the big five-o for a certain Doctor and never has geekdom been so powerful – or fashionable.
Today we celebrate.
Now all of us geeks can all stand proud and say “you go ahead and jump on our wagon, there’s room for you all, but don’t forget that we were here first, and we’ll be here long after Arcadia falls.”

Now the geeks have taken over. Look around you, we’re everywhere. We are the Whovians, Nerdfighters, Gleeks, Potter Heads, LARPers, RPGers, FanFic writers, Starkids, YouTubers and vloggers. Amazing people like John and Hank Green, Charlie McDonell, , Felicia Day,and so many more, all speaking fluent Geek. There are so many now that frankly you’ll have to ask a young geek to tell you more as I have trouble keeping up!
It’s a revolution, and it’s freaking brilliant.

In the acknowledgments of my book I dedicate it to every freak, geek, nerd, weirdo, storyteller and creative crazy. I pay homage to everyone who knows with absolute certainty that there is a world that exists out of the corner of your eye, and it’s different.
It’s very different.

So here’s to you all, and I celebrate the fact that we have taken that word back. Geek. That’s how you take the hurt out of words, by owning them.

So go ahead, it doesn’t matter what people think any more. I’ll be celebrating the glorious and multi-faceted world of geekdom to my last breath.
Say it loud, we’re geek and we’re proud.

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Ask a librarian.

As a children’s librarian I have been asked a lot of the same questions over the last decade. I know that parents often have similar concerns about their child’s reading, and so I thought I would share some of those questions with you, and my answers.

I hope you find them helpful.

I have a child in infant school and they don’t seem to be reading as well as the other children, what can I do? Some of the other children are on much higher books, why is my child not the same?

This needs a longer answer, but I’ve already covered in a longer post, and I’ve covered a lot of the issues that cause stress in parents about their child’s reading. Relax, it’ll be fine, they are all different and taking the pressure off is the first step to reading enjoyment.

 My daughter is seven and has read the first two of the Harry Potter books, but I think the next ones will start to get too scary for her. I don’t want to stop her reading or censor the books, but she’s only seven and easily scared!

People tend to forget that just because small people can read a book, it doesn’t mean they are emotionally ready for the content. After all, I’m sure your eight year old boy is more than linguistically capable of tackling all of the words printed in Nuts and Loaded magazines, but would you give him a copy?

The Harry Potter books are a good example of this desire to push books to bright readers too early (not that I’m comparing Harry to Loaded!) Remember that Harry is eleven in the first book, and so his life experience is based around the life of an eleven year old (albeit an extraordinary one!) Some seven and eight year olds are absolutely fine with a story that features an abused orphan who is locked in a cupboard and not allowed to deal with the death of his parents, but many are not. Children are often fine with scary magical elements, but it is the emotional content that may disturb and upset some young children.

You know if your child is emotionally ready for certain books or not, just don’t ever make the mistake of choosing books for much older children simply because you have a bright reader. Take advice, ask a librarian (ask me!), ask a good bookseller (not one that just wants to sell you the latest bestseller.) This is not about censorship, it is about guidance. If in doubt, read it yourself and ask yourself if your child is ready for this material. If your child is too young to emotionally deal with certain material, or too young to bond with the characters in the book, then you will only succeed in putting them off. Save these books for when they are ready to really enjoy them, and are able to fully appreciate the complexities of the plots. Don’t give in to parental snobbery or pushiness (“my daughter is only eight and has already read Twilight/Hunger Games/War and Peace…”) Go with what you know about your child, and be honest about what might upset them and what they might not be emotionally ready for. There is a vast amount of material to choose from, you just might need a bit of assistance to navigate the choice. Take them to a good library and a good bookshop and you’ll find all the help you need. Encourage them to read what they will enjoy, not what they feel under pressure to say they have read.

 The only thing my boy wants to read is comics and comic books, how can I stop him?

Why would you want to?

I almost left that answer there, but I do need to make a bit of an effort to convince you all!

Comics are AMAZING!! Don’t stop your child from reading anything, and don’t be critical unless you have dipped your toe in the water yourself. I grew up on comics and progressed to graphic novels and I’m still hooked. Reading is reading, and comics are a fantastic way for children to contextualise higher level vocabulary using visual prompts.

And they’re cool.

My child’s school doesn’t have a school librarian, does it matter?

Yes. 

OK, so I should say more than that – but it seems glaringly obvious that your child deserves the very best for their education, and you have every right to expect your school to provide that. A good school employs staff members who are qualified for the job. A school librarian has a very specific skill-set that goes far beyond handing out a book. They are supportive of your child’s reading and involved in their progression. They provide the expert advice and support that you and your child require for them to progress with their literacy, and engage in books and reading.  A librarian should be there to ensure that reading is a pleasure, a lifelong habit, and this in itself will have a massive positive effect on your child’s life.

Why would you not want this for your child?

Good literacy will vastly improve your child’s life and their opportunities in the future. Quite simply, they will be smarter if they read more. Fact.

If your child’s school does not have a library and a librarian, ask why.

This leaflet will give you all the reasons why your child deserves this, and what to look for in prospective schools.

 Ok, that’s it for now – more soon!

If you are not lucky enough to have a school librarian, you can always ask me a question.