Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The perfect bisexual interview

To a Women in Journalism [professional networking, rather than feminist-activist]meeting last night, to hear some of Britain's best interviewers - including Lynn Barber and Mary Riddell - talk about what makes a good interview. I always enjoy WiJ meetings, and this was wildly funny. As well as giving us their master-class expertise (always record the interview, and it's a good idea if your interviewee does too) they regaled us with some hilarious anecdotes about nightmare interviewees: the drunk, the missing, the weird, the hysterical, the scary, the monosyllabic and, in one case, the dead. Japes!

In my working life, I do very little interviewing. I spend most of my time chained to my desk hacking at other people's copy, or begging reluctant writers to please go to somewhere in another time zone tomorrow, flying out at 6am, staying there for 12 hours before flying back, and delivering their features the instant they get return or preferably sooner. (Not much of an exaggeration, actually.)

Whaddya wanna know?
But sometimes, when I've been especially good, I am allowed out and in the course of these jaunts do interview people to at least get some quotes. This is either pure fluff (how did you become a chef/ is that lion really heading for us/ what is that you're doing with your fingers) or about sexual health (how many clients do you have a day/ so, Monsignor, if condoms are forbidden, how exactly should people avoid HIV?). What I don't do at work, and have never done, is the intrusive kind of interview (how angry do you get when people ask you about your estranged sister? I'm not going away until you tell me.)

Many (non-journo) people are hugely critical about the press, particularly the tabloids (who weren't included on the panel). And a lot of the discussion at the meeting was about how to winkle information out of somewhat reluctant interviewees.

But, although it might be in the public interest to conduct a probing interview with politicians or other people with power over us, quite why a writer / actor / footballer's wife should be reduced to tears by someone's questions is beyond me.
I agree with the critics - I too am very distrustful of many journalists. Not only do they have an agenda that may not be your or my own (get "the story" at all costs), they are often either wilfully ignorant, or so short of time that they know nothing about you or the subject.

I was once pretty stitched up myself: I was interviewed about bisexuality for a major publication, and asked the writer specifically not to mention my son's name as he was only six. But it was. She also misquoted and warped the information from everyone else she interviewed: I know, because we all discussed it afterwards. This is kind of different from the other kind of interviewing I have experienced as a subject: on TV or radio, where you state your case and a rabid religious representative expresses the contrary. We would both go out of our way to avoid each other in ordinary life, of course.

On the other hand, many journalists do try to be ethical; I know that they have gone out of their way to be helpful and caring to the people they come into contact with. Personally, I always make sure people know what they are letting themselves in for. But then I don't generally meet the sort of people about whom Jeremy Paxman said "Why are those lying liars lying to me?"

Let's talk about (bi)sex
So while Vladmimir Putin or Liz Hurley might be safe from my caring/sharing questions, I have interviewed - in droves, shedloads, or whatever large-sized collective noun you can think of - bisexuals. All sorts of bisexuals - old/young; black/white; good /bad/indifferent; from the UK to Australia, via Germany, India, Mexico and, of course, North America; male/female/trans; of every combination of sexual/emotional attraction and behaviour; in person, on the phone, via the internet and instant messaging. And I have always enjoyed it. Their interviews/information has appeared in articles in newspapers and magazines, on my blog, in journal articles and, in books.

I hope - I think - that I have always been respectful, never uncomfortably probing, careful of the interviewee as well as the eventual reader. Lots of people are just bursting to talk about themselves. Often they have never done so before. And of course, I do think it is very important for bi people - indeed all people - to know about how bisexual people actually think, do and feel.

I have also been an interview subject for many MA and PhD students researching sexual identity development or somesuch - which has always been an interesting experience. This is in stark contrast to journalistic interviews. Academic interviewers have to abide by an incredibly strict code of ethics and their interviewees have to sign a paper saying they agree to be interviewed; that the tapes of their interview will be destroyed; and that they will be strictly anonymous. I think that they also have to submit their questions to an ethics committee first.

Two-way learning
Like one of these top-line interviewers at the meeting said, "I only want to interview people I can learn from". And if you are talking about your sexuality, usually something that is very precious to you and often something that people still don't talk about in public, and I am interviewing you, I will be learning from you. Whoever reads about your life will be learning as well.

Hopefully, you'll get something out of it too, even if it isn't a perfect bisexual interview.

Friday, April 13, 2007

All about my mother

You don't have to be particularly eagle-eyed to notice that it is a month since I posted last. This blog is by way of explanation, a completely off-topic diversion that I need to write. After all, blogs - even subject-specific blogs like this one - are filtered through their author's experience, are influenced by what is going on in the world.

So here we go then...

On 20th March my mother died... she was 82, had had a stroke, plus various "conditions", but in the final analysis, she died from "being in hospital". The first two causes of death on the certificate were "pneumonia" and "clostridium difficile". She caught the C.diff bug in hospital and, after two months' worth of antibiotics to (unsuccessfully) treat it, the drugs had no impact on the pneumonia. According to Radio 4, C.diff is mentioned in 1 in 250 death certificates in the UK. I also found out from the same radio programme - not the hospital - that you fight C.diff by washing with disinfectant, not by using the alcohol gel which stops MRSA. I never smelled disinfectant in her ward, just a sad, sickly mix of diarrhoea and vomit, with a side-order of nutrient-free hospital food. And a sticky floor. Those horror stories about elderly people with no relatives being treated badly: true. She probably would have died earlier if it hadn't been for the unstinting efforts of my sister Julia who was there every day, making sure that she hadn't pulled out her drips or was dying of dehydration.

Right, so I'm angry, which I didn't properly realise. Yes, she would have died anyway - but perhaps not for another year; yes, she was old; but - although some of the medical staff were great - many weren't. Some were caring, despite being harried and busy; others were arrogant shits for whom their patients seemed like so many lumps of meat. This partly to do with NHS lack of funds, but not all. Proper hospital cleaning would have helped and that does cost, but treating patients' relatives like they are incompetent morons has nothing to do with lack of money.

What about you?
I know that most people reading this, those whose mother is still alive, will be thinking of what is bound to happen eventually. As one of my friends said: "Your mother dying made me think of my own mother's death. And I simply couldn't bear it." Yes, and that thing you simply couldn't bear has to be borne anyway. And it seems unbearable whether or not your relationship was close and idyllic, or if you fought like cat and dog, or maintained a polite distance.
I know what the death of someone close is meant to make you think: about relationships being precious, about the necessity to carpe diem, and live life to the full. But what does that actually mean? I have always, constantly felt those things: how could it be otherwise, for someone whose father spent much of their childhood dying? I never felt that sense of immortality, that I and everyone I knew was going to live forever because we were young. But we all have to do things that are tiresome, not live to our fullest potential for a whole number of reasons, especially the time-consuming need to make ends meet. So how exactly do we "live life to the full"? I have to say, I'm buggered if I know.
There might be wisdom coming in the aftermath of death, but I certainly can't offer you any yet. Indeed, my main feeling is still that of disbelief. Is she really dead?
Below I've posted what the vicar read out at her funeral. She wasn't a churchgoer - she always said her Methodist upbringing was enough religion for anyone - and nor am I, but he was a very comforting vicar. A Welsh vicar, which - in suburban Essex - was simply serendipity. And we had "Land of our fathers" and "All through the night" sung by a Male Voice Choir, and Climb Every Mountain, from the Sound of Music which she loved.

Next time, back to bisexuality. Promise.

Patricia George, nee Lewis
23 May 1924 – 20 March 2007

There was never a time when we didn't know our mother was Welsh. Although she left South Wales to live in London in 1947 and her mother's family was originally from Devon, whenever asked our mother always said she was Welsh.

She grew up in Swansea and Haverfordwest with her sister Sylvia and went to university in Aberystwth to study Botany at 17, something that was unusual for a girl of her time and background. She had to take a break from her University studies for work of national importance during which she spent five months with the seed production office driving around the Pembrokeshire countryside in a land rover advising farmers - advice they sometimes didn't take to kindly to, particularly since she was only 21.

Her ambition was always to work at Kew Gardens and although it took her a year from her first application letter, and she had to take the Scientific Officer exam twice, she finally started work there in April 1947. She worked with the flora of many areas in the world, contributed to several papers and had a book published on British wild flowers. She always said how much she had enjoyed working there and how much it had lived up to her expectations.

She married our father Arthur George when she was 31 – at a time when many thought it was too late for her to have a family. Nevertheless, Susan was born in 1956 and Julia in 1961. It was during this time with help from family that they built their own home where they both lived almost to the end of their lives. She wrote weekly to her parents during this time letters full of the tales of normal family life and she often said that she enjoyed being a wife and mother.

In 1969, following a lengthy period of illness, both her father and then her husband died within three weeks of each other. Understandably, she found it difficult to deal alone with the responsibilities of home and children. In part because of this, our relationship with her as teenagers - in common with many families - was not always easy. But with the birth of Susan's son Alexis in 1984 she came into her own as a Grandma and the family became closer and happier again.

It was also during this time that her health improved and she found a renewed interest in the things that she had always enjoyed - the garden and birds, nature books, family history. She also travelled extensively.

In recent years as her health declined, she became more solitary, although she was always a person who had enjoyed her own company. She was also sometimes frustrated with her growing inability to do things. Despite this she still enjoyed time with her family and was always interested in Alexis' life.

Following a stroke at Christmas, combined with her existing health problems and several months in hospital, she became progressively weaker and developed pneumonia.

Perhaps as her children we underestimated the achievements of her life and didn't at the time appreciate the difficulties that faced her. Only with our own life experience have we developed more understanding and will miss her as a mother, grandmother, and for the person that she was.