10 Things to Tell A Sexist


Along with millions of other Youtube viewers I enjoyed Emma Watson’s speech on feminism at the UN. It was a very wise speech, successfully arguing that for feminism to reach its goals it needs to be a movement for men too. The genius of the speech was in showing that feminism is a benefit, not a threat, to men.

Anyway, within the same week as this great speech, we have seen too many examples of how much work is still to be done. Not only has Emma Watson faced pathetic trolls threatening to publish nude photos of her, but Youtube blogger Sam Pepper has filmed a prank of himself groping women while asking for directions, and a mall in the Phillipines has been selling T-shirts advocating rape.

This is sad. And rather stupid. And lowers us all. We need to remind sexist people exactly why they are their own worst enemy.

1. Feminism is really equalism. It means humans have equal rights to be themselves and live freely, without harassment or stigma or unfair treatment.

2. Feminism is good for men. More than three times as many men kill themselves as women. In part, this is down to values which make men feel they have to be tough and never admit weakness.

3. Your rape jokes aren’t funny. A mall in the Phillipines has been selling a T-shirt describing the violent crime of rape as ‘a snuggle with a struggle’. The humour here is the humour of hate. For a society where most rape victims are reluctant to speak out, that T-shirt is actually incitement. It tells women their trauma is insignificant. It is an act of violence in itself. The point of humour is to defuse things, to find relief in things that are uncomfortable. You can joke about anything. It’s not the subject, it’s the intention. Rape should not be defused any more than paedophilia or race crimes should be. It should be stopped.

4.  Feminism is about equality. It isn’t about girls v men. It’s about everyone being able to be the full human they are. It’s about creating a caring, safer, more advanced world.

5. Empathy. That is the secret to a successful life. To be able to understand that other humans are exactly as complex as you are, with the same wants and needs and hopes and failures, will make life so much easier and pleasant for you. Try it.

5. One day you might have a daughter. Your sexism is shrinking the world she will live in.

6. You are a sexist. That is one of the bad -ists. You believe men are the stronger sex. Yet you troll and bully out of weakness, a sense of inferiority. You defeat your own misguided belief system every time you speak.

7. Groping is wrong. It is not a prank. It is trespassing. Humans are not fruit. If you need to grope, go back to your cave and vigorously grope yourself over your X-Box.

8. Porn does not reflect sexual reality any more than The Expendables 3 reflects the reality of growing old.

9. You are on the wrong side of history. You know those bad guys in historical movies? The ones who are on the side of slavery, or who belong to the KKK, or who supported fascism? Well, you will be those historical bad guys. Hell, you already are. (Quick, change sides.)

10. Humans are amazing. And it isn’t our brawn but our brains that make us so. We might not be as good at flying as an albatross, or as good at smelling as a dog, or as brilliant at hearing as a bat, or as strong as a gorilla, and our digging skills would be laughed at by most aardvarks, but wow, look at our brains. Our brains are equally impressive, whether we are male or female. They can create books, art, music. They can calculate and muse and dream. Our unique beauty, as a species, rests in our ability and desire to do things and create things and enjoy things that aren’t directly essential to our survival. We not only live, but have discovered there is a point to living beyond simple reproduction and staying alive. To belittle and demean fifty per cent of our species, simply because of some really incidental physiological differences, is to miss the point of life itself and to lower the joy of being human. If you are a mysoginist, or even a plain old sexist pig snuffling about in your own prejudice, it really is your loss. The air really is better up here.


Some selfish thoughts on suicide and Robin Williams

It’s been a depressing week, on all fronts.

On the war front, obviously. But that seems to be every week. The twenty-first century just seems to be one long rotating war.

It has also been depressing on the depression front.

Of course, we had the horrible news about Robin Williams hanging himself in his bedroom last Sunday night.

I hate hearing about famous people killing themselves. This is partly because it is sad to lose someone you ‘know’ even if you only know them in the sense that they have been in a lot of films and TV interviews that you have seen.   And Robin Williams was always someone we felt we knew. There was always so much of him.

Yes, sure, he was great in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. But even in The World According to Garp or Awakenings or more uneven stuff he was always brought an intensity – through manic comedy or sparkle-eyed emotion – that couldn’t be feigned. Even when he wasn’t so great it was because there was too much of a performance, never too little. The acting – as with the stand-up comedy – always seemed like a valve for the intensity inside. The rapid fire performance in, say, Good Morning Vietnam or the dark introversion of the child abuser in Insomnia being a kind of lava busting from an intense roaring molten soul.

So yes. There is that sadness. We’ll miss him. He made good stuff.

But also, as someone who has suffered suicidal thoughts, very nearly acting on them once, there is a kind of selfish sadness. A sense of strange dread. A thought that someone we can visualise and hear in our heads, someone who had the money to get the best treatment out there, who had family, who had support, who had been successful by almost everyone’s measure, had fallen victim to depression at the age of 63.

63. That’s the other thing. When I was suicidal I used to imagine there was a certain point where such a fate is less likely. Once I’d passed 27, that famous fatal end-point for suicidal rock idols, there was a sense of achievement. Like reaching the next level of a video game. Same when I passed 35. I was no longer in the 21-35 ‘young man’ danger category. But there are other danger categories. In America and the UK suicide rates for middle aged and older men have risen by as much as 40% since 1999.

I remember hearing of David Foster Wallace’s suicide at the age of 46 and thinking, oh crap, things can get worse. Then Hunter S. Thompson blowing his brains out one clear afternoon at the age of 67. So yes, depression is not just an illness that claims the young. It is increasingly an illness shown to be fatal at any age. Life isn’t a journey upwards. We do not always accumulate strength as we go. It can weaken our minds as well as our bodies. I started to worry that, if I had a diagnosis like Parkinson’s or had sudden money or life worries in my sixties it could trigger a depression I wouldn’t have the strength to recover from.

But then, let’s be rational. Just because Robin Williams killed himself doesn’t make it any more likely that we will. Suicide happens. But most cases of depression don’t end in it killing the sufferer. Winston Churchill never killed himself. Mark Twain didn’t. Long-term depressive Tennessee Williams ended up accidentally choking on the cap from his eye drop fluid in his eighties. And also, of course, a suicide shouldn’t cloud the whole memory of someone. When Virginia Woolf told her husband in her suicide note ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’ she meant it. Depression is best thought of as a weather pattern. A hurricane might destroy a house that had enjoyed glorious sunshine a week before.


Of course, we are all going to die. Some of us will probably die in our sixties. The trick is not to fear this, but to accept it as the thing that gives life its value. ‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet,’ said Emily Dickinson. So let’s mourn those who gave us pleasure, but try not to mourn ourselves from the future. Let’s enjoy the fruit before it browns. Let’s taste the sweetness if we are able to. Let us be thankful for the moments we know, and never fret about the ones we don’t. Let’s live.


Ten reasons why it is okay to read YA

I haven’t blogged for a while. Well, not blog blogged. I’ve tweeted – micro-blogged – but not gone deep. I’ve been busy writing a screenplay and a memoir about depression (get me).

But I’ve just read something and got annoyed. And annoyance, it turns out, is a lead trigger for blogging. According to leading researchers at the University of Make-believe, 88 per cent of the internet is made of annoyance.

The thing that annoyed me is an article in Slate called ‘Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books’. The writer’s main gripe is that an increasing amount of people – grown-up people – are reading John Green and Stephen Chbosky and Gayle Forman, and not feeling ashamed.

It made me angry. It made me think of all the ways it is unhealthy. It made me think of all the reasons it is wrong. Here are just the first ten that came to mind:

1. There should be no shame in reading anything. There is too much shame in the world. Shame is the enemy of truth and the friend of pretentiousness, especially when it comes to books. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

2. Many of the greatest writers have been children’s writers. And not just YA. Yes, John Updike and Alice Munro are brilliant, but so are Lewis Carroll and JM Barrie and Philip Pullman and CS Lewis and SE Hinton and Maurice Sendak. Brilliance comes in many forms.

3. Teenagers shouldn’t be patronised. This whole article seems to imply that an adult sharing the same taste as a teenager is fundamentally embarrassing. Why? Teenagers are the most passionate consumers of culture there are. Think of music. Who made the Beatles popular? Or the Stones? Or Bowie? Or Nirvana? Old people? Or teenagers? Teenagers not only have as many brain cells as us (more actually, as our brains lose 100,000 neurons a day), but are more accepting of new things and phenomena. They are the literal cutting edge. They could not have written that Slate article.

4. Writing YA is as difficult as writing for adults. I have written one YA book, three children’s books, and five adult (OA?) books. The hardest of all these to write was the YA.

5. Accesible writing  should not be frowned on. Graham Greene was an accessible writer. John Steinbeck was too. Also George Orwell, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, JD Salinger, Jane Austen etc etc. Yet book snobbery is leading us to believe that accessibility and intelligence are incompatible. I would wager that the popularity of YA is symptomatic less of a dumbing down of tastes but a reaction against dumbing down. Let me explain. The adult book market has long been polarised between ‘easy’ commercial books and ‘difficult’ literary books. YA doesn’t play this game. It manages to be easy and intelligent all at the same time.

6. Teenagers are philosophers. Think of the popular YA books. They often deal with subjects of life and death, gender issues, race, sexuality. The big stuff. Can you remember being a teenager? It wasn’t a period of under-thinking. Quite the opposite. You are living at fast-forward. Your body and mind is changing by the day. You are continually asking the questions about who you are, and where you fit in. You are at the centre of the cyclone that is life. There is nothing marginal about being a teen.

7. Dissing one of the few genre success stories in the book world, and trying to stigmatise it in the name of reading and literature, is a bit like shooting a dolphin in the name of marine biology.

8. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. This is why YA succeeds.

9. Alexander Pope was twelve when he wrote ‘Ode to Solitude’. Mary Shelley was nineteen when she first came up with Frankenstein. More recently, Helen Oyeyemi wrote her widely acclaimed novel The Icarus Girl when she was studying her A-levels. Age really is just a number.

10. It’s not what you read, but how you read it. Never judge what someone else reads or why they read it. You don’t own the rights to culture. Often the things that may look simple, are rich and multi-layered. There are as many versions of a book as there are readers. No two reading experiences are the same. Books are great because they open minds and transcend borders. They should never have fences around them.








When I was 24 I very nearly killed myself. I was living in Ibiza at the time, in a very nice villa, on the quiet east coast of the island. The villa was right next to a cliff. In the midst of depression I walked out to the edge of the cliff and looked at the sea, and at the rugged limestone coastline, dotted with deserted beaches. It was the most beautiful view I had ever known, but I didn’t care. I was too busy trying to summon the courage needed to throw myself over the edge. I didn’t. Instead, I walked back inside and threw up from the stress of it.

Three more years of depression followed. Panic, despair, a daily battle to walk to the corner shop without collapsing to the ground.

But I survived. I am days away from being 38. Back then, I almost knew I wasn’t going to make it to 30. Death or total madness seemed more realistic.

But I’m here. Surrounded by people I love. And I am doing a job I never thought I’d be doing. And I spend my days writing stories, that are really guide books, the way all books are guide books.

I am so glad I didn’t kill myself, but I continue to wonder if there is anything to say to people at those darkest times.

Here’s an attempt. Here are things I wish someone had told me at the time:

1. You are on another planet. No-one understands what you are going through. But actually, they do. You don’t think they do because the only reference point is yourself. You have never felt this way before, and the shock of the descent is traumatising you, but others have been here. You are in a dark, dark land with a population of millions.

2. Things aren’t going to get worse. You want to kill yourself. That is as low as it gets. There is only upwards from here.

3. You hate yourself. That is because you are sensitive. Pretty much every human could find a reason to hate themselves if they thought about it as much as you did. We’re all total bastards, us humans, but also totally wonderful.

4. So what, you have a label? ‘Depressive’. Everyone would have a label if they asked the right professional.

5. That feeling you have, that everything is going to get worse, that is just a symptom.

6. Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on.

7. Ignore stigma. Every illness had stigma once. Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind.

8. Nothing lasts forever. This pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it.

9. Or, to plagiarise myself: “Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.” (The Humans)

10. You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at your baby daughter’s face as she lies contentedly asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view like this one and feel the beauty, there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.


PSH, addiction and the myth of free will

There has been a lot of internet discussion following the great Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s death, on whether addiction is a disease, and how ‘responsible’ he was for his death.

People talk about spoiled celebs and free will and life choices and all that. Though part of this is automatic bollocks, our determination to believe that celebrities are somehow ‘other’ and that fame and money are total salvation. But  yes, from the outside, it always looks like these Bad Things the famous or unfamous addict chooses (alcohol, coke, heroin, sex, money spent on a roulette wheel, whatever) are consciously chosen.

It’s a tricky issue. One that probably involves far more understanding of neurological networks and processes than I have at my disposal, as I don’t have a PhD in neuroscience.

The thing is, whether or not addiction is a ‘disease’ or not, depression and anxiety undoubtedly ARE. And they are deadly and unbearable at times. People actually jump under trains to end the pain of these diseases. They don’t want to die, anymore than the person in a burning building wants to jump. They HAVE to.

Short of suicide, the only way sometimes to numb pain is through unhealthy comforts.

It’s a gamble.

Sometimes I have binge drank to fight off anxiety and it has actually worked and broke a cycle. I didn’t wake up the next day needing more alcohol, either. In the long term, it makes you worse, but pain ignores the long term. What I am saying is, do not judge someone until you have been where they are, until you have felt the fierce intensity of the mind. It is nice to believe in free will. It is itself an addictive comfort. But neuroscientists (like David Eagleman) and philosophers (like Julian Baggini) alike are wondering if it is yet another arrogant human delusion.

Never judge. (‘If you’re a human walking the earth,’ said PSH, ‘you’re weird, you’re strange, you’re psychologically challenged.’)

Personally, I believe addiction is a disease. One that causes involuntary dis-ease. ‘Ah, but people choose to have their first drink/line/shot of heroin’ people say. That is a choice. Yes, well pretty much everyone made a choice to drink alcohol at some time. You might have felt it relaxing your mind. You might never have needed that sense of relaxation, and so for you it remains a choice. But what if you felt the full stormy ferocity of the human mind at its bleakest and knew you could find shelter under the shade of a substance. If your leg is on fire, you pour water on it.

Whatever, some things are certain:

We are what we need to be. We do what we need to do. We are not all in the same reality.