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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Memoir Masterclasses: Glasgow and London

Telling Your Story: 
a memoir masterclass with Belle de Jour
 

Have you ever thought your life would make an amazing story? 

From celebrity tell-alls to confessional diarists, memoirs are hugely popular with the press and public.
 

But memoirs are not only for or about the rich and famous. Many beloved memoirs are stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – examining personal triumphs, bouts with illness, relationships, work, and much more. The page is the canvas, and your life experience is the palette.
 

Perhaps you are planning a personal memoir or other autobiographical work such as blogging, journalling, or feature columns, and want tips for turning events into stories. Or maybe you are already writing personal non-fiction and want to know how to take it to the next level. Interested in writing fiction based on and incorporating your own unique experiences? This workshop is also for you. NaNoWriMo participants are especially welcome.
 

About the course

This lively one-day workshop combines practical advice with hands-on activities designed to stretch your boundaries. The event will entertain and challenge writers at all levels - from those who are taking their first steps, to experienced old hands.

Whether aiming for literary heights or mainstream readerships, there are tools every effective memoirist has in their toolbox. You'll learn the craft of knowing what to share and what to leave out. You'll learn how to hone your unique voice, the most important part of any memoir. Most importantly you will go away with new skills to infuse life into your words.



I had been toying with making the leap from academic writing into the popular market for a long time but had absolutely no idea how to do it. Brooke was the perfect mentor, offering guidance on how to write manuscript proposals and thoughtful critiques on early drafts. She struck a perfect balance, giving equal doses of patience, support and frank appraisal. With her help, I landed a literary agent immediately and have just delivered my third manuscript.

- Debra Komar, author of The Ballad of Jacob Peck and The Lynching of Peter Wheeler

Course details

Glasgow

Date: Saturday 25 October 2014
Times: 10am-5pm. Check-in begins 30 minutes before the start time.
Location: Mitchell Library, North St, Glasgow G3 7DN
Price: £99


London

Date: Sunday 26 October 2014
Times: 10am-5pm. Check-in begins 30 minutes before the start time.
Location: TBA (will be in Tottenham Court Road area)
Price: £99


Optional manuscript clinic

Bring your 50 double-spaced pages of a long work in progress (fiction or nonfiction), or equivalent shorter pieces, for a followup with Brooke after the course has ended. You'll receive directed feedback and advice via email and Skype, designed to help kickstart your creative flow.


Brooke motivated me to get my arse in gear to come up with a better book proposal and sample chapter. She gave really helpful and encouraging feedback and great insider advice on getting published. With her help I'm now much more confident in my project and am determined to get it out there.

- Justin Hancock, BISH Training

Places are limited - register now!

Glasgow: Saturday, 25 October

London: Sunday, 26 October

Thursday, 27 February 2014

In Defence of Anonymity

Last month, I was invited to speak at TEDx East End. The theme was 'Society Beyond Borders,' so I opted to talk about the history of anonymity, and why it is so important to preserve it for marginalised activists and writers.

Very often when you see the word 'anonymous' these days, it's followed almost immediately by the word 'troll'. But the rich history of anonymity and pseudonymity is far more than that, and has been a refuge for artists and others almost since the beginning of recorded history. In this talk I explore some of the leading lights of anonymity, and why they chose not to use their real names.


Sunday, 11 August 2013

BREAKING NEWS: I was a sex worker.

This morning I awoke to find this claim from an ex of mine, Mr George O H "Owen" Morris, that I was not a sex worker.

I have known Owen Morris was going to go to the papers (well, the Mail on Sunday) for some time, as this assertion by him turned up in the claims he is making in Scottish court.

It is a direct attack on my integrity as a writer, to claim that I lied. And I have been prepared.

When the case goes to trial, I will have to present evidence that I was a sex worker. Starting with this - an Archive.org snap of my first escorting ad from October 2003 (link NSFW).

(Readers of the first book may recall this was the session with the grumpy photographer I wrote about. As I have often said, it was that experience - being made to wear terrible lingerie, awkward poses, all the rest - that first made me think, 'hey, I should be blogging this.' Mr Morris was in fact there that day when the photographer turned up, and left before the photos started.

And if you read the third book, I made a reference to a restaurant on Old Compton Street that has the same name as my working name - that is, of course, Taro.)

I will also be presenting my bank records from 2003-04, showing the cash deposits from the money I earned as an escort, and tax records from the same years showing that this income was declared to HMRC and tax paid. Here is a sample:

 
I also have the notebook in which I recorded details of appointments, etc. In several instances I have been able to piece together entries from the notebook, deposits to my accounts, and the corresponding entries in the book.

Mr Morris says he would "never knowingly" sleep with a prostitute. I will be presenting a diary Mr Morris wrote in 2003-04 that he gave to me in 2005; in it he records several references to his knowledge of my sex work. The diary details his thoughts, as early as 2003, about how he was going to reveal me to the press "not if but when". Maggie McNeill later obtained, and published, the entire diary on her site.

There is of course also Mr Morris's earlier kiss-and-tell with the Mail. Back then, you'll note, his story was significantly different. Circa 2009 he was saying he did know I was an escort, but claimed he thought I never slept with clients. Yeah? Pull the other one sunshine.

There will also be the full police report I made in 2009 when Mr Morris threatened my husband online, which includes the frankly bizarre letters he sent after I cut off contact with him. The Avon & Somerset constabulary reference is 148901/09. Excerpts from his letters acknowledging his awareness of my sex work are below, the letters were signed by him and in handwritten, postmarked envelopes also on file with the police:


In the Mail he also says I didn't own nice enough clothes so couldn't have been an escort!


That's from December 2003, and is the same red silk top I wore to meet the manager for the first time (as written about in the first book). The next is at Henley Regatta in July 2004, suit is from Austin Reed, the bracelet was a gift from a client.


Maybe what he means is he didn't know I had nice clothes? Ah, unlikely. Here's a photo from the Sheffield sports ball in 2003. I'm in the front row sporting a red and gold dress and ill-advised bob. He's third from the left in the middle row.


In the Mail he claims I was in Sheffield when writing the blog, but I moved to London in September 2003 and started escorting in October, starting blogging a few weeks later. All of which is easy - trivial, even - to prove.

Oh, and the "former landlady in Sheffield, who did not wish to be named", where I supposedly lived for three years? Who apparently saw me in 'Oxfam jumpers'? Hmm... I lived one year in university accommodation (St George's Flats),  one year in a shared flat with an absentee landlord I never met (Hawthorne Road), and one year on my own in a house let through an agency (Loxley New Road). All well before moving to London. So either the landlady is lying about the timing of my tenancy and having met me, or (shock, horror) they made it up.

There's much more but it would be boring to put it all here. It's amazing to me the MoS made no effort at all to match anything he said against things that are easy to find and in the public domain. Or his solicitors for that matter. But that's by the by, and will come out in due course. The amount of fantasist nonsense from Mr Morris boggles the mind. You can read his own blog for more unfiltered blather. The people who are encouraging and enabling him to do this - it's a bit sad really.

It matters because this is a concerted and direct attack on my work as a writer. When I was anonymous, being real was my main - my only - advantage. Mr Morris and the Mail on Sunday have made some frankly nonsense claims, and I will be going to town on this.

Because I know people do not trust the word of a sex worker, that is why I saved everything.

I look forward to the opportunity to rebut all claims Mr Morris will be making in court. (The MoS claim the trial is expected "within weeks." In fact it is scheduled for June 2015.)

Friday, 26 April 2013

Should Mia Freedman Apologise?

I went to Australia last month as a guest of the Opera House for the All About Women symposium.  As part of the event, I agreed to do some media appearances on ABC, including the Drum and Q&A.

All About Women was a fantastic day and I feel privileged to have met so many interesting and talented people there, including people I would put in the category of genuine modern heroes

As for Q&A… this is the Australian equivalent of Question Time, so I went anticipating a varied panel with a wide variety of opinions jostling to be heard. I was told Tony Jones was a strong moderator, so I went expecting him to rein in the conversation if things went off-piste. This was to be Q & A's first all-woman panel and expectations were high. The topics they circulated beforehand indicated I was in for a grilling while everyone else got softball. I went, not to put too fine a point on it, loaded for bear.

I thought it went pretty well. Opinions differed. Points of view were exchanged. Margaret Thatcher died. All in all, a good night. The producers seemed very pleased with the outcome.

So imagine my surprise, weeks later, that fellow guest Mia Freedman is still flogging her commentary about the appearance as content on her site MamaMia. The topic: should she apologise for continually insulting sex workers?

During the show Mia kept falling back on sloppy, ill-thought, and pat little lines that were easily countered. I found to my surprise a lot of common ground with Germaine Greer, hardly known as a fan of sexual entertainment, on the fact that conditions of labour and not sex per se are the most pressing issue for sex workers worldwide right now. Then in comes Mia with her assumptions about the people who do sex work (men AND women) and the people who hire them (men AND women). With Tony backing her up. So much for the disinterested moderator, eh? Maybe he felt bad for her. I don't know.

Here's the thing. I agree with Mia on this: I don't think she should apologise.

Why not? Because if she did it would be insincere. My first impression when we met backstage was that she was insincere, and damn it, a successful lady editor like her should have the guts to be true to herself and stand by her opinions no matter what they are.

Because the general public needs to see what kinds of uninformed nonsense that sex workers who stick their heads above the parapet get every single day.

Because she is a magazine editor who cares deeply about hits and attention, and clearly this is delivering on every level.

Because the sort of people who think sex workers should be topics of discussion rather than active participants are fighting a losing battle.

Because for every 100 people who visit her site, there is one who is both a parent AND a sex worker, who knows that what she is saying is rubbish. And another one who is the parent of a sex worker and loves them. Yes, that's right Mia: sex workers have families too. Believe it or not even I have an awesome, strong, feminist mother who loves and supports me no matter what. Why, it's almost as if we're people.

Not only do I not want Mia's apology, I don't need it. I have butted heads with far bigger opponents than her and rest assured I sleep just fine. That a blogger (who knows sweet f. a. about sex work) keeps stirring up her supporters to hate on sex workers is not my dog. She's just joining the end of a very long and undistinguished queue.

Keep digging, Mia. I ain't gonna stop you. Keep writing off other people simply because they didn't have the privileges you did or didn't make the same choices you did, and you can't accept that. Get it off your chest, lock up your children, whatever you think you need to do to keep believing that makes you better than me. Keep being ignorant about the real issues and real people involved. May I gently suggest perhaps you have some issues about sex you want to work out in public, or this wouldn't be the biggest issue on your agenda weeks after the show went to air?

Mia, you have my express permission not to apologise. No, don't thank me… I insist.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Right to a family life 'not absolute'?

Theresa May, as per her now-weekly ritual, manages to make herself look ridiculous again. This time it's over Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or as Ms May likes to refer to it, "Human" rights. That's okay, Theresa - I use scare quotes when referring to you as a "human" too.

Article 8 is the right to a family life which, if you read the right-wing papers, is somehow responsible for everything wrong in Britain today. How exactly something intended to keep families together is in direct opposition to the aims of a government that claims its priority is to... err... keep families together is some question indeed.

This is the law that, according to May last year, let someone brown and gay stay in the UK because he had a cat. Only, that isn't what happened. Because as people who have interacted with the law know, it's wasn't the immigrant's rights that were being upheld. Nor even the cat's. It was the human rights of his UK-born, British partner. A right which May does not consider "absolute".

The changes are set to come in July 9th. If your wedding is scheduled for the day after, too bad, according to May. It's being couched with stories of criminals for now. Andrew Marr interviewing May this morning tried to focus on that aspect. But in the interview May clearly spoke of targeting all family settlement visas. As those of use who have been following the proposed changes know, the government would like very much for this policy to apply to everyone. Unless of course they're rich.

Chew on that a while if you please. Because for every story of some migrant who, according to the rabid anti-immigration types, is packing the country full and sheltering behind their "supposed" "human" "right" to "a" "family life" (have I got enough quotes in there for you, Theresa?) there is actually a British person whose family is being threatened.

You might not like the idea of British people falling in love with foreigners and wanting to settle here, you know, the place where they live. But there it is.

Well, you might be thinking, it's extreme all right but migration needs to be controlled. Then consider instead the fact that people from elsewhere in the EU can bring their non-EU spouses here, claim treaty rights, and settle with almost no need to navigate the byzantine UK Border Agency applications. They can move here and bring their families, but if you're British? You won't have those same rights here. The government is endorsing a policy that actively discriminates against the families of British people. Surely even people who oppose all immigration must be wondering what the hell is going on there.

And while we're here, let's bust a few myths:
  • The criminal myth. This route lets in criminals? Um, no. Applying under the family route already means you can't enter if you have unspent convictions (even traffic violations) in the UK or your country of origin.
  • The benefits myth. This route leads to foreigners eating up UK benefits without paying in? Wrong again. Applying under the family route already means you have no recourse to public funds, i.e. benefits. It's stamped on your visa so there's no mistaking.
  • The job-poaching myth. Non-EU migrants are stealing jobs from British people? Go on, pull the other one. By EU law it is illegal to hire a non-EU/EEC person unless the employer can show there were no minimally qualified European applicants. This is one I've run up against before. It's deeply depressing to be told you were by far the best applicant, but someone whose qualifications barely scraped the job description is hired instead. If someone like me gets a job, say, scrubbing toilets for minimum wage - which I have done - it's not because I was willing to work for less. It's because British people didn't want that job enough to even apply for it. Not my fault.
No one disputes the right – indeed, the responsibility – of a government to oversee migration and restrict it where necessary. Most of us who come here do not object to playing by the rules. But the reasons May gave for the changes are misleading. The consultation she references was heavily influenced by suggestions from the pressure group MigrationWatch and concerned mainly with forced marriage and money. And crucially, they will do nothing to stop people who flout the rules, only punish people who do try to do things by the book.

May claims changing the settlement rules will "differentiate between genuine and non-genuine relationships". Only the government's already making forced marriage illegal. Detailed spouse interviews might be a sensible policy to put off sham weddings but May has no plans to introduce these, as presumably that would mean hiring and training more Border Agency staff. May is concerned about migrants not fitting in, as well. But there are no suggestions the Life In the UK test will be changed to become more relevant... and in fact, May wants more people to take it. The laughably unfit-for-purpose LIUK tests out-of-date information that is not remotely useful for living here. I memorised the percentage of single-parent families in Wales circa five years ago for why, exactly? It's as good a tool for integration as a spork is for digging the Channel Tunnel. A 1950s ship steward's handbook is better prep for living here. A copy of Heat better still.

Let's look at a couple of suggestions for reforming immigration that are often suggested by the public, who probably have a better understanding of the needs of the British economy than most politicians do:
  • Many people say they would like to see an immigration points system across the board, like the one used for the now-discontinued Tier 1 General visas. This system took into account a balance of age, qualifications, employment, history in the UK, as well as income. It wasn't perfect but at least it acknowledged that people who are young and qualified or employed as key workers are unlikely to have high incomes (yet).
  • People also say they would like a system "like Australia's". Australia is sometimes assumed to be the last word in hardline immigration policy. But as far as I know - this from friends of mine who have moved - the British people who qualify for skills-based residency are allowed to bring their partners and families regardless of income. Short term access to cash isn't the main factor; the longer-term needs of the local economy are. An electrician's wife gets to stay because she is a family member and he is vital to their growth. It seems reasonable.
So why is Theresa still harping on if forced marriage, sham unions, integration, and net benefit to long-term economic health are not actually being addressed by the change?

The key to what these proposals really mean is in the election pledge: Cameron promised to reduce net migration. That's not the number of migrants total, that's the difference between migrants arriving and British citizens leaving. Sorry to break it to those who think the country is "packed full" or "under siege": the government is not interested in decreasing migration per se. They'd be as happy if immigration increased, as long as loads of Britons left. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mail readers.

While the majority of incomers to the UK come from Europe, EU inward migration is something that can not be changed legally without leaving the EU. As well, fewer Brits are moving to Spain and France than used to since the bottom fell out of the holiday housing market there. So attacking the family route, non-EU migrant is the easiest way to lower the numbers. If a married couple cannot settle, not only has a migrant left, so has a UK citizen. This gets net migration down twice as fast as controlling other visas. The approach is crafted to appear successful to the rightwing without producing meaningful change for anyone.

Getting extra British people to leave must be part of the consideration, otherwise why attack family route visas at all? It's not the largest category by a long shot. Last year 564,005 non-visitor visas were issued outside the UK. Of those, 57% were student visas, 26% were work visas and a scant 8% were family settlement. They've already taken steps to ensure coming in as a student is not a route to settlement, and work visas are being tightened as well. Even with those changes it's going to be next to impossible to get net migration in line with the party's promise without a lot of people leaving. The potential to double the result is what makes raising the bar for family settlement so attractive to the likes of May.

Even so, the numbers are not going to go down that easily - even someone whose stand on immigration is very conservative should be able to see that May's plan will not deliver the promised numbers. EU migration in particular can not be addressed in the current system. Well, helpfully, the stalling economy affects net migration too. Plenty of folks say they would leave if they could, many are. Hey presto, population control achieved at the cost of making people into the very economic migrants they say they hate. Way to go Dave and Co.!

If I sound cynical about the government juking the stats that's because I am. In 2010 I changed from highly skilled migrant to a marriage visa out of attachment to my husband and as a statement of our intent to live in the UK. Little did I think that it might have been better to stay with the visa I was on, or even remain single. Those aren't the kinds of jaded assessments you want to make when planning a life together.

Our situation is better than many because I was already working here, so my income counts on our applications. For those who meet abroad the picture is very different. Overseas income doesn't count unless you have huge savings to bring here - over £16k under the new rules. Third party support (aka getting cash from family) will no longer count towards income. And there will no doubt be people who fall in love and get married before they realise there's no way they can bring their new husband or wife to live with them. Not legally, anyway.

May proposes upping the minimum income level to £18600, goes up to £22000 if you have a child, then adds £2400 for each additional dependent. In other words: means-tested love. It doesn't consider a family's real expenses, wealth such as house equity, or where they live. Apart from London and the Southwest, average gross earnings for families of any size everywhere are close to or below this amount. Huge numbers of UK households would not meet the new requirement. The applications care about income only - not the type of work you do or whether it's in demand - so key workers like teachers and nurses would be unable to sponsor a partner. Here is a template to write your MP about these changes.

In spite of the vast differential in living expenses between various parts of the country, there is no suggestion a family's actual expenses will be taken into account. For example: we live in the Scottish Highlands and own our house outright, so basic monthly outgoings are minimal compared to someone who is carrying a mortgage in London. We all know people who are barely making ends meet on professional incomes and others who are living their dream on a shoestring budget. Applying an arbitrary income level to all applicants makes no sense.

Under the old rules, family-visa applicants must already show they have enough income to cover essential bills. Most submit a budget to reflect their individual circumstances. This is to prevent migrants from relying on the state; what critics of family immigration don't realise is that most of us can't receive benefits anyway. My biometric ID (remember those? You may not have them, but we do) clearly states "No public funds". Family migrants can – and do – go to work and pay into the system like anyone else. If you have the right to work but no right to public funds of course that's what you do. And we are not exempt from UK taxes just because we weren't born here.

There is a pervasive myth that migrants do not contribute, which is in stark contrast not only to most people's real-life understanding of the immigrant work ethic, but also  just about any stats you care to present (see below for the numbers on benefits). Look at the representation of visible first- and second-generation migrants in food service, in the NHS... these are not people who came over with established careers and huge bank balances, because if you already had those, why would you move halfway round the world? They're people who came with skills, desire, and elbow grease to spare. If you think migration started with New Labour and is a net loss to Britishness, then maybe it's you who should be taking the Life in the UK test.

DWP statistics [pdf] show foreign-born residents – at 13% of the population – represent only 6.4% of benefits claimants; 7% of foreign-born residents receive them, compared with 17% of UK-born residents. (In these stats, 'foreign born' can mean EU, who are entitled to benefits here unlike most non-EU; it can also mean born abroad but British passport holding as well. So for foreign-born, non-EU, non-UK passport, the percentage is probably rather lower.) They also find no effect on youth unemployment.

Consider same-sex partnerships, for whom moving elsewhere as a couple may not be an option whatever their income. I hope the LGBT community starts to make more noise about this, because my guess is it will be a same-sex union that is the first to test May's changes in court. Many same-sex couples do not have the option to "just" settle elsewhere as a family. Here's a couple already facing potential problems from those changes, whose wedding date was set ages ago for what now turns out to be three weeks after the new rules come in. The media fallout should things like this hit the court system? Will not be pretty.

Since when was income correlated with how real love is, or how well anyone fits in? Being able to afford jumping through the hoops does not make my marriage more genuine than anyone else's. It just means I have the money and time to negotiate the new rules. Most overseas partners will not be as lucky.

Vince Cable had it right when he criticised "the timewasting bureaucracy which stops foreigners working, studying in – or even visiting – Britain legitimately". The changes May suggests don't do much to worry the people who are staying illegally and cause a lot of stress for those who are on the level.

May's weasel words about the right to a family life not being "absolute" - her talk about "balancing" this right against other rights - doesn't hold water. How does a family settling here affect someone else's human rights? I've scratched my head on this a while and can't come up with a single sensible example.

The spouses and family members, and British people who love them, are paying the price for political expediency and pandering. These are British families plain and simple and the current government wants them out. Make no mistake, natives: this government wishes you would all just go away.

This year I finally became a permanent resident of the UK after two years of marriage and a whole lot more of living and working here. As we left the Border Agency appointment my husband seemed a bit put out. "All they wanted were my bank statements and your fingerprints," he mused. "They didn't even ask me what colour your toothbrush was."

Thursday, 10 May 2012

How To Blog Anonymously (and how not to)

Further to yesterday's post, this is a list of thoughts prompted by a request from Linkmachinego on the topic of being an anonymous writer and blogger. Maybe not exactly a how-to (since the outcome is not guaranteed) as a post on things I did, things I should have done, and things I learned.

It's not up to me to decide if you "deserve" to be anonymous. My feeling is, if you're starting out as a writer and do not yet feel comfortable writing under your own name, that is your business and not mine. I also think sex workers should consider starting from a position of anonymity and decide later if they want to be out, please don't be naive. Statistics I made up right now show 99 out of 100 people who claim 'if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear' are talking out of their arses.

The items in the list fall into three general categories: internet-based, legal and real-world tips, and interpersonal. Many straddle more than one of these categories. All three are important.

This is written for a general audience because most people who blog now do not have extensive technical knowledge, they just want to write and be read. That's a good thing by the way. If you already know all of this, then great, but many people won't. Don't be sneery about their lack of prior knowledge. Bringing everyone up to speed on the technology is not the goal: clear steps you can use to help protect your identity from being discovered are.

Disclaimer: I'm no longer anonymous so these steps are clearly not airtight. Also there are other sources of information on the Web, some of which are more comprehensive and more current than my advice. I accept no responsibility for any outcome of following this advice. Please don't use it to do illegal or highly sensitive things. Also please don't use pseudonyms to be a dick.
This is also a work in progress. As I remember things or particular details, I'll amend this post. If you have suggestions of things that should be added, let me know.

1. Don't use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail et al. for your mail.

You will need an email address to do things like register for blog accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and more. This email will have to be something entirely separate from your "real" email addresses. There are a lot of free options out there, but be aware that sending an email from many of them also sends information in the headers that could help identify you.

When I started blogging, I set up an email address for the blog with Hotmail. Don't do this. Someone quickly pointed out the headers revealed where I worked (a very large place with lots of people and even more computers, but still more information than I was comfortable with). They suggested I use Hushmail instead, which I still use. Hushmail has a free option (though the inbox allocation is modest), strips out headers, and worked for me.

A caveat with this: if you are, say, a sex worker working in a place where that is not legal and using Hushmail, you could be vulnerable to them handing over your details to a third party investigating crimes. If you're handling information some governments might consider embarrassing or sensitive, same. Google some alternatives: you're looking for something secure and encrypted.

There are a few common-sense tips you can follow to make it even safer. If you have to bring people you know in real life in on the secret, don't use this email address for communicating with them even if only about matters related to your secret (and don't use your existing addresses for that either). Example: I have one address for press and general interactions, one for things related to my accountant and money, and one for communicating with my agent, publisher, and solicitor. I've also closed and opened new accounts over the years when it seems "too many" people are getting hold of a particular address. Use different passwords for each, don't make these passwords related to your personal information, and so on.

I unwisely left the Hotmail address going, and while I did not use it to send mail, I continued to read things that arrived there. That led to this failed attempt by the Sunday Times to out me. It was an easily dodged attempt but something I would have preferred to avoid.

People can and do register internet domains while staying anonymous but I never did. Some people registered domains for me (people I didn't know in person). This led to a couple of instances of them receiving harassment when the press suspected they were me. In particular Ian Shircore got a bit of unwanted attention this way.

Because all I was ever doing was a straight-up blog, not having a registered domain that I had control over was fine. Your needs may be different. I am not a good source for advice on how to do that. But just in case you might be thinking "who would bother looking there?" read about how faux escort Alexa DiCarlo was unmasked. This is what happens when you don't cover your tracks.

2. Don't use a home internet connection, work internet connection, etc.

Email won't be the only way you might want to communicate with people. You may also want to leave comments on other blogs and so forth. Doing this and other ways of using the Web potentially exposes your IP address, which could be unique and be used to locate you.

Even if you don't leave comments just visiting a site can leave traces behind. Tim Ireland recently used a simple method to confirm his suspicion of who the "Tabloid Troll" twitter account belonged to. By comparing the IP address of someone who clicked on to a link going to the Bloggerheads site with the IP address of an email Dennis Rice sent, a link was made. If you go to the trouble of not using your own connection, also make sure you're not using the same connection for different identities just minutes apart. Don't mix the streams.

The timing of everything as it happened was key to why the papers did not immediately find out who I was. The old blog started in 2003, when most press still had to explain to their audience what a blog actually was. It took a while for people to notice the writing, so the mistakes I made early on (blogging from home and work, using Hotmail) had long been corrected by the time the press became interested.

Today, no writer who aims to stay anonymous should ever assume a grace period like that. It also helped that once the press did become interested, they were so convinced not only that Belle was not really a hooker but also that she was one of their own - a previously published author or even journalist - that they never looked in the right place. If they'd just gone to a London blogmeet and asked a few questions about who had pissed off a lot of people and was fairly promiscuous, they'd have had a plausible shortlist in minutes.

After I moved from Kilburn to Putney, I was no longer using a home internet connection - something I should have done right from the beginning. I started to use internet cafes for posting and other activities as Belle. This offers some security... but be wary of using these places too often if there is a reason to think someone is actively looking for you. It's not perfect.

Also be wary if you are using a laptop or other machine provided by your workplace, or use your own laptop to log in to work servers ("work remotely"). I've not been in that situation and am not in any way an expert on VPNs, but you may want to start reading about it here and do some googling for starters. As a general principle, it's probably wise not to do anything on a work laptop that could get you fired, and don't do anything that could get you fired while also connected to work remotely on your own machine.

3. There is software available that can mask your IP address. There are helpful add-ons that can block tracking software.

I didn't use this when I was anonymous, but if I was starting as an anonymous blogger now, I would download Tor and browse the Web and check email through their tools.

If you do use Tor or other software to mask your IP address, don't then go on tweeting about where your IP address is coming from today! I've seen people do this. Discretion fail.

I also use Ghostery now to block certain tracking scripts from web pages. You will want to look into something similar. Also useful are Adblocker, pop-up blockers, things like that. They are simple to download and use and you might like to use them anyway even if you're not an anonymous blogger. A lot of sites track your movements and you clearly don't want that.

4. Take the usual at-home precautions.

Is your computer password-protected with a password only you know? Do you clear your browser history regularly? Use different passwords for different accounts? Threats to anonymity can come from people close to you. Log out of your blog and email accounts when you're finished using them, every time. Have a secure and remote backup of your writing. Buy a shredder and use it. Standard stuff.

Another thing I would do is install a keystroke logger on your own machine. By doing this I found out in 2004 that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone with my computer. In retrospect what I did about it was not the right approach. See also item 7.

5. Be careful what you post.

Are you posting photos? Exif data can tell people, among other things, where and when a picture was taken, what it was taken with, and more. I never had call to use it because I never posted photos or sound, but am told there are loads of tools that can wipe this Exif data from your pictures (here's one).

The content of what you post can be a giveaway as well. Are you linking to people you know in real life? Are you making in-jokes or references to things only a small group of people will know about? Don't do that.

If possible, cover your tracks. Do you have a previous blog under a known name? Are you a contributor to forums where your preferred content and writing style are well-known? Can you edit or delete these things? Good, do that.

Personally, I did not delete everything. Partly this was because the world of British weblogging was so small at the time - a few hundred popular users, maybe a couple thousand people blogging tops? - that I thought the sudden disappearance of my old blog coinciding with the appearance of an unrelated new one might be too much of a coincidence. But I did let the old site go quiet for a bit before deleting it, and edited archived entries.

Keep in mind however that The Wayback Machine means everything you have written on the web that has been indexed still exists. And it's searchable. Someone who already has half an idea where to start looking for you won't have too much trouble finding your writing history. (UPDATE: someone alerted me that it's possible to get your own sites off Wayback by altering the robots.txt file - and even prevent them appearing there in the first place - and to make a formal request for removal using reasons listed here. This does not seem to apply to sites you personally have no control over unless copyright issues are involved.) If you can put one more step between them and you... do it.

6. Resist temptation to let too many people in.

If your writing goes well, people may want to meet you. They could want to buy you drinks, give you free tickets to an opening. Don't say yes. While most people are honest in their intentions, some are not. And even the ones who are may not have taken the security you have to keep your details safe. Remember, no one is as interested in protecting your anonymity as you will be.

Friends and family were almost all unaware of my secret - both the sex work and the writing. Even my best friend (A4 from the books) didn't know. 

I met very few people "as" Belle. There were some who had to meet me: agent, accountant, editor. I never went to the Orion offices until after my identity became known. I met Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, and a couple of writers during the pre-production of Secret Diary at someone's house, but met almost no one else involved with the show. Paul Duane and Avril MacRory met me and were absolutely discreet. I went to the agent's office a few times but never made an appointment as Belle or in my real name. Most of the staff there had no idea who I was. Of these people who did meet me almost none knew my real name, where I lived, where I was from, my occupation. Only one (the accountant) knew all of that - explained below under point 9. And if I could have gotten away with him never seeing a copy of my passport, I damn well would have done.

The idea was that if people don't know anything they can't inadvertently give it away. I know that all of the people listed above were absolutely trustworthy. I still didn't tell them anything a journalist would have considered useful.

When I started blogging someone once commented that my blog was a "missed opportunity" because it didn't link to an agency website or any way of booking my services. Well, duh. I didn't want clients to meet me through the blog! If you are a sex worker who wants to preserve a level of pseudonymity and link your public profile to your work, Amanda Brooks has the advice you need. Not me.

Other sources like JJ Luna write about how to do things like get and use credit cards not tied to your name and address. I've heard Entropay offer 'virtual' credit cards that are not tied to your credit history, although they can't be used with any system that requires address verification. This could be useful even for people who are not involved in sex work.

Resisting temptation sometimes means turning down something you'd really like to do. The short-term gain of giving up details for a writing prize or some immediate work may not be worth the long-term loss of privacy. I heard about one formerly anonymous blogger who was outed after giving their full name and address to a journalist who asked for it when they entered a competition. File under: how not to stay anonymous.

7. Trust your intuition.

I have to be careful what I say here. In short, my identity became known to a tabloid paper and someone whom I had good reason not to trust (see item 4) gave them a lot of information about me.

When your intuition tells you not to trust someone, LISTEN TO IT. The best security in the world fails if someone props open a door, leaves a letter on the table, or mentally overrides the concern that someone who betrayed you before could do so again. People you don't trust should be ejected from your life firmly and without compromise. A "let them down easy" approach only prolongs any revenge they might carry out and probably makes it worse. The irony is that as a call girl I relied on intuition and having strong personal boundaries all the time... but failed to carry that ability over into my private life. If there is one thing in my life I regret, the failure to act on my intuition is it.

As an aside if you have not read The Gift of Fear already, get it and read it.

See also point 9: if and when you need people to help you keep the secret don't make it people already involved in your private life. Relationships can cloud good judgement in business decisions.

There is a very droll saying "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead." It's not wrong. I know, I know. Paranoid. Hard not to be when journos a few years later are digging through the rubbish of folks who met you exactly once when you were sixteen. Them's the breaks.

8. Consider the consequences of success.

If you find yourself being offered book deals or similar, think it through. Simply by publishing anonymously you will become a target. Some people assume all anonymous writers "want" to be found, and the media in particular will jump through some very interesting hurdles to "prove" anything they write about you is in the public interest.

In particular, if you are a sex worker, and especially if you are a sex worker who is visible/bookable through your site, please give careful consideration to moving out of that sphere. Even where sex for money is legal it is still a very stigmatised activity. There are a number of people who do not seem to have realised this, and the loss of a career when they left the "sex-pos" bubble was probably something of a shock. I'm not saying don't do it - but please think long and hard about the potential this has to change your life and whether you are fully prepared to be identified this way forever. For every Diablo Cody there are probably dozens of Melissa Petros. For every Melissa Petro there are probably hundreds more people with a sex industry past who get quietly fired and we don't ever hear from them.

If I knew going in to the first book deal what would happen, I probably would have said no. I'm glad I didn't by the way - but realistically, my life was stressful enough at that point and I did not fully understand what publishing would add to that. Not many bloggers had mainstream books at that point (arguably none in the UK) so I didn't have anyone else's experience to rely on. I really had no idea about what was going to happen. The things people wrote about me then were mainly untrue and usually horrendous. Not a lot has changed even now. I'd be lying if I said that didn't have an emotional effect.

Writing anonymously and being outed has happened often enough that people going into it should consider the consequences. I'm not saying don't do it if you risk something, but be honest with yourself about the worst possible outcome and whether you would be okay with that.

9.  Enlist professional help to get paid and sign contracts.

Having decided to write a book, I needed an agent. The irony of being anonymous was that while I let as few people in on it as possible, at some point I was going to have to take a leap of faith and let in more. Mil Millington emailed me to recommend Patrick Walsh, saying he was one of the few people in London who can be trusted. Mil was right.

Patrick put me on to my accountant (who had experience of clients with, shall we say, unusual sources of income). From there we cooked up a plan so that contracts could be signed without my name ever gracing a piece of paper. Asking someone to keep a secret when there's a paper trail sounds like it should be possible but rarely is. Don't kid yourself, there is no such thing as a unbreakable confidentiality agreement. Asking journalists and reviewers to sign one about your book is like waving a red rag to a bull. What we needed was a few buffers between me and the press.

With Patrick and Michael acting as directors, a company was set up - Bizrealm. I was not on the paperwork as a director so my name never went on file with Companies House. Rather, with the others acting as directors, signing necessary paperwork, etc., Patrick held a share in trust for me off of which dividends were drawn and this is how I got paid. I may have got some of these details wrong, by the way - keep in mind, I don't deal with Bizrealm's day-to-day at all.

There are drawbacks to doing things this way: you pay for someone's time, in this case the accountant, to create and administer the company. You can not avoid tax and lots of it. (Granted, drawing dividends is more tax-efficient, but still.) You have to trust a couple of people ABSOLUTELY. I'd underline this a thousand times if I could. Michael for instance is the one person who always knew, and continues to know, everything about my financial and personal affairs. Even Patrick doesn't know everything.

There are benefits though, as well. Because the money stays mainly in the company and is not paid to me, it gets eked out over time, making tax bills manageable, investment more constant, and keeping me from the temptation to go mad and spend it.

I can't stress enough that you might trust your friends and family to the ends of the earth, but they should not be the people who do this for you. Firstly, because they can be traced to you (they know you in a non-professional way). Secondly, because this is a very stressful setup and you need the people handling it to be on the ball. As great as friends and family are that is probably not the kind of stress you want to add to your relationship. I have heard far too many stories of sex workers and others being betrayed by ex-partners who knew the details of their business dealings to ever think that's a good idea.

So how do you know you can trust these people? We've all heard stories of musicians and other artists getting ripped off by management, right? All I can say is instinct. It would not have been in Patrick's interest to grass me, since as my agent he took a portion of my earnings anyway, and therefore had financial as well as personal interest in protecting that. If he betrayed me he would also have suffered a loss of reputation that potentially outweighed any gain. Also, as most people who know him will agree, he's a really nice and sane human being. Same with Michael.

If this setup sounds weirdly paranoid, let me assure you that journalists absolutely did go to Michael's office and ask to see the Bizrealm paperwork, and Patrick absolutely did have people going through his bins, trying to infiltrate his office as interns, and so on. Without the protection of being a silent partner in the company those attempts to uncover me might have worked.

I communicate with some writers and would-be writers who do not seem to have agents. If you are serious about writing, and if you are serious about staying anonymous, get an agent. Shop around, follow your instinct, and make sure it's someone you can trust. Don't be afraid to dump an agent, lawyer, or anyone else if you don't trust them utterly. They're professionals and shouldn't take it personally.

10. Don't break the (tax) law.

Journalists being interested in your identity is one thing. What you really don't want is the police or worse, the tax man, after you. Pay your taxes and try not to break the law if it can be helped. If you're a sex worker blogging about it, get an accountant who has worked with sex workers before - this is applicable even if you live somewhere sex work is not strictly legal. Remember, Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Don't be like Al. If you are a non-sex-work blogger who is earning money from clickthroughs and affiliates on your site, declare this income.

In summer 2010 the HMRC started a serious fraud investigation of me. It has been almost two years and is only just wrapping up, with the Revenue finally satisfied that not only did I declare (and possibly overdeclare) my income as a call girl, but that there were no other sources of income hidden from them. They have turned my life and financial history upside down to discover next to nothing new about me. This has been an expensive and tedious process. I can't even imagine what it would have been like had I not filed the relevant forms, paid the appropriate taxes, and most of all had an accountant to deal with them!

Bottom line, you may be smart - I'm pretty good with numbers myself - but people whose job it is to know about tax law, negotiating contracts, and so on will be better at that than you are. Let them do it. They are worth every penny.

11. Do interviews with care.

Early interviews were all conducted one of two ways: over email (encrypted) or over an IRC chatroom from an anonymising server (I used xs4all). This was not ideal from their point of view, and I had to coach a lot of people in IRC which most of them had never heard of. But again, it's worth it, since no one in the press will be as interested in protecting your identity as you are. I hope it goes without saying, don't give out your phone number.

12. Know when les jeux sont faits.

In November 2009 - 6 years after I first started blogging anonymously - my identity was revealed.

As has been documented elsewhere, I had a few heads-ups that something was coming, that it was not going to be nice, and that it was not going to go away. We did what we could to put off the inevitable but it became clear I only had one of two choices: let the Mail on Sunday have first crack at running their sordid little tales, or pre-empt them.

While going to the Sunday Times - the same paper that had forcibly outed Zoe Margolis a few years earlier, tried to get my details through that old Hotmail address, and incorrectly fingered Sarah Champion as me - was perhaps not the most sensitive choice, it was for me the right move. Patrick recommended that we contact an interviewer who had not been a Belle-believer: if things were going to be hard, best get that out of the way up front.



So that is that. It's a bit odd how quickly things have changed. When I started blogging I little imagined I would be writing books, much less something like this. Being a kind of elder statesman of blogging (or cantankerous old grump if you prefer) is not an entirely comfortable position and one that is still new to me. But it is also interesting to note how little has changed: things that worked in the early 2000s have value today. The field expanded rapidly but the technology has not yet changed all that much.

As before, these ideas do not constitute a foolproof way to protect your identity. All writers - whether writing under their own names or not - should be aware of the risks they may incur by hitting 'publish'. I hope this post at least goes some way to making people think about how they might be identified, and starts them on a path of taking necessary (and in many cases straightforward) precautions, should they choose to be anonymous.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Truth About Julie

A number of people have asked if I would respond to the piece Julie Bindel wrote about The Sex Myth in the Grauniad. Clearly as she took the opportunity to let rip, so too must I?

Maybe, maybe not. Because the truth about Julie Bindel is that she is - shock, horror - actually decent company. You would totally have a drink with her as long as you stayed off the topics of sex work, trafficking, porn, trans issues, gay marriage and... well you get the idea. There are definitely people with whom my politics are more closely aligned whose company I have enjoyed a lot less.

But in the interest of "setting the record straight" (as if such a thing exists) here are my notes on the encounter:

- I approached Julie to ask if she wanted to interview me, in part because I figured she would write about the book anyway. Since I criticise her writing extensively in The Sex Myth it seemed fair to give her a face-to-face.

- She's prettier in person than in her photos. Not that that's relevant, or important, but she is.

- We met three times that week: once for lunch, once for the photos, and again on Sky news. The first words out of her mouth on the air at Sky were "As much as I hate to say this I agree with Brooke." I did a little mental air-punch at that one. (It was also approximately the first thing Claire Perry said when we were on the Today programme. File under: win.)

- The "offal", by the way, was calf's liver and very good it was too. Though I did wish I'd ordered the lamb sweetbreads special instead.

- The dessert was an Eccles cake with cheddar cheese ice cream. Hand on heart, I loved the ice cream. The Eccles cake was not nice. If you have occasion to go to The Gilbert Scott at St Pancras, ask them for a bowl of that ice cream.
- She thought my criticism of Swanee Hunt mentioning her father's political background a bit out of line. My reply to that is if Hunt's still trading on his name and his connections, then she has to expect that. Her extreme privilege (yes, even in supposedly classless America; yes, even when your work is deemed charitable) is a huge hurdle to overcome. Eye of the needle and all that jazz.
- Julie's a big fan of Viz, especially Eight Ace and Sid the Sexist. Who knew? Also she liked Fat Slags better when it was shorter whereas I prefer the longer ones.

- In principle we both agree that sex workers themselves should not be criminalised. After that our thoughts on sex work are mainly opposed. When I put it to her at lunch that the much-talked-about "Swedish model" and Icelandic approaches could never work in the UK, she agreed.

- Julie's piece was filed after we met for lunch on the 17th April, I believe before we had photos on the 20th. The final edits to the book were made on the 25th and approved on the 27th. First edition came off the presses May 1st. (Yes, we cut it fine.) This unfortunately means some of the things from her piece may not be the book.* I'm not sure if it is the writer's or the editor's responsibility to check reviews against the published copy, but someone should have done.
- We both think the Grauniad will cease to exist in printed form soon. Probably most people think that though, so no news there.
- She seemed concerned that I think feminists of her stripe/generation are against sex, and took pains to assure me plenty of sex was going down among the redfems in the 70s and 80s. I said "I bloody well hope so," because what would be the point of rejecting the model of virgin-to-wife-to-mother only to not get laid? However, in my experience, the lesbian-identified feminists when I was at uni in the very early 90s were not so free and easy with the sexual favours. Not that I'm bitter, mind. It wasn't a great place or time to be a woman who slept with both women and men.
- She think my husband looks like a model. As far as independent assessments of attractiveness go, that's about as airtight as they come.
- Her claim that I was 'roundly criticised' by Catherine Hakim for my educational background is a misrepresentation of Hakim's review; you can read it here. My education is in anthropology, maths, forensic science and epidemiology. I've also worked in chemoinformatics and child health research (mainly cancer). If anyone thinks that makes me unqualified to comment on academic research... with all due respect, check yo self.
- The last thing I said to her, when we were leaving Sky news: "Civilised is the new uncivilised."
So there it is. No particular desire or need to fetch a hatchet, because who benefits? (It might also help that I have professional experience of finding common ground with just about anyone for two hours as long as they're buying.) The Grauniad is a known quantity and the "pity" angle of her article frankly unbelievable... you don't bother tearing down someone if you feel actual pity for them. You might even wonder why I bothered. To which I say: lunch? On their dime? Admit it, you so would. And so I did.

Right now you're probably thinking I should go to the cinema with Tanya Gold and discover maybe she's not as bad as all that? Hey now, let's not get crazy.

tl;dr - I was expecting a snarling nemesis, what I got was a lesbian Michael Winner... hugely offensive, yet surprisingly charming, bon viveur.

Believe it or not The Sex Myth is not only about columnists, or trafficking, or even feminism: those are only a small part. Most reviews have barely touched on any of the other chapters. It also discusses the medicalisation of female desire and the denial of women's appreciation for erotica, for example. It examines the criticisms of "sex addiction" as a disease. It champions under-reported sexualisation research that is more interested in representing real families than in reflecting a political agenda. It includes citations of all referenced material so you can read them and decide for yourself. My aim is not to force people and certainly not Julie Bindel to think the way I do: it's to open up the discussion in ways we simply are not doing around these topics. It's a call for less panic, not more.

Go get it. Read it. Make up your own mind.



* [Update:  Yes, I have checked this against the email record between me, my editor, and the Orion legal bods; and yes, I have run this blog past them and got the thumbs-up. Proceed to question it at your own risk.]

Saturday, 14 April 2012

On Scars

It was slightly surprising - but not altogether unexpected - that on the weekend when my book The Sex Myth has its first excerpt and interview in the Telegraph that "feminists" would immediately take objection. Interestingly though the shape this appears to have followed, rather than an actual criticism of work I have done or books I have written, is a number of nasty "terrible skin" remarks about me from lady columnists who really ought to know better.

It speaks volumes about the preoccupations of critics that when faced with a woman whose attitudes, thought processes, and life experience are almost orthogonal to their own their first response is to criticise her looks. I am not conventionally attractive, but to paraphrase Steve Martin: when presented with all this, that's the best you can come up with?

Last year I wrote a commentary on the ubiquitous blogging that was going on surrounding the bullying of feminist bloggers. As I pointed out then, bullying does not only happen to feminists, and some of the people who were getting group hugs out of being the victims of trolling have themselves trolled other people. (Top tip: just because you write above the line doesn't make you not a troll. @'ing someone in to your insults of them on Twitter? Does.)

So to make explicit in case it was not clear: I will never ridicule someone I disagree with because of their looks. If you can't craft a sensible argument against someone's thoughts and actions and have to go for the low-hanging fruit instead, you have failed at rational discourse. And arguably also failed at feminism.

I wrote previously about the experience of having facial scars on my original blog but have since taken that content down, so I reprint it here. If you are someone who is going through a rough time confidence-wise, please know that while haters never, ever change, how you feel about yourself will. It really does get better. (Update: I have also written about this theme for Guardian Weekend magazine.)

mercredi, janvier 13

Let me tell you about the best gift I ever received. And it's not a bit of sparkly jewellery, or a shiny car, or even a thoughtful trinket of affection.

I'm talking about my scars.

I had terrible acne as a teenager. By the age of 16 it was so bad a dermatologist said it was the worst she'd ever seen, which, ya know, is not super encouraging. At the hospital where I volunteered mothers pulled their children away from me, convinced I was plagued with something contagious. Strangers avoided making eye contact.

It was so bad I could not wash my face without bleeding. Many mornings I woke up stuck to the pillowcase. And oh yeah, it was only on my face. Not one blemish anywhere else on my body. To this day, I still never have seen a photo of anything like it - apart from some daguerrotypes of smallpox patients.

It was a very long, and very expensive, journey to improving my skin - remember, this all went down in America where having a disfiguring condition you have no control over is not covered by health insurance, and duh, there's no NHS.

Long story short a lot of Roaccutane and Dianette did for the acne. And more importantly here's what I learned:

1. Beauty is fleeting. Thank fuck for that.

I had a narrow escape from being just another boring blonde - not to mention an early release from the cycle of self-hatred and frantic desperation that plagues many women as they age. Corollary 1a: The larger part of how people perceive you is how you present yourself.

2. People can be hurtful to strangers. That's their problem.

My best childhood mate had spina bifida. She walked on sticks and refused to use a wheelchair for reasons I only started to appreciate years later. Looking like a medical oddity gave me, for a very brief time, a very small taste of what she encounters every day of her life. It made me pity people who equate someone's appearance with their value as a person. This generalises magnificently to strangers judging you for, in fact, anything at all. Corollary 2a: The most vocal critics are often the most insecure.

3. Other people have things you don't. Big deal.

There is no such thing as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (sorry Buttercup). Who cares? What is considered desirable is not especially worth getting hung up on. You may not be a six-foot Amazon so will never have legs up to your neck - but for all you know, that same supermodel would give her left arm to have your hair. This concept generalises to wealth, success, talent, and intelligence as well. Corollary 3a: Envy of other women's looks is a zero-sum game, and uses far too much time and energy to be bothered with.

4. Quality of love is not a function of attractiveness.

Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, has been married eight times. Beautiful people have dry spells and get their hearts broken like everyone else. The most worthwhile and loving relationships in my life all happened after my skin problems. And for what it's worth, I've been fortunate to date some pretty nice, smart (and attractive) men in my time. See Corollary 1a above.

5. Confidence doesn't come overnight.

It also doesn't happen in a vacuum; it requires nurturing. As with anything else worth having it's work. But let me tell you, it is so worth the work. A mate recently told me about a magazine 'happiness quiz' in which one of the questions was, "are you comfortable with your body, and do you exercise regularly?" If you can see why this should not have been a single question, you're on the way. Corollary 5a: Confidence happens when you let it happen. No one gives it to you, which is great, because it also means they can't take it from you.

6. When someone says I am beautiful, they really, really mean it.

There is something about knowing someone sees you, quirks and all, and likes what they see... something rare and kind of overwhelming (in a good way). 'Beautiful' is one of those words (a bit like 'awesome') that has lost meaning in being overused as a generic affirmative. We call all sorts of people beautiful in one sentence and tear them down in the next. I'm happy to be different enough that anyone who uses it to describe me sees more than just hair and makeup.

Monday, 11 July 2011

...And Now For Something Completely Different

This is not about sex, and not about The Sex Myth. This is about the old blog, and the growing scandal in News International's paper the rules they played by. And as Prince Humperdinck so eloquently put it, I always think everything could be a trap.

Very early on in blogging as Belle de Jour, I had an email address associated with the blog. It was with one of those free email providers and not very secure. Later, I wised up a touch and moved to doing everything through Hushmail. But for some reason I kept the old email up and running, and checked it occasionally.

So on the day of the book's release in the UK, I logged on to a public library computer in Clearwater, Florida, and had a look at that old account. There was a new message from someone I didn't recognise. I opened it.

The message was from a journo at the Sunday Times. It was short, which struck me as unusual: Come on Belle, not even a little hint? There was an attachment. The attachment started downloading automatically (then if I remember correctly, came up with a "failed to download" message).

My heart sank - my suspicion was that there had been a program attached to the message, some sort of trojan, presumably trying to get information from my computer.

Now, I understood the papers regarded all of this as a game. There were accusations that the anonymity thing was a ruse to pump sales. It wasn't. I was really afraid of losing my job and my career if found out. But I knew the rules they played by. And as Prince Humperdinck so eloquently put it, I always think everything could be a trap.

I did several things:

1. Alerted library staff that I thought there had been a virus downloaded on to the computer, so they could deal with it.

2. Phoned a friend who knew my secret. I explained what happened. He agreed to log in to that email account from where he lived, halfway around the world, open the email and send a reply, so they would have competing IP address information.

3. Alerted the man who owned the .co.uk address pointing to my blog, someone called Ian (who to my knowledge I have never met). He confirmed he had been contacted by the Times and asked if I was indeed in Florida. He told them he didn't know (which was true).

Point 3 is the part that makes me think my suspicions were correct. I hadn't replied to the message from the computer in Florida, so why would they have a Florida IP address? They did get a reply from "my" account, but it would have had an IP address from Australia.

(It's been suggested on Twitter that this could also have been because of a read receipt or embedded images. However, if my memory serves - and it usually does - the service I used did not send read receipts and I had images/HTML off as a matter of habit. There could of course be other explanations for what happened, but it is certainly true that the Times were trying hard to find me. Thanks for the comments, I hope this answers any concerns.)