Sunday, 13 August 2017

#JeSuisTalayotic



I'm back from Menorca where I visited the remains of one of an estimated 300 Talayotic settlements because I find it impossible to travel anywhere without checking out the local ruins. I am also a lot of fun at parties...

Every time I seek out the history of the places I visit, inevitably it is proven that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

From what archaeologists have been able to piece together from the remains of the Talayotic settlements of Menorca, it seems they probably were, like most of us, peaceful people who just wanted to be left alone. Perhaps they could have been an island-based libertarian people if it wasn't for the interferences of the Carthaginians, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba and finally, the Roman Catholic church.

Over the course of the Talayotics' time on Menorca, from 1400 BC until AD 1287, they consistently favoured round buildings. They knew about farming animals and crops, their houses had kitchens with hearths, they had wells for clean water, there is evidence of early flushing toilets, they were skilled potters, and, before the influences of Islam and Christianity, they had their own religion, possibly based on worshipping fertility, nature or the bull, with complex funeral rituals. At their archaeological sites in Menorca, you can see the taula - structures with smaller rocks balanced on top of larger, upright rocks, like miniature Stone Henges.

There were positive interactions with other cultures through trade, thanks to the island's strategic location on shipping routes to mainland Europe, north Africa and Turkey, creating a vibrant economy and influencing art, crafts, and jewellery trends. Examples of ancient Egyptian artefacts and Carthaginian religious statues have been found on Menorca.

The sea trade led to some people from other countries settling peacefully and productively in Menorca, most likely in the emerging port towns - an early example of beneficial immigration.

But ultimately, the Talayots would not be allowed to live in peace, to enjoy the interactions with new cultures and benefit economically, because their gorgeous, fertile island was just too damn tempting for conquerors. And it turned out to be pretty easy pickings for multiple invaders who would ultimately destroy a centuries-old culture, estimated to have started in 1400 BC.

Just as the despicable barbarians of Daesh see fit to lay waste to the once-magnificent sites of Syria, it is always the ignorant prerogative of conquerors and colonisers to impose their beliefs and ways on people who were minding their own damn business.

The Carthaginians had an early influence on the Talayotic and if it had only been restricted to introducing new tools and ornaments and helping the island's early settlements to develop, they might have come out of this history lesson well. But the Carthaginians and the Romans didn't really get along and fought three long, tiresome wars between 264 BC and 146 BC. As such, Talayotic Menorca became a source of cannon fodder for both sides, starting with the Carthaginian invasion of Menorca is 252 BC, the first chipping away of the peaceful Talayotic society.

As ever, old men were sending young men to die in wars and the young men didn't get any say in their inevitably terrible fates. When Talayotic men were forced to fight for either the Romans or the Carthaginians, neither of whom were benevolent conquerors, it's not hard to be reminded of the same choices facing young men in Syria today. Today, they could find themselves siding with equally religiously conservative forces with the Iranians or with the forces of Assad, a terrible dictator regardless of what his apologists might try and tell you. With those sort of shitty options, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to work out why fleeing might seem like the best of a bad bunch of choices. Unfortunately for the men of Menorca, escaping the island by sea when the conquerors are controlling the ports probably wasn't feasible.

In 123 BC, the Romans finally achieved their grim dream of conquering the island. This led to the development of the ports of Mahon (now the capital of modern Menorca), Ciutadella (founded by the Carthaginians and the capital from the 4th Century when it became the seat of a bishop, which remains to this day) and Sanitia. Early Christian relics and buildings have been found from this era, such as basilicas from the 5th Century. This was the start of Menorca, and indeed wider Spain, becoming an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic part of the world.

There was a brief blip of literal vandalism, when the Vandals had a go at Menorca around AD 427 but the Romans quickly stamped out that one, it was incorporated into the Byzantine empire, and they had a stronghold on the island for around four centuries.

Depressingly, this represented yet another era of anti-semitism for the appalling annals of world history. As well as the traditional Talayotics, there was a Jewish population on the island. There is no evidence to suggest the Taloyotics ever tried to stop the Jews from observing their faith. Synagogues were built by the Jews, the Talayotics continued to live in round houses and conduct their own religious ceremonies.

Sadly, the Romans weren't quite so cool with Judaism. The Jewish population on Menorca was largely successful and prosperous and in AD 418, Bishop Severus wrote about a forced conversion to Christianity of the 540 Jewish men and women. As well as forced baptisms, the wealthy Jewish families were forced away from the affluent port towns to the hinterlands. Synagogues were burned and Jewish families could only move back to their port homes if they publicly accepted Christianity. The arrogance of assuming that forcing mass conversion to Christianity as a panacea for all ills did not start with Ann Coulter offering that breathtakingly simplistic solution to Islamic terrorism 12 years ago.

Then there was an Islamic caliphate - Menorca was annexed to the Caliphate of Cordoba from AD 903 to AD 1231. Written sources describe a lively economy based on agriculture and a culture of literature. Pottery from this era indicates that it was an artistic period - interestingly, the convent in Ciutadella has a museum which features attractive examples of Islamic pottery. These have been found at Talayotic settlements, indicating these people embraced Islam, leaving behind their still-mysterious traditional beliefs.

The caliphate was known, unlike the modern day caliphate-mad murderers, for advances in science, language, geography, music and fashion. Early Spain first enjoyed toothpaste and deodorant thanks to the Caliphate of Cordoba.

Moors immigrated to the island at this time. In the absence of a 10th Century Menorcan Daily Mail, we are not entirely sure whether the Moors were considered "the kind of immigrants we like" or "invading with their creeping Sharia". What we do know is that the caliphate era was a curious one for religious cohesion. There was a Jewish population on the island and synagogues continued to be built alongside mosques and churches. Jewish stonemasons helped with the spectacular columns of the Great Mosque.

Jews had a higher social standing on Menorca than Christians under the caliphate, although both Jews and Christians had to pay tax to the caliphate. There is no evidence to suggest forced conversions to Islam during this time. It was, on the basis of all available evidence, three centuries of stability for the island and it would be fatuous to compare this to the attempts of Daesh to create a state in what remains of Syria.

It's unclear what life under the caliphate was like for women. However, there are written reports of the Talayotic men refusing payment for their services as soldiers by the Romans and Carthaginians, preferring wine and women to money. Whether the caliphate put a stop to carousing with wine or the using of women's bodies as a commodity for rewarding soldiers is uncertain.

Plenty of history books will tell you that any remnants of the Talayotic world came to an end in AD 1231 with the wording usually along the lines of the people "accepting the Crown of Aragon". This to me smacks of a people browbeaten by centuries of invasions rather than a willing embrace of what was to become modern Spain. The island was left in the confusing position of being an independent Islamic state but also a tributary to King James 1 of Aragon.

It cannot have been a smooth and seamless transition to Aragon rule as there was a violent conquest by Aragon forces between 1287 and 1288 with all Muslims on the island either being ransomed or enslaved to Barcelona, Ibiza or Valencia unless they converted to Christianity.

So, well played, conquerors and colonisers, you all played your part in wiping out a peaceful, productive people.

Of course, the story of conquests on Menorca does not end in AD 1231.

In AD 1558, Barbary pirates - Ottomans who operated from North Africa, destroyed Mahon and Ciutadella in the 16th Century and settled there while also sending off the 3,452 survivors to be enslaved in Constantinope, which strikes me as a dick move given that in previous centuries, the Ottomans (modern day Turks) traded peacefully with the island.

In AD 1713, the British took possession of what was by this time a very Roman Catholic island. Demonstrating that colonisers and conquerors cannot bloody help themselves, the Brits actively encouraged foreign non-Catholics to move to the island. This included Jews who were not well accepted by the now-predominantly Roman Catholic Menorcans. Clergy refused a request from the Jewish community to use a room in Mahon as a synagogue.

In AD 1781, Louis des Balbes de Berton de Crillon, a French Roman Catholic soldier and twat, led the overthrow of the British garrison, returned Menorca to Spain, became the self-declared first duke of Mahon and, because he was just an awesome and peace-loving guy, he gave the remaining Jews four days to leave the island. They were transported from Menorca to Marseilles in Spanish ships. Transportation of Jews. Where have we heard about that before?

So, to recap, the Talayotic people were usurped by a load of fuckery that still goes on - anti-semitism, the forced imposition of religions, false notions of cultural and religious superiority, forced military service, enslavement... And still we don't learn from history. And with this week's ridiculous and awful events in Charlottesville and the pissing contest that rages on between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, it is hard to be optimistic about anything improving any time soon.


Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Boots boycott conundrum


When I was a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1985, I was utterly enchanted by Boots chemists. My family was in the UK at the time and the branches of Boots seemed way more interesting than the pharmacies of rural Australia. I loved the scripted typeface of the logo, I loved the choice of goodies that I had never seen on offer at the Lake Village pharmacy in Wagga Wagga, it seemed like a magical place.

These days I have a more prosaic view of Boots as a reliable source of everything from aspirin to hair brushes to cheap lunches. But in the last six-and-a-half years since I moved to the UK, Boots has found its way into the news for the wrong reasons. It has become the subject of multiple calls for boycotts but it's pretty obvious, given the ubiquity of the blue logo across the country and with tentacles internationally, that the boycotts are not working.

Ongoing reports on corporate tax avoidance - which is perfectly legal although the morality is up for debate - usually mention Boots. Tax avoidance is a sound reason why many people boycott Boots. It is a hard one to boycott because it is usually just so damn convenient to pop into a branch of Boots when a minor ailment threatens to ruin your day.

As a company that gets a lot of business from the NHS, there is a good case for it paying a bit more tax to help fund their golden goose. It is estimated that Boots make £2bn a year from prescriptions alone - that is £2bn of taxpayer money

There have also been allegations of Boots profiteering from the NHS through selling customers unnecessary medicine-use reviews. Despite its Methodist church roots, Boots is a business which is now owned by US giant Walgreens. It is not a charity, so such unsavoury revelations about making extra money off gullible customers are hardly surprising.

Then Boots jumped the shark again a few weeks ago with the news that it was not going to drop the price of the morning-after pill. It sells Levonelle for £28.25 and a generic version for £26.75. Competitors, Tesco and Superdrug, are now selling it for £13.50 and £13.49 respectively. This could have been an entirely unremarkable story if the justification by Boots for charging more than double the price of their two main competitors was simply a matter of a private company charging what it thought it could get away with for a product. 

In a free market economy, there is nothing immoral about a company charging a price that it thinks will help cover its overheads and contribute to profits. As consumers, we have the freedom to seek out the goods for a cheaper price, which is precisely what you can do if you need the morning-after pill and you'd rather pay less than half the price at Tesco or Superdrug. 

But Boots told the British Pregnancy Advisory Service that they were keeping the price high to avoid "incentivising inappropriate use". Yeah, that can just fuck right off. Since the outcry and calls for a boycott over Boots passing judgement on its own customers, they have apologised and announced they are now looking for cheaper alternatives to Levonelle. Well, good. Women don't take the morning-after pill for a lark, especially if they suffer side effects such as nausea and headaches. Hell, even at £13.50, it's not an especially cost-effective option for regular contraception. But it's also nobody's business how often they choose to use it.

 In the midst of the birth control brouhaha, plenty of people stuck their heads over the parapet to remind us that the "incentivising inappropriate use" snark was not the first time Boots had passed judgement on customers. If you buy baby formula from Boots, you cannot get Boots Advantage Card points for your purchase or use your accumulated points to pay for formula for babies up to six months old. 

As well as disincentivising "inappropriate use" of birth control, Boots has also taken it upon itself to cast judgement on women who are not breastfeeding babies aged under six months and would like them to avoid being "incentivised" to use formula inappropriately. If you are struck down with mastitis or you didn't have time to express milk or you need to spend time away from your baby during the first six months or you are a new mother undergoing cancer treatment or you simply choose not to breastfeed, Boots is judging your life decisions.

Ugh. But the good news is you can buy baby formula elsewhere, just as you can with birth control. Consumer choice is a good thing.

And then Boots found itself in the media spotlight again, this time with a small but vocal furore over the slogan "Plastic is fantastic".

In this instance, however, the outrage is completely pathetic, a manufactured fauxrage from the permanently offended. The outcry came as a result of Boots using the slogan "Plastic is fantastic" on its range of clear plastic toiletries bags. According to those on board the outrage bus, this slogan encouraged the excessive use of plastic and, hot on the heels of the Levonelle debacle, Boots deleted the slogan from their marketing materials and website. It was a tiny blip in the news cycle but it was cretinous all the same.

I saw this story very briefly on BBC News when I was on holiday and realised I had one of the offending toiletries bags with me. They are fantastic because they are reusable - you can pop travel-sized toiletries into your hand luggage and at airport security, it's more environmentally responsible than having to cram your lotions and potions into a single-use ziplock bag. It's still plastic, there should be some way of recycling it responsibly when it finally falls apart but, given current airport security regulations, it beats the miserable ziplock bag alternative. Fantastic.

Frankly, Boots should have owned the slogan and refused to take it down. The removal of the slogan won't do a damn thing to save the planet. Equally, if they had've simply said they were not dropping the price of the morning-after pill for reasons of capitalism that would have been better than coming out with a load of crap about "inappropriate use".

As for no Advantage points on baby formula, maybe Boots need to consider the awful possibility of a widowed or abandoned father with a young baby. He can't breastfeed, he will need to buy formula. Wet nurses aren't really a thing these days. As things stand at the time of writing, this unfortunate chap can jog on if he thinks he can use his Advantage points on a product that will ensure his poor kid doesn't starve.

Still, now I've pointed out how this ban can affect men too, maybe Boots will change its baby formula policy. After all, there are no Advantage points restrictions on any male-specific products in Boots, not even hair dye for men which surely encourages the cultivation of "inappropriate" tresses on deluded middle-aged blokes.

And unlike the discreet popping of a morning-after pill, we have to look at obvious bad dye jobs on men all the time. You can't tell me Anthony Scaramucci's hair is Danny Zuko-black without some help from the bottle. Hey, look at that sad 50-something twat fly past in his midlife crisis sportscar! What a desperate loser he must be! Maybe I'll boycott Boots in a bid to stop men with "inappropriate" hair appearing in public. What's that, guys? I can't say that because I'm shaming men for their choices? Oh, really...


Photography by Banalities/Flickr

Sunday, 16 July 2017

On vulnerability


This week, I have been reflecting on vulnerability, on my own vulnerability and that of others, especially those who are close to me, of why few of us want to admit to being vulnerable, of why it would be empowering if more of us were able to admit to our vulnerabilities, whatever form they may take.

Fear and vulnerability go hand in hand. In my case, my vulnerabilities are physical - I have two club feet, arthritis and a damaged lower back. While these afflictions cause me some level of pain most days, I do tend to just get on with things and, fortunately, I have a career in which skills such as mountaineering, skiing or tap-dancing are not required. 

But when I have a bad pain day, it doesn't just hurt me physically, it upsets me, although I seldom show this side of my psyche in public. I had one such bad pain day on Monday - I was too proud or vain or silly to retrieve my crutches from the cupboard under the stairs to help with my commute, even though that would made life so much easier. I got angry and annoyed when someone walked at me when I was using a handrail on the tube station staircase. By the end of the day, I was in so much pain, I had to cancel my plans for the evening and limp home to wallow in the bath.

On those days, the fear is that my feet or knees will seize up at an inopportune moment. Awful scenarios often pop, unsolicited, into my head - maybe I will be rendered immobile in a busy tube station in rush hour, or a cyclist or scooter rider will come up behind me on the footpath and I won't be nimble enough to get out of the way in time. This nearly happened to me this afternoon and all I could do was impotently shout: "Use a fucking bell, you twat, or ride on the fucking road!" when a cyclist silently rode up behind me on a footpath as I walked to the shop and gave me a massive fright. Not my finest moment, I admit, but it's just what came out as I realised that a stray step to the left or right could have put me in hospital.

For me, it is these feelings of powerlessness and the fear that one day, being in pain will put me in real danger that make me vulnerable. What if someone is chasing me and, despite my commitment to flat shoes, I just cannot run away? What if the next time I fall over, I'm home alone? So many what-ifs...

Getting older, and its inevitable physical consequences, add to this fear. And I hate it, I fight it, but sometimes I need to vocalise it. If I cannot go out because I genuinely cannot walk, I should not be afraid or embarrassed to say so.

For others, their vulnerabilities stem directly from mental health issues, rather than the psychological distress following on from a physical condition. Anyone who dares tell me that mental health issues are not real, that sufferers can simply "snap out of it" can, with all due respect, get the hell out of my sight. Mental health conditions cast long shadows over the lives of patients and everyone around them. 

Such conditions can be managed but they can also lead to irrational behaviour, to frustration and despair among those who love them, to ends of tethers being reached, to crippling feelings of guilt when one feels that one has not done enough or can do no more. 

Insidiously, mental illness does not discriminate. To say that someone is too pretty/rich/intelligent/successful/talented or whatever to suffer from a mental health condition is reductive and asinine. The suicide of Robin Williams is tragic, the suicide of a member of my family was also tragic, there is no hierarchy here, no one more or less deserving of help. Vulnerability has a distressing power all of its own.

Any one of us could be felled by mental illness - and the causes are myriad - so to dismiss someone's condition because they don't fit the perfect victim stereotype is to make it harder for these conditions to be understood. It creates stigmas, it makes it harder for people to seek the help they need. 

It's as awful and unhelpful as condemning rape victims who don't fit the perfect victim stereotype - as if a woman who had the temerity to sleep around or be a sex worker or walk home by herself in a short dress is somehow less deserving of sympathy than a violated virgin. This mentality causes monstrous behaviour. When a hitherto strong, gutsy woman is reduced to a fragile, vulnerable mental state after being raped, she too needs support rather than being merely expected to get on with things. 

But it's not just about us not being afraid to admit our vulnerabilities. We all have a responsibility as a society to ensure there is a safety net for the vulnerable, that it's not just left to charities to pick up the pieces, that governments ensure that their programmes and institutions are properly funded and offer real help, not false economy Band-Aid solutions. 

This weekend, I experienced first-hand an NHS emergency mental healthcare service and I was impressed with the patience, efficiency and compassion that was shown on behalf of a friend in crisis and towards me as well. It was reassuring to be told that I had done the right thing and not to be made to feel as if I was wasting time. But I know that the excellent work of NHS mental health workers is undermined by underfunding, overstretching of resources and overwhelming demand.

I have no easy answers but as I shut the door on an emotional weekend, I do know that the safety net is gossamer-thin and when someone falls through it, it doesn't really matter who they are. What matters is how we can do better, how we can not be brutes, and how we can be kinder to ourselves and to each other for we all have our vulnerabilities.





Photography by Beth Punches/Flickr

Sunday, 2 July 2017

No winners in the tragic case of Charlie Gard



It is impossible not to be moved by the plight of Chris Gard and Connie Yates, parents of Charlie Gard, the 10-month-old baby suffering from infantile onset encephalomyopathy mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome (MDDS). It is a cruel condition which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage. We have no real way of knowing if Charlie can feel anything because he can't see, hear, move, make any noises, breathe without the help of a ventilator or receive food without a tube. He is epileptic and his heart, liver and kidneys are failing.

At present, there is no effective cure for MDDS. However, specialists in the USA offered Charlie's parents hope in the form of an experimental treatment called nucleoside bypass therapy. Chris and Connie launched a fundraising appeal with a target of £1.3 million to cover the costs of treatment, which it passed after 83,000 donations came in.

But British courts and now the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have ruled that it is not in Charlie's interests to travel to the US for this treatment. This means that palliative care, including removing life support systems, allowing Charlie to quietly slip away, is the next step.

All courts which have heard the case have examined extensive medical evidence and have all come to the conclusion that nucleoside bypass therapy would have no real prospect of extending or improving Charlie's life. Those who are using this case as a stick with which to beat the EU are being absurd - if the Conservatives make good on their pledge to withdraw from the ECHR as part of the Brexit process, this option is gone forever. Without this court as an option, it is highly likely that Charlie would have passed away already.  

Nucleoside bypass therapy has never been tried on anyone with Charlie's gene before. In theory, the treatment could repair Charlie's mtDNA and help it synthesise so he is given the compounds his body is not producing naturally. So far, it has only been used with very limited success on patients, such as Arturito Estopinan, whose condition is not as serious as Charlie's and whose affected gene is not the same as Charlie's. 

The treatment is an oral medication which would be taken over a six-month period. A large proportion of the £1.3 million cost would involve the risky and highly specialised procedure to transport a gravely ill baby who cannot breathe on his own from the UK to the US, along with whatever the hospital would charge, and the costs incurred for Chris and Connie to stay in the US for the duration of the treatment. Money is also required to pay fees to the GoFundMe website, which has hosted the appeal - something for anyone considering an online fundraising campaign to take into account.

However, the neurologist who would be overseeing the treatment told the Family Division of the High Court that Charlie is in the "terminal stage" of his illness. He also said that the treatment will not reverse the brain damaged which Charlie has already suffered, and that he had not at first realised the full extent of Charlie's condition. The sad reality is that even if Charlie survived the trans-Atlantic journey, by the doctor's own admission, his life expectancy is heartbreakingly short and the treatment does not represent a cure.

Pope Francis issued a statement from the Vatican's Academy for Life in relation to Charlie's case which outraged many Roman Catholics, although I think he showed a combination of compassion, humanity and realism. The statement acknowledges that there are still limits to modern medicine saying that we do "have to recognise the limitations of what can be done, while always acting humanely in the service of the sick person until the time of natural death occurs". The statement goes on to refer to Encyclical Evangelium Vitae in regard to "avoid[ing] aggressive medical procedures that are disproportionate to any expected results or excessively burdensome to the patient or family".

I do not for a moment think the British or European justice systems are in the business of wanting to exterminate babies. And neither is Great Ormond Street Hospital, the excellent children's hospital which has been treating Charlie. It is one of the world's best paediatric hospitals and every day, it does wonderful work, saving the lives of children, and offering the very best palliative care for those who sadly will not make it to adulthood. Depressingly, people have publicly stated they will no longer make donations to the hospital because of the Charlie Gard case.

The Ashya King case has been cited as an example to follow in the case of Charlie Gard - that was the 2014 case of the parents of Ashya King removing him from a British hospital and taking him to the Czech Republic for proton beam therapy for a brain tumour. But in that case, Ashya, then aged five, was able to travel to Prague without medical assistance and the treatment was effective. The farce of an international manhunt for Ashya's parents was not a high point in crime fighting but as a result of the successful treatment Ashya received, the UK is to get its first proton beam therapy machine at a cost of £17 million. It will be installed at the Rutherford Cancer Centre and is expected to treat 500 people each year.

That is a wonderful legacy and the best possible outcome of the Ashya King case. The legacy of Charlie Gard will most likely be his parents starting a charitable foundation with the £1.3 million in donations - if this means further research for mitochondrial conditions can take place in the UK, who knows what amazing scientific advances might be achieved on British shores? 

For now, Charlie's case represents an awful intersection between the right of parents to seek medical treatment for their children and the often devastating realities of what is medically possible. Pope Francis again said it well in his statement when he said that "the wishes of the parents must be heard and respected, but they too must be helped to understand the unique difficulty of their situation and not to be left to face their painful decisions alone."

The case also exposes the astronomical costs of American healthcare for the uninsured, along with the decisions which balance finance with medicine faced on a daily basis by NHS trusts across the UK. Neither health system is perfect and, based on medical evidence, neither system is currently in a position to help Charlie beyond making his last days comfortable, peaceful and dignified.


______________

Here is the link to the Supreme Curt judgement

Here is the link to the Court of Appeal judgement

Here is the link to the High Court judgement







Photography by Lindsey Turner/Flickr

Friday, 16 June 2017

The fire that was always going to be political


A social housing tower block was destroyed by fire this week. Of course this is political. It is naive to suggest otherwise. When housing is provided by or heavily subsidised by the government, politics will never be far behind.

It is the people directly affected by the Grenfell Tower who are politicising it. They were political before the fire and they will continue to be political. 

And rightly so.

The people who this week have lost everything, friends, neighbours, family members, as well as possessions, are grieving but they are angry. Very angry. 

For years, they warned that Grenfell Tower was a disaster waiting to happen. Kensington and Chelsea Council, which owns the flats, was lobbied. The MP was lobbied. Boris Johnson was lobbied. Yesterday, Sadiq Khan was yelled at by a child. Residents wanted to seek legal advice over their safety concerns, but legal aid wouldn't quite stretch that far thank to, yes, that's right, the government. Now lawyers have offered to work pro bono but it's a shame those offers weren't there before this week. 

The residents, a mixture of social housing and private tenants, were not listened to before the fire. Today, they are marching on Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall.

Perhaps the Conservative-run council and the Conservative MP, who was defeated by Labour in last week's general election, didn't think they'd ever need the votes of the people who live in the deprived part of one of the country's wealthiest neighbourhoods. Perhaps they took for granted their positions of power. Perhaps they thought the people who have lost everything would not even bother to turn out to vote. 

Those in ivory towers looked down on those in tower blocks.

While the cause of the fire is yet to be fully investigated and the fire service is still recovering bodies, information is coming to light. And it is the residents who are leading the way, forcing politicians of all stripes and journalists to look at awful things and confront uncomfortable facts. 

Why was a 24-storey social housing block of 120 flats only equipped with one set of fire stairs? Why did the multi-million pound refurbishment of the building not include sprinkler systems, but did include plastic-laden cladding which is banned in Germany? What can the new MP, Labour's Emma Dent Coad, tell us about her time as the council representative on the board of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, the housing association appointed by the council to manage Grenfell Tower?

When successive housing ministers sat on a report for four years and didn't change a damn thing, they need to answer hard questions as well. The 2013 report, the results of a coronial investigation, came after the 2009 Lakanal House tower block fire, which killed six people in south London. The recommendations included installing sprinkler systems in all tower blocks. This is only the law for tower blocks built since 2007, yet in hotels in Britain, it is law for sprinkler systems to be installed. Grenfell Tower was built in 1974. So please, enough with the cries about safety regulations being too onerous. If this country and its hotel businesses can afford to keep tourists safe, we can afford to protect the people who live here, regardless of their income.     

The residents of Grenfell Tower do not need or deserve to be told that politics has nothing to do with the fire. 

Only now is there a public inquiry, after the death toll is at 30 and rising. It is fatuous to say the safety concerns of these people must now be taken seriously. That should have happened a long time ago.





Photography by Zdenko Zivkovic/Flickr

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Optical illusions


"Optics" is becoming the new "I misspoke". The new bullshit excuse. The new cliche when something isn't a good look. Or high praise when it is a good look.

Remember the fad of saying "I misspoke!" when all someone did was expose themselves as an idiot/racist/sexist/cloth-eared dolt/intellectual bankrupt? Misspeaking is when a kid calls a teacher Mum or Dad, it's a genuine slip of the tongue, it's often a Freudian slip, such as Sophy Ridge saying Kezia Dugdale is the leader of "Scottish Labia".

Now this election campaign we've all endured - largely with the able assistance of vast quantities of liquor, with all its car crashes from across the political spectrum - has popularised the good versus bad optics cliche. But it's lazy, shallow and lacking in nuance.

It was terrible optics for Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, when he flubbed and flopped in response to questions about his attitude towards gay sex. Never mind that he has a better voting record than Theresa May on LGBT rights and it would appear he can keep his private religious beliefs out of politics - the story became an excruciating series of images of Farron looking uncomfortable.

Compare those scenes with Theresa May being asked by Andrew Marr if she thought gay sex was a sin. Without hesitation, she crisply answered "No.", And that was the end of the debate, even though her voting history on LGBT rights has only recently become progressive. It was obvious that she was ready for the question. It looked like she had been rehearsing her answer in the bathroom mirror.

It was good optics.

Now she is desperately trying to eke out a deal with the notoriously homophobic DUP - surely these are the worst optics of all for her if she is trying to convince anyone that she gives a damn about LGBT rights.

And this nonsense is not limited to politics.

A few days ago, The Pool reported on a ridiculous PRWeek event in which an all-male panel addressed the audience on how to fight sexism in the workplace. PRWeek is generally pretty sound - it's a good source of news on the PR industry as well as a fine place for PRs (and journalists looking to cross to the dark side for more money) to find jobs. So you'd think an event run by an organisation dedicated to public relations would not be quite so tone-deaf as to host a festival of weapons grade mansplaining. Yet that is what happened.

The explanation for this debacle (at an event called "Hall of Femme" - I ask you...) was that "the optics might have appeared off".



"The optics might have appeared off".

Jesus H. Christ on a two-wheeled perambulation device. No, This is not merely about how it looked. It's about how it was. It's about how bloody patronising it is to expect a room full of women listen to a room full of men tell them where they're going wrong and to offer pearls of wisdom about speaking loudly, rather than being listened to, and "stretch opportunitoes" when, for some women, the opportunities simply are not there.

The "optics might have appeared off" is a shallow excuse for stupidity.

And, sometimes, when the optics are good, the reality is bloody awful. Just ask Theresa May.






Photography by savertashe2/F;ickr

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The power of women after the Great Election Debacle of 2017


First, the good news for the women of Britain after a thoroughly astounding election - a record 208 women are now MPs. Being a woman should not be a barrier to being elected to public office or indeed to being Prime Minister, and women are getting elected, across all parties, because they are good, not merely because they are women.

Hell, the two most powerful politicians in the country today are women - Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Oh.

Bugger.

The two most powerful women in the country are terrible.

Theresa May is a principle-free flake with all the depth of a thimble, someone who merely impersonates a competent and moral leader, doing whatever she can to cling to power, even if it means throwing women under a bus to form a pastiche of a government with the DUP.

Arlene Foster cannot be accused of having no principles. It's just unfortunate that her principles include religious bigotry, homophobia, climate change denial, creationism and banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. It's Handmaid's Tale stuff made real.

In Northern Ireland, the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied. In 1945, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which allows abortions to save the life of the mother was extended to Northern Ireland, but abortions are not legal in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. Just as abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland, all that Northern Ireland abortion laws achieve is to move abortions to other parts of the UK for women who can afford to go private - or harm women who are forced to carry to term because they have no other choice.

On top of that, it is impossible to ignore the links between the DUP and the Ulster Defence Association, including Foster's personal connections with a group responsible for hundreds of deaths in Northern Ireland.

Today, on Radio 4, Owen Paterson, the Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland secretary was ominous. In an interview with Radio 4, he tried to allay fears of an attack on gay rights under a Tory-DUP deal but suggested that issues such as reducing the time limit on abortion could be up for debate.

No. Just no. I don't care if you think a bill restricting abortion access probably wouldn't pass. We simply should not be having this argument in 2017, 50 years after it should have ceased to be an argument and remained a matter for women and their doctors.

How dare Owen Paterson, someone who will never need an abortion, even put the issue on the table as a suggestion. Pro-choice women of Britain will fight this and fight it loudly.

There are still plenty of MPs outside of the DUP, including Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, who are in favour of reducing the abortion time limit from 24 weeks. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, and Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, made an ill-fated attempt to restrict abortion access in 2011.

Theresa May should, if she claims to be a feminist, speak out today against using abortion rights as a bargaining chip to cling to power.

But she has not done that.

It is good to see that female politicians have spoken out already, including senior Conservatives. Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Ruth Davidson have all made it clear that they are not pleased with Theresa May's direction of travel.

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has received "assurances" from Theresa May that an alliance with the DUP will not erode LGBT rights. Given Theresa May called an election after saying she wouldn't call an election, and ran an election campaign riddled with reverse ferrets, her assurances are not worth a pinch of pelican poo.

Davidson has also used her position of considerable influence - Scottish Conservative voters helped scrape Theresa May over the line on Thursday - to tell the Prime Minister to move away from her hardline approach to Brexit. Interestingly, this is not too far removed from the DUP's calls to ensure a soft border remains between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit and that Northern Ireland remains in the single market.

However, the DUP also campaigned in favour of leaving the EU, while 55.8% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain. The joyless, miserable, punitive DUP interpretation of God only knows what Arlene Foster and her cohorts were thinking when they campaigned for Brexit.

It does demonstrate that when people voted for Brexit, they did so with different ideas in their minds as to what a Britain outside the EU might look like.

And with Thursday's vote, I am pretty sure nobody, especially those who voted Conservative, voted with the thought of the possibility of an unsavoury alliance with the DUP foremost in their minds.

It is great to see women from all parties speaking out against Theresa May's desperation, incompetence and craven appeasement of the DUP. When May spoke in front of 10 Downing Street after the shock election results, she was arrogant, she lacked humility, and she was terrifyingly authoritarian.

In contrast, Ruth Davidson gave the speech the Prime Minister should have given - she was not arrogant in the face of a pyrrhic victory for the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, did not have a great election campaign or stellar results, but she also managed humility and reflection in her post-election speech.

If Theresa May survives this fiasco, it will be a political miracle. The likely outcome of her political demise is another man as Prime Minister. But after May replaced the ultimately catastrophic David Cameron, perhaps her big achievement is to demonstrate that a woman who is equally as incompetent as the man she replaced, can rise to the top of British politics.

Theresa May's rise and inevitable fall has not been a massive win for women. But the good news is that there are plenty of good women of all political stripes who will be bloody difficult for the right reasons.



Photography by Darren Johnson/IDJ Photography/Flickr

Monday, 29 May 2017

Before tonight's broadcast, after the awful events in Manchester


Tonight, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will be interviewed separately by Jeremy Paxman on Sky News and Channel 4. The interviews will take place in front of a live studio audience and the party leaders will take questions.

Will tonight be the real turning point, one way or another, in this sorry excuse for an election campaign?

During the TV debate before last year's EU referendum, the turning point was Boris Johnson's barn-storming pro-Brexit speech. It was reckless, it was dishonest, and he probably didn't believe half of what he was saying, but it worked. When the massive cheer went up at the end of his disingenuous word salad, when he yelled: "INDEPENDENCE DAY!" like he was leading a feral pep rally, I got that sinking feeling that he'd convinced enough people to vote leave. As a militant and unrepentant remainer, I felt a bit ill when I woke up after four hours' sleep on 24 June 2016 and discovered I'd been proven right.

On Monday night, the election campaign was suspended in the wake of the hideous, vile murders of innocent people in Manchester. To take a day off campaigning was the right and respectful thing to do. However, as long as Theresa May upheld the suspension, a vacuum was created and this was filled with stupidity from across the board.

There were the inevitable false flag-obsessed conspiracy theories. People actually thought Theresa May somehow orchestrated the terror attack because Labour was creeping up in the polls. That is a thoroughly despicable accusation to make, especially without any evidence of any sort to back it up. I still think Theresa May is a terrible, incompetent Prime Minister who arrogantly thought she could run a seamless campaign, but I do not for a second believe she is behind the attack.

But her suspension of the campaign for more than a day caused this vicious nonsense to grow a life of its own.

That said, there should be a constructive, national conversation on whether police cuts, which started in 2010, and continued apace ever since, might contribute to terror attacks not being foiled or the spread of radicalisation. Theresa May needs to be pressed on this tonight by Jeremy Paxman.

When Theresa May announced that the terror threat was upgraded to "critical" and that we could expect to see more armed police officers as well as more soldiers on the streets of the UK, the election campaign was still suspended. This did not strike me as reassuring. It struck me as authoritarian. The sight of a spectre-like Mother Theresa commanding the podium to tell us what was best for us - and during a suspended campaign in which debate was therefore stifled - was chilling.

When the terror alert was dropped back from "critical" to "severe" just a few days later, the whole sorry situation became a dark farce.

It is not inappropriate to ask if police cuts are hampering anti-terror and anti-radicalisation efforts. When reports are emerging of British Muslims doing the right and patriotic thing by reporting their suspicions to the police, but then nothing is really done about it, it is proper that we examine whether we have enough police officers and whether resources are being deployed in the best way possible.

When Amber Rudd, the useless Home Secretary, was interviewed by Andrew Marr yesterday, she appeared to have no idea whether the Manchester murderer was on a watchlist.

And that brings me to the second form of idiocy that filled the void. Even before members of the Manchester murderer's family were arrested in connection with terror-related offences, there were calls for entire families of terrorists or suspected terrorists to be deported.

On Facebook, a post by Tam Khan, in which he pleads with his fellow Muslims to integrate in Britain, went viral. Overall, it was not an unreasonable post. His frustration with "uneducated" people who kill innocents is shared by any decent human being.

However, the call to deport not just the criminals but their families too was ridiculous. Aside from the obvious injustice of deporting people who have committed no crime because they happen to be related to some arsehole, the whole idea is unworkable and raises more questions than it answers. To what country would you deport people who were born here? Where would the "deport the whole family" policy end? Immediate family only? Cousins? People related by marriage? Innocent children? A senile grandparent? Wouldn't deporting entire families en masse simply lead to further resentment and radicalisation? What if a family member who was guilty of no crime was going to be sent back to a place where they'd be in danger? For example, what if a terrorist had a gay sibling and homosexuality was illegal in their country of origin?

Surely such a policy only serves to move problems elsewhere rather than solve them?

"But it'd be a deterrent to someone thinking of committing terrorism!" come the howls from the peanut gallery. No. It's not a deterrent. Does anyone seriously believe that someone so vile and twisted, someone who is prepared to not just kill children but to blow themselves up with a nail bomb, gives a damn about any family members they would leave behind?

There are now five-and-a-half hours to go before Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are grilled by Jeremy Paxman and audience members on live TV. I do not expect Paxman to give either party leader an easy ride and nor should he. I do not expect either party leader to come out with any truly courageous or effective solutions to any of the issues outlined in this blog post.

However, I would not be surprised if one of the leaders has their Boris Johnson TV moment this evening. It just remains to be seen which one it will be.




Photography by Matt Brown/Flickr

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

On innocence



The laughter of children. The joy of going to your first gig. It should not end the way it did last night in Manchester.

A homeless man should not be pulling nails from the faces of innocents.

It is not the time to mock the music of the young. We were all young once. We have all been to gigs our parents probably decreed a racket. Today, instead celebrate the innocence of our early musical tastes, the joy it brought us, the joy it may even still give us.

Today, we suspend whining about the NHS, we give thanks for our emergency services, we praise the police officers for they are all there when we need them most. They are the collective safety net, a civilising force, last night they did all they could to try and save innocent lives.

We were all young once, we have had the privilege of becoming adults, a privilege denied to many last night in Manchester. Every time such murderous outrages happen, it chips away at the innocence of us all, young or old.

Confused children demand explanations and we don't want to stain the clean sheet that is their innocent world view. Yet still parents across the country have had to try and make some sort of sense of the utterly senseless and vile.

The election campaign was  suspended today but tomorrow it must - and should - go on. Life must go on - it's not a cliche but a necessity. Those who seek to destroy the innocent are the ones who seek to stop everything we hold dear - democracy, but also joy, fun, laughter, music, happiness, love in all its forms. 

And innocence.

May we celebrate innocence wherever we see it, in children, animals, nature, in those untouched by cynicism, whether it's the idealistic kid or the delightfully naive grandmother. 

We need to take respite from the hideousness that happens, to have our own moments of innocence. When I left for work this morning, I left my husband sleeping, a well-earned lie-in after a late shift on a newspaper. I did not wake him for he needs respite from awful things. We all deserve that moment of peace, of blissful unawareness of terrible things, even if that state is temporary. 

It is important to remind ourselves that evil is not new, It just takes different forms in different times and we need to find different solutions. We must not be complacent but we must not be hateful either. We must learn from history, we must all take responsibility for being better people, for looking the problems squarely in the eye, for talking to each other, for not living in echo chambers where our own world views go unchallenged.

The "we" to which I refer is not the royal "we", or just my mates or people who happen to agree with me. The "we" is everyone, regardless of who we are, where we've come from, what events and influences and people and places have shaped our world views and led us up to this point.

And at this point, if we are incapable of suspending political opportunism, if our default setting is ugly cynicism, we are dishonouring the innocent lives lost. If there is to be any light at the end of a murky and complicated tunnel, reminding ourselves to celebrate innocence in all its forms is probably a good place to start.



Photography by Edward Zulawski/Flickr






Monday, 22 May 2017

General Election 2017: What a load of rubbish


My husband worked for many years on regional newspapers in Britain and he said that whenever he had to cover a council meeting, the debate would always boil down to a dispute about the bins.

Frequency of collection, quality of bins, old-school metal bins versus modern wheelie bins, too many recycling bins, not enough recycling bins, confusion over food waste disposal bins, access to biodegradable bags for food waste disposal bins...

There is no shortage of rubbish-related issues for British people to get angry about. Letters pages in regional newspapers are home to missives that run the garbage gauntlet from the grumpy old bugger who feels genuinely oppressed by having to separate the recyclables right through to the smug eco-warrior who boasts that last year, their household only produced enough waste to fill an empty jam jar. In the city of Bath right now, people are raging over unsightly wheelie bins. Oh, the humanity.

Hell, every Tuesday morning when I walk to the tube station, I find myself joining in the national chorus of harrumphing about rubbish. Monday night is bin night in my neighbourhood and this means that on Tuesday morning, I find out which people in my street are pathetically lazy when it comes to rubbish disposal.

My ire is particularly fierce for the residents of the mid-terrace houses who, I assume, either cannot be arsed to take a bin out to the footpath via the back lane, won't carry a bin through their precious house, or refuse to store a bin in their front garden as if it's the home design equivalent of having one's genitals out in public. These people instead put their rubbish out the front of their houses in black plastic bags and never seem to use the food waste bins or recycle anything. Unsurprisingly, the urban foxes love to rip open these bags so leftover dinners and pooey nappies are strewn over the footpath. Delightful.

I tut loudly as I accidentally step in someone's abandoned vindaloo.

Now rubbish has become an election issue in multiple constituencies. The local Conservatives sent out a letter a few weeks ago complaining about the prospect of Labour-controlled Merton Council changing from weekly to fortnightly bin collections and whining about providing residents with more bins for rubbish and recycling. Frankly, if these means we only have to take the bins in and out every two weeks rather than every week, I'm all for it. It's the worst job of the week. I hate it. And if it means people are more responsible with their waste and take the time to rinse out empty jars and yoghurt pots for recycling, that's even better.

Such is the local obsession with rubbish, Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, gave the issue more prominence on his leaflet than Brexit.



Local Conservatives have managed to convince people to put posters up in their windows featuring a picture of an overflowing wheelie bin and the fuming words: "NOT ON OUR STREETS!". Of course, this is an easy PR win for them. It's easier for them to campaign on bins than cuts to health and social care in the neighbourhood because those cuts can be traced to central government and that's currently run by, you guessed it, the Conservatives. Awkward. And not something they want to talk about in the lead-up to a general election.

Just up the road from Wimbledon, in the constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, the Tory challenger to Tom Brake, the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP is one Matthew Maxwell Scott. 

Like Hammond, Maxwell Scott would sooner amble naked along the Southbank at high noon than make too big a deal about Brexit on the campaign trail. Like Hammond, he is trying to fool people that the local hospital will keep all its services under a Conservative government. He even had the hide to pose outside St Helier Hospital with Jeremy Hunt.

And like Hammond, he is all about campaigning on the bins.

Maxwell Scott even tweeted a link to a Spectator column entitled "Forget Brexit. What really matters is rubbish" in which he features prominently. This is literally what he wants people to think about as they cast their votes on 8 June in Carshalton and Wallington. Rubbish. He wants people to vote with rubbish foremost in their minds, not the biggest political, social and economic upheaval of our lifetimes.

And he could well take the seat from the Lib Dems, despite Brake's apparent if often baffling popularity. The constituency falls in the borough of Sutton, which voted heavily to leave the EU, unlike the borough of Merton next door, which was strongly pro-remain. It would appear the Daily Mail's "London metropolitan liberal elite" bubble ends in Merton.

As long as the people of Carshalton and Wallington remain convinced by Maxwell Scott that Theresa May is the best person to lead Brexit negotiations, even though she will be as effective as homeopathic brain surgery, he can win it. 

And he will really win big if he campaigns hard on the bins and waste management - the LibDem-controlled Sutton Council is inept and scandal-prone, especially in relation to a waste incinerator and the cosy relationship between local LibDems and Viridor, the company planning to build said incinerator. 

On top of all this, Maxwell Scott, like Stephen Hammond with Merton Council, is making a big deal out of Sutton Council's unpopular changes to bin collection. #SuttonBinShame is a local trend on Twitter.

Now, don't get me wrong. Waste management is important. Of course, for any waste management system to be truly effective there comes a point where local government moves back and personal responsibility moves forward - people cannot expect the council to separate their recyclables for them, hire a skip after building work or drive them to the tip to dispose of a raddled old mattress. Despite claiming to be the party of personal responsibility, there is very little talk of this radical concept whenever Conservatives bang on about bins. They are firmly on the side of those who think separating one's own rubbish and thinking about what they throw away are enormous, politically correct burdens.

Yep, that is where we're at with 17 days to go before the election. We are reduced to witnessing candidates campaigning about bins. Never mind that bins are a local government responsibility rather than a Westminster responsibility. The local Tories don't want people to think about separation of powers when they vote. They want us to think about bins, not Brexit.

With Theresa May's catastrophic "dementia tax" U-turn today, that's one more issue no Tory candidate wants you to think too hard about. That seems to be the strategy - don't think too hard about a back-of-a-fag-packet health and social care policy, don't think too hard about Brexit. Just vote for your bins. Hey, the economy might go over a cliff, the Union may come apart at the seams, but at least someone took a stand and gave the local council a jolly good talking-to about fly-tipping.

Rule Britannia...


Photography by James Grimwood/Flickr