Julia Golding
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The many talents of Julia Golding

With over 20 books published and a collection of pen names to match, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Julia Golding’s sole career has been as a hugely successful author of children’s and young adults’ literature. Not so: Golding has also worked as a foreign diplomat, graduated from both Cambridge and Oxford, and been an Oxfam lobbyist. Nowadays you can find her in the city writing for her next book, or talking at schools, bookshops and festivals.

It seems appropriate to discuss Golding’s authorship first, and I ask about the beginning of her career as a full time writer of fiction. It isn’t the usual nightmarish tale of the slush pile for months on end. “Well I’m unusual in that I had a very smooth journey from sending in a book to getting it published. What happened was, I’d been writing beforehand but I’d never sent anything serious off to a publisher… and I was on maternity leave with my third child and I wrote a book, as you do.” The book was sent straight to the very local Oxford University Press, who immediately expressed their interest. However delays meant that the wait for publishing was lengthy, so much so that Golding had time to write a second (unrelated) book, and send that to an agent. Again, the response was swift. Taken on by another top publisher, in 2006 Golding had her first two books published merely months apart, something that must have felt frustrating at the time but came good in the end. “So the first book I had published isn’t so much a first book and that’s worked out really well for me because that’s the one that won prizes and set me firmly on the way to making it a career as opposed to just having a book published,” Golding explains. “People say getting a book published is difficult but actually the really difficult thing is keeping going and it’s particularly difficult now. It’s carnage in publishing at the moment, total carnage.”

It’s carnage in publishing at the moment, total carnage

In the world of publishing, Golding is known by three names. I ask why the need to write as different people; as herself, and by two pen names, Joss Stirling and Eve Edwards. “There’s a creative answer and there’s a practical answer. So the creative answer is that I see them as three different kinds of expressions of what I do.” Julia Golding is mostly children’s literature from ages nine to thirteen; Joss Stirling is the name she then created for her teenage paranormal romances. Despite the description however, Golding definitely does not write books about love triangles or supernatural boyfriend issues. “I suppose I got fed up with seeing [my daughter] walking round with the Twilight books. I wanted to write something for her not in that heavy duty paranormal stuff, because I couldn’t seriously write about people turning into werewolves.” Her final pen name, Eve Edwards, is who she reserves for more historical fiction, in the vein of “a teen Philippa Gregory”.

To make enough money you have to do more than one book a year, unless you’re stratospherically famous

There is also a business side to Golding’s multiple identities. “It’s a very good strategy relating back to what I said about publishing being difficult at the moment, which is bookshops are reluctant to take more than too much of any writer. If you split up your load you can do more than one book a year, and to make enough money to live on you have to do more than one book a year, unless you’re stratospherically famous.”

In terms of her publishing schedule, Golding’s latest book has just been released. There has already been a phenomenal response from readers online to number four in the hugely popular Savant series, Misty Falls. However it almost didn’t happen, due to the publisher’s uncertainty about the future of the series. Sales of the previous instalments in a wide array of countries, as well as fan demand for more, changed their minds. “They then decided that maybe we hadn’t come to the end of the Savant series, because they’d packaged it as a trilogy, and they said can you do another. This is when you get the author creativity butting up against the publisher,” Golding tells me. “I said, ‘Well yeah, course I can, but I want to do another trilogy so I can finish off sorting out the brothers that I’d lined up’. I had it in mind to do that anyway. Because things are flaky out there they prefer to go book by book, but what I have in mind – what I’m going to do, I’m sure they’ll follow me in this one – is another three.”

Writing wasn’t always on the agenda, and while in her last year at Cambridge studying English, Golding began to cast around for future options. A master’s degree and a dream of radio production were both high on her list, but where she ended up was completely different from either. Desperate to get some interview experience, Golding signed up for the civil service exam. Totally relaxed about the whole affair, Golding came out of her final year with a degree and a job secured in the Foreign Office. The plans for the BBC had sadly fallen through, but the government was keen to employ her. “I was a bit more nervous by the time it came to final interview, and it wasn’t helped by the fact it was just a week before my finals, so I wasn’t sure which to be more nervous about. Whatever I did worked and I got selected for what they called then the fast-stream.”

Three years were spent in Poland as a diplomat, but Golding explains to me that not having had a year out, and too young for a promotion, it was time to try something new. “Also I wasn’t keen on the idea of being a nomad for the rest of my life, and if you work for the Foreign Office you’re a nomad,” Golding continues. “So I decided to do a doctorate and have children for a bit whilst I did a career break and then I’d decide if I’d go back or not.”

It wasn’t to be, and Golding never returned to the Foreign Office. Instead, after completing a doctorate in Romantic literature at Oxford and building a family, she went to work in the policy department of Oxfam, a process that involved lobbying at a high level. “It was a really good job, better than being in the Foreign Office, because it was on conflict issues it meant going round the UN; Brussels, governments, lobbying on the various things that were going on at the time including the war in Afghanistan. It was all about the protection of civilians in war and the delivery of aid.”

You’re always an author, but whether or not you’re published is open

When Golding had her final child, she decided to see if she could make something of writing. Describing herself as “frazzled” by a family and a job in conflict zones, she settled into the demands of authorship. Over 20 books and three pen names  later, this seems to be very firmly her career, and when I ask if that is the case Golding agrees.

“The difference between the other things I’ve mentioned and this is I’m the only one who can write my books, whereas somebody else could do the role I was doing in the organisations. But the thing about being an author is it’s not so much your choice about how long the career lasts but for how long you have something which is commercial. You’re always an author but whether or not you’re published […] is open. I’m trying to make it last.”

 

PHOTO/Julia Golding

PHOTO/Simon & His Camera
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A country bumpkin confronts city life

I’ve been in London this week, one of the few times I’ve been there. Or any other British city, for that matter. This in itself goes a pretty long way to introducing myself, and only a tenth of the way through my column – so ideal. Alternatively, I could have told you how I encountered my first kerb: slap, bang in the middle of my forehead, an unwelcome find for the keen and freshly stabiliser-free cyclist. Confused as to why a grassy verge, or at least a cowpat, hadn’t broken my fall, I was greeted with a worms-eye view of an absurd twist of concrete, which had appeared to writhe out of nowhere. Bike bucking in panic, me tumbling down to meet it: “Welcome to the city,” it sneered.

But then I realised that the latter was a necessary addition anyway. Fifteen minutes ago I was a sardine, packed into a tin and cartwheeling beneath London. And during that time I learnt more than just the working population’s hygiene habits, or what my neighbour’s music ‘jam’ was. I learnt more than what I would during a week languishing in my country retreat (ahem – equivalent to a convent, really). Perched royally beside me, the poor victims to many an aching-legged jealous glare of the standing, was an elderly man, kindly wrinkles pinching round wide eyes. Next to him a cleanshaven, coiffured, younger. So, the older man was playing Candy Crush. On an iPad. Very thoughtfully and earnestly, bent over the screen in complete concentration. Next to him, his neighbour, was knitting. A complex little red and white number. It was just so refreshing. And so welcome between those sweaty-bodied breaths.

I’d never seen these things before. Welcome to the city.

 

PHOTO/Simon & His Camera

ISIL Response
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There are no easy answers to Isis

Due to technical errors, the publication of this article was delayed by two weeks.

 

Faced with grizzly videos of beheadings and massacres, the demand that something must be done about the so-called Islamic State (Isis) is a natural reaction.  Moreover, given the hundreds of billions of dollars the west spends on defence, it seems reasonable to think that doing something should be possible.  After all, what’s the point of all our expensive weaponry (The F-22 Raptor, on its first combat missions in Iraq, costs the US $150mn apiece) if we can’t achieve something with it?  It is a mistake to think this is the case: western intervention carries no guarantees of defeating Isis in any meaningful sense, while bearing a significant risk of worsening the situation.

Public and political opinion has shifted in favour of intervention, but it is hard to say what for – we are rushing headlong into a conflict against an ill-defined enemy with an ill-defined mission.  Airstrikes can certainly hamper Isis’ ability to make war by preventing their forces from moving openly and striking their command structures and heavy weaponry, but airstrikes alone cannot defeat the group.  Even with ground support, defeating Isis is as much about creating a society that rejects the group as about victory on the battlefield.  This is where the plan comes unravelled, and the bigger question appears: what is our endgame?  What does mission-accomplished look like?

The west has intervened against many undoubtedly disagreeable regimes in recent years – most recently in Libya – but western leaders have often found winning the peace to be much harder than winning the war.  In Iraq, the US-led coalition forces were able to defeat Saddam’s army in six weeks, but after eight years of occupation and reconstruction the mission to build a stable, inclusive liberal democracy has clearly failed.  It is hard to say with any confidence that Iraq today is any better off than if the 2003 invasion had not taken place.

Similarly, in Libya the western military campaign was a success – Gaddafi’s regime was brought down with few civilian casualties.  But the unpleasant regime has not been replaced by a desirable one, but rather by what looks increasingly like a failed state and a civil war.  Time will tell if Libya develops into the sort of state the west would like to see, but the signs do not look encouraging.

We cannot be at all sure that any power vacuum left by weakening Isis will not be filled by equally unpleasant groups – as has happened to varying degrees in both Iraq and Libya.  Even if the Iraqi government can restore control, undermine Isis’ support base, and create an inclusive society, continued instability in Syria will permeate the porous border.  Plans to arm moderate elements of the Syrian opposition to fight both Isis and Assad do not appear credible at this point.  Our best likely endgames look like either victory for Assad and stability in Iraq, or continued civil war spilling across the Syrian border, hardly hopeful prospects.

And then, what if the aerial campaign doesn’t work?

This is where the real risk lies – if a combination of western-led airstrikes and Iraqi forces proves insufficient to dislodge Isis, then what?  Large scale supplies of combat equipment to the Peshmerga and/or Iraqi Army seems a likely next step (and indeed has already begun).  This equipment will need to be accompanied by ‘advisors’ to ensure its proper use – any weaponry likely to make a difference will require specialist training, if not outright operation.  From here, how long until these advisors play a combat role – either operating hi-tech weaponry alongside local allies or scouting targets for airstrikes?

There is still little real appetite, even in the USA, for a long and protracted engagement and the body count that implies.  Anything that Isis can spin as a western defeat will strengthen and legitimise the group far more than not intervening.  If the west is not prepared to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to conclusively defeat Isis, a half-hearted attempt that leads us to an ambiguous defeat and withdrawal is worse than doing nothing.  Our current course may well force us to decide between escalation and ignominious retreat.

Worse still, western intervention on the ground has the potential to turn the perception of the conflict into a war between the west and the (Sunni) Muslim world – as Isis would so clearly like it to be seen.  Nothing will build support for militant jihad more than the presence of yet more western troops in the Middle East – if our concern really is about our own security, this certainly doesn’t enhance it.

Embarking on a campaign to defeat a group of violent fundamentalists and bring freedom and democracy to Iraq (again) sounds like a worthy ideal.  Embarking on a campaign to replace one group of sectarian murderers with another, hopefully less-bad group, all while running the risk of getting sucked into a long and bloody conflict, does not.

 

PHOTO/ US Department of Defense Current Photos

 

fat-pig
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Preview: Fat Pig

I arrive mid-rehearsal of Fat Pig into an intense argument that feels more like a courtroom drama than the scene of a comedy. Yet, the immediate connection I witnessed between characters solidifies what this play is about – human relations and interactions.

Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig has been widely performed since its inception in 2006 from Melbourne to Mexico City. This is indicative of the play’s universal appeal dealing with the endless obsession with weight in society.

Talking to the director/producer/lead actress (and probably more roles than can be listed here) Phosile Mashinkila, she tells me that this universal appeal is why she wanted to put this play on in Oxford. We are bombarded with a constant stream of body shaming every day in the media yet it still remains a difficult topic to talk about.

Fat Pig concerns Tom (Jason Imlach) who falls in love with plus-sized Helen (the aforementioned Phosile Mashinkila) and how his friends and colleagues react to this. Yet, this play with its brash direct dialogue is not pushing morals but instead about confronting this issue head on. The audience may feel uncomfortable, they may not want to hear the horrible things that are being discussed but surely a shout out loud is better than a whisper behind backs.

The Burton Taylor Studio, then, is perhaps a perfect venue for this play. With its not-quite darkness, and closely compacted seats, the will be no space for an audience to hide. This is not to say that the play isn’t an enjoyable watch as LaBute’s writing offers comedy as well as depth that Mashinkila’s clever directorial touches aid – whether it be the sly offering of chocolate or the dramatic dropping of a book.

The scene I was shown was the second scene in the play – a tense office scene where Tom is confronted by both his co-workers – Jeanie (Martha Reed) and Carter (Brian Chandrabose) – asking whether he is seeing someone. Even in this brief extract it is clear to see that the actors have thought a great deal about their dynamics and relationship. As an audience member, you already begin to question your sympathy when the bullied Tom in one interaction becomes spineless in another.

This play is what the best drama is – real people and real situations. Down to its uncomfortable dialogue, bitter sweet ending and comedic moments, this is a play you won’t want to miss.

‘Fat Pig’ plays at the Burton Taylor Studio from 22nd October – 25th October

Photo credit: BT publicity

Chamber-2
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Why the first debate of the year has left me with little confidence in the Union

 

As one of the most famous university societies in the world, the Oxford Union Society is one of the most valuable assets the University has; the opportunity to listen to world-class speakers and debates exposes people to conflicts of opinion, new ideas and controversial topics. It’s hardly surprising that Oxford consequently produces so many future politicians. With an equally talented committee and team of debaters, the Union does present some of the very best parts of Oxford.

However, unless we’re careful, the Union’s place within the University as a forum for well-matched and heated debate will be lost. To some extent it already has been.

Before my arrival in Oxford this month as a Fresher, I was already well aware of the controversies that often surround the Union, particularly recently. I was expecting a certain level of distrust from the students. Most importantly, I was expecting this to be across all the students. On arrival however, I discovered it is a startlingly different state of affairs.

As expected, the Union was full to bursting on the evening of the annual debate on the motion, “This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government”. A debate of almost legendary status, there was a noticeably strong turnout of Freshers, our first experience of the Union. However, what started to become clear was the presence of OUCA. Specifically, vocal OUCA men. On looking around to find similar representation by other political and social societies of the University, I simply couldn’t find any. OUCA’s presence was in no way a bad thing. The fact that it was not matched by any other groups and the startlingly few women among their numbers, is a bad thing. On speaking to people around Oxford, it is Feminist groups and politically centrist or left societies who have taken the strongest stand against the Union. As a student who falls into both of those categories, I had, at times, a rather uncomfortable evening.

Thankfully, any denial of Labour’s responsibility for the UK’s recession was hotly contested by the Tory MPs. Sir Alan Duncan’s sexist joke for cheap laughs however didn’t receive the reaction it should have done. It received laughs. Perhaps an indication of why, twice, the President of the Union had to directly appeal for women speakers to take the floor. Alok Sharma’s description of Thatcher as the light at the end of the 70’s Labour tunnel received cheers that were not answered with boos or protestation. The same occurred when a student made a speech for the opposition arguing that 100 years ago we were “Number One” in the world, but now, thanks to Labour, we are a measly “Number six.” Sorry, but brutal colonialism isn’t really my thing. And just to make sure a sufficient range of people felt out of place, Nicky Morgan’s tale of phoning up her Father to ask for £80 to join the Union was simply privileged, darling.

This is absolutely not a criticism of the Tories. The Union should be upheld as forum of free speech and debate. Right or wrong, it is the controversial issues which appeal to the student body and get people talking the most. And the Debate certainly had plenty to offer. Yet these issues weren’t received as controversial because of the imbalance of representation at the Debate. My gasps of astonishment were hardly going to be audible amongst the cheers of Tory men. By failing to appeal to Feminist groups and other political parties, the debate embodies the precarious self-perpetuating imbalance that made and will continue to make people like me more and more uncomfortable.

It’s not an easy situation to resolve. The logical argument would be for me to encourage as many people to join the Union as possible and attend as many debate and talks as possible, to ensure the imbalance I witnessed on Thursday of 1st week is rebalanced. However, with 29 men to just 5 women as guest speakers on the term card, the imbalance seems to be institutional. While this may be of no surprise, as a woman, I am hardly enthused by the prospect of dedicating 83% (ish) of my time to a testosterone-filled chamber.

Yet by simply not attending the Union, I am only adding to the gender and political imbalance that I witnessed. By encouraging others to not attend, I am reducing yet further the number of people who can dispute the generally right-of-centre male arguments. For me, distancing myself from the Union on political grounds is the easy option. Refusing to join on feminist grounds is a well-founded one. But encouraging people simply not to join won’t change anything. By not paying my membership fee I would be reducing the Union’s ability to invite women. This will do nothing to institutionally change the Union.

Our protestations have to be loud. We need to encourage other political groups to have as strong a presence in the Union as possible. From Labour to UKIP. If OUCA want to reserve seats at a debate, so they should, but so also should everyone else. Understandably, there will be students and alumni who simply will not feel comfortable partaking in Union events. As a woman and a Feminist I am well aware of this and have grappled with the same decision. Either way, our protest cannot be silent. I will simply not accept a Union who sees 5 out of 34 as an adequate number of women speakers.

By attending as many of the Union’s events as possible, you are making your voice heard and representing a different perspective. The power of one person cannot be undervalued in this situation. It is through this that we can hope to change the unequal representation I witnessed at the Debate. For those who choose to make their stand by staying away, make your protestations as vocal as possible. This is our only hope of saving the Union as a force for good.

 

 

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Union Secretary resigns

Union Secretary Dom Merchant has resigned for ‘health reasons’.

Merchant, a 2nd year at New College, issued a statement, saying: “It is with great regret that I am resigning my position as Secretary for health reasons. I have greatly enjoyed my time on committee and am very sorry for the disruption this will cause to the committee and the members. However, I need to put my own well-being first and I am unable to continue in the role.”
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