Sunday 21 March 2021

A week on from #ClaphamCommon...


A week on from the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard that turned terrifyingly quickly into a hideous example of excessive force by police officers, women are still being condemned for expressing their anger, articulating their pain, sharing their experiences, and making the simple demand to be free and safe on the streets. Make no mistake - freedom is safety for any group that has been oppressed. The two concepts cannot be unlinked. If you are not safe, you are not truly free.

And a week on, it is hard to be optimistic.

Plenty of men, aided and abetted by deeply unhelpful women, keep piping up to tell women that street attacks are rare, that Sarah Everard was unlucky, and the "real problem" is being attacked, raped, killed by someone you know, possibly in your own home or workplace.

This is not constructive. All you're really saying is that women are not safe anywhere. Women's safety is not an either/or proposition - the streets need to be safer for everyone, just as more needs to be done about abuse suffered by women at home, at work, on university campuses, in schools and so on.

And focusing on the greater likelihood of women being killed by someone they know rather than a stranger on the street is a distraction from the problem of "less serious" street offences against women being dealt with properly. Street harassment, indecent exposure, kerb-crawling - none of this is taken seriously enough even though it is not uncommon for someone to start their campaign of violence against women with these "minor" offences. It is symptomatic of a broken criminal justice system if there aren't the resources to do a better job of dealing with these crimes before someone is raped or murdered.

Hell, a woman tried to report an incident of indecent exposure as she was leaving the Clapham Common vigil last week and it was not taken seriously at the time. It's not as if there was a shortage of police officers in the area when she was trying to get home around 8pm last Saturday night. My friends and I saw them waiting in vans in laneways in the area from 5pm onwards. It was only after this woman's story received significant media coverage that the police launched an appeal for witnesses and information a full six days after the vigil. We should not have to go to the media for the police to be shamed into doing their job properly.

Equally, it is not helpful to constantly point out that men are more likely to be murdered than women. More than 90% of all murderers and rapists are men. Male violence and aggression is the issue here. If this can be addressed better, men and women are safer. We all win.

For women, statistics show we are less safe at home than men, we are more likely to be raped than men, and if we report rape, the chances of a successful prosecution are staggeringly low. And when we don't report rape because of fear, embarrassment, shame, being unconvinced that we'll be taken seriously, not wanting to make a fuss, not wanting to relive the experience in a court room, it becomes harder for other women and men to come forward and report these hideous crimes against our bodies. 

Then nobody wins. Apart from rapists.

And, of course, because every woman's experience of male violence is different, we don't all feel equally safe or unsafe in the same places. My one experience of sexual assault was a street attack by a stranger in Dubai in 2006 but in 2021, I am happily married and feel safe at home. As a result, I am more wary of street attacks 15 years on - perhaps even more so now that the arthritis in my left ankle and knees has worsened and my fear of being grabbed and being physically unable to run away - even if mentally I am ready to run to the next county - is real.

The day after the vigil, I tweeted a picture of my swollen left foot, a legacy of spending about an hour standing in the one spot.

There were some supportive replies - and one arsehole called me a freak and suggested I join a circus, which proves my point that women are not necessarily safe anywhere and can be subjected to vile abuse from a stranger even while resting on the sofa after attending a vigil for a murdered woman.

But that is just my experience - I am not going to use my feeling of greater safety at home than on the streets to diminish another woman for whom domestic violence means she feels safer when she is not home. All the violence needs to be dealt with and a massive part of that is achieving wholesale cultural change. Women will continue to "take care", to do all the things we're told to do to stay safe on the streets, but until we are not viewed by too many men as expendable, as useless, as easy targets, as semen receptacles, as territory to which they have an inalienable right, nothing much will change.

Over in Australia, there were brilliant scenes of angry women marching in multiple locations calling for justice for women after multiple sexual assault allegations were levelled at men in positions of power, including the federal government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's disgusting response to this was to tell parliament: "Not far from here, such marches, even now are being met with bullets, but not here in this country, Mr Speaker."

Great. So Australian women should be grateful they weren't shot for speaking out. He is not pledging to take any action, he is merely complaining that his words were twisted. He gaslit a nation by trying to make himself the victim. That is how low the bar has been set by a prime minister - and it shows just how far we have to go. 

Meanwhile, here in the UK, the systemic sexism continues in myriad ways. Just this week, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that care workers are not entitled to minimum wage for sleep-in shifts - this is a terrible, reductive decision that will disproportionately affect women. In the UK, 85% of direct care and support-providing jobs in adult social care are done by women. Depressingly, it was Lady Justice Arden whose written ruling stated that "sleep-in workers ... are not doing time work for the purposes of the national minimum wage if they are not awake." Sleeping while on call in facilities where any number of emergencies can take place during the night is not the same as a relaxing night's sleep in one's own bed. It is work. And it is predominantly women's work.

And that is just one example. We are fighting battles on multiple fronts. There was some momentum for women's rage this week but it already feels like it is subsiding, that the right to protest will be limited on the grounds of noise and disruption, the very essence of how protests work. 

The issues that affect our lives and our bodies every single day will be swallowed up by the news cycle, by ridiculous patriotism pissing contest stories about flags, by divisive vaccine nationalism, by our own sheer exhaustion at it all. 

Photography by Heloisa Freitas/Pexels

Sunday 14 March 2021

There's never a right time for women to get angry


Last night, I attended the vigil for Sarah Everard. I am not going to apologise for this. Women are done with apologising, with trying to please others, with being quiet, with being told to take care. 

The Metropolitan Police could have worked constructively with the organisers of the official vigil to ensure it was Covid-safe. The ambiguous High Court decision by Mr Justice Holgate left the door open for the Met to work with the organisers, to use commonsense, to trust women. Instead, the organisers reluctantly cancelled. Sisters Uncut stepped in and called on women to meet at Clapham Common, not far from where Sarah Everard was last seen alive, to hold the vigil anyway. 

As soon as the Met made it difficult for the organisers to plan a Covid-safe event, the vigil was always going to be tinged by protest and anger. Let us not be naive. 

I am in a Facebook message group that was started a few days ago to plan our attendance at the vigil. When it was cancelled, some of us decided not to go for perfectly good and sensible reasons, and some of us decided that a socially distanced, mask-wearing walk n the fresh air of Clapham Common would be our Saturday exercise. It just so happened to coincide with a vigil. If any of us ended up getting fined for breaking lockdown rules, we would chip in. 

We kept an eye on the news and Twitter and when we discovered there was a strong police presence at Clapham Common and Clapham South tube stations, Clapham North became my tube station of choice, followed by a walk down the Clapham High Street, something I hadn't done for more than a year even though it's only a few miles from my house. 

I had a little bunch of daffodils from Sainsbury's hidden in my bag, rather than buying a more ostentatious bouquet to lay down in Sarah's honour, so it wasn't immediately obvious to any police officers that I was en route to the common. I didn't know those flowers would be trampled by police officers a few hours later. 

Before I even got to the common, I had to moderate my behaviour. It's always women who have to moderate their behaviour, to not make a fuss, to not cause any trouble.

Holy Trinity Church at Clapham Common was our meeting point so we could walk safely to the vigil together, masks on. It was weird to meet with friends I hadn't seen in ages and not instantly throw my arms around them as we did in Before Times. At the bandstand, we stood near the back - two of the group had bicycles so it would have been a bit rude to barge through to the front - with our masks on, without touching each other or anyone around us. 

The police presence when arrived was not heavy, it did not feel like we'd be kettled at any minute, most of the officers, all wearing masks, were women. We did not feel scared. 

Then the first dickhead incident happened. Some maskless bloke with strong Piers Corbyn energy got up on the bandstand and started to speak, to yell at us, a group that was almost 100% women, to tell us why we were here, as if we didn't know what we were doing. It was peak mansplaining. It was disgusting. He started making irresponsible statements that could prejudice the trial of the police officer charged with Sarah's murder if they were widely broadcast or shared on social media. 

We got angry, we started shouting, "NOT YOUR PLACE!" over and over again until he was led away by police. People started to applaud the police - some of us felt uncomfortable with applauding the Met after the events of the previous days but at least it gave a sense that maybe, just maybe the police would be on our side this time. No such luck.

People were adding to the carpet of flowers on the bandstand steps, we held a silence for Sarah Everard as a police chopper hovered overhead, a member of Sisters Uncut spoke powerfully from behind her mask. It was a simple speech. Without the aid of a megaphone, she would call out a sentence and then we'd repeat it to ensure everyone heard. 

There was no talk of politics, no calls for high profile resignations, she said we were there in "grief and anger", she demanded that women be safe no matter who they are or where they are. It was powerful and respectful of Sarah. We called her name in unison. Our masks soaked up our heartbroken, furious tears. 

And for a lot of us, that was it. That was the vigil. It was precisely 6:31pm when I texted my husband to tell him I was heading home. Because that's what women always do. We take care, we do the right thing, we let people know where we're going and when we get there. And still men attack us.

As we walked away, we sensed that things were about to turn. The benevolent, woman-dominated police presence was absorbed by a lot of men in hi-vis vests over their uniforms. I heard cries of "SHAME ON YOU!" as I walked toward Clapham Common tube station with a friend. By the time I got home, about 40 minutes later, the scenes were horrific. I did not recognise the vigil I had just left - it was always going to be tinged with anger but it was peaceful. My friends and I started to piece together what happened after we left.

To my utter horror, the Piers Corbyn tribute act earlier in the evening was just the warm-up. Piers Corbyn himself turned up along with mostly men - again the men making a women's event all about them - with placards calling to free Julian Assange. Julian Assange. A man who hid for years in an embassy to avoid answering rape charges. How dare anyone bring that man's presence to a vigil for a murdered woman. I felt sick.

There was an excellent Twitter thread from Helen Lewis who stayed on for longer than I did. She said there were indeed assorted fringe groups trying to take the focus off Sarah Everard and off our collective grief for murdered women, but heavy-handed police attempts to disperse the crowd set off an inevitable, horrible chain of events. These were the scenes that will forever be remembered from yesterday - flowers trampled by police officers, people who were still on the bandstand were effectively kettled. The photo of 28-year-old Patsy Stevenson pinned to the ground by police officers, her terrified eyes above her black mask, will be the image that lives on for years. 

Helen got it right when she said that if the police presence hadn't become so heavy-handed, people would have drifted off of their own accord into the cold night. 

Inevitably, I have been told on Twitter that I should have been fined for attending the vigil. Inevitably, everyone who attended has been accused of being paid protesters. Inevitably, the mindless "crisis actor" accusations have been bandied about. Inevitably, the fact that there is no evidence that outdoor events where everyone wears masks cause spikes in coronavirus cases has been roundly ignored.

Inevitably, we have been told that last night was "not the time" to do this.

But we've been here before. We have held vigils for other murdered women. We have dutifully tweeted and changed our Facebook profiles in impotent rage. And we have been the ones to modify our behaviour. 

We are the ones who carry keys as a potential weapon when we walk alone at night, we choose our routes carefully, we stick to main roads and well-lit streets, we pledge to text our friends when we get home safely, we tuck ponytails into collars to make it harder for us to be grabbed from behind, we quicken our pace or cross the road when we hear footsteps behind us, we think hard about where we sit on buses and trains at night, we think twice about short hemlines and low necklines, we catch taxis we can ill-afford even if we're not necessarily safer with a cab driver, we make pretend phonecalls and invent husbands and boyfriends because apparently some men will only respect our boundaries if they think they might piss off another man, we are the ones who constantly change and think about our behaviour. Not men.

We are the ones whose bodies are likened to stolen, unlocked cars by men who still think we're asking for it. We are the ones who are told by men that it is rare to be attacked on the streets, as if that is going to reassure any of us. We are the ones who are told men are assaulted and raped too even though it's almost always by other men. We are the ones who are told men are assaulted and raped too even though making it harder for women to speak out makes it harder for male victims to speak out too.

But still we're told now is not the time to get angry. Because of Covid. Because it's too soon. Because we're wasting our time. Because, because, because... 

Because if we don't do it now, when do we do it? When another woman is murdered? When the government makes it near-impossible to protest? 

If not now, when?

Wednesday 10 March 2021

The week of International Women's Day is typically terrible for women


International Women's Day landed in yet another week that was largely terrible for women everywhere. The sad part is that the reasons why this week has been terrible for women were the same sort of reasons for this last week, and the week before that, and the week before that and so on. And next week will no doubt be terrible for depressingly similar reasons. And the week after that, and the week after that, and so on.

Around the world, women have protested on International Women's Day for a range of causes that serve to demonstrate why feminism is still necessary.

This week alone, here are a few terrible things that have happened.

- In Clapham, a few miles from where I am sitting now, Sarah Everard disappeared as she walked home from Clapham to Brixton. Today, it was announced that a serving police officer has been charged in connection with her disappearance and a search for her is underway in the area where she was last seen. We still cannot walk home without fear. And depressingly, the advice is for women in the area to stay home. That doesn't solve anything. It just fails to hold men accountable for the actions against us and simply says, "You stay home, ladies, and maybe the women in the next neighbourhood will be preyed upon instead.". I am not here for any advice where the message is: "Don't touch me, touch that other woman instead.".

- In Mexico, protests by angry women will probably have little impact. Women took to the streets because President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's party continues to back Felix Salgado, a candidate for governor, even though allegations of rape and sexual harassment have not been properly investigated. The protests turned violent and despite photographs to the contrary, police have denied using any kind of gas on the women. The only decent thing to do in such circumstances is for the accused to step down until a proper investigation has been carried out. The president's response has been to gaslight every woman who marched by saying the protests are motivated by conservative and foreign interests. His popularity appears to be unaffected by this scandal.

- In Australia, allegations of rape dating back to 1988 have been made against the attorney-general Christian Porter. The woman who made the allegations committed suicide last year. The coroner has ruled that the investigation is "incomplete" and has asked for further investigations before he decides whether to hold an inquest into the circumstances of her death. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has already publicly given Porter his full support and refused to commission an inquiry. See above for advice on the only decent thing to do in such circumstances...

- Rape allegations have also been politicised in Senegal. The opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko was arrested last week on rape charges. This week, he has been freed from detention pending an investigation and civil unrest has ensued, including clashes in which a schoolboy was killed. Sonko has claimed the rape charges are politically motivated by President Macky Sall. In the midst of all the noise, one person has been largely forgotten - the woman who made the allegations. She works at a beauty salon where Sonko received massages and she slips to the bottom of news reports as Sonko and Sall continue a war of words.

- The 40 Days For Life anti-abortion protests started on 17 February and continued here in the UK and elsewhere on International Women's Day and beyond. Two weeks ago, Edinburgh Council agreed to support the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics in Scotland so protesters have to stay at least 150 metres away from clinics. This is good news. Unfortunately, the rest of the country has been slower to act and women are being harassed by protesters every day while they access legal medical procedures. Click here for more information about how to join the BPAS Back Off campaign.   

These are just a handful of examples of things that are utter crap for women in different parts of the world. I could sit here all day and add more. It is a neverending stream of horror for women everywhere. We cannot and will not be silenced or gaslit into believing we're just being hysterical, that it's all in our heads. We must fight on.   

Photography by Maria Plashchynskaya/Pexels 

Sunday 14 February 2021

The tiresomeness of conspiracy theories


I blocked someone on Facebook this week. It's not something I do often or lightly but let's-call-her-Louhi stunk up my page with her ongoing and increasingly desperate attempts to convince the world that Covid-19 is a plot to control us all. 

She started by suggesting I Google "Covid vaccine vending machines" - I duly did and told her that all it brought up was news stories about vending machines for coronavirus tests. Louhi told me I'd missed the point and said this was the first step toward vaccine vending machines. She conveniently ignoring the myriad ethical, legal, logistical and hygiene issues that would need to be overcome for this dystopia to be a reality. 

Her proof that vaccine vending machines were coming comprised a quote from CS Lewis and a dream she had about a mall full of chemo chairs that were used for mass vaccination of a subservient public.

Louhi spouted ludicrous nonsense about how Captain Tom Moore merely died of old age, not pneumonia and Covid-19 - a conspiracy that would involve his family lying to the media, with the backing of the staff of Bedford Hospital. But I blocked because she shared an awful meme with the title "Anal Schwab" - it featured incoherent blather about how it's unfair that Covid deniers were called conspiracy theorists and it used an unflattering photograph of Klaus Schwab - this was linked to her idea that anal coronavirus testing is the government getting us to literally bend over for them. 

I pointed out to that Klaus Schwab's image is frequently used by vile anti-semitic conspiracy theorists but Louhi refused to acknowledge that - and she wasn't going to admit that her collection of dreams, moronic Googling, a CS Lewis quote, and a meme from a disgusting corner of the internet did not prove her points. If she seriously thinks the current UK government is capable of anything close to her wild conspiracy, it has escaped her attention that their sheer incompetence rules this out - their mendacity is out there for all to see. 

Louhi has gone from my Facebook world, I'm enjoying the peace and quiet, but it did get me thinking about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theorists. They have been around long before the pandemic, but they're certainly emboldened by the current state of affairs. 

Coincidentally, on Friday night, I binge-watched all four episodes of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Hotel Cecil on Netflix, a documentary that is a magnet for conspiracy theorists.  

True crime documentaries straddle the fine line between information and voyeurism - and Hotel Cecil certainly veered toward the latter. It is told in a way that keeps you guessing if you don't know anything about the tragic case of Elisa Lam. The worst people are the conspiracy theorists - a couple of YouTubers, a self-proclaimed web sleuth, and a journalist who really needs to find something else to do for a living. The documentary centres around the investigation into the disappearance of Elisa Lam, in particular the CCTV footage which shows her behaving very strangely in the hotel lift.

The evidence is drip-fed over the four episodes and the most irresponsible filmmaking involves letting the conspiracy theorists continually insist Elisa was murdered. The police investigators and the forensic pathologist - who has the sad task of determining how the 21-year-old died - are the good guys. They kept an open mind as to whether her death was murder, an accident, or suicide. When it was revealed she was bipolar and the toxicology report found she had been under-medicating, it became increasingly clear her death was an accident rather than a murder. 

Disturbingly, the conspiracy theorists were talking as if they wanted her death to have been a murder. They were so obsessed with coincidences and details that were irrelevant or, worse, were misinterpreted by these amateurs. None of them knew a damn thing about bipolar disorder or how it can affect sufferers, cause erratic behaviour, and distress themselves and others. If they had any knowledge at all here, they might have been more open-minded about how Elisa Lam died. 

Thankfully, in the case of Elisa Lam, this is not how the investigators or the forensic pathologist went about their duties. But the alleged journalist who was interviewed for Hotel Cecil should be embarrassed - I can imagine him getting frustrated if an interview subject didn't give him the answers he was expecting or hoping for, and being unable to cope if an interview subject threw him a curve-ball. And the guy who called himself a web sleuth should not be allowed near any criminal investigation.

And therein lies the problem with all conspiracy theorists. Their starting point is an end point. 

Conspiracy theorists are so convinced something must be true that they seek out any evidence, no matter how tenuous or ridiculous, to try and prove that specific theory rather than looking at the available evidence with clear eyes and mind. 

And if you dare challenge their fragile little world with facts, you'll be condemned as one of the sheeple who needs to wake up. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Photography by byronv2/Flickr

Sunday 7 February 2021

Vaccine nationalism and criticising the EU


The EU dropped a bollock. A massive bollock. A bollock the size of Jupiter. There, I said it. I am a militant remainer, someone who voted for the UK to stay in the EU in 2016, and would vote to rejoin the EU if the opportunity ever presented itself. But I can still criticise the EU without compromising my views. This is because, like pretty much ever remain voter I know, I can criticise EU decisions while not wanting to dismantle the whole damn thing. 

The bollock to which I am referring is, of course, the vaccine debacle. What started out as the EU being disgruntled over what it saw as AstraZeneca not being able to fulfil the vaccine order from a paying customer quickly degenerated into an unseemly spectacle. AstraZeneca was about 75 million doses short of being able to meet the EU's order of 300 million doses, with the option of a further 100 million. AstraZeneca cited production problems at their Netherlands and Belgium plants. The EU demanded that AstraZeneca should send over a load of doses manufactured here in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the headlines seen across the UK front pages did not take a measured tone. It was an opportunity to take a huge potshot at the EU while talking up our own vaccination success. Behold, the WWII cosplay language of war and British victory, of explosions - and a Mafia analogy. This was an absolute gift for Boris Johnson - the front pages made him look mighty and powerful, despite lethally mismanaging the pandemic since the beginning, and we could all blame the EU for being mean and evil again. Just like old times!  The fruit was so low-hanging, it was growing with the potatoes.

But then a grown-up entered the room. Michel Barnier, the man who had the thankless task of leading EU negotiations over Brexit, offered his reasonable view that Brussels had overstepped the mark with the UK, and before long, there was a screeching U-turn from the EU. Unlike every embarrassing U-turn Boris Johnson has performed in regard to managing the pandemic, the EU's about-face was swift. There was no EU raid on UK-made vaccines.  

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was reckless when she effectively called for a hard vaccine border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland - and she has kept a low profile ever since backtracking on this issue. The risk to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement cannot be understated here. But her ill-conceived statement exposed just how fragile peace is and, crucially, how the Brexit deal is poorly equipped to cope when Irish border issues crop up. 

The whole fiasco also exposed the embarrassing absurdity of vaccine nationalism. Yes, the UK is ahead of the EU in rolling out a vaccination programme, which is obviously a good thing. Only a psychopath or an anti-vaxxer would say otherwise. It was a gamble to start the programme three months ahead of the EU but it paid off. The rollout is not perfect - there is plenty of evidence to suggest there is a postcode lottery that means rates of vaccinations are varying significantly from region to region, and the real logistical test will come when it is time to give some people their second shot while new groups are being invited to book their first shot - but we are making steady progress.

And the EU will, of course, catch up with the UK on vaccinations. Belgium, Czech Republic, Malta, and Portugal are already doing pretty well. This is also a good thing. It is in our interests for people across the EU as well as in the UK to be vaccinated in a timely manner. Brexit or not, the geography does not change, we are still part of the wider world, people are keen to travel to Europe for work, for play, to see friends and family, and the virus does not care about national borders. 

Carrying on about a British "victory" over the EU makes us look like idiots, just as the EU made itself look silly by making demands on UK supplies. Crowing about our vaccination figures, as if it's a contest rather than a serious global health emergency that can only be properly managed through international cooperation, is pathetic behaviour for a country where its leaders claim that Brexit makes us more outward-looking.

The EU dropped a bollock over vaccines. Then it did the right thing and backtracked. Tiresomely, Brexiters will bang on for the rest of their lives about the time the EU tried to nick our jabs. But the rest of the world won't care, especially as none of this has affected the EU's humanitarian vaccine efforts in developing countries. The rest of the world will move on while Brexiter Twitter will refuse to let it go, like Miss Havisham in a Union Jack wedding dress. And we'll be left with the ongoing economic and social consequences of a poor Brexit deal, as well as the loss of more than 100,000 people. Some victory, eh?

Photography by Gustavo Fring

Sunday 24 January 2021

Was Brexit meant to be this lame?


Remember gung-ho, priapic Boris Johnson of the referendum campaign? The moment my remainer heart sunk, the moment I knew the leave vote might just get up in 2016, was during the debate in which Johnson loudly heralded "independence day!" to a spontaneous, rousing cheer. 

But that excitable rhetoric of "sunlit uplands" and "amazing opportunities outside the EU" has been replaced by a more subdued mood from Brexit's most vocal cheerleaders. Their shoulders are slumped and the confident promises have been replaced by stumbling, mumbling desperation. And, unsurprisingly, the self-serving, grifting con man, Nigel Farage has abandoned the men and women of the fishing industry after using them disgracefully for his own ends in 2016.

The Brexiters' rhetoric now is more like "well, it won't be so bad" or "this is what we're doing to make this a bit less rubbish" - and everything "we're doing" is stuff that we're paying for, stupidly expensive stuff we, the taxpayers, wouldn't have to pay for if we'd simply stayed in the EU. 

Take Nissan's Sunderland plant for the latest example. All of a sudden, Nissan executives were singing the praises of Brexit and announcing that batteries would be manufactured in Sunderland. Last year, Nissan was sending out perfectly valid warnings of the dire consequences of a no-deal Brexit - and luckily for Nissan, the wafer-thin deal covered goods (but not services). Last week, Nissan was all about Brexit.

First, before any leave voter dares accuse me of wanting Nissan to close the Sunderland plant, nothing could be further from the truth. On a personal level, I have friends and family in the area and, even if they don't work at the factory, a 6,000-job employer shutting up shop has implications for them all. And on a broader level, only a hateful sadist would get any joy from seeing the end of a genuine achievement for the north-east from the Thatcher era. Nissan Sunderland is a fiscal multiplier, an unalloyed good for the region, as well as the 70,000 supply chain jobs beyond the plant's gates.

The reality is that the loss of Nissan Sunderland would be a PR disaster for this government. 

Sunderland voted 61.3% to leave the EU, smashing the nationwide 52% leave vote. Ever since, the people of Sunderland have been characterised, often cruelly, as idiots who shot themselves in their collective feet in 2016. A no-deal Brexit would have almost certainly spelled the end of the Nissan plant. The government knew this from June 24, 2016, and they have been generous with our money toward the automaker as a result. In February 2019, business secretary Greg Hand had to publicly concede that Nissan, a company with assets worth US$154 billion, received a government grant of £61 million.

While this is good news for Sunderland, such corporate welfare is unsustainable. Other parts of the UK automotive industry won't be as fortunate and the government knows full well it can't just spunk £61 million every time a big company threatens to leave the UK.

And the rest of this whole Brexit thing is just a bit pathetic really. 

It's obviously a good thing that the country hasn't descended into total chaos. I'm glad I haven't been in a fist fight for the last loaf of bread in Asda or taken to shooting squirrels off the garage roof for dinner. Only the most economically reckless or illiterate disaster capitalists and disaster socialists - almost always people wealthy enough to be insulated from any real hardships - genuinely wanted absolute bedlam after 11pm on New Year's Eve 2020.

Instead, we now have lots of examples of supposedly "little things" that have happened as a result of Brexit. This was always going to be the way it panned out - Brexit as the death by a thousand cuts rather than one massive social and economic explosion wiping us all out. 

These "little things" have been seized on by Brexiters as examples of pampered remainers whining from their ivory towers - it is low-hanging fruit picked gleefully by leave voters in what has degenerated into an embittered culture war. 

Brexiters have laughed at remainers for calling out everything from having to buy dog food in France when taking pooches on holiday to increased postage charges. Apparently, only wealthy remainers have ever taken a dog on holiday to Europe, even though that is clearly nonsense. It's not just about bloody dog food - it is about the added costs of taking a pet on holiday across the channel which are a direct result of leaving the EU. Brexit makes what was once a simple, affordable pleasure for a nation of dog-lovers into something that will become out of reach for many people. It's a microcosm of the sheer joylessness that Brexit is starting to bring to us.

Increased postal costs between the UK and the EU are not just a bit of a pain in the bum - they are genuinely crippling a range of smaller British businesses and you can bet your life they won't be getting a £61 million handout from the government any time soon. But Brexit suffering is only for the little people and the little companies. 

And there are other "little things" that are being minimised by Brexiters desperate to paint remainers as doomsayers. For example, phone companies have not yet started charging for global roaming when we travel to the EU - a dire warning of the remain campaign - but anyone who seriously thinks this will never happen is almost adorably naive.

The loss of access to the fast EU queues at European airports is dismissed by Brexiters by saying it's "worth it" or "anyone would think we never travelled or worked on the continent before the EU!", conveniently romanticising an era where travel was not accessible for a lot of people, where crossing European borders was inconvenient and time-consuming, where it was not easy to work or retire in Europe without a lot of money.

When Boris Johnson pettily pulled the UK out of the Erasmus scheme, even though we could have stayed in post-Brexit, this led to predictable Brexiter howls that this was just for privileged kids. No amount of people stating that they were working class kids whose lives were changed for the better by Erasmus will change their minds.

Similarly, Boris Johnson refusing the EU's magnanimity to allow easy access for British musicians to tour in Europe can be easily dismissed by Brexiters as just muso luvvies complaining. Never mind that the arts contributes way more to the UK economy than fishing or being able to easily work as a performer in Europe helps British artists financially and professionally. This is just another "little thing" we have to put up with for... For what exactly?

Liz Truss can bang on about pork and cheese all she likes but it's not going to bring us trade deals that are close to what we had in the EU. We will still need to abide by EU rules to trade with the EU, but we will have no say in making those rules. 

Boris Johnson can tweet ridiculous photos of himself giving God the thumbs-up while on the phone to Joe Biden but the reality is that a mutually beneficial UK-US free trade deal was not part of that conversation. 

Brexiters can yell "Sovereignty!" without being properly challenged on what it means or informed of the myriad things EU countries do as sovereign nations, such as effectively closing borders to help stop the spread of a deadly pandemic. 

Any Brexiter who dares say they don't mind if the price of groceries goes up as a result of Brexit probably isn't trying to get by on universal credit. Covid-19 delays and "teething problems" can only be blamed for so long when it comes to reduced choice in our supermarkets, higher prices, and fresh foods with shorter expiry dates - these are all direct outcomes from voting to make supply chains with the EU more complicated, bureaucratic and time-consuming.

And anyone who is genuinely excited by blue passports that we could have had without leaving the EU is just too sad for words.  

Nope, it's all just a bit lame, isn't it? It's not, as yet, an abject economic disaster - and the pandemic will be blamed for all manner of things for the foreseeable future - but over the next few years, we're going to see lots of little annoyances add up, in between completely predictable job losses across a range of sectors, even after the virus is under control. 

In the meantime, the movement toward an independent Scotland and a reunited Ireland, with EU membership, will go from strength to strength - and, ultimately, that may lead to the isolated rump states of Wales and England rejoining the EU under terms that won't come close to the benefits we enjoyed as part of a 28-strong bloc. Brexit is already looking pathetic. It is a damp squib wrapped in a wet blanket - and nobody voted for that.


Sunday 3 January 2021

Covid-19 and the expendables


Paul Embery is not an epidemiologist, virologist, or indeed a doctor of any description. According to his Twitter bio, his main claim to fame is being a columnist for UnHerd. Despite being a member of the National Union of Journalists, he appears to have missed the bit in his training where you're taught to properly analyse and responsibly report on statistics.

Unfortunately, his ridiculous tweet received a lot of traction, predictable support from the likes of Julia Hartley-Brewer, and, sure, it looks credible enough. After all, he has included a link to the NHS website. Why, he's just a humble journalist sharing Actual NHS Statistics to prove his coronavirus-minimising point. And given that we all love the NHS so much we used to applaud it every Thursday night, how could we possibly question his wisdom?

Quite easily, actually.

First, we have the ageist bigotry that says it's somehow OK for people over 60 to die of Covid-19, that once we all turn 60, our lives, our value to society, our purpose is diminished. Women over 40 already know they start to become invisible after a certain age. Now we are told that once we hit 60, we should consider ourselves lucky to have had such a good innings.  

From a purely cold economic standpoint, the NHS figures mean that an increasingly productive part of the economy is at risk and should be protected. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, between 1985 and 2015, women aged 60-64 represented the highest increase in employment rates of any demographic, rising from 17.7% participation in the workforce to 40.7%. In the same period, employment rates for men aged 65-69 increased from 12.8% to 25.8%. That's a lot of extra tax revenue and consumer spending from these demographics. As the government continues to raise the pension age, these figures should surprise nobody.

Then we have the sinister "pre-existing condition" part of Embery's out-of-context tweet. It's stunning how casually we can dismiss the coronavirus deaths of those with pre-existing conditions. This includes diabetes, asthma, heart conditions, immune system conditions, regardless of the person's age. Suddenly, we have a much larger group of people at risk from Covid-19. 

By and large, thanks mostly to modern medicine, plenty of pre-existing conditions can be managed so people can live healthy, productive, happy lives. You can't always see a pre-existing condition but if that person caught Covid-19, they could become seriously ill and possibly die way before their time. But Embery's thoughtless tweet devalues the lives and contributions of millions of people as he attempts to minimise how serious this global pandemic is.

And with a virus as easily transmissible as Covid-19, it's not just the deaths we need to focus on. There are plenty of blowhards who'll yell into the internet that there's "no need to panic about a disease with a [insert very low percentage here] death rate!". But that ignores not only the lost productivity from people who test positive, and their contacts, having to self-isolate - it also ignores the emerging data about the long-term effects even after a patient has recovered from the virus, including long covid, where people suffer ongoing health problems for weeks or months after the usual two weeks or so of illness. Even if you do survive Covid-19, that's not necessarily the end of the story - viruses can be nasty like that.

Of course, none of this has been helped by an incompetent government led by a self-serving, impatient, spoiled man-baby of a prime minister, a man more concerned with tomorrow's headlines rather than properly dealing with a major public health emergency. The UK lost the advantage of being an island in March with a late lockdown, no closing of international borders, and letting events such as Cheltenham go ahead.

Boris Johnson hates being the bearer of bad news, hence his pathetic WWII Blitz spirit cosplaying about it being all over by summer or Christmas or Easter or next summer. And don't forget his incoherent ramblings about the commonsense and pluck of the British people, even when this commonsense appears to be in short supply. But that suits Johnson too - it works for him for us to turn on each other for breaking lockdown rules or being "too careful", rather than to seriously hold him and his useless cabinet to account.

There is a desperation for things to "return to normal", which is perfectly understandable. We are all missing so many things from Before Times. But even after we have been sufficiently vaccinated and the virus sufficiently suppressed, there will be lasting changes. This means everything from irrevocably changed personal relationships to radical decisions made after taking stock over lockdown, through to a growing culture of flexible working, a collapse of the commercial property market, and a possible rethinking about how city centres can be repurposed to be more residential rather than merely places where we go to work before disappearing to the perimeters. 

We cannot and should not emerge from this awful time unchanged and none the wiser. But as long as nonsense, such as that ridiculous tweet from Embery, is shared, the stats unparsed without challenge or consideration, the emergence will be a long time coming.     

Thursday 19 November 2020

Boris Johnson's big, green car con


Boris Johnson's latest wheeze is to declare that there will be no more new petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars sold in Britain from 2030. Don't get me wrong - clean air is good. Hell, after five years of living in the UAE, working as a motoring journalist, owning a gas-guzzling SUV, and travelling business class for press trips, I should probably atone for my carbon footprint. It was like a coal miner's lung.

It's not the idea that is the problem. It's the lashings of bullshit that come with it.

First, Johnson can say whatever the hell he likes. After all, why break the habit of a lifetime? He knows he won't be prime minister in 2030. He won't have to actually see this idea through. He won't have to take any real responsibility for the government's role in funding infrastructure, determining policy, or liaising with the private sector to make this happen.

It's a calculated risk. He's smart enough to know there will be a bit of an outcry but it's better to have a few people howling about the latest war on cars than let them get too worked up about the government's ongoing mishandling of Covid-19 or the looming Brexit debacle.

It's not all doom and gloom. Charging infrastructure is certainly improving and the range for electric cars has become longer in recent years. Indeed, the range of a couple of hundred miles is ample for the driving many of us do on a day-to-day basis. Electric vehicles often make sense for local authorities too - if the vehicle is only going to be buzzing around the borough, there's little risk of running out of charge. Fast-charging technology is getting better every year.

But for a lot of us, used to being able to fill up a car with a fossil fuel quickly and easily, making the transition to electric cars will take a mindset shift as well as potentially being expensive. Half an hour for an 80% rapid charge will seem like too long for a lot of people, especially when they need a car for work. Business secretary Alok Sharma revealed how stunningly out of touch he is with real people in a pandemic when he was talking about £20,000 electric cars as being cheap on Sky News yesterday morning. 

A decade should be plenty of time to make the transition, if there was a competent government running the show, but I am not convinced that Johnson's electric vehicle policy, part of a 10-point "green industrial revolution" has allowed a big enough budget.

£1.3 billion to roll out charging points in homes, streets and on motorways probably won't be enough. Currently, the government offers up to £350 for households to install a charging point. With around 75% of adults in the UK holding driving licenses, approximately 20 million households will need a charging point - that's potentially a subsidy bill of up to £7 billion. A lot of houses and apartment building car parks will need charging points. 

Obviously, it's entirely reasonable for companies such as BP and Esso to fork out for charging points at their petrol stations. But this smells like the government pulling a big figure out of their collective arses in the hope that we'll all be so impressed by the sheer size of £1.3 billion that we won't work out what it really means.  

Similarly, £582 million in grants to buy zero- or ultra-low-emission vehicles is a petty cash drawer figure in terms of government spending.

And "nearly" £500 million over the next four years - so less than £125 million per year - for the development of mass production of electric vehicle batteries really won't go that far. The government statement on the 10-point plan adds that this is part of £12 billion in state spending on developing electric car manufacturing with "potentially three times as much from the private sector". So that's money that we cannot count on, especially if car manufacturing goes down the toilet post-Brexit. After all, it's not as if we will be able to make all components or source all materials from the UK - with inevitably buggered-up, expensive supply chains from the EU, it becomes a less attractive investment. 

Then there are concerns about the supply chain ethics of certain raw materials for electric vehicles, such as the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplies 60% of cobalt for this sector. The second-biggest producer of cobalt in the world is Russia and its output is 83% smaller than that of the DRC. Wonderful.

Of course, there is an attempt in the statement to desperately appeal to their newly won Red Wall voters and Conservative voters elsewhere with the pledge to create electric vehicle sector jobs in the northeast of England, Wales and the Midlands. For the northeast, this pledge comes just as there are renewed reports of Sunderland losing its Nissan plant if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead - this could be a pre-emptive strike to convince people that this is how the jobs will be replaced. Ironically, it is faintly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher convincing Nissan to build the Sunderland plant to help replace jobs lost when the coal mines closed, with access to the EU market as a major selling point. 

But Boris Johnson has not got any of the convictions of Thatcher and he certainly does not have her work ethic. There's no real detail in his plans for the automotive sector about how the money will be spent, and no breakdown on practical things such as budgets for retraining workers and retooling factories. At least Sunderland has experience with building the electric Nissan Leaf. Apart from the electric Mini and the possibility of an electric Jaguar, a lot of money will be needed to ensure electric cars can roll off production lines in Derbyshire, Swindon, Norfolk, Warwickshire, Cheshire, West Sussex and Luton.

But this is not a government that does details.

The point in the plan about public transport has nothing much to say to areas where public transport is non-existent. There is a pledge to spend £4.2 billion in "city public transport". Given that in London, TFL's 2019-2020 budget was £10.3 billion, £4.2 billion across all UK cities is going to spread out very thinly indeed. Again, Boris Johnson pukes out numbers that are more than we'll ever see in our bank accounts and expects us to be impressed without question. 

Still, it's all on brand for Johnson. It's all big-sounding numbers and bumper sticker soundbites, as ever. He was supposedly a green Tory mayor for London but that was a con too. This is the idiot mayor who wasted £1.4 million in a failed attempt to "glue" pollution to the capital's roads and removed the congestion charge exemption for hybrid cars. Basically, he got away with developing a reputation for being an eco-friendly mayor because he was photographed riding a bicycle like a saggy-suited clown.

Boris Johnson's figures for his "green industrial revolution" are as rubbery as the condoms he seems to be incapable of using. It's bluster and waffle, there's a strong whiff of pork-barrelling, it is more simplistic sloganeering.

He is a charlatan, a fraud, a major league con man, someone who has fooled voters for years on an industrial scale, the wrong person to be in charge of anything let alone an environmental programme this nakedly ambitious - put that on your electric car bumper sticker.

Friday 13 November 2020

Peter Sutcliffe's mirror on misogyny


Peter Sutcliffe is dead and nobody should be upset that he is gone from this world. We will never know exactly how many women he killed or attacked. We will never know exactly how many lives he ruined. 

Thankfully, today's coverage is centred largely on the victims and the people left behind to pick up the pieces after women they loved were taken cruelly away from them. 

Naga Munchetty did an excellent interview on BBC Breakfast this morning with Richard McCann, the son of Wilma McCann, believed to be Sutcliffe's first victim. She was compassionate, she let Richard speak through his grief and complex feelings about his mother's death and the man who was responsible, she reassured him that he has nothing to be ashamed of. 

The appalling events between 1975 ad 1980 could have ended much sooner - Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times before he was finally brought to justice, and the Wearside Jack hoax tapes were a devastating distraction, wasting police time, allowing Sutcliffe to kill more women. Misogyny infested the West Yorkshire police force at the time, fuelling incompetence. This horrific account of a press conference is sickening:

Today's coverage of Sutcliffe's pathetic demise has not been perfect. The footage that did not need to be broadcast was that of a jovial interview with one of the killer's former colleagues. We saw the unedifying spectacle of a man laughing as he said they all knew Sutcliffe was the Yorkshire Ripper and that he even answered to this name. And still he laughed, reducing dead women to workplace banter.

It is vile misogyny, just as it is vile misogyny to diminish some of the victims as "just prostitutes" rather than individual women with their own stories, often of hard lives, of limited choices. It is vile misogyny to dismiss any of the victims as somehow asking for it, to create a hierarchy of dead women from sainted virgins to scorned sluts. 

But this is what happens when sex workers are among the dead, as if their lives matter less than those of other women. This narrative reared its ugly head for years in discourse surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper just as surely as it did a century earlier when Sutcliffe's grotesque namesake, Jack the Ripper, was terrorising women in London. 

Our dead bodies are not there for workplace banter, for our corpses to be picked over by hideous vultures seeking to push misogynistic narratives from our carrion, for making people feel better about their attitudes to women, for helping people convince themselves that the safety of some women is more important than that of others. 

Instead, let us take this moment to remember the names of the victims we know and to reflect that we may never know the names that would surely complete this tragic list:

Wilma McCann

Emily Jackson

Irene Richardson

Tina Atkinson

Jayne MacDonald

Jean Jordan

Yvonne Pearson

Helen Rytka

Vera Millward

Josephine Whitaker

Barbara Leach

Marguerite Walls

Jacqueline Hill

And these are the women who survived attacks by Sutcliffe, more women whose lives will be forever affected by his violent hatred of women:

Anna Rogulskyj

Olive Smelt

Tracy Browne

Marcella Claxton

Marilyn Moore

Upadhya Bandara

Maureen Lea

Theresa Sykes

Say their names. Say all their names.

Photography: Tasha Kamrowski/Pexels

Tuesday 6 October 2020

The pandemic of "honour" killings


Let's start calling so-called "honour" killings by their real name. They are misogynistic murders. They are the murders of girls and women who have done nothing wrong. They are murders committed almost exclusively by men, although women can be complicit. They are murders with vile motivations such as a taking false offence, feeling an unwarranted sense of shame, a desire to control girls and women in everything they say, do and think, a heinous jealousy that is never flattering, a desire to maintain a sickening patriarchy where men and boys enjoy freedoms that they deny to the girls and women in their lives.

The disgusting reality of misogynistic murders was brought into sharp focus last week with Honour, the ITV drama based on the 2006 murder of 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod at the hands of her own father and uncle. Three of her cousins and two family friends were also convicted in relation to her killing. Her non-crime was to leave an abusive forced marriage and find happiness with a new boyfriend, who killed himself 10 years after Banaz was murdered. 

Banaz had gone to the police multiple times to share her very real fears that her life was in danger, even naming names of the people of whom she was rightly terrified, but she was not taken seriously until she went missing. Her body was found in a suitcase buried in a derelict garden in Birmingham, after she was killed in South London a few miles from where I'm now sitting. She is buried at the cemetery down the road. Her family tried to insult her one last time with an unmarked grave but a granite memorial stone now marks her final resting place, paid for by the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO), police officers and Nazir Afzal, the tenacious lead prosecutor in her case.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the ITV drama was the portrayal of Diana Nammi by brilliant, brave Saudi actress Ahd Hassan Kamel. Diana is a British-Kurdish activist who came to the UK as an asylum seeker, founding IKWRO in 2002. There is a scene where she expresses her sheer frustration that because she is a woman, she is not considered a leader in the community where Banaz and her Iraq-Kurdish family lived.

But Diana is a leader. It is so important that Britain has elevated her to this status because of her important work, which included helping bring Banaz's killers to justice. In 2014, she received a Barclays Woman of the Year award,s a Women on the Move award from UNHCR and named one of the BBC's 100 Women. In 2015, she received a Voices of Courage award from the Women's Refugee Commission in 2015 and an honorary degree from the University of Essex in 2016.  

This is important because Britain needs to be better than the misogynistic murderers of Banaz Mamod, to take a stand, to speak the truth that there is nothing honourable about honour killings. A vital part of this is for Britain to be a place where women, regardless of their ethnicity, are empowered to be community leaders, to be taken seriously when they defend vulnerable girls and women and denounce misogynistic, patriarchal cultures - all of them everywhere - in no uncertain terms.

Appalling stories such as that of Banaz Mahmod are low-hanging fruit for racists. There will always be the people whose first reaction is to blame immigration, to claim that if "these people" weren't allowed in the UK, then such murders wouldn't happen here. 

This is a dreadful notion for two reasons. 

Firstly, while Banaz Mahmod would not have been killed on British soil if her family didn't come to the UK, it is entirely possible that she could have been killed in similar circumstances in Iraq - the problem of so-called honour killings would simply happen elsewhere and that is equally as unacceptable as when it happens here. The banning of immigration and, in particular, the stopping of all asylum seekers being allowed to seek safety in the UK, simply moves the problem to other countries. If Britain is serious about the moral high ground and about stopping the bloodshed, it is essential that we condemn all so-called honour killings, no matter where they happen.

And secondly, it is wrong to claim that such murders are only the domain of immigrants, that the only hands that are gripped around innocent necks or holding knives or tightening ligatures or pointing guns in the name of false offence or bringing supposed shame to families and, in particular, to men belong solely to foreigners.

In the UK, the number of women killed by current or former partner is on the increase. Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that 80 women were killed by a current or former partner between April 2018 and March 2019, a 27% increase on the previous year.

If you think these men's motivations are any different to those of the pathetic men who were offended by Banaz Mahmod making her own life choices, you're mistaken. When women are murdered by men close to them, it doesn't matter what colour anyone's skin is or whether anyone's family has been in the UK for a few years or since Roman times. The killers are still men who hate women. They are still offended because a woman has dared to leave or spurned advances or was perceived to have strayed or flirted or fell short of some impossible standard. These men, just as surely as Banaz Mahmod's killers did, feel a misguided and bogus shame, feel like they have lost control of women they considered their property, feel their pitiful male pride has been wounded by women who would not comply. 

If we are serious about ending this misogynistic turf war that is fought on women's bodies, more needs to be done. We should absolutely engage with all communities in Britain, to uphold courageous people such as Diana Nammi who shine a light on this hatred and violence at great personal cost. But we also need to acknowledge that murderous misogyny is not exclusive to any one community or ethnic group. It is a dark stain on every town and city and as long as women are killed by people close to them every single week, it shames us all.   

Photography by Joanne Adela Low/Pexels