Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Lest We Forget - Why wearing a poppy should never cause offence

In just under a fortnight, people will stop for two minutes at precisely eleven o'clock.  They will stop where they stand - in shops, in busy streets, or simply in their own homes.  These people will be of all ages.  These people may come from very different backgrounds.  Yet they will all stop and be silent as one, for the same reason: Respect and remembrance to those who gave their lives in war.  Many of those people will be wearing a symbol of that remembrance, pinned onto their coats, or tucked into the band of a hat worn to keep out the November chill.  A small, vivid red reminder of the sacrifices given so that we may live freely.  A poppy.

Yet every year, there is a small, but worryingly noisy chorus of people who feel that simple, red symbol, is somehow offensive.  That we shouldn't wear a poppy.  That to do so - and I find this possibly the most laughable thing I've ever heard in my life - is to "glorify war."

So I'm writing this not only to explain why I find that view not only wrong but deeply offensive, but also to try to give something of a background to the Poppy Appeal.  For a part of me can't help but wonder whether the cries of "wearing that shows you're pro-war!" are borne out of ignorance of what the symbol truly means.

One of the earliest mentions of a poppy in the context of war, comes from a poem called "In Flanders' Fields," written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrea.  McCrea was a Medical Officer from the 1st Canadian Contingent, who was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres.  Far from "glorifying war," McCrea was devastated by the loss of life all around him during the bloody, seventeen day battle.  He wrote his now famous poem, following the death of one of his friends.  The opening lines speak of the red poppy being the first flower to grow out of the earth beneath which the dead lay, bringing with it hope and new life.  The final lines read:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To You, from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
And if ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,
In Flanders' Fields."
McCrea's words were seen as a cry to men everywhere - do not let those killed in battle die in vain.  Continue to fight until the war is won.  This is where some poppy-opposers will immediately attempt to point-score by saying: "See!  It's a poem about wanting people to go to war!"  But ask yourself this question: If you have never lived through a battle, the likes of which were fought during WWI, can you really claim to understand the emotions of those who were there?  Many of those young men had been conscripted to fight.  We're not talking about lads who just fancied a bit of a scuffle, here.  We're talking about many who were barely out of boyhood and were thrown into the most frightening situation they had ever experienced.  They knew they could die and they didn't want to have lost their lives for nothing.  They wanted to ensure the war was won and freedom prevailed.
McCrea's poem was published in Punch magazine and received much critical acclaim.  Three years later, shortly after McCrae's death, a Miss Moina Bell Michael, secretary of the American YMCA, wrote a response to the poem in which she likened the red of the poppies in the field to the blood of men killed in battle.  She noted:
"...Blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders' \fields."
Miss Michael was so deeply affected by McCrae's words and by the idea of something so beautiful - the poppy - growing peacefully on the site of such horrors, that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war dead.  Note: Not to glorify battle.  Not to revel in the blood of men lost.  But as a symbol of remembrance.  In her own words, Moina Bell Michael wanted to wear a poppy to "keep the faith with all who died."
Moina Bell Michael began selling silk poppies to raise money for the ex service community in November 1918. In 1920, the red poppy was, thanks to Miss Michael's tireless campaigning, unveiled at a conference as the official symbol of the National American Legion. Madame Anna Guerin, secretary of the French YMCA, was in attendance and was deeply impressed with the poppy being used in such a manner. When Madame Guerin returned to France, she put forward Miss Michael's idea of the poppy being used for remembrance of those lost in war.  The idea was quickly adopted not only in France, but by other Allied nations.  Madame Guerin also furthered the idea that the sale of poppies could help those devastated by WWI.  The proceeds from the sale of the artificial flowers went towards helping restoration projects, as well as providing food and shelter for children orphaned by the war.  In 1921, Madame Guerin introduced the symbol to the British Legion and the UK's first ever "Poppy Appeal" was held to coincide with Armistice Day.

The poppies for that very first appeal all came from France.  However, in 1922, a UK-based factory was opened, to produce poppies for future appeals and to provide employment for disabled former soldiers.  To this day, the workforce employed to make the poppies we wear for Remembrance Day is largely comprised of disabled former British military personnel and the money raised from the annual Poppy Appeal is spent on a variety of good causes.  Here are just a few:

  • Personnel Recovery Centres, which help wounded or sick service personnel to recover and either return to service, or adjust to civilian life.
  • Care homes for ex service personnel and their families.
  • Break services for current military personnel as well as ex servicemen/women and their families, providing an opportunity to get away from the stress of military life and spend quality time together.
  • Providing emotional support to service personnel as well as ex military personnel and their families.
  • Offering legal assistance, financial support and advice on benefits etc for current and ex service personnel and their beneficiaries.
So the origin of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance comes from the peaceful sight of the vivid red flowers growing in and around the battlefields during World War One and the reminder that they brought new life in a place of death.  The symbol itself represents remembrance of those who gave their lives not only in that war, but in every one since. And the money raised by people offering donations in return for these symbols, goes towards genuinely helping those injured in current wars, those still suffering the after-affects of past wars and those who are left behind when their loved ones are killed.  What on Earth is offensive about any of that?

Many who oppose the wearing of a poppy will tell you that they do so because they are vehemently anti-war.  Ask yourself a question:  Do you personally know anyone who is actively pro-war?!  I certainly don't!  I don't wear my poppy in November because gosh darn it, I just love a good war.  Dictators and violent lunatics aside, I can't think of anyone who could describe themselves as "pro-war," thus making the statement "anti-war" in itself, rather ludicrous.  Aren't we all anti war, deep down?  Wouldn't we all rather there was never a need for bloodshed, or for innocent lives to be lost?  The trouble is, to suggest that some day war will just end and all conflicts will be solved with a bit of a chit-chat is painfully naive, however nice a dream it may be.  You may call me negative for saying that, but I'm really not.  I would love to live in a world in which there is no more war.  I just recognise that it's highly unlikely ever to happen.  Saying that doesn't mean that I'm pro-war.  It means I acknowledge the sad fact that conflict can and does happen.

Another argument against wearing a poppy is that to do so suggests that you view the military as heroes and those who are pacifists (because as I said, I don't believe in the phrase "anti-war") refuse to acknowledge them as such.  Taking away the extreme potential offensiveness of that statement (and speaking as a member of a family with a long and proud military history, that's not exactly easy), ask yourself how wearing a poppy suggests you view everyone in the military as a hero.  The poppy, as we've discovered, is simply a symbol of remembrance.  Wearing it makes ONE statement and it's not "I love war" and it's not even "every person in the military is a hero."  It's "WE WILL REMEMBER THEM."

That said, those who gave their lives in the two World Wars were heroes.  I will argue this point until there is no breath left in my body.  Without the sacrifices they made, you - yes YOU reading this right now - might not be here to read this or anything else.  The freedom the vast majority of us have (and take for granted) to do as we please, love whoever we want and believe in whatever we choose, would more than likely not exist.  It would be an entirely different world and whatever we may think of our current government, or the current social climate, I certainly know which world I'd rather live in.

Those currently serving are performing incredibly brave - indeed, heroic - actions every day.  They're entering situations which you or I wouldn't dream of going anywhere near.  They're still risking - and all too often, giving - their lives in the eventual pursuit of PEACE and freedom.  It's not about mindless slaughter, or violence without meaning.  Anyone who knows about the science of war will tell you how much careful planning goes into every military manoeuvre.  Can you put your hand on your heart and say you'd happily walk into a situation where you could be seriously wounded or killed?  That's what our Armed Forces are doing out there in places like Afghanistan.  On a daily basis.

This is where pacifists will argue that a person who kills another can never be a hero.  And this is where I argue - what if nobody had fought back during either of the World Wars?  What if everyone had all sat back and announced: "I'm sorry, we can't fight against you; you'll have to just do whatever you want..." then even fewer of us would be alive now.  Mainly because so many of our ancestors would have been killed for their religious or political beliefs, if not for their sexual orientation.  Those who fought in those two wars, did so not because they wanted to kill (the infamous Christmas Day football match between the British and German troops during WWI shows that all the soldiers knew they were at heart, just people caught in an impossibly awful situation), but because they felt a duty to protect their country and the liberties they had.  I may not be around today if those people hadn't gone to fight.  I now live in a free country in which people of all sexualities, all religions and cultural backgrounds have rights.  Those soldiers helped to achieve that and they are heroes for that.  Our men and women out in Afghanistan and similar war-torn areas are fighting to provide those same freedoms for others.  That makes them heroes, too.

Modern battles are often cited as reasons for poppy-opposition.  But in truth, whether or not you agreed with the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan is irrelevant when it comes to the subject of the poppy.  There is - and I'm getting bored of having to write this, so Heaven knows what those reading it are thinking - NO connection between wearing a poppy and being "pro-war."  There is no place for politics when it comes to remembering our war dead.  It's not about saying "yes, I agree with the war in Afghanistan," or "I'm so pleased World War 1 happened," it's about saying "people have died and I wish to pay my respects."

When you attend a funeral, you wear black.  Are you "glorifying" death?! 

When you wear a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, are you somehow "glorifying" cancer?!

Of course not.  You're paying respect and taking part in remembrance or the hope for a cure.  Why is it that wearing a symbol of respect and remembrance for our service personnel who've given their lives is seen as being so different? 

There are three colours of poppy, nowadays.  The red one, with a long history and a peaceful, respectful beginning which has been taken by some and twisted into something it is not.  Then there is a white poppy, used by pacifists.  I must admit to taking some offence at that.  There is no need for a poppy supposedly representing peace, when the red poppy already had roots in a hope for peace!  The money from white poppies does not go towards any of the great projects The British Legion is responsible for, which help our ex service personnel, as well as those still serving.  The sentiments of the white poppy are already encompassed by the red and many veterans feel that a white poppy seems to undermine what they went through and what their comrades died for.

The third is a purple poppy, representing the animals lost in war.  Again, I believe the red poppy can easily encompass that, although as an animal lover, I do understand the desire to ensure animals aren't forgotten in war.

I would never tell another person what they can and can't believe and my writing this is not an attempt to force those who don't wear poppies to do so, however much I may privately wish them to.  But to be told, by angry voices, that my poppy is offensive is genuinely disrespectful.  It comes from ignorance of the poppy's history, a total disregard for the horrors suffered by those who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom today and a lack of understanding of how deeply, deeply offensive their protestations are to those left behind.

When I put my poppy onto my coat, I do so out of respect for those serving in wars today, those killed in active service throughout the years and with the hope that peace will ensue someday, however vain a wish I know that may be.  I wear my poppy to show the immense pride I have in our Armed Forces, who protect this country, keep us secure and put their lives on the line so that I don't have to.  I have my poppy on because I want to remember all lives lost in war, whether service personnel or civilian, human or animal.  I wear it proudly, because I know that it doesn't make me pro-war or anything ludicrous like that.  It doesn't mean I enjoy violence or I'm proud that there are battles raging in the world right now.

Every life lost in conflict is a tragedy.  But it would be a greater tragedy if we were to listen to the voices of those suggesting that to wear a symbol of remembrance is somehow wrong.  So I urge you:  Wear your poppy with pride and remember all the peaceful, sincere reasons why it's there.

"At the going down of the sun and in the morning...



Friday, 5 October 2012

This is late, but.. I went to Alton Towers and it ROCKED!

Everyone has a place they've always wanted to go.  Maybe you dream of hot, tropical beaches.  Or perhaps you've always fancied the hustle and bustle of New York.  For me, my fantasy place was right here in the UK.  It was a theme park I had grown up reading about, seeing on TV and hearing about friends visiting.  It was a place called Alton Towers.

As most of you who read this blog will know, I turned 30 last month.  Yep, pretty big birthday.  Time to do something special, right?  How about making a dream come true?!

Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on the sort of person you think I am...), it wasn't me who suggested a trip to Alton Towers.  It was my lovely friend Lizzie who first suggested it - on my 29th birthday when discussions about the big 3-0 first began - backed up by the fabulous Lydia until we all decided: "YES!"
My face then looked like an older version of this. For a whole year.
There's excited and then there's me when it comes to this sort of thing.  Every time I went to the supermarket, I saw things I wanted to buy for our "hotel party" the night before we went to the theme park itself.  At the mere mention of the word "rollercoaster," I would instantly become 12 again and start getting nervous jitters.  I couldn't wait to fly on Air, I wanted to travel ridiculously fast on Rita and I wanted to stare at Oblivion and tell everyone there was no way I would be going on that.
A vertical drop?!  Into a BLACK HOLE?!  ARE YOU MAD?!
The days and weeks and months dragged until finally, the day arrived.  You know that feeling you get when you see a place on TV and think: "I would love  to go there?"  Well as I drove my car to Alton Towers that sunny, Saturday morning in September, all I could think was: "It's going to become a real place.  It's not going to be on my TV, or in a picture on my laptop.  I'm going to see that sign and it's actually going to be right there in front of me..."  The phrase "like a kid at Christmas" doesn't do it justice.
When we parked, I was overjoyed to see that my sister Michelle, another Alton Towers virgin amongst our group (Kirstie, Lizzie, possibly Kim, if I remember rightly and Lydia had all been before), was pretty much wanting to leg it all the way across the carpark to the monorail, shrieking as she went.  Getting over-excited at the thought of theme parks is obviously a Tofi trait...
Sitting on the monorail was almost excruciating; like standing at the entrance to a party filled with all your favourite celebrities, waiting to be handed your VIP access-all-areas badge.  As we trundled past Air and began seeing the park itself, I genuinely pondered whether crying might make me look a bit pathetic, such was my sheer excitement.  I'm not even sure the girls I was with that day know how much I was looking forward to it.  I'm not even sure I can convey it in words.  I was essentially about to experience the one place I'd dreamt of visiting since I was a child and I was beyond happy.  I was finally there.
That's me - the one struggling to contain ridiculous levels of SQUEEEEE!
Over the next few hours, I did almost all the things I'd spent the last year (and then some!) dreaming of.  I was swung all over the place on Nemesis (amazing fun, but made me really, really dizzy), I did roly poly flips and got soaking wet on Ripsaw (a ride I didn't expect to love as much as I did, but it was absolutely awesome!) and I flew on Air.  In fact, Air was the ride I was most excited about going on.  The ability to fly has always been the number one super power I'd like to have and experiencing it...  WOW.  I loved every second of it.  In fact when I disembarked at the end of the ride, for the second time that day, I felt bizarrely emotional.  When you've built something up in your head for ao long and it lives up to all of your expectations, it makes you happier than words can adequately describe.  The feeling was sensational and I adopted the "Superman" pose throughout my flight.  Flying along, suspended from the track, helped to dry me off, following my ride on ripsaw too!
Did I mention I got REALLY wet on Ripsaw?!
Queuing for Rita, having decided to use my Fast Track pass and ride alone, I was a bit miffed when it suddenly broke down.  WHAT THE...?!  Thankfully, since I'd used my Fast Track, I was handed a Priority Pass for later, which covered not only me, but one extra person, too.  It meant that, much later on in the day, I was able to go on with Lydia.  Travelling from 0-100kph in just 2.5 seconds with your best mate?  I'd definitely recommend it!
I rode on Th13teen with Kim, Michelle and a random guy who was at the park celebrating his birthday with his family.  He told me his wife had never been on a rollercoaster, so Th13teen was her first one.  She screamed.  A lot.
I experienced Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and I checked out the aquarium (nice, but by the time we left I was hankering for some serious rollercoaster action!) and then we rode on the Congo River Rapids and The Flume.
My sister and me... Prior to our second soaking of the day!

By the time we'd clambered out of our bath tubs at the end of The Flume, we knew we didn't have much time left at the park.  I'll be honest; I was probably more upset than I should have been.  I wanted to spend my life at that place and the fact that the day was drawing to a close when I just wanted to go from fast ride to fast ride, pushing myself to my limits, letting the adrenaline rush take over time and time again, was pretty devastating!  There was so much I still wanted to see and do.  I wanted to take a slow walk through the gloomy woods and see all the statues that talk to you.  I wanted to ride the SkyRide again.  I wanted to visit the towers themselves and wander round the gardens for a while.  I wanted to go on Blade with Lydia, as that's the ride she remembers with enormous fondness from her childhood visits.  But in a funny way, I'm slightly glad (as much as I wanted to do everything on the day and kept wishing time would stand still so that I could) that there are things I still haven't done, which I'd like to do.  It gives me more of an excuse to go back...
Even though I had no intention of going on it (I've mentioned the vertical drop into a black hole, right?!), I wanted to see Oblivion.  Michelle was adamant she wasn't going on it, either.  Kim was open-minded.  We dashed to X Sector and there, suddenly, seemingly growing out of the ground itself, was Oblivion.
It was very tall.  And very vertical. 
I don't know if it was just the culmination of a day of adrenaline, but something came over the three of us and the next thing we knew, we were in the queue for the one ride I had sworn I would not be going on.  With the rest of the girls waiting around the black hole, Michelle, Kim and I took our seats and began the agonisingly slow ascent to the top of the lifthill.  Slowly, slowly, we made our way around the bend until the track began to disappear before our eyes.  It looked like we were about to plunge off the edge of the Earth.  As we tilted over the edge, looking down at a terrifying, vertical drop, I somehow managed to shout (well, no, scream) "hello" to Lydia, waiting down at the bottom with her camera.
Yep.  One of those terrified people up there is me...
Then gravity took hold.  Over the top we went, plummeting towards the cavern below us, with me screaming all the way.  In fact, I was practically still screaming when we came to end of the ride.  It had been terrifying, but the sheer adrenaline rush made it worth the fright a million times over.  Facing what was one of my ultimate fears, with my sister and sister-in-law (to be!) beside me was amazing.  I don't see them often enough and if there's one thing that's bound to bond you together, it's screaming your head off as you rush towards the ground at breakneck speed... ;-)  I was determined not to go on Oblivion, but as it turns out... It's one ride I'm actually desperate to do battle with again...
Everyone rushed off in different directions once Michelle, Kim and I had made it safely back to the other girls (I may or may not have screamed: "I FUCKING DID IT!" at Lydia...).  There was perhaps time for one more ride, if we rushed.
That was when Lydia and I decided to go on Rita, using our Priority Pass.  I thought I knew what to expect.  I thought it would just be a case of "oh, that was quite fast..."  But seriously.  That initial acceleration is so fierce that it literally takes your breath away!  In spite of the ferocious speed, Lydia grabbed my hand and we rushed along the track, with our arms aloft.  Hand in hand with my best friend, travelling at goodness only knows how many miles an hour... What a way to end the day.
That building I'm obscuring?  That's Alton Towers... Honest.
Sometimes, you hype something up so much in your head that the real thing can never compare.  But Alton Towers was everything I thought it would be.  The rides were amazing; fast, scary, well themed and above all, fun!  There was something there for everyone; from the quiet, gentle rides that please kids of all ages, to the beautiful gardens and ancient ruins (they're on my "to do" list) and of course the rollercoasters - great metal monsters, sending adrenaline coarsing through your veins at every drop and turn.  There's always something to see, always a place to sit if you want to chill out and the SkyRide is a stunning way to travel. 
So would I recommend it?  You bet your ass.  I recommend spending that little bit extra and getting a Fast Track pass; who wants to go all the way to Alton Towers and spend the whole day queuing?!  And get Early Ride Time by booking online; you beat the queues that way, too. ;-)
Thank you so much Lizzie for suggesting it.  Thanks to everyone for agreeing to it!  Thanks to Alton Towers for making a 30 year old woman feel like a child again. 
I knew I would love that place, with its thrills, spills and excitement at every turn. 
And I'm definitely going back...


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Single Truth

If there's one thing I like to be in this blog, it's honest.  So that's what I'm going to do right now:

People, I was once single and desperate.

Seriously, add a Manics poster on the wall and that was me.  I am not proud.
There are many things people don't want to admit to and frankly, planning your wedding to the latest guy you've decided you are MADLY IN LOVE WITH in spite of never having had a proper conversation with is definitely amongst them.  In fact, it's right up there with practising your signature, using your celebrity crush's surname.  Oh and I did that, too.
What do you MEAN Jon Richardson isn't coming to the church?!  I'VE BOUGHT A DRESS OFF EBAY!!
 The fact is, the world seemed geared to couples.  Switch on the radio (GO ON, DO IT NOW!) and I bet you that within ten minutes, you'll hear a love song.  I don't know what the percentages are, but I'd say that the number of songs that say "yeah, I'm single and I happen to be okay with it" is pretty slim in comparison.  Watch the TV or open a magazine and notice how many adverts feature smiling couples.  It's hard to have all this drip-fed into you and not think: "I don't have that... Is there something wrong with me?!"
Add to this the fact that single people are bombarded with magazine articles with snappy titles, such as: "WAYS TO MAKE HIM WANT YOU!" Not to mention the many, many, many dating sites that have sprung up all over the place and you start to feel a little bit like being on your own might not really be an option. 
Social expectation also dictates that a person will eventually find someone whose face appeals enough to warrant wanting to get naked and breed.  If you are single, then damnit, HUMANITY WILL NOT SURVIVE.
Although... Humanity decided to turn these arseholes into instant celebrities, so...

 Now I've mentioned already that I try to make this blog as honest as possible, so let me be clear:  I want to find someone amazing some day.  I want to get married, I want babies... The whole shebang.  In fact, I was one of those kids who, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, would often reply: "A mummy."
No, not like that. 
 So let me stress to you right now: I'm a soppy old romantic.  I love the idea of settling down with someone and populating the world with children who will inevitably have unmanageable hair.  It's my dream.
That said, I've reached a point in my life where I am perfectly okay to be by myself.  In fact, "I would rather sleep with my right hand" (oh come on, you expected me not to shoehorn a Graham Coxon lyric or reference into this blog?!) than start a relationship with someone just for the sake of not being alone (not that I have actually ever started anything for that reason).  I've grown to see enormous benefits to being single.  I've put myself first for a change and grown to rather like me.  I don't feel unsatisfied, lonely or envious of couples.  I am no longer the weepy, deranged, slightly bitter singleton I once was.  And man, has that opened up a whole new can of worms...
You see, an awful lot of people (predominantly happy couples, it has to be said), don't seem able to accept that a person can be entirely happy on their own.  What that means, is that if you casually mention being single (if invited somewhere and asked if you'd like to bring anyone, or if you're simply catching up with an old friend you've not spoken to in a while), some people have an immediate go-to response that is liable to piss off ANY person who is single and okay about it.  We're talking about the "oh, never mind, it'll happen for you" response.
What that response does is make an immediate assumption that simply by saying you're not in a relationship, what you actually meant to say was: "I AM SO HORRIBLY ALONE. WHY DOES NOBODY LOVE ME?!  WHY?!" 
This is the face I pull when people make those comments.  And also when I hear One Direction.
Some people don't even stop there, either.  You get suggestions of how you could meet someone.  Places you could go, clubs you could join, websites to sign up to...  And yes, before anyone thinks I'm being unnecessarily harsh, I appreciate that the majority of people telling you this stuff are doing so because they think they're being helpful and nice.  But when this kind of advice is given without you so much as saying "I'd like to meet somebody..." it can be ever so slightly irritating.  It's a bit like saying "I don't have any pets" and having someone hand you a list of RSPCA centres and pet stores in your local vicinity before you've had a chance to say whether you want a pet.
As it happens, I live with this little guy, so I'm just dandy on the pet front!
Far worse than the implication that, if  you're single, you simply must be desperately searching for "the one," rather than enjoying hogging the duvet, is the implied sympathy behind those "aw, he's out there somewhere!" comments.  Again, this does tend to come from people in couples, which just ties up the sympathy in a neat little ribbon of "I am so much happier than this poor cow."  And you know what?  That attitude is welcomed by a single person in much the same way as we welcome a date with a scary man who contacts us on a dating site with a message that simply says: "I've seen your picture and I know you're THE ONE."  Yes.  That actually happened to me.  No, I did not go on a date with the sender and I'm pretty convinced that's why I'm not currently lying in pieces in a broken chest freezer...
Implying that you feel sorry for someone because they're single does nothing but a) annoy the single person and b) plant a little worm in their brain that niggles away at them, saying: "See?  There IS something weird about you not having anyone in your life right now!  YOU ARE UNLOVABLE."  Suddenly the person who was previously fine without a partner is considering whether their singledom is something to be pitied and that's not something anyone wants.
Please, whether you're single or not, don't feel sorry for me for not being in a relationship.  I'm happy!  I have an amazing group of friends, I do a job I quite enjoy whilst trying to become a full time author in my spare time, I don't worry whether he really likes me and I'm free to lie under a duvet watching Blur/Manics videos all night, should I wish to.  And I frequently wish to.
I go out places, I have fun, I sometimes have a cheeky flirt without any guilt...  Really, I am FINE.  In fact, I'm better than fine.  Those of you who've read this blog for a while will probably have read the one I wrote about my last, horrendously abusive relationship.  You know what?  I'm much happier single than I ever was in that fucking sham.
Again, though, that doesn't mean that I don't think it would be lovely to have someone special in my life.  To share my duvet with, to introduce to my family and friends and to argue that no, I do not wish to stop perving at guitarists with...  It just means that I don't feel my life is lacking something enormous just because I don't have that special someone yet.  It means that I'd rather be on my own than waste my time on someone not right for me.  It means I don't feel sad when I go to sleep alone at night.
Bridget may have Mark Darcy now, but back then she had the duvet AND the ice cream all to herself.  It's win-win.
The other misconception about being single?  The idea that we're bitter towards couples.  Okay, yes I hate Valentine's Day with a fiery passion and yes OTT public displays of affection can make me retch, but in my defence... when I was with my ex, I still felt the same about those things.  But in our everyday waking lives, those of us who are single and okay with it don't look at couples and think: "Ugh, fuck them."  My best friend is happily married.  One of my other very closest friends is engaged.  There are few things I like more than hearing them chat about their husband/fiance and I am genuinely thrilled that they've both found men that make them feel happy and loved.  If they spent every moment of their time with me saying: "Oh my God, he is wonderful and amazing and brilliant and fantastic and I love him so much I might actually be sick" then we'd possibly need to have a conversation.  But they don't, because they aren't 14.  Do I hate them for being in solid, committed relationships, when I am single?  No, because I'm not 14.
What I suppose I'm trying to say here is: It's okay to be single.  It's even okay to be a bit fed up about it from time to time and to admit that you'd like to stop being single someday.  It's not okay to simply assume that your single friend is lying awake at night, weeping and wailing and sticking pins into her voodoo doll of you, her loved-up pal.  It's not okay to assume that a single person is automatically lonely, unhappy and deeply jealous of anyone in a relationship.  It's not okay to decide that if someone is single, you must immediately suggest ways of rectifying the situation before you've even ascertained that the person wants it rectified.
I mentioned at the start of this blog that I was once single and desperate.  I'm still single.  But now, I'm happy.  I'm content.  I have love in my life in other forms.  I'm not lonely.  More importantly, if and when someone does wander into my life, I have made a pact with myself to remember how I feel now, so that I don't assume any of my single friends might be super duper jealous of my wonderous new love affair and suddenly view them as bitter old crones, or tell anyone "there's someone out there for yoooouuuu" whilst patting them on the head and causing them to want to remove my face with a toothpick. 
If you're in a relationship and you're happy, I am happy for you.
If you are single and you're happy, I am happy for you.
If you're single and unhappy... Think about all the good things about being single.  Believe me, there are lots.  And if that doesn't help... I can still send you the "you're THE ONE" guy's details...
In summary: I'm single.  I'm fine with that.  I hope you are too.
Except you.  Call me. ;-)

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Big 3-0

So tomorrow is my birthday.  YAY!  I will get cards and be taken out for dinner and see my best mate.  YAY!  I am turning 30.  YA....oh.

I was always one of those annoying people who had something of a "to do" list from a very early age.  And everything on that list was to be completed by the age of 30.  I won't lie, it was a pretty stereotypical list: Get married, buy a house, have babies, that sort of thing.  I took it for granted that I would easily achieve everything on it and bingo, life would be grand and I'd celebrate my 30th with a big, family party, planned by my devoted husband and our ridiculously cute children.  In reality, I haven't done the big things on that list.  There will be no family party, because the devoted husband exists only in my head (and if you happen to be reading this, Graham Coxon... Call me) and the cute children exist only at my place of work.  And they go home to their parents, whilst I...er, go home to mine.  At the age of 30.

Our kids would be SO cute.  And asthmatic.  BUT CUTE.

It would be really easy to get a little downhearted about that mental list of mine and the very few things I've checked off it.  The thing is, earlier, during one of my "WOE IS ME" moments (and as the big 3-0 approaches, there have been a few of those), I suddenly remembered that one of the biggest things on that checklist has been ticked off. 

Okay, I am not sitting here, safe in the knowledge that I have written a series of books so hugely popular that children everywhere adore them, or so massively successful that apparently I can glorify abuse and nobody minds (no, I am not and never will be over my hatred of 50 Shades of Grey, thanks for asking), but I AM sitting here, safe in the knowledge that I'm a published writer of books.  Children - maybe not millions, but enough for it to be a start - have my books on their shelves.  People have asked me for my autograph.  I've done story workshops and given interviews to the press.  There's no husband, no children and no house, but damnit there are books.

With that in mind, I began to realise that I have achieved something that other people spend half their lives trying and failing to do.  I was one of those people until last year.  I was the one opening rejection letters from publishing houses and wondering if I ought to just give up.  But I didn't.  I kept going and I still am going.

It's funny how positive thinking about one thing can lead to positive thinking about other stuff, too.  Today I've been a little down about things I won't bore you with here (no, not just getting old and being broody and not being married to the aforementioned member of Blur...).  It would be really easy to let myself mope.  In fact, sometimes a good mope is actually almost enjoyable on some weird level.  Today, however, I decided to cheer myself up by thinking back to that checklist of things I wanted to achieve by the time I turned 30 and reminding myself that okay, I've not done anywhere near everything on it, but I have done other things I'm proud of.

For example, I went out in public dressed like an angel and didn't get murdered.  RESULT!

My twenties haven't contained the purchase of my own house, or a big white wedding, or the birth of my first child, but they've contained other experiences.  Some of which have been amazing, some of which have been bloody awful but all of which I've learnt from. 
So without further ado, I have decided to present to jot down 30 things that I have achieved over the last 30 years.  What better way to remind myself that tomorrow is just the start of a whole new chapter of my life, rather than a marker of goals missed?!  These things aren't really in any particular order, but I've numbered them so you can see that there are 30.  So here we go:

1. I am a published author of children's books (HUGE personal goal: ACHIEVED).
2. I have assembled a close circle of friends known affectionately as "my WI" or "my girls."
3. In related news, I have learnt to cut off false friends and vindictive people who are out for themselves. Give them the snip, then notice how much happier your life is without them!
4. I've been a radio DJ.
5. I've survived an abusive relationship.
6. I've had a child I've worked with tell me that I've changed their life.
7. I've been a school counsellor for children suffering from the effects of bullying.
8. I've been in a band.
9. Speaking of which, I've met members of the most important bands to me: James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire from the Manics and Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon from Blur.  And also Gary Barlow from Take That. :P
10. I've ridden on every single scary rollercoaster at Alton Towers.

Yes, including this one.  Yes, I nearly wet myself.

11. I've been to New York City.
12. I've flown in a glass-bottomed helicopter to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
13. I've climbed mountains.
14. I've learnt to drive, passed my test and have no worries about driving long distances.  Give me a road, stick my favourite tunes on a CD and I'm off!
15. I helped raise a beautiful cocker spaniel puppy into a wonderful, loving dog who I loved with all my heart and I will now do the same for our little Labradoodle.
16. I have never cheated on anyone.
17. I have supported a former friend through the worst time of her life, wholeheartedly and without question.
18. I have been to see musicals in the West End and on Broadway.
19. I haven't let fear stand in the way of me trying new things.
20. I've got a close relationship with both of my parents and a great friendship with my sister.

That's her, that is.

21. I've eaten in some amazing restaurants and I've become a pretty competent cook myself.
22. I've followed my love of live stand up comedy around the country and I've met my favourite comedian (Jon Richardson) several times.
23. I can sing.
24. I think (I hope) I've learnt to be a good friend.
25. I am organised.
26. I don't love by halves.
27. I have conquered my fear of public speaking and have given speeches.
28. I have been to some amazing gigs by some utterly awesome bands.
29. I can adapt to different situations and get along with people from all walks of life.

And perhaps most importantly of all...

30. I like the person I've become.

So yes, I will be 30 tomorrow.  And no, I haven't done all the things I wanted to have done by now.  But you know what?  That just means I have it all still to look forward to.

Happy birthday to me. ;-)


Friday, 27 July 2012

50 Shades of Grey: A Dangerous Love Letter To Abusive Relationships?

Very rarely do I ever feel it's necessary to preface what I write in this blog with any kind of excuse, warning or apology. This is, after all, my little corner of the Internet, in which to say whatever I wish, completely uninhibited. However, today I would like to take a moment to say this: The things you are about to read are my opinions, based on actual, factual events. The issues I will discuss could be triggering to those of you who have experienced abuse in its many forms and for that reason, I feel a gentle warning is required. Before I go on, I would finally like to add that yes, I am very much aware that 50 Shades of Grey is a work of fiction and not something to be taken personally, if any number of criticisms of what I am about to say are to be believed. I would however, point out that fiction is not something that has no effect on those who read or watch it, which is why, whilst I passionately believe that fiction shouldn't be censored, I also feel that there is no place for the argument that all books and films are "pure escapism" and that they are somehow incapable of encouraging real life events. With all of that in mind, here we go...

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few months, you've probably heard of EL James' "erotic" novel, 50 Shades of Grey. There are also two subsequent sequels available (yippee!) - 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed. The book has been dubbed "mommy porn" and has become a best-seller, with talk of a movie (yippee yet again!) in the pipeline.

Now, I am a writer and I am painfully aware that when one - pretty much unknown - writer elects to openly criticise a much more successful writer's work, that it can come across as sour grapes. Trust me, I know from personal experience (after all, I'm a children's writer who doesn't think the Harry Potter books live up to their hype) that people are all-too-quick to dismiss the views of a struggling writer dishing out criticism of one more famous. It's for that reason that I will be wearing two hats whilst writing this blog (and that's quite a challenge for someone who really doesn't suit headgear): That of a writer, which fits rather snugly and in which I feel incredibly comfortable. The other is that of a survivor (I will NOT say "victim") of an emotionally abusive relationship. That hat does not sit well upon my head at all, but nevertheless, I find myself in a position to wear it.

So let's start with the writer's hat, shall we?

50 Shades of Grey is not a well written book. It is strewn with so many errors, I almost felt offended on behalf of the writers of fan fiction everywhere when I read it. Because of course, that is what this book (or rather, these books - I find it hard to believe it wasn't just one long story, chopped up into three in order to make as much money as possible from the hype) began life as - a Twilight fan fiction. Now I openly admit that I have never read Twilight, nor have I seen any of the films. But a little digging around on the Internet was all it took to realise how many characters and scenes were basically plagiarised without second thought. Now okay, as a fan fiction story, of course the characters would be the same, or at least similar. But when a publisher takes the story on and puts it out there for the world to see, shouldn't something be altered to make it less bloody obvious that so much of the characterisation and background to the story is another writer's work?!

Blatant plagiarism aside, the book is technically bad too. Here's a fun little game for those of you with a copy to play: Try seeing how many times a character (usually Christian, but occasionally it'll fall to someone else) "presses their lips into a hard line." Go on, have a look. I haven't counted myself (because I worry that if I pick the book up ever again, I might lose the will to live), but I would estimate it happens at least 45-50 times. In 26 chapters. That might not sound like a lot, but when you think that boils down to a probable minimum of twice a chapter, it soon starts to grate. It's as though EL James thought to herself: "Hang on, I must prove how wonderful a writer I am by never using simple, one word phrases like "frown," when I can dress it up with several words instead!"

She also writes "erotica" that is laced with so much childish stupidity that it subtly detracts from the "erotic" bits. For example, the lead female character, Ana, refers to "down there," so as to avoid any actual wording of her sexual organs. Yes, EL James uses that hideous term "my sex" as well ("his tongue traces the length of my sex"), but far too often, Ana reverts to the childlike use of "down there," which, far from being sexy, actually made my toes curl. Whether with disgust, or simply because Ana herself is a dreadful, deeply unpleasant character (seriously, I have never read a book where I hated the lead characters more than I did in this excuse for literature) and I generally curled my toes at everything she said and did, I do not know.

The book also focuses on utterly trivial matters, such as what music Christian has on his iPod, or listing literally EVERY PART of the "contract" Ana has to consider signing before she can enjoy sexy times in Christian's "Red Room of Pain," whilst stubbornly refusing to give any characters beyond Ana and Christian a real chance to develop. We know almost nothing of Kate, Ana's roommate and supposed best friend, beyond the fact that Ana seems to hate her for being pretty. Oh and for being supportive to her. And for showing any kind of interest in her relationship with Christian. See what I mean about Ana being a bit of a shitty character?! Even her best friend is painted as some kind of pretty monster for simply doing things a best friend would usually do.

I could go on and on (don't worry, I won't) about EL James' confusing tendency to attach one character's speech to another character's actions, or the utterly infuriating presence of Ana's "Subconcious" and "Inner Goddess," both of whom I ended up hating even more than Ana herself, which I didn't actually think was humanly possible. I could tear my hair out over EL James' insistence that American heroines use words and phrases like "jeez," "double crap," and "oh my!" at every given moment of their waking lives. But my real issue with this book lies in its portrayal of Christian Grey as a romantic hero and of his relationship with Ana as some kind of passionate ideal that we women should all be searching for. Not to mention the fact that Christian's personality and his treatment of Ana (more on that later), is excused by his past, seemingly making it all okay.

Christian Grey, I make NO apology for saying, is an emotionally abusive man. When I say this to friends and colleagues who think this book (and the sequels to it) are the best thing since The Rampant Rabbit, I get reactions ranging from confused disagreement to actual anger. But let me say this loud and clear: CHRISTIAN GREY IS AN EMOTIONALLY ABUSIVE MAN.

How do I know this? How can I state this so clearly in shout-y capitals?

Because I knew a man just like him.

When I first met my ex, I had every feeling described in this book and more. He was gorgeous. He was witty. He was fiercely intelligent. In every way I could possibly imagine, I was inferior to him. Much like Ana spends most of the first book (at least the early chapters) going on (and on and on and on...) about the fact that she simply isn't good enough for Christian Grey - about the fact that she doesn't think she's pretty or clever enough for a man like him - I could barely believe that a man like my ex had taken more than a passing glance at me. He was totally and utterly out of my league. And the problem was, I am pretty sure he was intelligent enough to know that I was having those exact thoughts. Far more dangerously, I am utterly certain that he used my lack of self esteem (destroyed by years of bullying, as documented here in an earlier blog) to his advantage.

Ana has nagging doubts about Christian Grey from the moment she meets him. She describes him as "autocratic and cold, at least on the surface..." and immediately she begins to wonder what makes him the way he is. Christian, for his part, warns her off in no uncertain terms: "I don't do hearts and flowers, Ana..." He tells her he'd be "bad" for her.

And my ex? You got it in one. I had the "I'm a bad man" speech, too. I had the "warning."

Women everywhere have been reading 50 Shades... and getting their knickers in a knot over this: "Ooh, he's a bit dangerous; I should stay away, but damnit, I don't want to, cos this is so FREAKIN' HOT!!"

I'm not going to criticise EL James here (don't worry, I'll more than make up for it later), because you know what? It IS hot. When my ex told me he was "fucked up," and "a bad man," I reacted with intrigue. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why. So I can't rubbish the idea that a female character would be turned on by a man trying to warn her of how dangerous he is, because I know from experience that it DOES get you all hot and bothered, with a side-order of immense compassion thrown in for good measure. All of that is shown in the book and all of it is correct.

But very early on in the story, I began to see how potentially dangerous this book and its depiction of what is an emotionally abusive relationship, could really be.

Ana's "relationship" with Christian Grey immediately raises some disturbing questions as to what is healthy and what is just plain wrong. Shortly after their initial meeting and the beginning of their flirtation, not to mention the start of much musing over what kind of man Christian really is, Ana goes to a club and, in a drunken haze, calls him. He can tell she has been drinking and tells her "I'm coming to get you." Ana hangs up before - and this is crucial - she can tell him where she is. Later on, Christian arrives as Ana is being ill outside the club. Oh, swoon! What a saviour! But hang on... How did he know where to find her? That's right, he traced her mobile phone and STALKED her. He then takes her home. Aw, bless, how sweet! But hang on... By the time he takes her home, Ana is extremely drunk and not far off passing out. She is not in a position to say "yes" to being taken to a virtual stranger's house several miles away, WITHOUT the knowledge of her friends, who are still inside the club. If this happened in real life, it would not be hot or sexy. It would be hugely disturbing. But hey, because Christian Grey is so good looking, stalking a woman and manipulating her into going home with him without having the decency to tell her worried friends where he's taking her is just fine.

Except of course it isn't. It is, as I have said, extremely manipulative and controlling - let's not forget, at this point in the book, although there is an attraction between them, there is no real "relationship" between Ana and Christian. He had no reason to suspect that she was in danger when she called him, yet he took it upon himself to trace her call, turn up unannounced and take her back to his house, miles away from all of her friends, whilst ignoring her request to tell them where she was going. Alarm bells should have been ringing so loudly, it would have been audible above the music in the club.

But Christian is in no way painted as being at all out of order for what he does. Indeed, Ana gushes about him "saving" her. When thinking about the fact that he has stalked her by tracing her phone, she tells herself "somehow, because it's him, I don't mind."

Again, I have to take a break here and say "you know what? I used to say that." The number of times my ex made comments about my weight (I'm a UK size 10, but he used to call me "chubby" at best, "fat" at worst), subtly controlled who I saw by telling me in no uncertain terms that so and so was "violent," or "a bad friend" and that he wouldn't accompany me to see them, thus ensuring that, because I was so under his spell, I ditched them instead of him, or the number of times he manipulated me into putting up with shit I would never have tolerated from anyone else (such as his sleeping with other women and telling me I had no right to complain), simply because it was him probably runs into hundreds, if not thousands. It's a hallmark of the abusive relationship. A woman who has been drawn under a man's spell and who has started the process of being manipulated, will excuse any number of insulting, or even dangerous behaviours. To display that in a book is fine. In fact, it's a good thing - why should we hide the fact that abuse can and does happen in relationships?! But the dangerous thing here is that this is not a book that discusses abuse and sensibly and sensitively portrays the effects it has on the victim. It is a book that holds up this man - this man Who by only chapter four, has stalked a woman and shown himself to have a dangerously controlling nature as well as a questionable temper - as a romantic hero. Someone we should all aspire to being with.

Christian's controlling nature only becomes more evident from here on in. Upon waking up in a strange bed, Ana is told "if you were mine, you wouldn't be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday."

The stunt she pulled? Oh yes, she went out with her friends on a largely empty stomach (because she was in knots, thinking about HIM and how "dangerous" he is and therefore felt unable to eat) and got herself drunk. For those that don't know, Ana is supposed to be a college student. Show me a college student who has never gone out and gotten drunk with their mates and I would say "grab me a camera," because we'd be looking at a pretty rare example. So here, Christian Grey is not only telling her she doesn't have the right to go out and do as she pleases, even though he acknowledges that she doesn't belong to him, he's also suggesting that he would cause her physical harm if she WERE his and she went out and did something that normal students do all the time.

Let me remind you once again, that this is a man being held up as a ROMANTIC HERO.

Of course EL James makes it all okay, by suggesting that Christian is only upset because Ana put herself at risk. Aw, he's worried about her! He only said what he did because he cares!

You know what my ex used to say to me? "I act this way because I care, Emsy." It's not an excuse.

Speaking of excuses, I mentioned earlier that Christian Grey's warnings to Ana that he was messed up and she should walk away were actually pretty hot, having experienced the same thing. I stand by that. But why IS Christian Grey the controlling, manipulative, not-really-sexy bastard that he is? Because he was abused as a child.

Now, not for one second am I going to trivialise child abuse. Not for a fleeting moment would I ever dream of suggesting that a child experiencing sexual abuse, physical pain or emotional neglect is anything but utterly tragic. Is it an excuse for growing up and becoming an abuser though? Can all the bad things an abuser does be excused by his/her terrible childhood? I don't believe so.

My ex told me he was abused by his parents. Physically beaten. Emotionally neglected. My heart broke into pieces as he, over time, told me stories about his loveless upbringing. I wanted to love him in the way he had missed out on and more. I wanted to close the wounds his childhood had caused and "love him better." To this day, for all he did to me, if as a child, he really did experience half of what he told me, then I sympathise with that little boy with all my heart and soul.

But that innocent little boy grew into a manipulative, controlling, emotionally abusive man. And no matter how much sympathy I have for his childhood plight, I cannot and will not allow it to excuse the way he behaved towards me. This is a man who allowed me to believe for 5 months that we were in a relationship, before coldly telling me I was "just a friend I happen to have been fucking." This is a man who, just five days later, told me he hadn't meant those words and blamed (for the first time, but in no way the last) his bad childhood on the fact that he had said such hurtful things and pushed me away. This is a man who told me he "didn't know how to be in a "normal" relationship" and told me he "needed" me. This is a man I believed wholeheartedly. Because why would he lie?

Well obviously he lied so he could continue to use me. Not just sexually, but emotionally too. So I would continue to pick him up from work and drive him back home. So I would help him to move house not once, but three times, with very little thanks and absolutely no petrol money for my trouble. So he would always have dependable "Emsy," when there was nobody else around. Of course I was never good enough to be referred to as a "girlfriend." I was always "just a friend." But a friend he would hold, kiss and whisper "I love you" to in the darkness. A "friend" he would plead with to stay, telling me I was "abandoning" him when I left to return home. A "friend" he dangled the prospect of a proper relationship with so many times I lost count.

In her "erotic" novel, EL James describes the way that Christian messes with Ana's head, causing her to question what she does and doesn't want, before being manipulated into a BDSM relationship she is not entirely certain she is ready for. Of course those hoodwinked into thinking Christian is some form of loveable sex God will pick me up here by saying that Ana agrees to the relationship herself. I point you in the direction of the line in which Ana asks what will happen if she says no to his conditions and he replies: "Then I will find ways of making you change your mind."

Aw, how loveable and jokey. Except that no, it's not. He's essentially putting pressure on her to do exactly as he wants, which, if you remove your blinkers and read the book with clear eyes, you'll see is something he does CONSTANTLY. And pressurising someone, manipulating them into thinking you're right and they should do whatever you ask of them, is just another sign of abuse.

In my own relationship, I was told that I would only be a "fuck buddy" and that my ex would be free to sleep around with whoever he wanted, without any comeback from me. Now I may not be the toughest girl in the world, but I do know what I will and won't accept and that's just a massive no-no. I told him so. I told him I had real, very strong feelings for him and couldn't agree to being a meaningless shag, a nameless notch on his bedpost. And every time I tried to walk away? He found "ways of making me change my mind." I would get the "I was abused as a child, you're getting too close and I don't know how to deal with my feelings for you..." treatment. Or, far, far worse, he would tell me he loved me and couldn't live without me, but that I had to be "patient" with him, because of what he had been through and that my requests for a normal level of respect were "clingy and desperate" and showing I didn't understand him, when he was TRYING SO HARD. So it was ME at fault for wanting respect and normality in our relationship and it was ME who had to change and do as he asked in order to eventually gain the things I wanted.

And lo, a carrot was dangled in front of my nose. He DOES love me, he doesn't REALLY want me as just a "fuck buddy," he wants REAL relationship, he just doesn't know how to go about it! Poor baby!

In 50 Shades, Christian frequently tells Ana that nobody has ever affected him the way she has. What EL James wants us to see, is a damaged man, slowly learning to love again, perhaps fighting against it as it's such an unknown emotion, but in the end, becoming "cured" of his demons. And what is truly terrifying, is knowing that it's working. That is EXACTLY the way women all over the UK and America (and presumably the wider world) are seeing this book. Except it's really not like that. Read the words, they're there in black and white!

Christian tells Ana he is affected by her in a way that no other woman has ever affected him, that's true. But he also frequently manipulates and controls her, refusing to listen to her when she protests about expensive gifts, or certain "rules" of their relationship "contract." Even when Christian offers to follow her wishes and have a "vanilla relationship," without the BDSM aspects that Ana is uncomfortable with, his subtle manipulation and controlling tendencies don't fade. He's just telling her what she wants to hear. The pretence of trying hard to give her what he wants is there, but the undertones of pressurising, manipulating and intimidating her don't go away. You only have to read the book carefully to see between the lines. Ana is often portrayed as confused and not knowing what to do for the best. She is intimidated by Christian, she doesn't know how to react to him. Is that love? Really?!

My ex used to tell me: "No woman has ever gotten as close to me as you. Nobody has ever affected me the way you do. It scares me." That could be a line straight out of 50 Shades. I stayed because I believed him, which is exactly how Ana feels. When she thinks of leaving him, she is tortured by thoughts that she will be "abandoning" this "poor man." When I told my ex, not just once, but many times, that I couldn't do it anymore, that it was too painful to hear about other women and be expected to put up and shut up about it, he would wail "don't leave me Emsy. Please don't abandon me like everyone else has." That is NOT sexy. It's not hot. It's not "erotica." It's emotional manipulation, pure and simple. And to my shame, it worked. I stayed. And I stayed silent.

In the book, Ana never feels able to open up to her closest friends and family members about what Christian is really like. She keeps his controlling nature, the conditions he imposes on their relationship and the confusion he causes her almost exclusively to herself. Yet another sign of an abusive relationship! Even now, to this day, my parents - unless they read this blog - don't know the extent of what I went through. And of course I have only shared the tip of the iceberg here. And why do they not know? Because I felt too ashamed, too confused, too full of the belief that it was all my fault to tell them. To tell anybody. When I DID talk to people, I made dozens of excuses for his behaviour, blamed his "messed up past" (much like Ana does in the book) and the rest of the time, I went through the whole experience entirely alone. Isolated. Thus making him the only person I could talk to. And therefore handing him more power.

And let me say this as an aside - emotional abuse is something too few people are able to understand, which is why so many people continue to remain silent both during their experiences and afterwards. When I did begin to tentatively open up, I had questions such as "oh why didn't you just walk away?!" tossed at me as though they were accusations. I had one person, who was until this point, one of my closest friends and a woman in her 40's who claims to be compassionate, read a full account of what I had gone through, coupled with an apology (which I now see I really didn't have to give) for any "distant" behaviour I may have exhibited during the relationship and respond with a single line email: "That's right Emma. Make it all about YOU." And the girl who actually introduced me to my ex and who was also once one of my best friends? She has been telling people I am a liar and that I'm making all this up. And the worst thing is, I have no way of proving her wrong. Emotional abuse leaves only invisible scars. There is nothing tangible. My "wounds" are not something you can physically see, but that does not make them any less real. And with her glorification of abuse as romance, EL James has reopened several of them.

I understand that this book is more often than not being read by women who haven't been through what I experienced and perhaps I am more alert to the warning signs now. Perhaps the women reading this and loving Christian Grey are glossing over the stalker-tendencies and the emotional manipulation. But I can't. Because I do see those signs and I know where they lead.

They lead to a place where your self-worth is eroded through barbed comments. If I ate my dinner with any gusto, I would get "haha, you greedy fat bitch." And then a warm smile,because he couldn't possibly have MEANT it to upset me.

They lead to a place where everything you do is wrong. When we went to see a musical together at the theatre, I cried and reached out for his hand during an emotional moment, only to be told I had "fucking ruined the whole thing" by "being a spoilt little drama queen." He went on and on at me for so long after we had left the theatre that I actually ended up begging for forgiveness, in spite of having done nothing wrong.

They lead to a place where you can never win, because the rules constantly change. I wore a dress once and he told me I was so sexy he could barely keep his hands off me. The next time I wore it, he told me I looked like a slut and it was obvious I was only wearing it to seduce him and he found me "fucking disgusting."

They lead to a place where he controls everything. He would get me all worked up, then encourage me to satisfy his sexual needs before rolling over and going to sleep, warning me not to cuddle or touch him, because if I did, it was "clingy and horrible." I would go to sleep completely unsatisfied, but feeling as though I deserved to feel that way because I had done something horribly wrong to this poor man who had already suffered enough in his life, without having to deal with such a needy, unsympathetic bitch as me.

It was like living on a yoyo string. One minute he pulled me close, telling me loved me, that I had saved his life. The next, I'd receive a text about him sleeping with some random girl and he would expect me to listen "as a mate, because that's all you fucking are, why don't you understand, are you fucking stupid or something?!"

And why did I stay? Why did I put up with such abuse? Because I was manipulated into thinking I deserved it. That I WAS being clingy. That I was asking too much of him, that I didn't understand him and that I was treating HIM unfairly. Because he would beg me, whenever I said I had had enough, not to go, because he DID love me. Because he manipulated me into believing that if I played by his rules, if I did what he asked of me, eventually, we would be okay. We'd have the relationship I so desperately wanted from him. Because I believed - thanks to him - that it was entirely my fault that we didn't have it yet.

And how does the 50 Shades trilogy end? Ana's love "cures" Christian. He tells her he loves her and they get married and have children.

One of the biggest reasons women - and indeed men - stay in abusive relationships is because they believe that they will one day get that "happy ever after" moment. THIS is why these books are so utterly dangerous. Not only does EL James provide us with a manipulative, controlling and potentially violent man (I have no issue with BDSM, but in the first book alone, Christian mentions wanting to "beat" or "spank" Ana as punishment, rather than for sexual gratification on more than one occasion) and holds him up as some kind of romantic ideal, she also uses his own abusive past as an excuse for his abusive present. We are supposed to feel so sorry for Christian, so sad that he is "fifty shades of fucked up," that we conveniently overlook all the warning signs that prove that he is NOT a nice guy. And then to cap it all off? She suggests that with time and patience, Ana's love "fixes" him. Way to send out a positive message to women in abusive relationships, EL James. Congratulations.

Had I read this book whilst I was still with my ex, I might well have been tempted to stay for even longer than the 18+ months I did. Because whatever you say about fiction, it can and does influence real life.

Had I stayed with my ex any longer, I am not even sure I would be around now to GET so mad at EL James. I was suicidally depressed. I hated my "clingy," "slutty," "fat" self. I hated myself for not being able to "save" him. I hated myself for "abandoning" him. A couple of months before the end, I found myself outside my best friend's house in the early hours of the morning, practically lying in the street, howling hysterically because he had told me he was going on a date with another woman and would never, EVER love me. This is after telling me he loved me more than he had ever loved any woman, remember. This is after him begging me never to leave him, because I had changed his whole world. I was back on the yoyo string and not on the nice end. I was so rarely on the nice end...

Yet here is this best selling book, suggesting that if you stay with a man, even after you've tried to walk away, even when you have huge doubts about the kind of relationship he wants... Everything will be rosy in the end.

Do you want to know how my relationship ended? With him staring me in the eyes and admitting "of course I fucking used you. Of course I don't give a shit how much pain I've caused you. You deserve it, because you let me do it to you, because you're pathetic and weak."

I walked out of his house and resolved to seek help. I had counselling and now I am receiving help from a centre for abused women. It's only through that help that I am even able to admit that he abused me; I was so manipulated that for months after I finally walked away for good, I honestly believed I WAS at fault and that he had done no wrong. Everything that had happened, I had entirely brought on myself and I thoroughly deserved it for not being good enough to "fix" the situation.

And now, as I am finally beginning to recover and move forward, a book comes along. A book with a male character EXACTLY like my ex. A situation HORRIBLY similar and a girl equally as confused and unsure as I felt. And what does the writer do? She holds up this man as a romantic ideal and suggests that staying with an abusive man can magically cure him.

At the end of the first book in the trilogy, Ana leaves Christian. If you ask me, she should never have gone back. At least, had she walked away and stayed away, the writer might have correctly put across that a man who controls, manipulates, stalks, confuses and intimidates a woman is no hero. Instead, this book series is, in my eyes, at best offensive. At worst, downright dangerous in the way it glorifies abuse.

There DOES need to be a place in literature for abusive relationships to be shown. But they need to be shown for the hugely damaging, potentially life-destroying relationships that they are, not displayed as some kind of passionate example of what "real" love is. Real love involves respect, mutual equality and understanding. None of which is evident in an abusive relationship - they certainly weren't features of mine - and none of which is truly displayed in this book.

My recommendation, should anyone wish to read a book that describes an abusive relationship responsibly - ie truthfully, without glorification and with an ending appropriate to the situation - is Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, in which the abuser is painted as anything but a romantic hero. Abuse is not romantic and Christian Grey is no hero.

I would like to dedicate this blog post to my family for supporting me through my own experience, to my best friend Lydia, without whom I am not even sure I would have survived it, to my closest friends, the aforementioned Lydia, plus Kate, Kirstie and Lizzie, for always being there for me, to my amazing support worker, for the help she has given me so far and the help I know she will continue to give for as long as I need it and to every woman or man going through an abusive relationship. Please don't let this book hurt or upset you the way it has me. Please don't believe that you can "love someone better." Walk away and be the person you were born to be. Know that there are people out there who will understand and help you.

And to those who still think Christian Grey is the epitome of all that's hot, I beg you to re-read what I have written, because to all intents and purposes, I WAS in a relationship with Christian Grey, just without the whips and with a different name. And it wasn't hot. It was abuse.

If you want to read something sexy, cast your literary net a little wider. Besides, there's better erotica on the Internet. And most of it is better written, too.