There’s Short, and then there’s Blinkin’ Ridiculous

Why are the limits on the entries for short story competitions getting shorter and shorter? I know we’re supposed to have the attention span of gnats these days but, on the other hand, the short story is allegedly in the ascendant, so why not give us something to work with?

I fell upon the the most recent edition of ‘Mslexia’ with naive optimism as usal, some days back, only to find that word limits are continuing to plummet, some as low as 200 words – What? I thought that was a postcard! – and that there was hardly any competition into which I could squeeze an entry. I consider 5,000 a decent read, and a decent write, for that matter, though I would prefer the latitude of something between eight and ten thousand. You can probably count on the finger of one finger the number of competitions that offer that luxury these days. Worst of all, the much-vaunted Manchester fiction prize has halved its limit from 5,000 to 2,500 this year. Too much trouble reading the entries, I suppose.

Funny though, once you’re established, you can do what you damn well pleasy. I’ve just finished reading ‘Cold Sea Stories’ by Pawel Huelle, and the stories in that anthology vary enormously in length. Come on, folks, what happened to biodiversity in the short story?


The Long and the Short of It
The Long and the Short of It

Impact India in Thane

Before I left India, I had the opportunity to visit a health initiative in Thane (pronounced Taanay), a tribal district, an hour and a half’s drive north of Mumbai, in the company of Zelma Lazarus the Chief Executive of ‘Impact India’.

Thane is a tough area for anyone to live, with a landscape that yields few crops, and few other alternatives for employment except working in brick factories.

‘Impact India’, a charitable foundation supported by the Government of India, is well-known for its ‘Lifeline Express’, the hospital on wheels which transverses India’s vast railway network, providing surgery to the poorest people who are affected by disability.

In Thane, it has embarked on a different kind of project with the aims of reducing the catastrophically high infant mortality rate and eradicating preventable disability. Life for girls and young women in Thane is particularly difficult. Zelma explains to me the cycle of poor health in which they are caught:

Having lower status than males, they are given less food than they need, which means that they are under-nourished. The hot climate brings on menstruation early, adding to health issues and, in particular, causing aenaemia. But as soon as girls hit puberty, they are married off, even though they are legally under age. So there are lots of under-age, under-nourished mothers producing under-weight babies who have a very poor start in life if, indeed they make it at all.

Often, new-born babies, still with the umbilical cord attached, transmitting warm blood into them, are placed directly on the cold ground. Many die of shock. This has prompted the ever-resourceful Zelma to launch a campaign to provide a baby wrap for every new-born child. So far, she has made about a thousand herself!

‘Impact India’ staff have developed a comprehensive programme of ante- and post-natal education for women and girls, as well as practical strategies for making sure that they benefit from the exisiting government primary healthcare facilities.

It was real privilege to see the programme in action in two remote villages. The commitment and openness of the staff was evident, as was the willingness of the young women to learn. I will be writing more about this important project elsewhere. In the meantime, you can find out more about ‘Impact India’ here:


A hard life for women in Thane (crop)

A hard life for women in Thane

Brickworkers' homes, Thane

Brickworkers often live ‘on the job’

Post-natal education in Thane

Post-natal class in progress in a village centre


Impact India  in Thane

Zelma with Impact India staff and government teachers at a village centre

Woman’s Work in South Goa

It’s been difficult to post from South Goa. Unlike other parts of India, there’s no great obsession with internet cafes. After a while, it’s all too easy just to ‘chill’ and let the world drift by. That’s if you’re a visitor…

If you live there, you might be making your living in a fish market, as the daily catch comes in; or cleaning rubbish off the beach all day long; or transporting stuff along the shoreline in the blazing sun. But if you’re really unlucky, you could be keeping a steam roller cool, so that it can roll tarmac on a suffocating day in the town of Madgaon.

On the other hand, you may be roaring post-menopausally along the road on your own motorbike. I like to think so! Beats wearing red knickers and trailing your stick along the railings, or whatever the poet said.

Fish market woman

Fish market, Colva

Beach cleaners, Palolem

Beach cleaners, Palolem


Woman on a mission, Varca

Keeping the steam roller cool


Construction labourer, Madgaon

Way ahead woman

Hell’s grandma? Colva


The Powerful Women of Patnem

I’m staying in the small resort of Patnem in South Goa. As I return to the hotel one evening, I notice that someone is chucking very large mangoes down from the uppermost branches of a tree into a bedspread that two women are holding by the corners. Their stance isn’t particularly secure, as the pair of them are standing on a mound of gravel into which their feet sink and slide. The aim of the ‘chucker’ isn’t always accurate either, and some of the mangoes go astray, bouncing across the ground. Each one is about the size of a rugby ball, large enough to fell you if they clock you on the head.

I stop to watch. The ‘chucker’ is concealed by the leaves of the tree. ‘Who’s up there?’ I ask. ‘One girl’, says a semi-naked man sitting in a plastic chair, also observing proceedings. ‘One small girl,’ calls one of the women holding the bed cover. ‘Women can do anything. Women can do anything men can do.’ We both eye the man in the chair, whose main responsibility seems to be to nurse his beer belly. ‘And they could do with a lot more respect and power,’ she adds, pointedly

‘What about money?’ I ask. ‘That as well, she says. Women do everything and they can do everything.’ At that moment the chucker sends down a particularly hefty missile. It hurtles into the bedspread with such force that the sheet is wrested from the women’s hands, and they drop their entire cargo. We all laugh.

(Not) the News – UN Women’s Rights Declaration 2013

What was that that whizzed past me on ‘Al Jazeera’ a couple of mornings ago? The UN Commission on the Status of Women has just issued a historic declaration about safeguarding women against violence. After much wrangling, 131 nations have signed up. Wow! this is big time. I want to know more.

I scour the BBC’s text-based news service. What a surprise: nothing there. And the couple on the couch are twittering on about nowt, as usual. After some ferreting about this morning, I finally manage to track down something about the contents of the declaration in The ‘Independent’ and in San Francisco ‘Chronicle’. Here’s what the SFC says:

‘The final document approved Friday reaffirms that women and men have the right to enjoy all human rights “on an equal basis,” recommits governments to comprehensive sex education, calls for sexual and reproductive health services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion for victims of violence, and calls on government to criminalize violence against women and punish gender-related killings’.

Importantly, the final text urges all countries “to strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition and religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.” Good, let’s have that out in the open at last.

Of course, there were a number of defaulters, including Egypt’s ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, Russia, Iran and the Vatican City. Well, quel surprise!

But nobody can deny what an important step this is.

What we, here in Britain, have to ask is whose interests it serves that coverage of such a major development by major TV news channels is so deplorable – er, lacking. Makers of ‘news’ programmes repeatedly favour the ‘one-off’ human interest story over anything that sheds light on the structural inequality in our society. What are the influences upon them that lead them to do that? Only asking.

Unfortunately, the consequence is that if the general public don’t know about their government’s obligations to the UN, then they can’t ask awkward questions about how well it’s fulfilling them, can they? Nor can they assert their own rights.

UN declaration on rights of women 2013

UN Commission on Status of Women, ratifies declaration on women’s rights

Boys at Grammar School Learn about Women’s Rights

Spent yesterday at a boys’ grammar school in Kent, at the invitation of the Assistant Director of Studies (Sixth Form), and on behalf of Womankind Worldwide, talking to fourteen year-olds about the issue of women’s rights. The school had courageously organised a whole day of workshops on this, as part of their enrichment programme.

We devised a series of activities that gave an insight into some of the work the charity does, setting it in the context of human rights. We were planning and revising our plans right up until the last minute, to make sure that the session was going to be workable and topical.The first activity, for example, was based upon photographs drawn from recent media coverage of events affecting women.

I ran the session five times over the course of the day, with the support of teachers from the school. Sixth form students also helped in some of the sssions. It was a very interesting experience, with contributions from the boys reflecting a wide range of ‘innocence and experience’. Someone wondered why, for example, you couldn’t just pop out and phone ‘Child Line’ if you found yourself being traded between families as a child bride somewhere in a remote corner of Afghanistan. On the other hand, when we played a game of chance about the factors that help and hinder young women achieve independence, one boy sensitively observed that it didn’t seem right to be approaching the subject by playing a game.

A couple of things really struck me, though. One: how little young people here, in England, actually know about how civil society is supposed to work. Since ‘Citizenship’ dropped off the curriculum into the dustbin of history, things have actually gone backwards. Their level of comprehension compares unfavourably with that of children educated in India who can tell you not only about their own constitutional arrangements, but about those of other countries as well.

Two: given how much time young people spend online, how little even the bright ones know about prominent items in in the news. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number, out of about 150, who had even heard of the Delhi gang rape.

Hats off to this school, though, for taking this initiative. Hopefully we have shed a little light into some dark corners. I, certainly, would be up for contributing again.




Source unknown

Afghan Women

This photo by Lynsey Addario