Vicky Newham

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Burnt Cakes and Pastel Pink Bloomers

The front door is wide open, as it always is, so I saunter in and deposit my school bag in the hall. The smell of burnt cake summons me to the kitchen where my grandmother is trimming a layer off two circular sponges with a bread knife. ‘Your mother rang,’ she explains, and dusts sugar off her fingers. ‘I forgot all about the oven.’

Fifteen minutes later we’re devouring homemade Victoria Sandwich in front of a crackling fire. Jam and cream squish between my fingers; the sweet, buttery cake is heavenly, and the fire is warming my back.

‘But do you love him, child? And are you happy?’ She asks when I tell her my parents have taken against my boyfriend, my first ever boyfriend. ‘That’s all that matters.’ She pats my hand, and in that moment something in her eyes shines a light on my confused teenage world.

My head wiggles an acknowledgement of how much her words matter to me, and I try to swallow the lump which has emerged in my throat: relieved someone understands how I feel; sad my mother doesn’t; desperate to squeal yes, yes, yes, I love him more than anything.

In the bigger picture, of course, what mattered wasn’t a boyfriend, that one or any other; it was the importance of deciding for myself what is – and isn’t – right for me, and what dreams I wish to nurture.

Encounters such as these occurred a handful of times before my grandmother died but they’ve etched themselves on the inner folds of my psyche.  A few years after the cake episode, I bumped into my grandmother in the street in Chichester. I was studying for my A-levels at the time and was relishing new-found freedom, whereas my poor grandmother had been progressively losing hers. Told not to drive by her GP, that day she’d given her residential carer the slip and got the bus from where she lived in order to do some shopping. It was this spirit which marked her out. She refused to be subdued in the same way that she refused to allow cynicism to infect her thinking. ‘It’s safe here,’ she always replied when asked to shut and lock her front door. Of course, she closed it at night but she didn’t lock it and she would often pop to the village shop and leave it open. In those days, and in that place, perhaps she was right: she never got burgled. It’s the trust which impressed me.

Another emotional memory of my grandmother is that she waited years for the house she wanted to live in with her family. She and my grandfather (who I never met) bought another house in the same village and asked the owners of their dream one, in a polite, English way, to let them know when they wanted to sell. The house in Singleton, which I knew, was her dream home. It may seem materialistic to fixate on a particular place to live but I don’t see it that way. She was somehow touched by its magic and waited patiently. When they eventually moved in, she made it into a place which everyone loved going to, and one which gave her immense contentment for decades.

Other memories are simply funny. She would never kill spiders; she would swoop them up in a voluminous pair of pastel-coloured knickers and chuck them out the window. We’d arrive for Sunday lunch and find her bloomers in the dahlias outside the kitchen or in the roses in the front garden. I am terrified of spiders and whenever I manage to relocate one, I always think of Granny’s knickers!

I’m sad that I didn’t get to spend much time with my grandmother but I also appreciate what an amazing and inspiring woman she was.When people visit me, I want to cook for them. In situations where I don’t know what to do, she is the person I channel. When I think I’ve got my priorities wrong, or world events are affecting how I feel, I bring to mind what my grandmother would say. I imagine her patting my hand, calling me ‘child’ and reminding me of the importance of happiness and love.

International Women’s Day 2017


Don’t be silent about bullying and trolls and don’t trivialise their effects

… and why I won’t be joining the Twitter Silence today.

When I read about the proposed Twitter Silence I knew that it didn’t sit comfortably with me. I get the point that people want to make but, to me, it doesn’t feel the right way of making it. People have been stating their position and this post is my attempt to do the same. I feel very strongly that bullies and trolls should be stood up to. If people don’t have sufficient resources or support, they can ruin lives and careers.

When I was at school I was bullied. I was ten. My French teacher decided to put me into the year above for lessons and that meant that when my own class did French, I learnt Greek. This wasn’t my choice; in fact I asked him not to. One boy bullied me mercilessly for the next three years for being, according to him, a ‘teacher’s pet’ and a ‘boffin’. He made me incredibly unhappy. When I told my mother what he was doing and saying, she dismissed it completely. Of course, this made me feel worse. Like I had something to be ashamed of. This is what helps bullies to get away with what they do. When I was in my teens, I was bullied again by local kids for apparently being ‘posh’. Their gripe was that I had attended an independent school. I didn’t cope with this any better than I did when I was ten, and my mother’s response was the same also. I felt confused. I hadn’t asked to go to an independent school. In fact I’d pleaded with my parents to let me go to the local comprehensive with my friends. It was my parents’ decision. When I was ten I didn’t have the emotional or behavioural skills to cope with being bullied. Because I didn’t develop them when that situation occurred, I couldn’t handle the next incident particularly well either. Both situations had a profound effect on my childhood and on my psyche.

As I’ve grown up, I have learnt to deal with bullies but they make me extremely anxious. Now, if anyone attempts to bully me, I will either demonstrate with my behaviour that it isn’t going to work or I will state – loud  and clear – what I think of what they’re saying. It infuriates me when people make comments which are offensive and abusive and then try to dismiss their seriousness and implications by saying ‘Lighten up, I’m joking. Where’s your sense of humour?’ There are a number of variations to this response but they all suck. If I get these in relation to bullying behaviour, it makes me more determined to stop those responsible. Sometimes I choose to ‘turn the other cheek’ and resolve not to not let the bully know how much they’ve upset me. I don’t always agree with ‘outing’, or ‘naming and shaming’, as they can seem a bit tit-for-tat, but in some situations ‘naming’ is what needs to be done. This counters the anonymity that so many bullies take refuge in, especially on the internet.

This gives some background to why I don’t want to join the Twitter Silence. If people disappear off Twitter for the day, who is to know that they aren’t just out, busy, in bed, away, whatever? There is no way of counting who supports what. If you state your position, you can be counted. I have been reading about what has happened to Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez and others, and it’s made me very sad. The venting of rage on apparently convenient targets is shocking. It reminds me of dingos at a carcass. History is full of examples of human cruelty and Social Psychology offers numerous explanations. It is no coincidence that aspects of internet behaviour are covered now on A-level Psychology specifications, as are some ‘mob’ behaviours. Modern day technology offers us so much, but, as with most things, it has disadvantages and risks. I believe that it is up to us, as individuals and consumers of said technology, to use it for the benefit of all. I fully respect those who have decided to stay off Twitter today. In some situations I go for withdrawal and distance too. We each have the right to decide what we want to do. It’s just that for me, with this particular situation, that isn’t the solution. So I propose to use today to get on with the things I have planned, in the way I want to do them, but to be mindful of my own behaviour also.

I sincerely hope that all concerned in this recent spate of trolling have support and adequate resources to cope.

Some years ago I bumped into the ‘boy’ who bullied me at school. He is now a ‘famous’ person. I told him how his behaviour had affected me. Guess what his response was? ‘It was a joke’. He never even said sorry. He just laughed at me. For a few seconds I felt ten again but I caught it just in time. I felt sad for him. He was a bully at school and probably still is. When I see his face on television, I feel so tempted to tell people who he is and what he did. But I never have. Instead, I smile and – in the Buddhist way – I wish him well. Sometimes more successfully than others but it’s work in progress.

Vicky Newham © 2013


Is violence being glamorised in drama?

When I watched the first episode of The Fall on BBC2, I began wondering, not for the first time, about how violence is portrayed on television. I’ve felt conflicted about this programme because I admire many aspects of it whilst others have made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. As a writer of crime fiction, I don’t want to be hypocritical about the topic of violence but I do want to reflect on how it’s portrayed, including how I do this in my own novels.

One of my main problems with The Fall is why The Team had to over-emphasise the glamour of Gillian Anderson’s character, DS Stella Gibson. My beef isn’t with the actress, whom I’ve adored since The X-Files. She is attractive but I don’t understand why The Team had to accentuate this aspect. Her hair seems overly-coiffured, and her lips are glossed to perfection. Why? I know it’s TV but – come on. In the opening scenes we see Stella’s backside from behind, whilst she leans over a bath. She wears low slung pyjama-type bottoms and no bra, and has a face pack on her skin. I was wondering why the directors wanted to start with this shot. As a tone setter, what do these opening scenes suggest?

Most working women with busy jobs do their hair and make-up in the morning and maybe have a glance at it in the loo during the day, or after they’ve scoffed a sandwich. It looks like The Team has re-tonged Stella’s hair in between shots. One of the reasons why this bugged me was because women are so often portrayed in dramas as helpless victims, or as femmes fatales. If it’s the latter, this reinforces the notion that women cannot be successful under their own steam, and need to use their sexuality to get on. I did get the impression that The Team wanted Stella to come across as a femme fatale. Her sexual encounters are shown as leaving men in tatters whilst she is shown as being able to compartmentalise. Yes, it’s a reversal of a certain stereotype but doesn’t it also perpetuate another one? Her senior officer, with whom she has had a backstory fling, tells her in the toilet, where they’re having a meeting, that he would have left his wife and kids for her. It’s as if they are trying to create a parallel between Stella and Paul: they’re both hunters, albeit with different prey (most of the time).

My second problem with this programme is the way that it glamourises violence and appears to sexualise murder. When the man is doing his ritualistic ‘things’ to his corpses, we see him half-naked, and the corpse naked (albeit semi-covered). I think that the actor (Jamie Dornan) plays his role as chilling serial killer Paul Spector very well. However, although I think he’s an excellent actor, I have just read that he is an ex-underwear model so The Team was clearly keen to have the character played by someone attractive and who would bring glamour and sexuality to the role. In episode one, scenes with half-naked Paul with his corpse often cut backwards and forwards between shots of Stella having sex. I am not prudish. I don’t watch TV to see people having sex, but as long as it’s not too graphic I don’t mind. But these shots bothered me: it was as if they were suggesting a link between murder and sex. Worse, as if they were suggesting that Paul was considering necrophilia. This theme comes up again in a later episode. As a crime writer, and psychologist, I am aware that a lot of crimes are sexual in either nature or motivation (and sometimes both). At the time of writing this, we still haven’t been shown what the motivation is for the murders and I’m interested to see how his behaviour is explained, particularly since a second series has been commissioned. Gillian Anderson is listed as executive producer for the next series.

I am aware that dramas are very expensive to produce and that programmes tend to try and compete with ones which are popular by emulating style, themes, atmosphere, amount and type of violence, and cinematography. What I liked about Scandinavian The Bridge, however, was that Saga Noren wasn’t made to be overly glamorous in terms of hair, make-up and clothes and the same was true for Sara Lund in The Killing. I see that The Fall has been directed by Flemish Jakob Vergruggen. I am all in favour of cross-pollination of talent and experience and perhaps British crime dramas can learn from continental Europe. By all accounts he’s a name to watch.

Another programme which I’ve liked for years is Silent Witness, on BBC1. I watched it when it first started with Amanda Burton and have continued to watch it with Emilia Fox. Episodes are written by different writers and some are considerable more violent than others. The very violent ones have resulted in me switching off. A regret about Silent Witness is similar to what I’ve said about The Fall: why did The Team have to make Dr Nikki Alexander so glamorous? The scenes with her teetering along in four inch heels (actually she walks in them very well indeed), with wedding hair and wearing designer clothes to crime scenes, strike me as ridiculous. Why can’t they have her wearing plain jeans and flat boots? It makes her look like some kind of Barbie doll. As with Gillian Anderson, I really like Emilia Fox, so my issue isn’t with the actresses at all. It’s with the production teams and, presumably, directors.

So, my questions are: do you think that drama is glamourising violence? Does it matter? What about if murder is sexualised? And what effects might these things have … on people and society? I would love to know what you think.

Vicky Newham © 2013