Becoming an Ally

I am the senior sponsor for the Allies workstream to my employer’s Women’s Network. The key reason for doing it was that it was clearly the right thing to do, but I also had some experiences over the last year that exposed how narrow and privileged my world view was.

Here is the article I wrote for my employer’s intranet to explain some of my motivation (lightly edited to remove organisation specific details). I’m sharing it with my blog followers as a challenge for us all to find our blind spots.

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Working here I have grown accustomed to being the dumbest person in the room. We tell new recruits they’ll be working with really smart people, but we’re a bit coy about the implications.

Anyway, someone needs to ask the stupid questions. So it came as a shock, but no surprise, to learn during this year of gaping blind spots in my world view. Three incidents occurred which held up a mirror to show me what I had been missing.

The first was on the way home from a rare evening out with my wife. We were standing at an above-ground station, waiting for the tube. A train pulled in and pulled out opposite us, and my wife asked, “Did you see what just happened?”

I hadn’t noticed anything and said so.

“The woman on the opposite platform looked into the carriage, saw there was only one other person there, and walked up the train to a busier carriage.”

I’ve been commuting on the tube since I was eleven and never felt concerns over my personal safety. A near-empty carriage is an excuse to man-spread and put my bag on the seat beside me.

It hadn’t occurred to me that for some it was a risk that had to be mitigated. Mirror, blind spot.

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Eye-opening

The second incident was while packing for our summer holiday. With a few t-shirts and pairs of shorts getting my clothes sorted took less time than organising my photography equipment.

It was then that I encountered the organisational Rubik’s Cube that was packing for my daughters (14 & 12).

They’re very sweet, and for my sake maintain the fiction that all their problems can be solved with a hug and a kiss on the nose (then they go and talk to their mum).

But the inescapable truth is that they are young women now. Packing for them meant catering for the uncertainties of female physiology, which could defy both science and almanacs. Each potential outcome meant thinking through different sets of clothes, and contingencies.

I was academically aware of all this. I have a GCSE in biology and I’ve been married for a long time. Of course, by the time I met my wife she had all of this sorted out, and neatly, privately hidden away.

With my daughters, I was watching them learn how to manage for the first time. This time the mirror showed the reality that women live with, but which I had the privilege of never considering.

Behind every female colleague sitting beside me are additional layers of logistics, planning and preparation that I am free from. And that is just the surface level stuff I can wrap my head around.

Again?

The final incident came in the form of a book. My elder daughter did a solo speech at school based on Invisible Women (exposing data bias in a world designed for men) by Caroline Criado Perez. We talked a lot about Perez’s observations, for example she notes that:

“… when a woman is involved in a car crash she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man … And it is all to do with how the car is designed – and for whom.” (p186)

Many years ago I worked for a multinational car manufacturer, planning the vehicles that were up to five years away from market.

We’d identified female buyers as a key demographic to target, and our research told us they were more interested in safety than men.

In all our discussions on safety features and NCAP ratings, not once did the thought arise to have a female crash test dummy.

The mirror (mumble mumble years later) showed what we did not think to question, which should be unacceptable.

Ask the stupid questions

I have learned this year that the world is more profoundly unequal than I had imagined. I’ve been the beneficiary of layers of privilege I have been blind to. This is why I’m standing up as an ally to the Women’s Network.

I’m not willing to accept my ignorance, and I want to learn how to change myself, and maybe nudge the world along a little as I do so.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking “he’s clearly an idiot, this is all obvious”. Don’t worry I get that a lot, like I said: someone has to ask the stupid questions. My challenge to you is – if you see it so clearly what are you doing about it? If you’re doing nothing, well maybe you need a different mirror.

The world doesn’t need another male voice telling women what to do. I’m getting involved to listen and to learn.

[the article then had a call to action to our Allies launch event]

END

More on this theme here:

The Diversity Deal

The Jedi Dad Trick

Aside

Return of the Queen published on Crimson Streets

Ambrien is a warrior serving the God-Queen. With her city besieged by a relentless foe, Ambrien’s unique abilities take her away from the battle to challenge everything she believes in order to bring an end to the war.

 

You can read, and I hope enjoy, Return of the Queen as a simple fantasy story on Crimson Streets – head over there to take a look.

 

Of course, there is a bit more to it. If you’re interested…

 

Getting it right

I wrote the first draft of Return of the Queen in a bit of a rush around March 2018. The deadline for a submission call loomed and I had left things a little late. One form rejection and one personal rejection (“it’s a bit slow to develop”) later and I decided to let my beloved beta locusts loose on it. I don’t do that with all my stories; their time is precious but this one seemed worth the candle.

 

It came back littered with comments. Structure, pacing and grammar were all thoroughly examined and thoughtful suggestions given on what to improve, what to cut, what to keep. We had a debate about whether the sacred knives in the story (kindjal, from khanjar) should be an invariant noun, I decided the plural should be kindjali to help the reader while accepting the technical point on invariance. And then the fighting details – style, weaponry, armour – getting these physically plausible and to a point of consistency with the setting.

 

My beta locusts are awesome. They did all that for the pleasure of doing it and I love them. Of course, I’m still seeing things in this story that I am itching to edit.

 

The next rejection showed the benefits of all that hard work: “terrific epic fantasy feel, with terrific magic and worldbuilding” just not quite right for that anthology.

 

Finding the right home

It gathered dust for almost a year, I tinkered every now and then, but the right opportunity didn’t come up, until I came across Crimson Streets. You can see the outcome of that and the interpretation of the brilliant artist Chlo’e Camonayan on their site.

 

The bigger themes

For me, Return of the Queen is more than a bit of fantasy escapism (nothing wrong with that!). We were deep into #metoo in 2018, I was curious to know if I had a legitimate voice to add, and what my contribution might be. That culminated in “Me and Me Too. Even You” late in the year. Return of the Queen precedes the poem but is part of the same thought process. The setting is a matriarchal society, a female deity, and no backhanded Steve Trevor’s to save the day. In this case I had two questions: is it power or masculinity that corrupts? and is there a path to redemption?

 

Guilt, forgiveness and redemption are themes I orbit around, and occasionally crash into, so this will come as no surprise to regular readers.

 

Now you know what I was trying to do go and add a comment on Crimson Streets and let me know if I got close to it (or here, talk to me people). If that dimension of the story doesn’t float your boat, I hope you appreciate the design of the battle skirt, the use of short spears instead of swords, the work that went into the detail, and Chlo’e’s awesome picture.

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Hilt detail from the “Splendours of the Subcontinent” exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Aug 2018

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Find out more about my writing here.

There is a Ruswa Fatehpuri chapbook out there too

Jugaar and the art of sub-Continental steampunk

I was introduced to the concept of Jugaar * by my uncle many years ago and was instantly delighted.

The story goes that in the time of the Raj a British engineer was looking despondently at the broken coupling between train carriages. The train, he thought, could not run until a replacement part arrived from the foundry.

His workers, in a display of Indian ingenuity, came up with an alternative; bodged together from whatever they had at hand (whether it was intricately knotted steel cable, daisy-chained cargo hooks, or the simple expedient of some Herculean pehlwan holding things together by brute force is lost in the mists of history). The train ran on time and thus was born the jugaar: a join, just not the way you thought. The concept has expanded to refer to any kind of engineering hack or a simple, innovative solution using the materials to hand.

I was mostly delighted because this story linked my love of a bodge, born and bred in London, to my Asian heritage. Every repair with non-standard parts and build with what I had lying around the workshop was suddenly part of a grand tradition. I also loved the economy and efficiency of it. In our throw-away society a mindset geared to reuse, repurpose, recycle is of enormous and immediate merit. (You can check out my scaffold garden bench here)

This is my latest fix – when the plastic tab on the back of a twenty-year-old amplifier snapped, I opened it up, forced in some speaker wire, wrapped it around the connector and added a screw connector to the other end. Job done.

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You find this replayed all over the subcontinent: workshops running late into the night by tube light, a skinny guy on his haunches with an angle grinder or a welding torch finding a way to fix something with the bits and pieces of something else.

It is on the streets too, in the antique Bedford trucks belching black smoke that are somehow still on the road, every part so patched and mended that the original vehicle is only a memory. You might find a kid hanging out the door applying the brakes by means of a wooden block attached to his foot. Of course in this case, throw-away may be the better environmental and safety option.

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Photo by Ali Madad Sakhirani on Pexels.com

All of which brings me to the paucity of Indian steampunk (I use Indian here because the historical setting of steampunk is pre-partition). Why is it that a society that has raised engineering creativity and bodging fabrication to a way of life doesn’t have a thriving literary sub-genre that revels in the making of things? I have only encountered this – Steampunk India –  (found by the incomparable Phoebe, of whom more below). Even my own “Like Clockwork” is set in Victorian England.

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And so to the world of “In the Cavern of the Sleepers” my story that will be in the forthcoming “Gears, Ghouls and Gauges” anthology. Steampunk set in India, blending science and mysticism, and an accommodation between Islam and Hinduism.

Here’s a blurb to whet your appetite:

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We’re running the Kickstarter now to fund the project. At the time of posting it has already reached its minimum funding goal. Phoebe Darqueling is the engine and governer driving this anthology and its sister “Cogs Crowns and Carriages”. Check out Phoebe’s blog to get involved and see all the cool stuff available.

Facebook both covers campaign

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* linguistic note on Jugaar – it is sometimes spelt jugaaR, denoting the hard sound where your tongue curls to the top of your palate. Also sometimes transliterated as jugaard or jugaad. Whatever you do don’t roll it.

Find out more about my writing here.

Seat Mii roadtest on a mountain track

Mountain track road test of Seat Mii 1.0 automatic in Crete.

The obvious question is why an automatic? As a younger man, I extolled the virtues of control and the expression of skill that comes with driving a manual car (stick, for my American friends). Now as my life falls into the sere, I find myself heartily sick of changing gears. I’ll take a quiet life, as your man Thom whined.

In this case my thoughts were more practical. I figured driving on the wrong side of the road was challenging enough without right-hand gear changes to tax my malco-ordination. The bus to Heraklion with which I had a very low-speed altercation can attest to the wisdom of this, and also paying for the excess (deductible) waiver.

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This is what happens when the bus you are overtaking decides to move away from the bus stop without looking

The interior is surprisingly roomy and the boot is functional if you buy groceries like you’re on a diet. The pint-sized engine is actually OK for highway cruising and quite quiet at Cretan highway speeds (plus a bit). Unless there is a headwind, in which case get a hotel room and wait for the weather to change because you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

The things you can’t get away from are the ECU and gearbox, and given the component sharing across VAG the poxy things probably infect all Skoda and VW small cars.

Picture the scene: you’re on a twisty, unsurfaced mountain road. It has a spiky, uneven rocky top greased with dust and gravel. You’ve just walked a kilometre back along a gorge from the lovely secluded Agio Farago beach and you need to go up over the mountain to sanctuary at the delightful Monastery Odigitrias.

The first thing the guide books don’t tell you is that this road is only for 4x4s and rental cars. It’s also only one and a half micro cars wide, so if something is coming the other way, one of you has a decision to make.

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This road runs at 90 degrees to the one we took, but you get the idea.

So, you’re on an upslope, steep drop to one side, car breaker rain channels to the other, a sequence of blind hairpin turns ahead. The powertrain is too puny to creep. You give the Mii a bootfull and wait. The kick down gear change is ponderous as the engine, out of its depth like a reception teacher asked to cover the advanced calculus class, hyperventilates.

Sometime later it accelerates, if you’ve planned it right this is before you roll down the road to a comedic but nonetheless fatal end.

You keep your foot in until the last moment. The ultra-light steering is not a problem because the whole car is rattling with road feel and the suspension surrendered a long time ago. You know better than to death grip the wheel, you keep your thumbs clear and your hands soft. It’s a low grip surface, the grim reaper lurking amid the oleanders to one side, you turn the wheel and come off the gas.

Roller skate wheels skitter over the terrain, you’re sideways in a hairpin – that’s good and bad: you’re now pointing the right way but running out of momentum. Another bootfull and… nothing.

Seconds pass, you’re about to stop and roll off the road. “Oh,” says the Mii’s addled brain. “When you stabbed the gas pedal through the fireguard into the engine bay, you wanted me to accelerate. Hold on while I tell the gearbox.”

Certain death in a tin can through the rearview mirror. You’ll be goat food. Eventually, something mechanical happens. The Mii drops a cog. The engine wheezes, supplementing the dregs of forward impetus to crawl up the short straight to do it all again.

Over and over again. Never has a Muslim been so happy to see a monastery.

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Moni Odigitrias. See the church, buy the honey, use the toilet.

On the plus side, should you find yourself inadvertently going up a goat track instead of the actual road (they’re easily mixed up) the turning circle is tiny and a seven-point turn will bring you back to the right path.

Pro-tip: when you have edged to the limit of the road remember to put the car in reverse before you hit the gas again. Fortunately, the engine response is slow enough that I managed to stand on the brakes before plunging down the mountain.

Honestly, I would rather have been in Brooke, my twenty-year-old Renault Laguna. She’s down on power from her glory days, but I know every beat of her faithful heart and so can judge every gear change by telepathy. Better still would be the Monkey Car – my wife’s even older Citroen Saxo (still in the family). No one does fun small cars as well as the French and I have booted that Saxo through Snake Pass, so I know what a hoot it is to drive on twisty roads.

The locations at either end are highly recommended. The drive – well at least you now know what the guidebooks won’t tell you, and which car not to do it in.

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Find out more about my writing here.

Publication – Lifting the Weight

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My story “Lifting the Weight” is included in this anthology from Death’s Head Press. A bit earthier and more violent than my usual fare, so be warned!

The narrator is a demon with a lust for wealth. Bad luck leaves him cursed by a necromancer, carrying a Weight that he can only relieve by righting wrongs. Following a tip off on a criminal gang he finds himself with a choice between his lust and his freedom.

Check it out on Amazon in the UK and US

Find out more about my writing here.

Upcycling: from scaffold to garden seat

My blog is over five years old and despite enthusiastically adding joinery to the title, I have not once blogged about my woodworking projects.

Time to address that.

One of my neighbours had building work done a couple of years ago. Apart from the aggravation this caused, his workmen left a scaffolding board and another long piece of timber leaning against the back gate to my garden. They obviously intended that I should take possession of them, so one quiet evening I did. I kept them for ages on the grounds they’d come in handy one day.

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They were pretty nasty (the boards, not the workmen). Spiked with nails and head-worn screws, scabrous with lumps of mortar.

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The idea arose when my cousin and his wife bought a new house. With a garden but without a garden seat. What better than an upcycled bench for them to sit on of a summer’s evening and watch the sun set on the brambles crowding over from them neighbour?

I set myself the constraint of working with the dimensions of what I had (this was a mistake, as you’ll see) and apart from new hardware only using the generously donated materials.

There was quite a lot of crap on the boards. Brute force dealt with the nails, but some of the screw heads and tips had to be ground off, which meant careful planning of where I made cuts later. A hammer and bolster did for the big lumps of mortar, but I did eventually resort to the belt sander to get all of it off.

I lifted the dimensions roughly from my own garden bench, mainly for the height of the bench and the back. The width was set by the board itself. I decided early on that I wanted the legs and arm rests to be one piece, mainly to minimise the number of joints and points of failure.

Be warned scaffold boards are dense. I cut by hand, with the jigsaw and with the two different blades on my old Black and Decker Scorpion. The board was just too unweildy for my table saw and of course that would be useless for even basic curves.

This was hard work. I suspect a modern variant of the Scorpion would be best and that my antique (about fifteen years old and well used) has just run out of puff and sharp blades.

You’ll notice in the design I cut out a little arch in the legs. I wanted to get the weight down and this was a cute but simple way of doing it.

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I joined the seat to the arms with offset half laps. I know these are considered quite weak, but with the thickness of the wood and the width of the board this gave me a really secure join. I backed it up with a couple of pocket screws as well.

The joints were a really tight fit, the mallet was not enough. In the end I had to get out the fencing hammer and use gentle persuasion. More hard work but the end result was worth it. The point of the offset (rather than going the half way through) was to allow the bench to sit a bit further forward, away from the back rest, otherwise you’d be sitting upright like on a church pew.

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The overhang on the sides was deliberate. I had in mind a cup of tea at the end of a long day, so a place to rest it integrated into the bench seemed like a good idea. I also went over all the edges with a round over bit on the router for a neater finish. Apart from that I left most of the nail holes and damage unrepaired. Regular followers will know I am a storyteller and I wanted the material to tell its story.

Of course life intervened, I didn’t finish before the weather turned, so the project was stored outside covered in tarps through the winter. And that is where the glaring design flaw became apparent. The slightest gust of wind would blow the damned thing over. The heavy scaffold board made the centre of gravity quite high, and the relatively narrow width just didn’t provide enough stability.

I’d thought about this and put a couple of extensions on the legs, but it just wasn’t enough.

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First job the next summer was to add more width to the base to keep the whole thing standing.

I coloured it golden oak, and there we have it, job done.

I’m not sure that my cousin has made much use of it, but Milo the cat loves it.