And another thing

And another thing – all day, the news people have been referring the Tories’ manifesto pledge to double the entitlement to “free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds” from 15 hours a week to 30. Just a cotton-picking minute, there – “free childcare”? I thought “free early-years education” was what was available to 3 and 4 year olds? I thought it was about the children – about development, and school readiness, and a stack of child-centred things which I don’t actually agree with, in the main, but they at least represent an attempt at doing the right thing by the child. I’m pretty sure most nursery teachers would be extremely hostile to idea that what they are providing is “childcare”.

Childcare is not about what is developmentally necessary or appropriate to children. It is about keeping them safe while their parents do something else. And, by some bizarre and unlikely coincidence, the amount of time offered coincides exactly with the amount time the Department for Work and Pensions would like to oblige all parents to be out working, before they can qualify from such poverty-busting interventions as Working Tax Credit.

I’m old school. I believe that children need parents. They don’t need quality affordable childcare, they need parents who aren’t too stressed by work and money and so on, to be able to spend a bit of their own time with their own children. That’s all.

Ranty McRanterson

The election is making me ranty. Today, the Tories announced their manifesto, the most newsworthy bit of which is about extending Right to Buy – from tenants in council-owned properties, to those in Housing Association-owned properties.

Now, the ways in which is this is stupid, badly thought through, unworkable, and probably illegal, are many and varied. Allow me to summarize:

  1. I’m not sure the Tories have a very clear idea of just what a Housing Association is. They are independent businesses. Social businesses, sure, not-for-profit organisations, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to make a loss, and since they are not owned or controlled by either the local councils, nor central government, it seems very odd to make an announcement like this which will essentially put them in a position of being legally obliged to sell their assets at a loss. Because,
  2. Right to Buy, as I understand it, entitles tenants who have lived in one property for five years or more to choose to purchase that property at 2/3 of its market value. Now, if a housing association happened to receive that property for nothing, or as near to nothing as makes no odds, in an asset handover from the local council, one could argue that they have made a significant profit, even if they’ve spent some money on maintenance or renovation in between times. But if they built that house themselves, having borrowed money to do so, on the assumption that it would represent an income-generating asset for the foreseeable future, then they run the risk of making a significant loss. Whether that loss is enough to send them bust is entirely dependent on the balance of their property portfolio – whether the tenants who want to buy happen to be living in properties that won’t make a loss if sold, in enough numbers. No-one saw this announcement coming, so no housing association is going to have a contingency for it. There are no reserves funds sitting in the bank, to insulate against this eventuality. They will just go under.
  3. The idiocy of declaring that the shortfall will be made up by councils selling their “more expensive” council houses and passing the money to housing associations, rather beggars belief. My council owns no houses. None. They passed them ALL to a housing association, years ago, and therefore have nothing to sell, expensive or otherwise. Even if they did have some, the chances of them being anything other than the cheapest properties, in the worst states of repair, in the dodgiest neighbourhood, are slim in the extreme. Unless your council happens to be Westminster, I suppose.
  4. Since this sets a precedent for central government placing a legal obligation on private organisations to sell their property assets at a loss, if I were a private landlord, of any scale, I would be looking distinctly anxiously at this development. Because, what is to stop them subsequently applying the same rules to me? My tenants have the right to buy my house, and at a price I wouldn’t normally accept, but I have no choice. That sounds ludicrously unlikely, on the one hand, but on the other, what’s the difference? My desire to make profit? Isn’t a tenant just a tenant, irrespective of the landlord’s business model?
  5. And finally, what is to become of social housing in the UK? There is already a massive shortage of decent, affordable rental properties in many parts of the country, which is largely attributed to the policy decision NOT to spend any money brought in through Right to Buy on replacement housing stock. Which is the obvious thing to do. By consistently diminishing the available stock of social housing, we have made a general housing shortage, which has brought private landlords in a lucratively desperate marketplace, where rents can soar to meet insatiable demand. When rent is high, property value also goes up – since even expensive property stands a good chance of being profitable – which then means that even owner-occupiers are affected by the sale of council houses they may never have used. But since Thatcher’s government was essentially driven by an ideological desire to get the state out of housing altogether, one can only assume that the extraordinary housing bubble that has characterised most of the last 30 years, was the point. If you own property, you win. If you want to buy property (and that includes up-shifting for the extra bedroom/big garden/better school catchment area, which is proportionally more expensive, and therefore out of reach of your fairly ordinary salary), you lose. It’s the Haves pulling the ladder up behind them, against the Have Nots. Unless you’re one of the lucky few Have Nots who are in social housing, because you can get a house for 35% off, for no apparent reason.

The thing is, I’m not necessarily against Right to Buy, as a principle. I believe in wealth equality, and the idea of putting a system in place that could, within a generation or so, give almost everyone the option of owning their own home, seems, as even David Cameron said today, an ultimately democratic redistribution of wealth. But only if you treat it as a policy for a generation – not a one-off sale of the family silver (and how overused that phrase was of Thatcher’s government), but an on-going philosophy of investing in new, affordable homes, for people to rent, or rent with a view to later buying. If you take the money you make, and use it to build new houses. If you are prepared to invest some actual government money into making up the shortfall, so you can continue to maintain social housing stock at a certain level. If you regard the job of government to make the world fairer, more even, to spend a little in order to reduce the inequality, and actually lift people out of poverty. Imagine a world where everyone who wants a house can have one. Imagine a world where no-one lives in low-quality rented housing because it’s the best they can manage, but where only people who have actively chosen the convenience of renting (of calling the landlord when things break, or of being able to move around frequently) are doing so. Not everyone wants to own their own home, but the basic security of doing so should be available to anyone, surely?

If you replace the sold social housing, then the private rental market doesn’t explode. The former council houses don’t end up in the hands of private landlords, because the market is so much less buoyant. No-one pays over the odds to live in a house, if they can still get the identical one next door for a reasonable rent. Private landlords have to up their game in terms of housing quality and customer service, if social landlords are in the marketplace, offering more for less. The housing market is ripe, nay, desperate, for disruption, and social housing is the way to do it. Offer the right to buy, by all means, but invest in making the scheme sustainable – don’t just sell all the houses until they’re gone.

Writing Writers

They say you should write about what you know, which always makes me wonder how writers of historical fiction ever so much as get started. With the best research in the world, understanding what it was truly like to live in, say, Roman Britain, or 5th century China, is, at best, an exercise in convincing guess-work. Maybe historical fiction attracts those authors largely because no-one alive can refute their interpretation – their best guess as to what it was truly like, is as good as anyone else’s.

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books

Today, I was struck by the frequency with which protagonists of certain types of fiction – particularly fiction aimed at girls, I suppose, that being what I’ve been reading – are carefully guided by the author into becoming writers of fiction aimed at girls. It is true in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, where the lead character, Joey, goes from being an unpolished but clearly innately talented writer of fairy tales, to being a producer of schoolgirl fiction almost as prolific as Brent-Dyer herself (but not quite – I imagine it took her all of her time to come up with a title and plot summary for 58 real Chalet School books, without producing a similar number of pretend ones). In Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series, it is the similarly-named Jo who validates the author’s life choices with her writing. Indeed, there is a clear and barely disguised influence of Alcott’s lead character over Brent-Dyer’s, right down to the choice of name. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, and I find a similar pattern. Anne is a flighty and overly imaginative child, likeable, but widely considered to be in need of containment by the other characters. As she ages, she becomes a girl who writes rather than play-acts, and into adulthood she becomes a published author in various small-scale magazines, gaining increasing acclaim for her (short) stories. So far, I am half-way through Anne’s House of Dreams, and she has yet to produce anything in the way of a full-length novel, and has just rejected a potentially interesting writing project as being unsuitable to her talents, offering it up instead to a male writer who wanders her way, and who is seeking to produce “a great Canadian novel”.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Now, I’m not here to pick holes in the gender stereotyping that is rife in a book written over a hundred years ago, and seeking to depict the slightly old-fashioned life of a rural, colonial community, even then. Obviously, the expectations held in those books are going to jar somewhat with my modern, sophisticated(!) 21st century reading. Mostly, I am fascinated by the apparent need for women authors to validate their own choices through the similar choices of their lead, and generally clearly favourite, characters.

Is it simply an act of self-reassurance? Are they shouting, “Look! Anne is a lovely girl, and she writes stories! And I write stories, so I can surely be lovely, too?” Are they seeking to declare that their writing is a valid activity, a reasonable choice, not an act of selfish conceit in the face of real, more womanly responsibilities? Joey Bettany continues, rather implausibly, to rattle out book after book, whilst apparently producing and adequately caring for no less than eleven children. Anne Shirley, on the other hand, spends much of her life thus far being too busy to write – too busy studying, too busy teaching, too busy keeping house for her new husband. She fits it in to summer vacations, and winter evenings, and doesn’t seem to fit it in at all once she is married, although her husband seems broadly encouraging. The only time that Joey is censured by the author for her writing, it is because she has become consumed by it. Clearly, Brent-Dyer saw this a serious risk. When Joey locks herself away for weeks on end, trying to produce her first full-length novel, she is described as risking her health by her inattention to the basics of food, sleep, exercise, and social interaction, and the book she produces is dismissed as being unspeakably, unsalvageably bad, to the point that she realises her mistake, and burns the manuscript.

Anne, insofar as I can say, having only read half of the series, avoids this mistake, by always allowing her domestic responsibilities to override her desire to write. So she teaches, she helps Marilla with the twins, she cooks, cleans, sews, gardens, and has no time left over for the self-indulgence of writing.

These are the protagonists of fiction for girls. They are role models. What are they trying to say to me? That all the best people write novels, as long as they are careful not to court criticism, by failing to be all the things that nice girls should be, as well? First, even? That my role as a woman is to be there for everyone else, just as women have always been expected to be, but to somehow prove myself to the the world by also doing this extra thing?

Writing is a pretty self-indulgent activity. It involves sitting quietly, preferably, as pointed out by Virginia Woolf, in a room of one’s own, with a door that doesn’t get people banging on it for one’s attention. It requires taking oneself away from the places where one can be called upon to support everyone else. It is an absenting of oneself. And that’s really, really hard. It’s hard to justify, in a 19th century culture that views women as the oil that greases the household. If you are brought up to see your job as being to facilitate, to support, to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, the act of locking yourself away from all those needs and demands might appear like the ultimate selfishness. It might seem morally bankrupt, to actually choose to make yourself unavailable.

The thing is, even now, when we all believe that women are equal to men (in theory, at least, if not always entirely in practice), look around the women you know, the ones with children, or other caring responsibilities, or jobs, and ask yourself how many of them carve out regular time to do something that makes them unavailable to those people. It’s terribly, terribly hard. All that the alleged liberation of feminism has brought many modern women, is an even longer list of things to do. Now we work AND take on most of the childcare. Change is slow in coming, and for as long as stay-at-home-dads remain the exception, and ultimate responsibility for housework remains, in most houses, the woman’s, there is no hope of what amounts to additional leisure time. Women’s lib has only liberated us to do more than ever. There are no areas in which we are free to give roles up.

Of course, what is statistically true is not universally true. I am one of the lucky ones, in some ways. I have a thoughtful, considerate husband, who works from home, and is therefore both willing and able to take on a larger domestic role. His sheer presence has increased his parenting role with the children, and he watches me flounder with the housework, and is perfectly willing to take on jobs that will, hopefully, take the pressure off me. He wants me to have time and space to write, if writing is what I want the time and space to do. That I consider it a self-indulgent triviality, that should be fitted in after I have adequately cleaned, and cooked, and educated, or not at all, is not really his fault.
The thing is, I strongly suspect that in order to do anything really well, in this world, it has to be your priority. If writing doesn’t come first, then I will never be a first rate writer. If music doesn’t come first, I will never be a first-rate musician. If I don’t practice, refine, hone my craft, if I don’t put in my 10,000 hours, as per Malcolm Gladwell, how will I ever get good enough to succeed, by whatever terms we choose to define success (a discussion for another day, I suspect, since this is becoming untenably long already – see how much I could benefit from refining my craft?!).

I would like to write more. I would like to develop the subtle talent for creating whole worlds, people, situations that chime with the reader, that seem magical and fantastic, but no less plausible for that. I would like to somehow recapture the creativity of a childhood that never struggled to pretend, to create alternative realities, but be back in time for tea. Nothing makes me want to write more than the act of reading what others have written. If only I could do that. If only I could put you inside a special, secret world that was just ours. If only I had that power. I would love that.

But the only way to get good at writing is to write. So I intend to write. More often. More regularly. More thoughtfully.

We’ll see whether it lasts.

Straddling the borders

A friend of mine has started a new blog on the subject of autism, and her relationship with it. She doesn’t have a diagnosis for autism – she’s in the process of trying to get one, having reached her forties, and concluded that such a diagnosis would help her to understand herself properly, and manage her life better. She has suffered from all of the hurdles that people talk about in these situations – it took two attempts to get a GP to take her seriously enough to refer her to the fledgling adult autism unit in her area, and what sounds like a very assertive presentation of opinions on the telephone to the said unit, to persuade them that if their telephone assessment returned a borderline result, then that is a case for pursuing diagnosis, not a case for dropping the process.

I don’t really know this person in real life – we met, briefly, once – but my understanding of her, based on how she presents herself online, leads me to think that she probably does have a case for diagnosis. I’m no expert, but knowing that autistic women present differently from autistic men, that they learn at an early age how to ‘fake it’ in many social situations, but live with high levels of stress from the effort of doing so, and that being a “high-functioning” autistic person doesn’t make you any less autistic, I think that if she, an intelligent person who has struggled for years, and who can search the internet at least as well as you can, thinks she might be autistic, she should at least be able to get someone to listen to her.

My dad thinks he’s autistic. He usually uses the term Asperger’s Syndrome, which, as I understand it, is just a particular type of “high-functioning” autism. I’ve known my dad for nearly forty years, and I strongly suspect that he’s probably right. He doesn’t seem to have a particular need for a formal diagnosis. He’s fairly content with the book he read on the subject, and the epiphany that came with it. Again, he suddenly understood the ways in which he had struggled for so many years. The knowledge hasn’t changed who he is, but it has given him a sense of understanding, and of accepting himself, in the face of being told he just wasn’t good enough, for so much of the time.

As well as believing himself to have Asperger’s Syndrome, he has also concluded that I have it. I was distinctly ambivalent about this idea when he first presented it to me, since I (like you, probably) like to think of myself as basically normal. But, do you know what? I’m not normal.

I’m not far from normal. I don’t necessarily think that, if I went down the diagnosis route, I would get a diagnosis. That’s how borderline I think I am. But I do have certain traits. I have difficulty in interacting in large groups, and a preference for talking to people in ones and twos as a result. I have a history of engaging rather obsessively with fiction (must collect all 62 Chalet School books, must read reams of Harry Potter fan-fiction to comfort me over having finished the actual books, must watch a TV series to the very end, long after everyone else jumped the shark because it became so bad). I can be equally obsessed with non-fiction-based hobbies – computer games which I can’t drag myself away from for weeks on end, knitting and crochet projects that are all I’m interested in for periods of time. I spent a big period of my adolescence, basically depressed by my inability to understand other people, and I have difficulties in coping with loud, shrill, or just plain busy noises. Even typing this, I find I’m in a room full of people, someone is playing music, and my senses are overloading to the point that I’m having difficulty getting my thoughts onto paper. And yet, the thoughts are filling my head too much for me to ignore them. So here I am, trying to blog in a completely inappropriate situation, and feeling overwhelmed as a result.

So, I might be slightly autistic. I certainly have some autistic traits. They come out when I’m stressed. The things that cause me stress are, often, related to the autistic traits, and the things that I consequently find difficult. The effect can be circular – things that are stressful, but generally within my capabilities, suddenly become insurmountable if my general stress levels are high. If I’m suffering from a sense of not understanding the rules, or of not being able to meet the expectations of other people, then the odds are that my ability to make a business phone call will evaporate.

The thing is, (and this is what I really came to say), I don’t believe in a mystical line. I don’t believe that all the people on THAT side of the line are autistic, require help and support, and can benefit from the self-knowledge that diagnosis offers, while all the people on THIS side of the line are perfectly normal, and need to just pull themselves together. I don’t believe it.

There are people in my life who think that talking in terms of autism, as a strategy for self-understanding, is a cop-out. They think it’s an excuse for being selfish, for being badly behaved, for not trying to put myself out for them, for just not trying hard enough. I disagree.

I don’t need a diagnosis. I don’t need someone else to tell me that the things I need to cope are valid. I already know that they are. I have learned, from life experience, and from reading, what those things are, or could be. All I really need, is to understand myself, and to be allowed, by the people around me, to make judgements for myself about what I can and cannot do. I am the person who understands me best, and nobody else has the right to tell me that my coping mechanisms aren’t good enough for them.

If you think you might be autistic (or ADHD, or anything else, really), and you think that a formal diagnosis would benefit you, then I encourage you to pursue that. Depending on whom you ask, and what you’re after, you may have to push quite hard – if it’s necessary to you, then push as hard as you need to. If you think there are tangible supports that you could access with a diagnosis, or even if you just think it would help you to understand – if, in short, it’s worth it to you, then push for it. You deserve those benefits, and I would hate for you to see me, stating that I don’t need that, as somehow dismissing you.

But much more important to me is knowing why I struggle. Which side of the mythical line I happen to fall is much less important to me, than seeing that everyone struggles with the how the world is – everyone. It’s just that the ways in which I struggle lean more toward the autism spectrum, than in any other direction. And knowing and understanding that, gives me somewhere to start in looking for strategies that will help me cope – things that have worked for other people, and might just help me to find my way through day-to-day life more easily.

Since my dad first suggested to me that I might have Asperger’s (or at least, since I first came to terms with the possibility that he might be right), I can honestly say that it has helped. I believe I understand myself better, now, than I ever have. I can see precisely why certain things cause me intolerable stress, and I can give myself permission to refuse to be in that situation. It has been a benefit to me. It has put me in control. And that is much, much more important than the process by which I got there.