Categories for Ramblings

October 11, 2016

Facebook Page  


Over the last couple of weeks, with help from the brilliant Babs Saul, I have started a Facebook Author Page, in preparation for the publication of my debut novel, A Savage Art.

I’m using it mostly to share my blog posts and also to share stories in the news about issues in crime fiction, and and articles about or interviews with my favourite writers. I’m sure there is more I could be doing with it. Perhaps I might start reviewing crime novels I’ve read – or I might do that here.  I do review on Amazon and Goodreads occasionally.

Please do come over and LIKE my page A E Rawson, and any suggestions on how I can make it more interesting are welcome!


October 8, 2016

“Crime porn” and TV thrillers  

In an article in the Guardian (and a Radio 4 documentary) the actor Doon Mackichan has criticised what she calls “crime porn” – the use of “brutalised women as entertainment fodder”.

She’s singled out The Fall for particular criticism and I am at something of a loss to understand why.

Of course, if crime fiction is only a direct representation of reality, we might expect to read and watch more about male victims. Men are more likely to be the victims of violence than women, as well as far more likely to be the perpetrators.

Yet the drama is about a serial killer, Paul Spector. The story itself focuses on so much more than the victims. We see Spector’s family life and his relationship with his wife and daughter. We see some clues from his personal history to suggest why he is violent. And we see the way the teenage babysitter has become obsessed with him, even knowing what he is. And most of all we see Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of DSI Gibson…  On the surface cool and calm and independent – she is clearly both fascinated and repelled by Spector. In much the same way that the audience is.

Calling it “crime porn” suggests the reason for watching is pure titillation. I don’t see it that way. I think we are fascinated by this kind of crime not because it turns us on, gives us a sexual thrill, but because we have an urge to understand. According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal (read about it here) we humans are addicted to story as a matter of survival. It’s how we learn to be human. It’s how we try out different ways of being without taking too many risks.

Women are both writers and readers of crime fiction, and disproportionately so. We not only identify with the victim – women are aware of the risks of sexual violence, after all…. but in crime fiction we also get to identify with the protagonist. We get to explore our feelings about  vulnerability and power in a safe way. And in fiction we find a resolution that doesn’t always happen in real life.

But fiction does reflect life. The babysitter’s obsession with Spector in The Fall reminds me of the way so many women become obsessed with killers. The Guardian has reported that Ian Huntley – the soham murderer – gets bundles of fan mail. Even Charles Manson has never been short of female admirers – although apparently the last one who wanted to marry him (Afton Burton) was hoping to get access to his body as a tourist attraction, which at least is different…

Meanwhile we live in a world where a man who apparently has a real chance of becoming President of the United States has been caught on tape talking about how his fame allows him to grab women by the pussy.  Egged on by Billy Bush, George W’s cousin. It has been excused by some as “locker room banter”, although now Trump has issued a half hearted apology – which makes him seem sorry mostly for being caught, and where he has excused himself by saying he’s heard worse from Bill Clinton. And it wasn’t  banter – it was a direct confession of actual sexual assault.

The really interesting part about this “revelation” about Trump, though, is that it’s a recording from 2005. That means that it’s been available all that time – and we know there was  a case for sexual assault filed against him back in 1997.  Yet only now has it been made public. It’s almost as if whatever happens to individual women doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?

That’s why we need fiction to explore these issues. Because fiction is our way of challenging reality.

Perhaps if there’d been a Stella Gibson for me to identify with as a teenager, I’d have fought back and not just meekly accepted being groped by my first boss. I might not have felt it was somehow my fault. I’d perhaps have had a chance to imagine a different way of interpreting the silence of the other girls who worked in the newsagents, and the sympathy for his wife – who looked the other way while her husband preyed on the young female staff. Perhaps I’d have found the courage to knee him in the balls – like I did to the next guy who tried it on. If I’d seen a fictional portayal of sexual assult, I might have been able to rehearse possible responses in the safety of imagination, rather than being frozen in shock.

It’s not stories that hurt us. It’s reality.



Here’s the radio documentary – Body Count Rising

Crime Porn “TV Thrillers”

Why are women drawn to men behind bars?


September 9, 2015

Before The Dawn  

This post is especially for Lisa, who I would never have met but for Before the Dawn, and who wrote a magnificent ode for me, making  me laugh when I needed it most.KB-BetweenTwoWorldsArtPosterI can’t quite believe it’s been a whole year since we saw Kate Bush.

Given the lupus flare up which has been tormenting me this year, I will never complain about her timing – even though we did have to wait thirty five years between concerts.

The first time we saw her was at the Liverpool Empire on 3rd April 1979. Those tickets were the first ever birthday present I bought for Ryan – and last year’s tickets were our thirty fifth wedding anniversary treat.

Back in 1979, I wasn’t a fan. All I knew of her work was Wuthering Heights – and I didn’t like the song any more than I liked the novel. Jane Eyre is more my thing. From that evening onwards I loved Kate’s music, and we bought all her albums, even when we were poverty stricken. When our vinyl went missing during a house move, they were the first albums we replaced. I never expected to see her perform again, and I always thought that seeing her on the Tour of Life would be the best musical experience of my life.

When the first rumours started to surface that she might be performing again, I laughed and said, no, it was impossible. We couldn’t quite believe it when we got tickets. We were ridiculously excited. We booked a hotel near the venue. And I alternated between excitement at the prospect of seeing Kate perform again, and terror that I wouldn’t be well enough to go.

Sometimes I think that’s the hardest part of living with a chronic illness. It’s not the constant lack of energy or the pain, most of the time. It’s missing out on the things you really want to do. That sense of being excluded from so much of normal life – the anticipation and pleasure of knowing that if you plan some kind of treat, the chances are that most of the time you’ll be able to enjoy it.

This is what I wrote in my journal the day after.

“I am absolutely exhausted, but had a great time in London.  I was just spellbound through the whole evening.

I’d been a bit worried about managing in London now I need a stick, and especially about waiting to get into the venue. But everything turned out perfectly. At the hotel when we were checking in, the young woman on reception saw my stick and moved us to an easier access room without us asking – I’d forgotten to mention it when we booked. I’d emailed the venue because I was worried, and they told me to go to a separate entrance for those who are disabled. A big burly man listened to me and escorted us in to the building – there were only about six others in there before us! And then another kind member of staff found me somewhere to sit whilst waiting for the doors to open.

What amazed me was just how friendly everyone was. I spent a good while chatting to a woman from Cornwall who’d been queuing for tickets for hours and hours and had managed to get one, although she was 13th… Ryan was chatted up by a guy from Finland (he says not, but then he can’t tell when he’s been chatted up by women either). Well, maybe I’m being unfair, he was just a really nice guy. He’d travelled to London a couple of days earlier and had worn himself and pulled a muscle in his leg by cramming in as many of the museums and art galleries as he could. He travels all over to see live music all on his own, and said that his mates at the office thought he was mad. Actually I think he’s the opposite of mad, he clearly is having a whale of a time, and has no trouble at all in talking to people.

A part of me didn’t really believe it was actually happening until Kate walked on to the stage and started singing Lily. The opening of the ritual. Then at the end of that piece, I saw her off the side of the stage, drinking from a bottle of water. Daft as it seems, that was when I knew it was real. Then I was swept away  by the music.

In the interval, I was sitting shellshocked by the Ninth Wave, and this big Australian guy came to talk to me. He said, ‘I can see you were really moved by that.’ Tears were literally rolling down my cheeks, and I don’t mean literal in its metaphorical sense. Then he said he was too, and how much he was enjoying it. He told me he’d come all the way from Sydney to see Kate, and to meet up with his mate from Canada who was off getting them drinks from the bar. Then he made me stand up and hug him, but was content to just shake Ryan’s hand.

The whole performance was very theatrical – too am-dram for some critics, but really, what are they on? Don’t they remember her? The two longer pieces were just amazing. The Ninth Wave has always been one of my favourite bits of her music and I couldn’t imagine how she could do it justice – but she did. It’s a story with a mythic, otherworldly feel, about a woman who falls off a boat into the ocean, and it starts with her slipping away, about to die… The whole piece is about her struggle between life and death – but it’s mostly dreams and visions, with interspersed frangments of reality, helicopters searching, and voices calling her. In the show they put the real part – Kate in lifejacket floating in the ocean – up on a big screen, and the dreams and visions were all dramatized on the stage, with her singing…the waves were made by the dancers billowing huge pieces of fabric around – the dancers in fabulous costumes, with amazing fish exoskeletons. There’s a Judgement scene with a priest, and a witch trial, with him calling her guilty, guilty, guilty….  I can’t begin to do it justice in words, but at the end when she chooses life. It was just so moving. I was completely immersed the whole time, and I’d been worried I would be uncomfortable and in pain, and afraid I wouldn’t enjoy it because of that – but it took me completely out of myself and at the same time back into myself.

The audience were all spellbound too. At the end a young lass in front of us called out “Thank you Kate” and everyone else echoed it immediately, and roared, and the look on Kate’s face was priceless, and she replied, “No, thank you. Thank you all.”

I was impressed by her voice – I thought it was much richer than when she was young. Another thing that really struck me was just how much everyone on stage were just really enjoying themselves. They were making a joyful noise. Birdsong and drumming, and a whole visual feast to go with it. I didn’t know the long piece from Aerial so well as the Ninth Wave, but still it was just as captivating. There was one point in the track Somewhere In Between when I reached out to touch Ryan’s hand to anchor myself to reality, and he was completely out of it.  The theme really is very simple – it’s about a perfect day. I recall arguing with someone about it afterwards who described it a trite – and I really think he was just wrong. It’s the opposite of trite – it might be simple, but that’s the kind of simple that life is really all about.

Of course, the whole show was a ritual – starting with the wonderful pagan invocation of Lily, and ending with Cloudbusting. I suspect from the way the audience was spellbound that she bewitched us all.

“I just know that something good is going to happen.”

I continue to be enchanted by Kate’s magical storytelling. To my delight she confirmed my theory in an interview she gave when Aerial was released. She said that she thinks of herself as a writer, a teller of stories – and a creator of transformative ritual magic.

“Art is about human expression…. it should be something that’s  evolving and developing as you move through a song, and changing, not just the repetition of the same moments  because I think what’s so exciting about music is that it’s something that unfolds through the process of time, that’s what music is, it’s something that   If people get it right, then you’ll be whipped up into a trance frenzy or a state of prayer. Music is something that’s very special and very emotive. “

I never did get to like Wuthering Heights, but I’ve always felt that was a gift. A lesson. I’d been so ready to turn away from everything Kate because of that one song – and what richness of experience I would have missed.


Wave after wave

August 29, 2015

First Love, Last Rites – the summer of ’76  

Reading Ian McEwan’s account of the writing of the short stories in First Love, Last Rites in the Guardian this morning, I was reminded of my first love, who gave me a copy as a gift. He was a sweet and charming young man, and it wasn’t his choice – he’d asked me what I wanted. I can remember he was somewhat bemused by the stories, and asked if I was sure. Looking back, I wonder if perhaps I might have intended to shock him.

I met Jonathan on the dig at Crickley Hill Iron Age hill fort. I spent a month there in that hot summer, with my friend Terry who had arranged it.  We were seventeen and we both fantasised about becoming archaeologists. We’d had a fortnight’s experience the previous summer digging up Roman remains in Peterborough, and we spent alternate weekends digging at Radcliffe Tower, and mostly finding Victorian pottery. We’d been treated like the schoolgirls we were on both those digs – but Crickley Hill was a real chance to grow up. And we took it.

Volunteers lived out at Ullenwood Camp, which had been used as an army hospital in the second world war. The accommodation was basic – we slept on the floor in sleeping bags, and the facilities were primitive. There were only showers in one half – so they alternated by gender and we could only shower every second day. Considering how dirty and smelly we all were after working outdoors in the heatwave, this was not ideal. We got used to it, just as we got used to the callusses developing on our hands.

Digging started at nine. I often walked from the camp to the dig site after breakfast, and then spent all day digging, apart from a couple of breaks. In the early days it was hard physical labour – removing turf, using pick axes. Later it was more delicate – sitting or lying down and scraping away with trowels. My best find was a flint axe head. Later terry and I were taken under the wing of our area supervisor who decided we needed to learn som extra skills. So for an hour or two in the afternoon we were set to recording finds, and to washing and labelling them. He also taught us how to use a theodolite to do site surveys.

We had to take our turn in the kitchen – helping the cooks prepare the food and serving and washing up afterwards. That got us into a trouble a couple of times. The very first time I encountered spaghetti I had to serve it to a long queue of volunteers. And the very first portion went straight onto the shoes of the visiting Professor.  Cleaning the kitchen up was a really unpleasant experiences. I found a tray of sausages in the bottom of the oven that had turned to charcoal – they must have been left there for days. And it was filthy. We muttered and complained and found ourselves in serious trouble as the cooks were universally loved regulars, and we were young upstarts. We were ostracised for a while by the popular students – to the point where we walked to the nearest phone box and almost, almost phoned Terry’s father to come and get us and take us home. But we found our courage at the last moment, and instead carried on and faced the music. And days later we were justified when the whole camp came down with a terrible tummy bug and the doctor who visited took one look at the kitchen and insisted it was properly cleaned.

On our day off, Terry and I would go shopping in Cheltenham. Our first port of call was always the public baths, where for a small fee we were allotted a bathroom and lots of hot water where we could soak off the week’s grime. The woman who ran the place used to look at us with disapproval as we were so clearly dirty girls. I think we rather enjoyed not explaining to her just why we were so dirty… Then we would go buy cream cakes and lemonade and eat in a park until it would be time to scour the second hand bookshops. I bought my Greek New Testament, also the Illiad and Beowulf in the original. In those days I was a purist, and Homer was a blind Greek epic poet, not a three fingered, yellow cartoon character.

Jonathan was a local volunteer. So we met during the day, working side by side, grubbing in the dirt. He was standing by laughing at me as I pulled up an old pair of socks that came apart in my hands and said, “These are on their last legs”. He was also laughing as I swung the pick axe and time after time broke the string which marked out our trench, instead of breaking the ground in a neat line. He was there as we had races up spoil heaps with full wheelbarrows. And as we kept each other cool by spraying each other with the water that was supposed to help us distingush between layers in the dried out earth.  We were pals.

Then he asked me out. To go see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And because it would be impossible to get back to Ullenwood Camp, to stay overnight at his home.

Of course I said yes, although I had no idea how much teasing I would be letting myself in for…

We had a lovely evening. The queues for the film were too long and so we went back early to his home. His mother rushed me into the bathroom making me believe it was a treat, not just because I was stinky. I luxuriated in a hot bubble bath while she cooked us all a meal. Then we sat and watched Spartacus on the TV. Jonathan was turfed out of his room and slept on a camp bed in with his brother – and I had a real bed and an excellent night’s sleep.

Then came the bus ride of shame as we travelled back to the dig with the other local volunteers, all of whom spent the journey, and the rest of the time on the dig, teasing me about where I’d spent the night. I probably didn’t help matters by saying in Jonathan’s bed…and he blushed more than I did.

At the end of the dig we exchanged addresses and agreed to write to each other, and I really never thought I’d ever see him again.

We did write. Long letters every week. I was starting in my final year at school, and he was in his first year studying archaeology at Birmingham University. Come half term, he turned up on my doorstep, with his rucksack and sleeping bag – on his way back from walking Hadrian’s Wall.

I was thrilled and embarrassed at the same time. My Gran saw him walking past the window with his beautiful long dark hair, and decided he looked like an old sunday school friend. Janet Hall. She insisted on telling him how much he looked like her, and how much more he’d look like a boy if he had his hair cut. My stepmother rushed him to the bathroom every bit as quickly as his mother had me – and another camp bed was deployed and I was sent to sleep on my Gran’s sitting room.

My dad and stepmother took us out out for a pub meal, and they all ganged up on me, insisting that I should stay in the Oxbridge prep class at school, which I was considering quitting. Of course I did quit… I had plenty of surface reasons to justify a whole heap of fear and inadequacy. But he coped with my family! He was such a lovely boy he even joked along with my Gran, charmed my stepmother, and even my Dad liked him.

The letters continued, and then in the spring he surprised me again. I was at the British Museum on a school trip, and in a long queue to get into the exhibition I heard my name. And there was Jonathan and one of his friends from Uni, who just happened to visit the museum on the same day.

Now that was embarrassing. Miss Morris, our deputy headmistress, who had been heard to say several times “I hate men!” was watching with severe disapproval as I chatted to him. At school, one lunchtime she gave me detention for speaking to my brother, who attended the school across the road. I confess I was worried about the consequences of me speaking to two University students in public – but she didn’t say  word. Perhaps she thought my evident embarrassment was punishment enough.

In the end the letters trailed off and we lost touch. It was a very gentle first love for me – we held hands a couple of times, there was just one kiss. But I do have very fond memories of him, and especially how bemused he was, and yet accepting, of my desire for this very strange collection of short stories.

I loaned that copy to a dental student at Liverpool, and it was never returned.  I suppose if it had been it would only have been in a box under the house along with lots of my other books. Still, that’s no reason to forgive him, is it?

I still wish I’d had the courage to pursue that interest in archaeology. I really did enjoy revisiting Crickley Hill last year, and following up with the Coursera  MOOC Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets, and some of that found its way into the novel I’ve been working on over the past year or so.




Ian McEwan in the Guardian, the 40th anniversary of First Love, Last Rites

Crickley Hill neolothic and iron age hill fort

August 10, 2015

Run a mock  

Eggcorns, and other language mishaps.

An eggcorn is a misheard word – eggcorn itself being a mishearing of the word acorn.

I saw a new one float past me on Facebook today – a captured tweet from someone who had enjoyed a “seizure salad”.

I’ve always enjoyed the misheard lyrics – from “Gladly the cross eyed bear” in my childhood sunday school days, to the more adult collection from Peter Kay which you can watch on YouTube.

But there’s something just a little bit scarier about eggcorns – at least for someone like me, who is very unlikely to inflict my singing on anyone other than Felix, our resident stray cat. He’s a stern critic.

I’ve worried about making mistakes ever since I was embarassed at school for my inability to correctly pronounce a certain word. Fortunately there isn’t much call for me to discuss those people who live in monasteries. No, not abbots.  It’s always awkward the first time you say aloud a word you’ve only ever read. Like the first time I said “awry” for instance.

My tutor at Liverpool University, many years ago now, used to tell the story of his own embarrasment. He went to Oxford, and his tutor at the time was editor of the Dictionary, CT Onions. (No, this is not the origin of the phrase, “Know your onions.” I looked it up). So he was dining at head table and he said a word out loud which he had previously only read. I wish my memory was good enough to recall what the word was! But he blushed when CT Onions asked him to repeat the word so he could make a note of it. My tutor blushed and apologised for his error, and explained that he’d never heard anyone say the word. And Onions shushed him, and made him repeat it. He took a note to include in the dictionary, as he explained that his job was to record usage, not to prescribe it.

Now that would be something – to make a mistake worthy of being recorded.

In her Guardian column Mariella Frostrup once referred to someone’s “cachet of eggs”.  That’s more of a malapropism than an eggcorn – a wrong word rather than the transcription of a misheard one. To be entirely fair, it could have been a typo, considering the publication.

Someone argued on Facebook the other day that “people are now using their critical factories rather than just regurgitating what they were taught in school.”

I was horrified to read that some gamergaters were expressing dysentry against Anita Sarkeesian. I presume they meant dissent – but with gamergate adherents it’s impossible to be sure.

“Run a mock” has to be my all time favourite though.

Unless you have a better one?


Sources –

See one of  my favourite blogs,  Language Log for more about Eggcorns.
And check out The Eggcorn Database for more examples