Monday, 1 January 2018

Merry Christmas and a happy new year! It's taxation by stealth.

Abu Dhabi, 2010. I receive a speeding fine - not an unusual occurrence when I lived in the Middle East, I confess - but on this occasion, there is no way that my car could have been caught on a camera at 2am on an Abu Dhabi road travelling at 100km/h in an 80 zone. On the date of the supposed offence, my car was safely parked in the car park of Volkswagen's UAE head office in Dubai. This is because I was testing one of their cars for a review during that particular week.

The only way it could possibly have been my car was if someone broke into it without damaging the lock, hot-wired it, again without doing any noticeable damage, drove it from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night, got snapped by a speed camera, and then drove it back to the Volkswagen office car park, parked it in the exact same spot, and returned my driver's seat and mirrors to the positions favoured by my 5'1", corgi-legged self.  

Still, I paid the fine. Compared to Australian or British speeding fines, it wasn't too expensive, I was well-paid, the points system for traffic offences was way more generous than Australia or Britain, and the process for appealing vexatious speeding fines is a bureaucratic palaver for which I had neither the time or energy.

I know I am not the only person to have lived in the UAE and paid a phantom speeding fine. The governments of the seven emirates probably do pretty well out of these fines.

But before anyone outside the UAE dismisses my phantom fine as part and parcel of life in a country that is not a fully fledged democracy or writing it off as the result of corruption in a far-off land, ask yourself if you think such a thing could ever happen in your own country. Would your government find ways, either by accident or design, to get their hand in your pocket for some extra revenue, above and beyond what you legitimately pay via such things as income tax or VAT?

I fear this is happening in Britain right now. This is not the fear of a paranoid, conspiracy theorist. Let me give you an example of what happened to me over Christmas.

My parents and my sister and brother-in-law, all living in Australia, sent Christmas presents to the UK for my husband and I. The gifts were items of clothing and jewellery, not ivory furniture, weapons or hard drugs, so hardly the sort of thing that would ring alarm bells for HM Revenue and Customs. But instead of these parcels, which would have fitted through our letterbox, being delivered to our house, we got red cards from the Royal Mail informing us to collect the parcels from the nearest mail collection centre. 

On two brisk Saturday mornings, we walked across the park and on both occasions, could only collect the parcels after paying £17 in "customs duty and/or import VAT" for receiving goods from outside the European Union. This struck us as bizarre, especially as the customs forms that our loved ones filled out in Australia clearly had a tick in the "Gift" box. I am hardly likely to go into business by trying to sell on the Wonder Woman apron my sister gave me, rather than exporting it to me, for Christmas. At the same time as this farce, a friend posted us some novelties from Cyprus, a fellow EU member state for now. The parcel came through the letterbox, it didn't cost us a penny.

Somewhat miffed about being £34 poorer for the privilege of receiving Christmas presents, we looked into the matter and found out that you can try to claim back incorrectly charged customs duty. We now have to fill in a form for each parcel and provide a load of documentation. This includes (and I am looking at the form as I write this):

● Customs black and white charge label
● Customs declaration form
● invoice/receipt or other evidence of value (such as eBay page or Paypal receipt) of the goods
● for returned goods - evidence of refund on goods returned, certificate of posting, cost of repair etc
● for overseas students - confirmation from University/College of course details and permanent address outside the European Community
● for antiques - verifiable evidence of age

If the parcel contains one or more personal/private gift(s) from someone abroad, please provide written confirmation from the sender, including details of the gift(s), its/their value and the intended recipient(s).

Rather like appealing a phantom fine in the UAE, this is a palaver but we're going to go through with it and hopefully recoup the £34. It's a matter of principle.

But I do wonder how many other people who received Christmas presents from outside the EU got a similar festive surprise this year? And it's not as if people only receive gifts from outside the EU at Christmas - I am now looking forward to paying needless tax on any birthday presents from Australia in a few months time. 

According to, you do need to pay 2.5% customs duty on gifts worth between £135 and £630, and there are special rates for gifts worth more than this, depending on what they are or where they came from. But for most of us, we are not expecting or receiving gifts worth more than £135. That would be a very expensive T-shirt and apron from my sister and brother-in-law.

And of the people who received a bill for customs duty on Christmas presents from outside the EU, how many simply paid up without question? How many people were aware that you don't have to pay customs duty on gifts? And of those, how many knew how to go about claiming the money back? It's not as if this was advertised at Christmas. You do need to go digging around online to find the information you need and then download the form, print it, fill it in and post it, along with the aforementioned documentation, to a sinister-sounding government department called "Border Force", located in Coventry.

For people without internet access, for people with literacy issues, for people who need to get letters from relatives abroad who might struggle to write letters in English, for people who simply didn't think to question this charge, it's not hard to see why many people wouldn't try to claim the money back. It just goes straight into the government coffers, unchallenged.

And if a hard Brexit goes ahead, it does not take a great leap of imagination to picture more and more people getting a red card from Royal Mail and bill to pay for presents from friends and family across the Channel. Can anyone seriously imagine this government going out of their way to inform people about their rights in regard to gifts from Europe?  

Consider this a warning. If you have received a bill for customs duty on a gift, click here for the link you need to download the form and obtain the information you need about the rules on this matter.

Photography by Petr Kratochvil 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

On winter

"I woke up and I was covered in snow," Tony told me with startling cheer last night.

We chatted about his attempt to get his foundation for lifting people out of poverty and exclusion, The Outcast Foundation, up and running, about the farce of how he almost had free office space courtesy of Landsec until he was deemed too homeless

Tony is the guy who sells me The Big Issue at Victoria Station each week. Like Big Issue Bill, from whom I used to buy the magazine, atoning for my hungover sins on many a blindingly sunny Sydney morning, I've started chatting with Tony. The stories of vendors are frequently moving and inspiring and Tony's story is no exception.

So it's an absolute travesty that he should have woken up on Sunday morning covered in snow. 

Meanwhile, barely half an hour after I bid Tony good night, I was on the bus from the tube station to my house fruitlessly poking away at my phone screen in a state of irritation. I was trying to turn on the heating via an app. I couldn't connect to the internet and had to endure the hell of coming home and then turning on the heating via a switch on the wall just inside the front door.

I had to remind myself that I have never woken up covered in snow.

And for the too-many people who have woken up covered in snow this week, the reasons, the chain of events which lead to people not waking up in warm beds, underneath roofs, surrounded by solid walls, with the central heating set to switch on before the alarm goes off, are complex.

For some people, such as Tony, the attempts at assistance from well-meaning charities can be more of a hindrance than a help.

For some people, they know there is a door somewhere out there that will always open for them but there are other issues at play, such as mental illness, which lead to sleeping rough. And this is the situation for a dear friend of mine as I write this, safely indoors, with the heating turned on.

To understand life in the mind of someone with a mental illness is a challenge for those who are not in this uniquely pernicious pain. To voluntarily be homeless, as my friend currently is, to leave a warm home where loved ones await can seem like an almost offensive rebellion, an act of profound ingratitude. And on a purely academic level, maybe it is. But mental illness is not rational. It produces irrational responses and behaviours that don't always make sense and can be genuinely terrifying to the patient and to the people they love and who love them, even when their situation is bleak.

And that is my fear for my friend who has again abandoned a roof over his head, who has been known to sleep in the gardens and garages of friends and family, who has taken up residence in woodlands and in the parks and shop doorways of London.

Too many times I have spoken to him or had an online chat with him and feared that it would be the last time I would ever see him or hear his voice or see his words pop up on my phone or computer screen. He is a brilliant writer, a wonderful raconteur, when he is at his best, he is the funniest, most entertaining person in the room.

He wrote a piece for me only a few weeks ago and it was excellent - it was insightful, there was not a cliche to be found, it was everything I wanted for that particular commission. I barely changed a thing, just a couple of typos. If only every writer whom I edit could consistently file such sparkling copy. It was a joy to edit his work, it was a joy to process the invoice.

Richard, once again, I ask you to come home, to follow the treatment that is on offer, to sleep in a warm, clean bed and not cause your family sleepless nights.

I have given three eulogies in my time - my paternal grandparents and a godmother all died within two years of each other and Dad and I somehow found ourselves appointed the family funeral orators. As far as I can tell, my eulogies were well-received. But they were written about people who died aged 89, 91 and 86. They were long lives well lived.

Richard, I have had horrific dreams about giving your eulogy. As much as I like the sound of my own voice, I don't want to give your eulogy any time soon. We are doing our best to understand why you are currently at the mercy of what is already a biting British winter. And we are all hoping for that day when nobody wakes up covered in snow.

This is Richard. Please keep an eye out for him in central London and Hertfordshire

Photography by Karim Corban/Flickr

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Perspectives on the Lupita Nyong'o hair story from someone worth listening to

The fallout from Lupita Nyong'o publicly calling out Grazia magazine for PhotoShopping out her natural hair led - and Grazia's bizarre, responsibility-shirking non-apology - to a pretty unseemly global spectacle. Plenty of white people were quick to jump on the "This is PC gone mad! Why is everything racist?" bandwagon.

But here's the thing - when a black woman calls out something that she believes to be racist and ignorant, she is worth listening to. Her perspective is different to someone who has never experienced a day's discrimination because of skin colour.

So, with that in mind, today I am handing my blog over to Annette Walker. She shared her views on why it matters that Lupita's proudly African hair was removed from a cover photo, puts the story into historical context and explains why it's not simply a matter of political correctness going too far.

Here are Annette's eloquent words:

The privilege of being free from such experiences can often trivialise these micro-aggressions of racism.

To understand the relevance of Lupita's objections it helps to understand the legacy of politicalisation of Black women's bodies - including hair - from a legacy of racism against the image of African peoples. It's so deep-rooted that Caribbean and African (and many other non-white) societies reject their own image in favour of Eurocentric ideology of beauty (lighter skin, straighter hair, straighter/narrower nose - Michael Jackson's cosmetic surgery is the poster for the deep-rooted psychological impact). 

Many in African and Caribbean communities struggle with the concept of thick, coarse, afro "kinky" hair as acceptable (soft, fine hair is favoured and considered "pretty"), and many afro hairstyles are considered inappropriate and unprofessional in workplaces (and schools). In contrast many non-white people often fetishise "natural" afro hair styles (the exotic other). 

My older relatives often talk about how they were unable to get jobs or be seen as professional if they wore their hair in its "natural" state (canerows and plaits were undesirable styles). These instances barely scratch the surface of the legacy of racism in relation to the image of black people. 

Hair fashions change, but the image of black women in fashion and media continues to be a racially political topic while racial inequality exists, whether or not it's overt or more subtle. The image of the black woman has endured centuries of injury and the legacy of this continues. 

Lupita is able to use her unique privilege to highlight just a tiny aspect of this issue and while not everyone might agree with the battles she chooses to pick, it's more damaging for things to be left unchallenged. 

It might seem a trivial matter that removing a ponytail was a non-racially motivated, photo-editing decision to tidy up an image but in this instance I agree with her with the wider implications. It highlights the ongoing racial undertones of the representation of beauty. 

Of course it wouldn't be the same story if a white model had her ponytail removed which is exactly the point why this needs to be addressed. From experience, I've learnt that as a black woman, the way I personally chose to wear my hair has social implications far more than just a personal choice of hairstyle. 

So it's good to be able to have this discussion in public because it's most often a silent battle falling on deaf ears that believe racism no longer exists.

Photography by Lilchim/Wikimedia Commons 

Sunday, 19 November 2017

On believing women

One of the howls that has emerged from the #MeToo stories and the ongoing breaking news about accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape in multiple industries is the objection to those who say we should believe women when they come forward.

"But what about the women who falsely accuse men?" is the inevitable reaction, regardless of how many statistics from multiple countries on the low rate of false reports are cited. I am pretty sure this will always be a kneejerk reaction to the notion of believing women.

Would the howls stop if we said instead that when a woman comes forward with an accusation that she is taken seriously? Can we please at least get to that point?

This is not about denigrating the vital legal principle of innocence until proven guilty. It is about treating women with respect when they come forward to report something that is incredibly serious. 

Because there is no other crime where the accuser, the alleged victim, is not taken seriously.

When someone reports a burglary, the initial response is not usually: "But were you really burgled? Are you sure you just didn't put the TV in another room? Maybe you sold all that jewellery and you just forgot about it.". Yet a woman is often made to question her judgement, to second-guess herself, to ask herself if she really was sexually assaulted, if her memory is failing her.

When I was sexually assaulted and called the police, the first thing I was asked was: "Are you sure? Are you just making this up?". As if I was calling for a lark on the weekend, as if that is how I planned to spend my day off.

If someone is burgled after leaving the house with a door or window left open, the worst they might get is to be made to feel a bit silly, but they are not going to be made to feel like they were totally asking to be burgled. Yet women are accused of "asking for it" all the time with the short skirt or the low-cut neckline or the tight dress being the unlocked door equivalent for a woman's body.

When I was sexually assaulted, I was asked what I was wearing and instead of telling the amateur Perry Mason on the other end of the phone to fuck off, I sheepishly said I was wearing a knee-length red dress and black tights. The tights were torn in the assault, for God's sake. The neckline on my dress was not low yet my attacker managed to scratch my chest, drawing blood. 

Or maybe the woman was not sexually assaulted while being dressed "provocatively", whatever the hell that means except to insult men by implying that they are a pack of sex-crazed beasts with no self-control, and to insult women by removing our agency and implying that we should all dress like nuns at all times to protect ourselves. 

Maybe she was assaulted in her own home by a man that she lives with, while she was dressed in a onesie and slippers, or maybe she was assaulted by a man whom she invited into her house, which could be for any number of reasons. 

But what if you threw a party and got burgled, or that royal wedding street party kicked on after the kids had gone to bed and a few neighbours went over to yours for a few more beverages, and you got burgled? Most people's reaction would be: "How terrible. You invite some people over and that's all the thanks you get!" rather than "Well, you were asking to be burgled by being so hospitable!".

Yet that is how women are made to feel when they are attacked in their own homes. If a plumber comes over and nicks your cash when you're not looking, you might well get more sympathy than if the plumber raped you instead of unblocking the loo. Throw a party and if you're raped while a bit drunk, you will probably be blamed for your attack in a way that would not happen if instead of being raped, you were robbed instead.

If you were drunk when you were burgled, you will probably get more sympathy than the woman who was drunk when she was sexually assaulted. 

Contemplate that - a woman may get more sympathy for a stolen television than a violation of her body.

And then there is the old chestnut about why a woman didn't speak up at the time. Obviously, I would urge every woman, girl, man or boy who has been sexually assaulted to speak up, to report it, to tell someone. But if there is a real likelihood of being interrogated about everything from choice of clothing to alcohol consumption to sexual history to why you were alone with that person in the first place, there are plenty of reasons why someone felt as if they couldn't come forward.

When I was sexually assaulted, I reported it quickly but I was asked why I didn't scream. I did scream. Anyone who has known me for more than two minutes would probably not be surprised to know that I yelled and screamed. I told the officer I screamed. I was then asked why nobody came to help me. Fortunately, I managed to get away before I was raped but even if I froze in fear and didn't make a sound, it would not lessen the seriousness of what happened to me. There is no correct way to react when someone has pushed you off a footpath, shoved one hand down your neckline and the other hand under your dress when you are walking home after being unable to find a taxi.

And if you have ever slagged off a woman for being too mouthy, for having the temerity to be loud or outspoken, or you have tried to silence her for making herself heard, you have no right to demand to know why a woman didn't make more noise at the time of her attack. If you are telling any girls in your life to be quiet and demure, to never speak up or make a scene or draw attention to themselves, you are part of the problem. Women are routinely told to shut up in a way that men, in general, are not. An outspoken woman may be seen as a bitch, as a mouthy cow, while an outspoken man is more likely to be seen as assertive, powerful, statesmanlike.

If we raise our girls to be demure, fearful women who don't feel as if they can speak up, then of course it will take days, weeks, months and even years for women to come forward when they have been sexually assaulted.

So we could argue until we are blue in the face about whether believing women is the right language to use here. Or we could quit being collective brutes as a society and treat attacks on our bodies with the same seriousness that we give to stolen material possessions. Whether it's an accused rapist or an accused burglar in the dock, they both have the right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. But the people who report the crimes deserve respect too. 

My body is not the same as a goddamn stolen television.

Photography by Pablo Fernandez/Flickr

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Post-Hef-post-Weinstein confessions of an ex-men's mag employee

I suppose I should be grateful to Hugh Hefner. With Playboy, he created the market that created a job for me from 2003 until 2006 - in those years, I was working as a sub editor at the Australian edition of FHM, the men's magazine which launched in 1985 and, ultimately, was eaten alive by the internet.

But in my time there, I worked with people who actually had ethics. I received nothing but support from male colleagues after I was followed by a man in a car when I walked home alone one night after a 15-hour day in the office, or when my terrible neighbours were having drug-fuelled arguments outside my flat door at 3am and I turned up to work looking like death, and when there was a family tragedy. The office fell silent and sad when we looked at our watches and realised that a young Australian man had just been executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in mitigating circumstances in 2005, and when a member of staff was sent the video of the beheading of Kenneth Bingley in 2004.

There was was one bad apple who was on staff briefly. He was a very junior member of staff, who I later discovered behaved in a sexually aggressive way towards a friend. He ended up being struck off my friends' list when he revealed himself to be a racist worshipper of Stefan Molyneux. And a member of staff, who worked across other magazines in the company, was dealt with severely, and rightly so, after he called one of the entrants in an FHM modelling competition after spotting her phone number on the back of the photo she sent in, back when people still entered competitions by post. I still remember how appalled the guys in the office were when word got out about that incident.

When it comes to writing, there are very few sacred cows in the barn when you work on such a magazine and everyone is under constant pressure to be the funniest person in the room. But jokes about race or rape or paedophilia, for example, did not find their way into the pages. A lot of the jokes were self-deprecating jokes about men written by men.

There were lines in the sand. We didn't really need to be told where the lines were, and if anyone was unsure they'd run it past someone else, or it would be filtered through the editing process, because we were essentially decent human beings. FHM was an excellent example of media self-regulation, something which tends to cause panic among fans of censorship and restrictions on press freedom.

Sure, there were gags in bad taste - I made a few crass jokes myself in the line of duty - but there was an innate sense of decency even amid the farts, belches, hangovers and comedowns.

We did not exploit the women who appeared in the magazine. Nobody was forced to pose for photo shoots in bikinis or lingerie against their will. The women who appeared in FHM all had agency and were treated with respect. I supervised many photo shoots myself and I can honestly say nothing bad happened to the women on any of them.

Yet I am not going to worship at the altar of Hugh Hefner.

Yes, Playboy published many excellent articles, genuinely good and groundbreaking journalism, witty opinion pieces from men and women. He paid writers well and, in many cases, they were pieces which would not have found their way to press anywhere else. 

Yes, Hugh Hefner gave airplay to black writers, activists and entertainers through publication of their work and interviews.

Yes, Hugh Hefner donated extensively to civil rights causes.

Yes, the Playboy Foundation funded the first rape kits in America, which are essential for evidence-gathering in such cases.

Yes, Playboy was one in the eye for prudish conservatives and lovers of censorship.

But here's the thing. Hugh Hefner could have achieved all of the above without doing anything from the list below.

He didn't have to sleep with Dorothy Stratten to apparently further her career, with the support of her obsessive husband, Paul Snider. Snider, by the way, ended up shooting her when she was just 20 years old, before turning the gun on himself. Nor did Hefner have to ensure she posed for Playboy when she was still 17.

He didn't have to publish full frontal nude photographs of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields posing in a bathtub, her face plastered in makeup.

He didn't have to publish photographs of 11-year-old Eva Ionesco in the Italian edition of Playboy in 1976.

He didn't have to refuse to wear condoms during his sex parties at the Playboy Mansion.

He didn't have to pay Marilyn Monroe a pitiful $50 for her Playboy shoot, a shoot from which he profited handsomely over the years.

He didn't have to be a douche in death by spunking $75,000 for the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe's final resting place.

He didn't have to impose controlling rules such as 9pm curfews, restrictions on social life, and insistence on sex on demand, on the women in the Playboy Mansion. If you seriously think every woman in there genuinely loved her time in the mansion or truly had a wide range of life choices available to her, you're deluded. Plenty of women came out of the mansion physically or psychologically damaged - it's not sex-phobic or prudish to say so. It's reality.

And so here we are, in the post-Weinstein era, with Hugh Hefner barely cold in his grave, and plenty of men are whining about how they just don't know what to do with themselves anymore. Apparently, for these poor little petals, a new culture where girls and women are not afraid to speak out about the whole spectrum of sexually abusive and inappropriate behaviour, will be the death of flirting and will prevent people from having relationships.

Except that nobody has said that flirting or touching or sex with consent should be banned, or that workplace relationships will suddenly stop. Hell, I met my own husband at work without either of us exploiting the other. If the right to say no does not exist, the right to say yes is meaningless. If the right to give consent disappears, we live in a wilderness where entitlement to the bodies of girls and women reigns supreme.

Men do not have to rape women, or harass women even after they have told them they are not interested, or stalk women after break-ups, or follow them home as when they walk alone, or call them sexually explicit and unasked-for names in the workplace, or kerb-crawl them, or demand they smile when they have the temerity to not beam like a beauty queen at all times.

All the things we are asking of men are not onerous demands, just as Hugh Hefner did not have to do any of the awful things he did when he was alive.

So I am not going to sit here in eternal gratitude for Hugh Hefner. Even if his legacy never happened, even if FHM never happened, I am pretty sure I still would have found work in publishing and, more importantly, progress in areas such as civil rights and rape case investigations still would have happened. And I am pretty sure the men I worked with at FHM would still be decent human beings and not exploiters of women and underage girls.

Photography by Alan Light

Monday, 16 October 2017

Womansplaining #metoo

Inevitably, my Twitter mentions filled with outraged, self-righteous men this afternoon after I had the temerity to tweet with the #metoo hashtag. 


Making people aware of how many girls and women have suffered sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual violence, all manner of intrusions on our personal space, on our bodies, on our dignity does not diminish the pain of male victims. 

It's often hard for women to speak out about sexual abuse, to gather the strength to report sexual offences, to call out the creep at work or on public transport. Making it hard for women when they do speak out makes it harder for male victims to speak out too. "I don't feel I can speak up as a male victim of sexual abuse so I am going to belittle women who speak up!" is completely unconstructive. The cognitive dissonance is astounding. 

For girls and women, there are aspects to the abuses we experience that are, for the most part, our own. Here is a handy checklist of why girls and women needed today, just one solitary day, to be listened to and taken seriously.

- Because of the sheer relentless of it all, the harassment and aggressions that seem minor but are genuinely tiresome, annoying, upsetting and, for so many of us, frequent, just part and parcel of being a woman. 

-  Because we automatically grab our keys and thread the ring over our fingers as a makeshift knuckleduster as we get off the bus or train to walk home, as we walk to our cars, as we walk to our places of work, as we walk anywhere by ourselves.

- Because we tell each other to call or text when we get home safely and panic if someone forgets to call or text.

- Because what starts out as "flattering jealousy" in a relationship can quickly turn to stifling control.

- Because what is perceived as a grand, romantic gesture when people mistake real life for a rom-com can quickly turn to stalking, especially when a woman has decided that a relationship is over.

- Because the workplace creep is routinely laughed off as a bit of a lad when he actually makes women feel uncomfortable, sometimes to the point where they can't face going to work and will quit rather than go through the stress of making a formal complaint or even just telling him to fuck off.

- Because too many of us put up with harassment, inappropriate touching, kerb crawlers - it can just seem easier than constantly calling it out.

- Because it doesn't matter how enlightened a legal system may seem, women are still made to feel as if they asked for it if they are sexually assaulted while drunk, wearing a short dress, wearing a low cut top, walking home alone, wearing shoes that are not conducive to running away...

- Because women are not protected from sexual assault by wearing dowdy clothes, no makeup, long skirts, tracksuits, hijabs, high necklines, pyjamas, baggy trousers, big jumpers, caftans, trainers...

- Because leaving an abusive relationship isn't always as easy as simply walking out the door and can force women and children into poverty.

- Because rich, powerful men can settle out of court to avoid criminal charges, freeing them up to assault and harass again and again.

- Because the mere desire to not make a fuss can be enough to not speak up. 

- Because the real fear of a ruined career can be enough to not speak up.

- Because receiving unsolicited messages from men you've never met is tiresome and creepy.

- Because study after study shows that false reports of sexual assault are rare.

- Because trying to unlock the front door at night in the dark with your back to the street can be a genuinely panicky experience.

- Because sometimes it's the person on the other side of the front door who will harm you.

- Because girls experience sexual harassment in primary school and this is not new, it's not "because of the internet", it happened before smartphones.

- Because a woman may already be struggling on a day-to-day basis with racism, poverty, homophobia, disability, physical or mental health issues and so on and so forth... Dealing with unwanted sexual attention can fall to the bottom of the list of priorities.

Taking women seriously when they talk about their awful experiences paves the way for male victims to do the same, to start their own campaigns, to get justice. No reasonable person is OK with men being sexually assaulted. When women sexually harass and assault men, that is not OK either. It is stunning that this even needs to be said.

And now that women from all over the world have spoken out and shared their experiences, it's up to men to take responsibility for their actions, it's up to parents of boys to not raise empathy-free arseholes who feel entitled to women's attention and to their bodies. And it's time to hold an unflinching mirror up to male violence because, whether it's assaults on men or women, men still make up the overwhelming majority of perpetrators. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The State of it all

On the morning of the Parsons Green terror attack, I was not in London. Thankfully, I was safely in a long queue waiting to check in luggage and clear some pretty onerous security at the airport in Marrakech. The Parsons Green story came to my attention when I spotted it on someone's phone as we waited to have our carry-on X-rayed after our Moroccan adventures.

Morocco's security situation is a confronting one for anyone who believes that those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither, the context of Benjamin Franklin's quote notwithstanding.

"A pretty police state" is how my husband described it, as the bus from Marrakech to Essaouira cleared a checkpoint on a major highway. Morocco is not a democracy as we understand it in Britain - it is a constitutional monarchy where no party can win an outright majority in the 395-seat parliament. As a result, Morocco is permanently under coalition governments with the king holding ultimate power. He did give up some authority during 2011 protests but for Morocco, any Arab Spring-style activity was muted in comparison to other states across the Middle East and North Africa.

In April this year, the king managed to break a six-month post-election deadlock and agreed to the latest coalition. The election was won by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and there were concerns about such a party having so much power, particularly among royalist. It took six months to broker a deal where PJD shares power with five other parties.

Crucially, PJD lost control of the Ministry of Justice and Public Freedoms in the new deal. This ministry had been led by Mustafa Ramid, who was an outspoken critic of the Moroccan security service when he was a lawyer and human rights activist. 

While there has been much scrutiny of terrorists of Moroccan origin in Europe, extremist activity in Morocco has been seriously limited. The last major terror attack was in Marrakech in 2011 when some dickhead bombed a restaurant, killing 17 people. And prior to that, there had not been a terror attack in Morocco since 2003 when 12 delusional idiots blew themselves up in multiple locations across Casablanca, killing 33 people.

The 2003 attacks were the start of Morocco taking security measures that we look on as draconian in the west. Dozens of cells have been dismantled in Morocco, making it very difficult for would-be jihadists to operate from the North African country. The government has surveillance powers for telecommunications beyond anything that would be legal under British law.

But there have only been two terror attacks 14 years and only one attack since the security laws were beefed up. Is this an acceptable trade-off for the depletion of civil liberties? The "I have nothing to hide so why would I care if the government read my emails?" brigade would probably think so and would warmly welcome that level of scrutiny here in Britain.

In 2016, 10.3 million tourists visited Morocco and that figure is set to grow this year. The economy would not survive without tourism and Morocco has no interest in ending up in the tragic hole in which Tunisia finds itself after some pitiful bellend gunned down 38 people, mostly British citizens, in 2015.

I ask again, is it worth limiting freedoms to preserve security? Has Morocco done the right thing in order to achieve a lower body count since 2011 than the UK? Thirty-eight people in Britain have lost their lives to terrorism since 2011, compared with 17 in Morocco. With 35.28 million people in Morocco compared with 65.64 million people in the UK, there isn't a whole lot of different in the number of people killed in either country as a proportion of the population. But the frequency and events that are "not as bad as they could have been", such as Parsons Green, continue to scare people.

Of course, the incredible work that goes on behind the scenes in Britain in thwarting terrorism is never reported for obvious security reasons, whether it is high level intelligence work or stopping potentially dangerous people coming in and out of our borders.

And when citizens of either Morocco or the UK end up fighting with Daesh in Syria, the prevailing attitude in both countries seems to be "Good riddance to bad rubbish and I hope they end up dead and forgotten for there will be no virgins in heaven for them".

But what of the people who join Daesh and then want to come home again? It's pretty hard to feel any sympathy for people who would give up the relative safety of either Morocco or the UK, to turn their backs on countries which, for all their differences, do offer their citizens education and opportunities.

Yet that is one of the more controversial aspects of The State, a Channel 4 drama which screened in August this year. The meticulously researched Peter Kosminsky drama managed to perform the Piers Morgan-like feat of simultaneously pissing off elements of the left and the right. There were voices from the left who thought it was unnecessarily brutal while voices from the right disapproved of the humanising of characters who left Britain to join the vile forces of Islamic State.

Both sides are being ridiculous. The brutality portrayed in The State was accurate and, as such, was not gratuitous. There is nothing pleasant about a scene where you can hear a knife slowing sawing through the neck of an innocent man, or a beheading where the neck is first scored by the blade and filled with salt before the final blows of the sword, or a woman having the soles of her feet lashed for talking briefly to an unrelated man. But the apologists for Daesh need to see this, to realise exactly what violence and misogyny they are giving a despicable leave pass.

The humanising aspect is also important, particularly of the characters of Shakira, the young mother and doctor who stupidly believes she will be able to do Allah's work in the occupied hospitals, and Jamal, the young man who is labouring under the misapprehension that he can be a heroic martyr like his dead brother.

Terrorists are made, not born. They are not created in a vacuum. Nobody is born wanting to leave their friends and family and everything they have known to fight for a sickening cause. To know this is to still have hope that the current insanity will pass, that we can live in a world where no young man or woman thinks that joining Islamic State is a reasonable thing to do.

For both Shakira and Jamal, they realise they have made a terrible mistake. Shakira was happy to put up with the passive-aggressive Mean Girls In Hijabs environment of the women's compound in order to work as a doctor but her final straws come when she is asked to remove both kidneys of injured American soldiers for transplants and when she spots her son playing football with a severed head. Jamal, meanwhile, found almost homoerotic camaraderie with his fellow recruits but realises he has not got the stomach to either watch or carry out beheadings. When he rescues a Yazidi rape victim and her daughter, he treats them tenderly but ultimately cannot save them.

The ending is pitifully appropriate - as Jamal is led away after being unable to behead a pharmacist he has befriended, you know his future is not bright. As for Shakira, she manages to escape with her son but upon her return to the UK, her ludicrous dream to stop more young women leaving for Syria by speaking out in the media about the realities of life under Daesh is crushed by the authorities at the airport.

Instead of becoming the poster girl for reformed jihadi brides, a BBC talking head as opposed to a severed head, Shakira's reality is that she will have to be an informant, constantly looking over her shoulder as she seeks out possible cells of radicalisation and reports back to the authorities on their activities, all the while living with the horrendous guilt of exposing her son to vile ideology and some of the worst violence on the planet.

On balance, I endorse such actions by our authorities, if the fictional dealing with a Daesh escapee is the reality. Only time will tell if the British approach or the Moroccan approach will be more successful in stamping out terrorism.

In the meantime, I would urge people to check out The State if they haven't already. Hell, it's worth it for the cheeky adverts Channel 4 has included in the download. I'm not sure if it was by accident or design, but it was a perverse joy, amid some of the hardest television I've ever watched, to be regaled with adverts for things that make the extremist lunatics really mad - the secular Jewish family getting together for food, wine and piss-taking in Friday Night Dinner, the sex-and-drug-fuelled rampages of teenagers in Skins, and Father Ted, featuring Roman Catholics laughing at themselves in a way the extremists never could.

Photography by Gwydion M. Williams/Flickr

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Uber loses its licence, London loses its grip!

Congratulations to everyone complaining about Transport for London's (TFL) decision not to renew Uber's licence. You have managed to make Londoners look like a pack of spoilt brats, demanding cut-price taxi fares as if it's a human right on par with food, water and shelter. Honestly, the way people have been carrying on, anyone would think that before Uber, Londoners simply never left their homes. Uber did not rescue London from being a bizarre city of hermits.

As ever, nuance has been the first casualty of the inevitable debate, especially in regard to the risk of sexual assault in an Uber taxi. According to a Freedom of Information request by the Sun newspaper last year, 32 of the 154 allegations of sexual assault against taxi and private hire drivers over a one-year period were against Uber drivers. That's an allegation every 11 days. TFL has raised concerns about Uber's lack of expediency in referring sexual assault allegations to the police.

This led to mindless whataboutery. "What about sexual assaults by drivers of black cabs?" is the cry that has rattled all over the internet over the last few days. Obviously, it is not OK for black cab drivers to sexually assault people either. Or for anyone to sexually assault people. It is stunning that this even needs to be said.

I have a novel idea. How about we strive for a world where nobody gets sexually assaulted in taxis? The "my preferred taxi service is less rapey than your preferred taxi service" chatter is race-to-the-bottom nonsense. 

Then there are the other scandals that led to TFL not renewing Uber's licence. Thousands of background checks on drivers have been deemed invalid, and there have been instances of drivers paying dodgy GPs for falsified medical certificates, and concerns about the possible use of Greyball software. In the US, Uber has faced allegations of Greyball software to identify when local officials were using the app and ignoring their requests for a taxi in case they were seeking to find drivers operating in areas where they were not licenced. Uber has denied using this software in the UK.

Of course, plenty of people have accused those who are supporting TFL of being anti-consumer choice. There are plenty of apps that you can use instead of Uber - Gett, Kabbee, MyTaxi, Addison Lee, Taxify, Taxiapp... People whining about a black cab monopoly don't appear know what a monopoly is or they don't seem to realise there are plenty of alternatives to taking a black cab.

And if you have the Uber app, you obviously have a smartphone so if all else fails, you can use your damn life skills to simply Google licenced minicab companies in the area and make a phonecall. Retro, I know. On top of all this, London has one of the world's best public transport systems - every time I travel anywhere, I come home with a renewed appreciation of the tube and red buses.

Indeed, even the narrative that Uber is a benevolent company for the people is a myth. This is a company that has indulged in price gouging during terror attacks. It is a business model that is designed to reduce consumer choice by undercutting other taxi companies into oblivion or merely replacing one monopoly with another, as has been the experience in Sydney. Anyone wringing their hands over potentially 40,000 Uber drivers being out of work is being ridiculous - Uber's modus operandi will result in drivers from other companies losing their jobs.

On top of all that, many Uber drivers work for the app to supplement their income from other low-paid jobs. According to Uber's own research,  almost 40% of their drivers have another job. This means that there are a lot of drivers out there for whom one job is not enough to pay the bills, particularly in London. And if you don't care about the low wage culture that has swept through Britain's labour market, consider that many Uber drivers will be driving people around after knocking off from another job. Are you happy to be driven home by a driver from a company where there is a very high chance that he or she will be completely knackered behind the wheel?

If Uber is taken off the roads next month, plenty of their drivers will be able to find work with other taxi companies. The demand is there in a city the size of London. According to today's news, Uber could make concessions in regard to TFL's demands for improved safety and better working conditions for drivers in order to get its licence renewed. This strikes me as a far more sensible use of their time over the next few weeks than challenging the decision - that would truly put the livelihoods of drivers in limbo.  

My hunch is that Uber will stay on the road - and if it does so with improved safety procedures for passengers and better conditions for drivers, that is a win for everyone. And then Londoners can find something else to whine about, because we always do.  

Photography by Thierry Manac'h'/Flickr

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

On high heel fauxrage and other natural disasters...

So Melania Trump walked on a damp road in a pair of heels? So what? They're her damn feet, she can trudge about in the hurricane aftermath wearing a grass skirt, clown shoes and mittens if she likes.

Honestly, like slagging off Theresa May for her leopard print kitten heels, there are plenty of good reasons to criticise the Trump presidency, or indeed May's atrocious attempt at being prime minister, without taking petty cheap shots at footwear. Grow up. Do better. Quit reducing women to their shoes.

Hell, while I'm in the mood for confessing to unpopular opinions, I am not even convinced of the need for presidents or prime ministers to personally visit natural disaster areas. They have television sets, internet access, telephones, and plenty of people to keep them up to speed on what is going on. There is no need to physically put oneself in the middle of a natural disaster to understand that people are suffering, or that the recovery and rebuilding process of homes, bodies and lives will be long and expensive. 

When a leader visits a natural disaster site, it's really just a photo opportunity. And it's an expensive photo opportunity at that - by the time you factor in the transport and security costs, all of which come out of the public purse, it's a ridiculous indulgence.

But, idiotically, we are living in the era of good versus bad optics. And it is good optics for a leader, and ideally his or her partner, to visit a disaster zone and generally get in the way, diverting resources away from people in genuine need. 

People demand to see their leaders furrow their brows and do the empathy face as they talk to fire brigade staff who have better things to do, or victims who have just watched their worldly possessions and the cat get washed down the road. It's as if we have never really gotten over our need for a benevolent king, deigning to throw gold coins at the starving masses and squeeze the cheeks of adorable urchins.

And woe betide the leader who flubs the visit. George W. Bush was criticised over the photograph of him looking pensively at the devastation on Hurricane Katrina from a plane and for taking too long to get to the Gulf Coast - the storm took place on 29 August 2005 and he flew back to Washington from holiday on 31 August, flying over the disaster area on his way.

Barack Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy, including his embrace of Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, turned out to be slightly better optics, apart from partisan hacks who condemned Christie for getting too close to the president.

And back in 1974, Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, found himself in the midst of a media storm after Cyclone Tracy flattened the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Day. He was on holiday in Greece at the time and he cut his trip short to briefly visit Darwin on 28 December, three days after the cyclone. Then he flew to Sydney on 30 December, where he chaired a cabinet meeting. It was at that meeting that it was decided to form the Darwin reconstruction commission, made up of representatives of the federal departments of housing, construction, urban and regional development, the Northern Territory and Darwin City Council. But in that long-gone era, a time that predated social media and 24-hour rolling news coverage, the urban myth that Whitlam never went to Darwin at all was given oxygen. Whitlam had a busy, productive three or four days back in Australia before returning to his European adventures.

Good for Gough. I'm glad he continued his holiday after doing what he had to do, delegating responsibilities to people who were actually in Darwin. What more could he do? What would be the point of him lingering around Darwin like a fart in car? People who knew what they were doing did what had to be done. That is the best possible outcome after an awful weather event which killed 71 people.

We should judge our leaders on their actions in times of crisis, on whether they make it easy for the public and private sector to play their roles, on whether they lead with humanity, on whether they are constructive rather than using visits to disaster areas for self-promotion. Melania Trump's shoes shouldn't even be a conversation point.   


Photography by swister_p/Flickr

Saturday, 26 August 2017

On fatness

Heather Heyer is dead, mown down by a car at the age of 32 in a counter-protest against white supremacists.

Twenty-year-old James Fields, an unambiguous supporter of Donald Trump and neo-Nazism, has been charged with second degree murder. Amid the many respectful tributes paid to Heyer, Andrew Anglin, the vile editor of the vile Daily Stormer website decided to stick his vile head over the moronic parapet and write a truly disgusting obituary. In his vomiting of hateful bile, he called her a "fat, childless, 32-year-old slut".

People like Anglin, who look upon The Handmaid's Tale as a manifesto rather than a stark warning, hate women when they don't marry as blushing young virgins so they can breed the next generation of arseholes. But it's his use of "fat" as an insult that I want to examine.

Why is it so awful to call someone, especially a woman, fat? Surely fat women simply need to toughen up, put the doughnuts down and lose some damn weight, right?

It's awful because what Anglin and his ilk are saying to women when they resort to "fat" as a criticism is that they are repelled by us, we are difficult, we refuse to conform to a stereotype, we have the temerity to take up too much space. And if we are outspoken as well, we are reduced to being good-for-nothing, fat, mouthy bitches who should shut up and quite literally shrink away. It's a sexist form of shorthand.

Of course the swift defence of anyone who routinely calls women fat is that they are merely worried about their health, as if fat people don't know they are fat, as if the health risks associated with being overweight are a state secret, as if the reasons for gaining weight don't vary, as if people put on weight deliberately to piss off the slender and sylph-like. Oh, please. Just stop. The "I'm just worried about your health, Fatty" is concern-trolling, justifying an unconstructive insult directed at someone who is probably well aware of their own body.

Even The Economist was disappointing in the wake of Heather Heyer's death. Amid an otherwise well-written obituary, the writer felt the need to mention her weight and her appearance in a way that would never have happened if it was a man who died that day in Charlottesville.

The obituary said: "She was bubbly, funny, strong-minded and, at 32, happy with herself, even if she put on weight too easily (cigarettes helped with that), and even if her hair had too much natural curl (she’d found products that really worked to sort the hair out, until some of her profile pix drew “Wow!” and “Saaaaaamokin!”)."

Jesus, really? What a reductive and depressing load of crap. How is the conversation following the events in Charlottesville advanced by mentioning Heather's weight, or that she resorted to cigarettes to control her weight, or that she used hair products to restrain her naturally curly hair until she was rewarded with the ultimate accolade of the Facebook age, of being told one's profile picture is hot? 

Why perpetuate the grim narrative of women's bodies, right down to the hair on our heads, being things that need to be controlled, even when you are protesting against goddamn neo-Nazis?

The news cycle moves on from Heyer's death, even if the story of race relations in the US and whether people need to see statues of Confederate generals in public to stop themselves from enslaving people rages on. Amid the noise, there was the story of actress Gemma Arterton claiming that she was sent a personal trainer on location in Morocco, put on a ridiculous diet, and filmed in the gym so that studio bosses were reassured that she was losing weight in order to meet the required standard of hotness deemed suitable for starring in The Prince of Persia.

Obviously, this led to comparisons with male stars going to great lengths, including unhealthy methods such as dehydration, to become muscle-bound, six-pack-owning gods for film roles, in the usual attempts to minimise what a woman had to say on the matter. 

Firstly, pointing out what women are forced to go through to meet a silver screen ideal does not negate the experience of men who are put in a similarly unhealthy position. Christian Bale nearly died when he lost weight to play a desperate insomniac in The Machinist and people were, rightly, shocked when they saw his skeletal form in the film, 

Secondly, it is the disproportionate numbers that make the situation especially absurd for women. When men lose weight or bulk up for roles, it's pretty much always integral to the role, such as Robert De Niro as a boxer in Raging Bull, Russel Crowe in Gladiator, or Robert Downey Jr for the Iron Man series. 

Actresses are, however, forced to lose weight, usually off already slender bodies, to play lawyers, waitresses, teachers, stay-at-home mothers and so on and so forth... It's not the same as losing weight to play a ballerina or a gymnast. It's pathetic that this is considered simply part and parcel of being an actress, as if people will stay away from the cinema in droves if the lead actress is anything bigger than a size 8. 

We never heard Tom Hanks pontificate on losing weight via a diet of dried apricots and birdseed for Bridge of Spies or Liam Neeson forcing himself to hit the gym for several hours a day to play a single dad in Love, Actually.

Whether it's about slagging off a woman for paying the ultimate price for protesting, or actresses whittling themselves down even if there is no real reason in the script for doing so, it's still sexist bullfuckery. It is about keeping the focus on women's bodies, regardless of their size, when there are more important things to be discussing - but woe betide the woman who discusses the important things while not being in possession of a wasp-like waist or cellulite-free thighs. 

It's about putting women in their place - and that place is a skinny box where they are inoffensive and quiet and, above all, not disruptive.

Photography by Georgia Lewis