Saturday, 19 October 2019

Why are we afraid of spiders?

I don’t like spiders and snakes – but why? 

As a writer of scary books, I am fascinated by fear.

On a course I did recently, the leader said, ‘It seems to be a powerful belief in all cultures that spiders are a deadly threat.’ This got me thinking about how fears have evolved into the strange, irrational feelings we have now.

Neuroscientist Stefanie Hoehl did an experiment on babies to work out whether arachnophobia is learned from our culture environment or embedded in us as a species. Researchers looked at the pupil dilation response in babies when shown pictures of spiders as opposed to flowers, and snakes as opposed to fish.

The report says: 'Spiders ad snakes provoked the most pupil dilation, even in children that are so young they couldn't possibly have learned that spiders are something dangerous that many older people tend to fear. "We conclude that fear of snakes and spiders is of evolutionary origin", Hoehl explains.'
Clearly an old fear of a genuine threat has imprinted itself in the human brain as a survival stragegy, but over time this has evolved into a useless response that we barely understand even as we jump away, shrieking.

The top five phobias are the fear of spiders, snakes, heights, agoraphobia (the fear of open or crowded spaces) and the fear of dogs. I have three out of these five, which probably makes me an average scaredy-cat. I am not afraid of heights (Beachy Head – call that a long way down?) I don’t suffer from agoraphobia,  though some of my favourite people courageously battle this debilitating fear.
I have a vestige of the fear of dogs that tormented me as a child, because a Pekinese bit me in the face as a baby. I have made my peace with unthreatening dogs, but if I’m out on a walk and one behaves aggressively, I virtually leap into my husband’s arms, whimpering.
My worst fear is spiders, but I don’t consciously think they will kill me. Instead, I am revolted by their hairiness, their hand-like leg arrangement and the way they move. There's a reason we call them creepy-crawlies!
In nightmares, spiders crawl on me and I’m paralysed and unable to stop them.
When confronted by one in waking life, I sometimes contemplate being a proper grown-up and picking it up to get rid of it. The reason I don’t is an overwhelming fear is that it will jump as I reach for it and GET me – perhaps, oh dear God, in the face – or crawl about in my hand in a hideous and unbearable way.
Am I really an enormous human adult, towering over a tiny harmless creature, terrified that it will TICKLE me?

Snakes also terrify me, but I am less likely to need to evict one from the bathroom. And the fear of snakes is not irrational, I tell myself, even in safe, temperate Britain, as who can remember the visual difference between an adder and a grass snake (especially while running away, screaming)?
There are 100 adder bites a year in Britain, so the threat is real. OK, there have been only 14 deaths since 1876, but I MIGHT be next.


Thursday, 26 September 2019

Can We Stop Using Words As Weapons?

Words are extraordinary tools. They can inspire us or touch our hearts, mobilise us or give us pause. Lately they have been weaponized, and now we pause to consider their power.

After yesterday’s bellowing horror in the House of Commons, words have been called ‘inflammatory’ and ‘dangerous’ as debate in Britain becomes a toxic playground slanging match with shades of Lord of the Flies.

It should be laughable, but I’m not laughing.

This morning there were calls for restraint, and conciliatory words from Brendan Cox, whose late wife’s name was evoked in the heat of the row. But then it all started up again and I recalled Nicky Campbell’s recent anguish on Radio 5:

‘My head is on the desk. We have been having the same phone-in for three years.’

It is tempting to throw opinions in anger whenever Brexit comes up.

But more anger is the last thing this country needs. 

We need to hear from people who are prepared to make concessions – who are willing to consider the other side’s point of view.

Can we please stop thinking the worst of everyone? Look where that has got us!

No one is going to get 100% what they want. It isn’t possible, because our politics require negotiation, and that means both sides compromising.

I know what I wanted, but I need to let that go. I have my own red line (racism) and my own worries (that the vulnerable will suffer).

But I want a peaceful solution more than I want what I voted for. I want reconciliation so that we can move forward together.

I often think of a maxim used in the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement:

If it matters to them, it matters.

Can we adopt that attitude? Can we address each other’s concerns, calmly and respectfully, instead of criticizing them?

Can we stop blaming others for going overboard and get back in the boat ourselves?

This is my cry from the heart of a wordsmith:

Can we dial down the hyperbole and find words of peace?

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Baku Beyond - Why are the Media Afraid of Abroad?

As the Europa League final approached, the absurdity of having a London derby in Azerbaijan was much in the news. The ex-Soviet nation became the byword for a strange/foreign/far-flung place, like Timbuktu before it. How would fans reach such a destination? And if any intrepid travellers did happen to make it, what in God’s name would it be like?

I don’t deny that it was a long way to go, and expensive, and there was fury and despair, and thousands of tickets were returned.

But the press coverage was reminiscent of other panics about foreign hosts. Rumours of catastrophe are rife before Olympic Games and World Cups: the stadium won’t be finished, the local fans are vicious, racist and homophobic, the hotels and cafes will rip off travellers, the police will weigh in with batons and tear-gas and our fans will end up banged up abroad, where the judicial system is corrupt.

I know there are genuine concerns, for instance for gay or black travellers. But it always gives me a warm feeling when fans who actually make it to these alien places not only survive, but thrive. 

Reporters interviewing British fans in Baku invited gripes about gruelling journeys and local difficulties – how lovely, then, to hear them reply,

‘It’s so beautiful here! And we’ve been treated like honoured guests.’

This fear of ‘abroad’ so often turns out to be unfounded – but it’s not only the media who indulge in it. 

We all get anxious before travelling. As a trip approaches, anxiety rises. What if they don’t have this or that in the shops? What if they feed us things we’re allergic to? What if they steal from us or rip us off?

I love travelling, but I confess to packing my favourite teabags, and vitamins, and Diocalm (usually years out of date, because it never gets used). But then I arrive, and I relax, and my happiest memories are made.

Perhaps this is the reason for the sure-fire holiday, the place you return to year after year so you can bypass all that fear of the unknown and hit the ground running, doing all your usual things.

In my next novel, The Year of the Ghost, a family go on their annual trip to a house in Wales, cheerfully mocking themselves for doing the things they always do, and have done for years. Only this time, something terrifying has invaded their usual holiday. Who could be haunting them in the place they all love?

Saturday, 27 April 2019

How to Look Terrible on Holiday (and not care!)

I always look crap on holiday. It's an old tradition, like fish 'n' chips or Sangria. 

I don’t know how I looked on my travels before the age of 17 because at that time I was unaware of the Cosmopolitan Commandment:

Thou shalt always look amazing on holiday.

This had never been an issue, since as a small child I mainly went on day trips to Hastings. Then when I was ten, my Dad inherited his father’s Ford Anglia and drove us to far-flung Wales, where you could still buy setting lotion if your hair went wild.

At 17 I went Interrailing with friends, some of them very glamorous. While I had packed practical stuff, their rucksacks spilled out hair products and sexy dresses. The pressure to look good infected me like a dose of holiday tummy. I took my turn with the time-shared turquoise off-the-shoulder dress in which we wowed the Paris fashion scene.

As we ventured further South, though, my holiday curse took hold. In the Italian sunshine, I burned every visible skin surface, including my eyelids, while the rest of me remained white. I was feasted on by mosquitoes which ignored everyone else.  

I was already heavier than my friends, which wasn’t the end of the world in school uniform, but when we arrived at the beach in Rimini, I saw my bikini body beside theirs, and knew that I was fat.

I also had swollen eyelids, was covered in livid lumps and had the skin tone of a raspberry ripple.

The Adriatic sand got in my hair and in all our towels, condemning me to another holiday tradition – rubbish hair.

Over the years since, I have read all the advice, bought all the products and dared to believe that this year I’ll look my best in the holiday snaps – legs Veet-smooth and Holiday Skin-brown, hair Frizz-eased and straightened, toenails polished, outfits rigorously vetted for fit and style.

But every year comes that moment of realisation, as my hair takes on the texture of a brillo pad and my bites turn into scars that last weeks longer than my tan – oh yes! Who was I kidding? I always look terrible on holiday.

Things are not improving. I am fifty-four. I have hair that goes insane in humidity. I swell up in hot weather, and on planes. My feet and ankles are allergic to EVERYTHING, causing angry red rashes – really fetching in sandals!

So this year when we went away over Easter, I had to ban Holiday Skin and face the world with winter-white legs.

We were off to visit my son, who I hadn’t seen for 6 months because he has moved to Vietnam – my favourite place in the world.

And after all these years of failing to have a beach body or a sunkissed look or pretty hair –something dawned on me…

What if this holiday is not about what I look like?

What if it actually doesn’t matter?

Before I went away I heard an overweight woman on the radio. She said she’d read that women can spend up to 60% of their brainpower thinking about weight and dieting. She thought, what could we achieve if we used that brainpower for other things? And so she stopped caring about how much she weighed – and she was healthy, and happy, and achieved great things.

What if during our two weeks away, I could just decide not to care?

There’s always a beautiful woman on the beach, isn’t there? She’s young, slim and tanned; her hair, nails and skin look perfect and her bikini fits her beautifully. But does she look happy? She doesn’t, does she? She’s often in a strop with a handsome youth who’s worshipping at the foot of her beach towel.

I will never look like her, and yet holidays have been my happiest times. Imagine that! I remember exploring the world with my boys, relishing our annual Welsh pilgrimage with the wider family, and discovering foreign cities with my husband. I don’t remember how I looked.

So off we flew to Moscow and on to Hanoi, and my ankles swelled and made my legs into treetrunks.
In our Airbnb, I stood on a stool to hang something up, and it tipped over. I crashed through it, enhancing my pasty granny legs with black bruising which covered my whole calf and turned an interesting green.

I wasn’t even getting brown – the sun in Hanoi creates a hazy sauna that doesn’t so much tan you as steam you.

In soupy humidity, my hair went through a brassy brillo look before reaching peak candy floss as the heat soared. My cheapskate Wilco bug spray didn’t work, and my bites turned into attractive blood blisters.

And I didn’t care. I made reasonable efforts to look presentable and stay cool, and I let the rest go. I looked as terrible as ever, but I loved being with my son in his new home. I loved Hanoi and Danang and national parks we visited. I loved the people, the food, the astonishing scenery, the quirkiness, the craziness, the ancient and modern wonders that make up Vietnam.  

The beauty industry has made suckers of us all, but I don’t buy it any more. It’s NOT what you look like that makes a holiday – it’s what you’re looking at and who you’re with.

And the most beautiful thing you can wear in those holiday photos is a great big carefree smile.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Mothering Is Not What It Used To Be

Motherhood has changed. While doing some background reading for my next novel, I came across Alan Garner’s memoir of a wartime childhood, Where Shall We Run To? and this charming (!) recollection of his parents’ routine:

My father finished work at dinnertime on Saturday each week. And after dinner he nearly always went to watch football in Manchester. Then he came back for his tea, washed and shaved, put on his suit and went to the pub. Then he came home, went to bed and slept until dinnertime on Sunday.

On Sunday morning my mother got up and cooked the Sunday dinner. She roasted a joint of beef with potatoes in the oven, and she boiled more potatoes, and cabbage and carrots and Brussels sprouts. And she made gravy and Yorkshire pudding, and a rice pudding with a brown skin on top.

Twenty minutes before dinner was ready, my mother knocked on the beam below the ceiling with the handle of the carving knife and my father thumped back on the bedroom floor with his foot. My mother served the plates to the table, which had a clean white cloth on it, and my father came downstairs, sat in his chair and ate his dinner. He mixed the rice pudding with the gravy and it looked horrible. I sat with him and had bread and jam, and my mother sat on the arm of a chair by the fire with her plate on her knee. No one talked.

After dinner, my father read the News of the World in his easy chair by the fire and went to sleep until teatime. My mother cleared the table, took off the white tablecloth and put on the blue sateen one with tassels, and washed up the dirty pans and dishes. Then she went to bed to lie down, and I read my comics because I wasn’t allowed to play out on a Sunday.

After tea my father went to the pub and my mother and I listened to the wireless and played cards.

Whatever we’re doing this Mother’s Day, I hope it is less exhausting than this and that there will be absolutely no mixing of gravy and rice pudding.

Rice pudding, without gravy.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Why do men assume I'm writing bonkbusters?

Courtesy of Jezebel/Pictorial, by Angelica Alzona

You’re a women writer. A man you know finds out that you’re writing. The first thing out of his mouth is a jokey assumption that you’re writing something raunchy.

Why?! I’m not asking from feminist outrage, I’m just genuinely baffled.

I like men. I adore my Dad and my husband; I have two fabulous sons. Many of my dearest friends are men. I enjoy male banter: the mickey-taking, the quick-fire wit, the belly laughs.

Nor do I have an issue with people who ARE writing something raunchy. Good for you – I hope it’s brilliant and titivating. I’ve read all three Fifty Shades books. I’m not elitist or a prude.

But when I find out that someone I know is writing, I think all kinds of things. What genre are you writing? Are you good? Published? Self-published? What inner worlds are you pouring onto your pages?

It’s really never sex scenes that first spring to mind.

I get it – these men are joking, but why always the same joke?

Writing is an expression of your inner self. Your world view, your life experience – it all comes out into the light.

Is sex the only secret men can imagine me expressing?

I often wonder, did Jane Austen get this? 

I’m guessing that she did because, as English professor Barbara M Benedict has written, in Austen’s time: 'Novel reading for women was associated with inflaming sexual passions; with liberal, radical ideas; with uppityness; with the attempt to overturn the status quo'.

Imagine what they thought of women actually writing novels –  those inflaming minxes!

Women writers, I’d love to know – does this happen to you?