Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Toppling Edward Colston was important and right

Two of the most useful things I studied at university were statistics and a history elective called "Public History". As the name suggests, it was all about how history is presented to the public, including statues. We studied the reasons why statues were erected, what statues are meant to achieve and how old statues stand in a modern context.

Statues are almost always erected as an act of celebration, to honour and remember people considered to have achieved great things. When we erect a statue of someone, we are literally putting them on a pedestal, we are forced to look up to them, whether we want to or not. When a statue is torn down, it is usually an event fuelled by anger, by the need to triumph over whatever it was that the statue stood for. 

In the case of Edward Colston, it stood for celebrating a man who trafficked human beings.

Between 1680 and 1692, it is estimated his company transported 84,000 men, women and children. But his apologists will claim that his statue was for his charitable work, so that somehow makes a man who treated the equivalent of almost the entire population of Bath as chattel a perfectly acceptable guy to cast in bronze for all the world to see. 

But even his charitable work was unsavoury. While there is nothing to be gained by closing down the schools he helped found, it is important to recognise that at the time, his philanthropy was tainted by his own High Church Anglican religious bigotry. He insisted that children of Dissenters be refused admission. Dissenters were the protestants who separated from the Church of England during the 17th and 18th centuries, including Quakers. The school rules included the expulsion of any boy who had been caught attending a church service outside the Church of England. Boys became apprentices upon graduation but could not be apprentices to Dissenters.

By the time his statue was erected in 1895, the act which abolished slavery in Britain had been in force for 61 years. This makes the morally lazy argument that we can't judge an old statue on modern values ridiculous.  

The other pathetic argument for leaving Colston on his plinth was that the statue should be removed by "democratic processes". Oh please. Sit down. Since the 1990s, there have been peaceful, polite campaigns to remove the statue. But, as Professor Kate Williams pointed out in a brilliant Twitter thread, plans in 2018 to put up a plaque to put Colston into historical context hit brick walls when some councillors objected to the wording and Bristol's Society of Merchant Venturers got involved because they didn't want any mention of the 12,000 trafficked children or the selective nature of his philanthropy. Pulling the statue down and throwing it in the river has been a bold, powerful, important statement. Sometimes being polite is a waste of time.  

But merely pulling down statues will not end racism in the UK any more than having two female prime ministers has ended sexism. Shadow justice secretary David Lammy suggested that these sort of statues should be in museums where the historical context can be discussed, where they will actually become a means of education rather than something for people to walk past and pigeons to shit on. Very few people ever learn anything particularly profound from a statue and they are not usually erected for pedagogical purposes. The notion that statues of racists need to stay put to educate people on racism is embarrassing.

And that brings me to my other useful university subject - that of statistics. When we look at racial inequality, the criminal justice system is quickly placed under the spotlight. By the government's own statistics, black people are stopped and searched way more often than white people - the rate for the whole population is seven in 1,000 people are stopped and searched but for black people, this is 38 per 1,000. For white people, the figure is four per 1,000. Last year, 27% of the prison population identified as an ethnic minority compared to 13% of the overall population. Before a case even gets to court, black men are 26% more likely to be remanded in custody at the Crown Court than white men. Once in front of the beak, black men are 53% more likely than white men to be sentenced to prison for an indictable offence.

Crucially, according to a 2017 Ministry of Justice review, young black people are nine times more likely to be locked up than young white people. That means that for first offences, young black people are ending up behind bars more often than young white people - and this is where the cycle of crime so often starts, with a focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation.

Simple changes such as only locking up first-time offenders for serious violent crimes, such as rape, murder and armed robbery, could help, along with eliminating custodial sentences for non-violent crimes. The money saved on keeping people of all skin colours in overcrowded prisons, which are not conducive to rehabilitation, could be invested into education, training and counselling for young and first-time offenders. The "broken window" policy of cracking down hard on first offences, no matter how minor, does not work.

Class plays a role in disadvantage too. It is naive and simplistic to think that Malia and Sasha Obama are not privileged while declaring a young white man on a council estate born into multi-generational unemployment is a shining example of white privilege. There are intersections when it comes to who holds the aces in the game of life, who will be able to reach their potential and who will fall by the wayside. But being born with black skin is still a lightning rod for prejudice on sight, for attracting the attention of police when you're minding your own business, for fearing being pulled over for a minor traffic offence, and being a target of hate. 

Policies which encourage investment in high quality comprehensive education so that "rough schools" are not permanently accepted as being rough because that's just the way it is will help the white kids who are disadvantaged as well as the black kids. The same goes for investing in high quality, affordable social housing, ensuring equitable access to healthcare and allowing greater access to higher education. And so and so forth - the policies that will help black people help society as a whole. Why would anyone object?

And while we're at it, Priti Patel could easily put an end to all Windrush deportations and ensure that every family affected receives compensation.

Pulling down the vile Edward Colston was an important moment in history, along with the powerful image of a black woman taking her place on his empty plinth to address the crowd with a megaphone, but even if every statue of every slave trader is rightly removed, there is still so much that needs to be done to improve the awful statistics.

Image credit: Prachatai/Flickr

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Moving on from Cummings going to Durham with the Dompologists

The Dompologists came out in force as soon as their hero was busted. Apparently, Dominic Cummings going to work on what should have been his first day at home for a 14-day quarantine; driving 260 miles non-stop to Durham with a child in the car while he and his wife were both possibly contagious so they could be near the person who was their only childcare option; the person who was the only childcare option apparently incapable of travelling alone to London if required; being tragically unable to ask a single friend or family member in London to drop off groceries or medication during quarantine; being unable to pay for a grocery or medication delivery service despite having a pretty good combined household income; driving his child to hospital in Durham with his wife while still possibly contagious; driving to Barnard Castle on his wife's birthday with his wife and child in the car on a 60-mile round trip to test his eyesight; not sharing the drive home with his wife even though she can drive; his wife writing a column for the Spectator about life in lockdown which omitted the salient fact that they'd buggered off to Durham; testing the capacity of a Range Rover petrol tank to its absolute running-on-fumes limits; being the parents of a four-year-old with a cast iron bladder; and retrospectively editing a blog post in April 2020 to give the impression that he warned everyone about the coronavirus last year - all mean that he didn't break any of the rules he helped to set and therefore he shouldn't resign.

Instead, a pathetic rebranding of Dominic Cummings, father of the year, erupted. It was quickly pointed out that the whole "he did what any good dad would do" line insulted everyone, especially those struggling to juggle kids and work, and all who had followed the rules since March.

So, the Dompologists started yelling: "LET'S MOVE ON AND TALK ABOUT THE IMPORTANT ISSUES!".

OK. Sure. Fine by me. Let's talk about the important issues. How about we start with childcare? Seriously, I've never heard so many people who have never previously breathed a word about childcare talk so much about childcare when they leapt to Cummings' defence.

Let's talk about childcare not just for now - although that is important - but for the long-term. What can we do about (mostly) women giving up careers because childcare costs meant they were literally paying to go to work? What about incentivising employers to subsidise childcare, offer more flexible hours or working-from-home opportunities to help families? Hell, if anything good can come of this wretched virus, it might be the penny dropping for presenteeism-obsessed employers in regard to trusting staff to work from home. At the same time, though, how about recognising the need for people who work from home to have access to childcare? And what about affordable, high-quality childcare for people on low incomes? Maybe some of the Conservative MPs who smashed the red wall could raise this issue on behalf of their working class constituents?

Perhaps the craven cabinet ministers who all spinelessly tweeted embarrassing boilerplate nonsense about Cummings being a plucky little battler who was struggling with childcare could show the same concern for families up and down the country? I could introduce them to someone I know, a single father raising a severely disabled teenaged daughter while working from home. I'm sure that meeting would prove very instructive for the government front bench.

And let's talk about how shamefully outrageous the Downing Street rose garden press conference was. Why was an unelected adviser allowed to use that particular space to defend himself on live TV?

But more importantly, if the Dompologists want to talk about the big issues of the day, let's talk about how Cummings' defence blew wide open the rifts among Brexiters, and how it became painfully clear that the main reason Boris Johnson hasn't sacked him is because he is too scared to try and be prime minister without his trusty adviser.

Cummings came across as being puffed up with his own self-importance during his rose garden statement but he had a point - to Boris Johnson, he is important. Cummings was quite right to talk up his importance to the running of the country - this is the pedestal on which Johnson placed him and now he's incapable of taking him down.

We have a prime minister who is self-serving, unpleasant, cowardly, bullying and lazy. This PM gig has not panned out like he thought it would when it competed for top billing in his masturbatory fantasies at Eton. As a result, he relies heavily on Cummings, having been way too impressed by the effectiveness of the "Take back control" slogan of the Brexit campaign.

Since then, Classic Dom's simplistic slogans have been the order of the day. To be fair, "Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives" was clear and effective. It was an instruction the Cummings himself found impossible to follow but it made sense. Now we have the shitshow of "Stay alert" with a government rushing to ease lockdown rules because public trust has eroded. It seems the government has figured everyone is just going to flock to the nearest park or beach anyway. Bizarre rules about allowing six people in your garden as long as nobody sits on the sunlounger or uses the toilet abound. We're being warned not to have sex with anyone outside our own households but we can let the cleaner, nanny or estate agent in, if required.

Today, we witnessed the Rees-Mogg-inspired farce of MPs queueing in a ridiculous conga line to vote in parliament, along with a drive to force all 650 MPs back into the House of Commons before it's safe to do so, all because the PM is useless without his braying fan club behind him. The pared-back parliament with limited numbers in the house and questions by Zoom exposes Johnson as an incompetent blatherer, a desperate haystack of a man, obviously out of his depth, reaching for Latin Christmas cracker jokes when he has no answers.

Dominic Cummings isn't urging the PM to take a step back and look at this mess with a cool head. He's probably delighted with the chaos - after all, we are edging towards his libertarian wet dream where everyone does the hell they want so they can all be blamed when there's a second spike in COVID-19 cases. And he is happy to continue to lead Boris Johnson down this pitiful path, regardless of whose lives it might cost, along with leading us over an irresponsible no-deal Brexit cliff for good measure. One unelected man has way too much power. That is what has emerged from the scandal over the drive to Durham. That is what is so outrageous and that is why we should stay angry.

Photo: Ninian Reid/Flickr

Monday, 11 May 2020

Alert or alarmed? Conservative communication at its worst

As soon as Boris Johnson pivoted from "Stay home" to "Stay alert", I had flashbacks to Australia circa 2002. The John Howard government, in all its wisdom, spewed forth the slogan "Be alert, not alarmed" in regard to being vigilant about terrorism. 

Of course, by this stage, plenty of people were alarmed about the threat of terrorism in a post-9/11 world and it was never entirely clear what "be alert" meant apart from maybe going above and beyond the usual neighbourhood watch curtain-twitching if you suspected someone might be plotting a terror attack. Alertness didn't stop four young Australians getting killed in 2005 when they were enjoying a night out in Bali, nor did it stop the 2014 siege at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney's Martin Place, in which 18 people were taken hostage and three people were shot dead. 

Should the people who went out for a night on the razz in Bali or the people who were going about their business, meeting friends or colleagues for coffee in Martin Place have been more alert? Of course not because it's is a load of victim-blaming nonsense.

That's the problem with telling people to "stay alert" - at what point does alertness give way to ridiculous paranoia? And how meaningful is advice to stay alert? 

Staying alert is reasonably sound life advice in that it's smart to be aware of one's surroundings, pay attention while driving or keep an eye on the kids when they're swimming in the sea, but how does it apply to a virus that is invisible but deadly? It won't jump you from behind and nick your wallet, despite Boris Johnson's crap mugger analogy after he emerged from hospital like scruffy Jesus. It won't cut you off like Prince Phillip when you have right of way at a T-junction. It won't drag the kids underwater like a freak wave at Tenerife.

In any case, we are already alert. 

For weeks now, people have been rolling their eyes, tutting or yelling at people who don't respect social distancing on footpaths or can't follow simple one-way systems in supermarket aisles. Hell, some people are reporting their neighbours to the police, be it for non-crimes, such as sitting in the sun for a bit, or genuinely dangerous petri dish situations, such as having a load of mates over for a party.

And people were alert enough to avoid public transport unless absolutely essential until this morning. 

Boris Johnson's new "Stay alert - Control the virus - Save lives" message was coupled with a pre-recorded address to the nation last night which avoided the scrutiny of parliament. The advice seems to be to go back to work if you can't work from home, unless you work in a pub, restaurant, barbershop, hairdressing salon or beauty salon; try to walk, cycle or drive to work if you can; and only take public transport if there is no other option. But this was issued at 7pm on a Sunday night, without the accompanying 60-page guidance document, and without any real advice to employers to make sure the workplace is safe before calling people back to work. 

The overwhelming message that cut through was "Shit! I think I have to go to work tomorrow!", probably followed by assorted panics, such as "Shit! Childcare!" and "Shit! I can't get to work unless I take the tube!".

Cue packed tubes in London this morning as people were either called into work by unscrupulous employers who couldn't possibly have done all the due diligence required to make workplaces safe between 7pm last night and 9am this morning, or people who saw the message from the prime minister as a non-negotiable order to get back to work ASAP. For many of these people, it was a decision that was based on fear of unemployment, even if it put their health at risk - and not everyone who went back to work today would have been empowered to walk off the job if they didn't feel safe. 

A construction site worker on a zero-hours contract is not going to be in the same position of power and self-determination as someone who can merrily keep working from the comfort of home. This virus is not the great leveller some say it is.

The poor messaging from a table-thumping Boris Johnson last night was compounded by a hapless Dominic Raab this morning who stammered his way through an interview with the excellent Michal Husain, admitting that maybe it would be better to wait until at least Wednesday to go back to work and, at the same time, refusing to come out and say that workers who don't feel safe should be able to walk off the job without fear. He expressed a faith in the willingness of employers to do the right thing that was, at best, cute and naive and, at worst, a reckless, irresponsible means of washing the government's hands of a likely second spike in virus cases.

It's so easy for people to claim the government's messaging was perfectly clear when they have the luxury of working from home. It's so easy to accuse people of not knowing what the word "alert" means. It's so easy to set the bar so low for this government, even though they have a well-paid communications team at their disposal.

And it's so easy for the latest example of poor communication from this government to be misunderstood - or understood and followed because there was no choice to do otherwise - possibly with the worst possible consequences.

Photography by Circe Denyer

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Of course COVID-19 is political

The COVID-19 pandemic should not be an excuse to score cheap political points. It is not an excuse to wish death on politicians and their loved ones like a psychopath. It is not the time for ridiculous, batshit conspiracy theories about 5G causing the pandemic. It is not the time for anti-vaxx pedlars of death and disease to spout ignorant, science-denying twaddle. And it is certainly not a time to become a racist bellend. But it is political. It is naive to think otherwise. 

Countries across the world are relying on their governments for leadership, to figure out the best way to manage this terrible virus, to support healthcare systems, to know what the hell individuals can do to stop the disease spreading, to ensure the scientists working on a vaccine and a cure have everything they need, to work out what role charities and the private sector should take, and so on.

This means, obviously, politicians everywhere are making decisions - and it is naive to expect that certain decisions won't be politically motivated rather than for the greater good. In every democracy, this means they should be held to account - every decision that our leaders make affects our health and our wealth. We all have a huge stake in this. And in every country that is not a democracy, this should be the catalyst for increased transparency and public participation as a positive after-effect of the pandemic - after all, if you think the official mortality figures coming out of China or Iran are accurate, I have some magic beans and a time share in Narnia to sell you. Then again, the UK isn't bothering to include care home deaths in official stats so we still need to lift our game in terms of accuracy and transparency.  

In no country should COVID-19 be a time for cultish, blind loyalty to any leader of any political stripe. I'm glad Boris Johnson didn't die of COVID-19. And I'm glad Carrie Symonds, his pregnant fiancee, is doing well. Hell, I'm glad that he is recovering for a few weeks rather than working because that is what every coronavirus patient should be doing after they leave hospital. I am also glad that the attempt to stir up a national round of applause for the prime minister's recovery was a massive damp squib. A nationwide chorus of clapping and pot-banging for one man would have been embarrassing, unnecessary and definitely cultish.

And while Johnson may now join the immune herd for COVID-19, he is not and should not be immune to criticism or scrutiny - and neither should the hapless cavalcade of assorted incompetents, yes-men and women, charisma-vacuums, intellectual lightweights and slippery moral bankrupts who are filling in for the PM at the daily briefings.

It is clear that political decisions have been made which are not necessarily in our best interests, such as declining an invitation to join a European Commission-funded scheme to stockpile essential medical equipment, to have constantly dropped pandemic planning from the agenda since 2016, and for Boris Johnson to have found better uses for his time, such as meeting a dancing dragon for Chinese New Year instead of attending a COBRA meeting - or indeed attending five COBRA meetings on COVID-19.

At a time when we should be re-evaluating our relationship with China on multiple levels, including taking a stand on human rights and animal welfare issues and getting over our reliance on cheap goods often manufactured to low standards and in awful working conditions, the photograph of Boris Johnson gurning gormlessly at the dragon is not ageing well.

Yes, it's true that the relevant cabinet minister chairs COBRA meetings but given these meetings were about a global pandemic, it is negligent at worst and lazy at best for Johnson to simply not bother with these ones. Imagine the outcry in an alternative universe if Prime Minister Corbyn missed five COBRA meetings because he was pottering about on his allotment or attending a Venezuelan solidarity Zoom meeting. The very same people who are demanding we leave poor little Boris alone would be foaming at the mouth at the very thought of Corbyn neglecting his duty so comprehensively. Hell, imagine any prime minister in living memory missing such meetings.

In January, when PPE supply chains should have been bolstered and early scientific advice heeded, Boris Johnson was distracted by January 31's Brexit day brouhaha, something which at the time he thought was going to be his greatest triumph, his most memorable speech, the iconic photograph for the history books - but now it seems like a lifetime ago. That was a political decision as well as a negligent one.

To those who are upset about the much-villified "mainstream media" going over past decisions of recent months, please try to comprehend that it is important to flag up the mistakes that have been made. If only we had a leader who could graciously admit to and apologise for mistakes in the way that Emmanuel Macron did - that would be a good first step on the road to accountability and to quickly learning from mistakes which have surely cost lives. There will almost certainly be some sort of inquiry further down the track as to how the government handled the pandemic, when lockdown restrictions have been lifted or at least relaxed. But for now, we need decisive action from accountable leaders who are prepared to admit to errors and work their arses off to fix them.

Getting upset because The Sunday Times and Reuters have pointed out these failings in great detail is absolutely pathetic behaviour. Michael Gove was on brand on Marr this morning when he admitted Johnson didn't attend five COBRA meetings but gave the mealy-mouthed excuse that cabinet ministers chair such meetings, while simultaneously making a dig at journalists, a more articulate but equally venal version of Donald Trump's constant whines of "fake news". This was political manouevring on Gove's part - he appeared to be Johnson's loyal footsoldier but his defence of Johnson missing meetings would collapse in a light breeze and he knows it. He is not an idiot. Gove, ably assisted by his wife, Sarah Vine, a Poundland Lady Macbeth, would most likely be delighted if the pandemic cost Johnson his job. Again, let's not be naive here.

The next political decision to watch is in regard to an extension to Brexit negotiations, which has a deadline of June 30. The government is adamant that the UK won't ask for an extension but they may be left with little choice if the EU decides it has bigger virus-shaped fish to fry for the rest of the year. The British economy can recover from COVID-19 or it can recover from a no-deal Brexit after December 31 this year, but to try and get through both economic and social shocks, most likely concurrently, will be wantonly destructive. We have no choice but to deal with COVID-19 but we do have a choice about taking a more responsible approach to Brexit. Either way, it's a political choice and it will affect us for years to come.

Image: Mikhail Denishchenko

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Of dead cats, engagements and babies

Ever since Boris Johnson romped into power with an 80-seat majority last December, he has created a cottage industry of dead cat-dumping. He got into training years before the election when he explained the art of dumping a dead cat on the dining room table to create a distraction when you're losing an argument in a column for The Telegraph in 2013. 

And last June, when he wanted to be the Conservative Party leadership frontrunner without any of the scrutiny, he took the heat off by claiming to paint wooden models of London buses for fun. As a bonus, this weird claim helped drop Google results about dishonest Brexit referendum claims emblazoned on buses, and his shameful waste of public money with the dreadful "Boris buses" when he was mayor of London, way down the list.

So it comes as no surprise that the PM's lust for dropping dead cats continues apace, now he has the job to which he has felt entitled since he was a boy. 

Reviving the ridiculous idea of a bridge between two remote points in Scotland and Northern Ireland a few weeks ago was a classic of the deceased feline genre. Johnson knows full well why it would be an expensive, dangerous engineering nightmare, although this probably won't stop him spending more of our money on a feasibility study even though the outcomes are a foregone conclusion. 

It took a serious brass neck to drop the big bridge dead cat - Johnson does not have a great track with bridges. The Garden Bridge debacle from his time as mayor wasted millions of pounds of public money, raised as-yet-unanswered questions about corruption and conflicts of interest, and the stupid project was ultimately, mercifully abandoned by an exasperated Sadiq Khan, his successor as mayor of London. It was the inevitable result of letting Joanna Lumley dictate urban planning.

But talking up a big, dumb bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland was an excellent distraction from big issues around that time, such as the Streatham stabbing, which could be directly attributed to the early release of terrorist offenders on the watch of the Conservative governments over the past decade. This dead cat also stalled any proper scrutiny of the UK's Brexit negotiation preparations ahead of talks with the EU, which are due to resume this month. What a handy fictional bridge that was!

And yesterday, we were treated to the news of Boris Johnson's engagement to Carrie Symonds, complete with an early summer baby on the way. But this does not necessarily automatically fall into the category of dead cat, despite Twitter last night exploding with claims of ex-pussies. There were a few appalling commentators urging Carrie to take advantage of Britain's liberal abortion laws - but here's the thing about being pro-choice. It means you do not condemn women for making choices that you wouldn't make for yourself. 

Even with Johnson's notorious virility, it is preposterous to suggest that he and Carrie planned a productive bunk-up late last year that would coincide with an engagement/pregnancy announcement to fall on a weekend where the Sunday papers had plenty of embarrassing front page options. 

Anyone who knows about female biology would realise they have been aware of the pregnancy for a while, and anyone who knows about the Conservative Party's need to appeal to social conservatives would realise the announcement would have to wait until after Johnson finalised his divorce with Marina Wheeler, his second wife. Who knows if they really did get engaged last December and, frankly, who cares? It was just a necessary part of the announcement to appeal to Tory pearl clutchers. And the pregnancy announcement obviously couldn't be delayed forever. 

In any case, if it was a dead cat, it was a pretty unsuccessful one. While the engagement/pregnancy made its way to most front pages - and it is naive to expect otherwise - it was really only The Sunday Telegraph which went for the full-on, Hello!-magazine-style gush-fest. I'm not surprised there was no byline on that story - any journalist with even the tiniest shred of credibility would be embarrassed to have that on their CV.

The Mail on Sunday ran the Instagram photo of a stubbled Johnson kissing the cheek of a beaming Carrie but tempered the soppy, sickly claim to an "exclusive inside story of their love" with a "CRIPES!", which was probably the reaction of plenty of people across the country yesterday. And across the bottom of the front page is a damning story about a leaked government memo that demonstrates that not being content to "fuck business", Boris Johnson may well be tempted to fuck farmers as well in his quest to give Dominic Cummings his wet dream Brexit.

The Independent ran an old photo of the happy couple with a discreet caption but went big, and rightly so, on Sir Philip Rutnam's departure from the Home Office amid claims of bullying, lying and intimidation by Home Secretary, Priti Patel.  Bizarrely, the apologists for this wretched government seem to think Priti Patel's existence as a powerful woman of Asian heritage is some sort of gotcha-headfuck for those who oppose this government. Nope, sorry, Johnson fans, Priti Patel does not get a leave pass from scrutiny because of her gender or ethnicity. How patronising.

The Sunday Times and The Observer also led with the Home Office troubles, with both pieces holding Priti Patel's feet to the fire. The ST added a teaser for an exclusive on the forthcoming budget with news of entrepreneurs losing a big tax break. The engagement/pregnancy headline was a wry "What a good day to announce a No 10 baby", while The Observer went with a picture caption of the happy couple, and a story at the bottom about Matt Hancock's absurd plans to pull NHS doctors out of retirement to deal with the coronavirus. 

The Sunday Mirror made the obvious "Carrie to go into labour" pun and described her salaciously as the "PM's lover" in a splash of barely disguised judgement. But the lead story was still an exclusive on Mo Farah's ongoing drug row.  

And The Daily Star, which exists in its own glorious bubble of madness, had no mention of engagements or babies at all. Instead, it went big with "QUACKERS - Plastic ducks barred from charity race to save the planet", along with some Love Island gossip.

So it was reassuring that, apart from the Sunday Telegraph, the newspapers weren't too badly distracted by the PM's personal announcement, news that was, in all honesty, as predictable as it is banal.

Of course, the ball is now in Johnson and Symonds' court - with wedding plans and a baby due in a few months, there are plenty of dead cats they could gleefully drop, especially if negotiations with the EU go as pear-shaped as many expect. 

There are golden opportunities for pictures of an engagement ring to be sent out into the ether, wedding dress design speculation is compulsory, maybe some hints will be dropped about the decor of a Downing Street nursery, and because every pregnant woman in the public eye must have her private choices exposed, there is plenty of scope for the "Will Carrie give birth naturally to whale music?" genre of intrusive journalism. 

Will they opt for privacy or will they happily let fluffy wedding-and-baby stories take on a life of their own next time Johnson cuts his own throat, fucks up, or would rather not face hard questions about the path on which he and Classic Dom are dragging the country?  

Photography by rawdonfox/Flickr

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Rest well, Caroline

As ever, whenever a celebrity dies, especially when they die young, suddenly and tragically, the internet comes alive with the inevitable public grief, hand-wringing, assumptions from people who claim they knew exactly what happened in that unfortunate person's final sad weeks, days and hours, and there is a rush to apportion blame. 

But with the news only breaking last night about the suicide of Caroline Flack, we only have certain facts available. We know she took her own life, we know she was due to face trial for the assault of her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, we know the CPS alleges that she hit him with a lamp while he was asleep, we know he didn't want to press charges, we know that she pleaded not guilty, we know that a condition of her bail was that she was not to contact her boyfriend. 

And there is plenty we do not know. 

We do not yet know what the post-mortem or inquest will reveal. And there are things we will never know, such as whether this story may have had a happier outcome if she was allowed to see her boyfriend before the trial, or indeed what the outcome of the trial would have been. We won't know of a not-guilty verdict or find out how she could rebuild her life after an acquittal - or what would follow for her and Burton in the event of a guilty verdict. 

The only thing we can be sure of is that if she was found guilty, she'd become the anti-poster-child for the "See? Women can be abusers too!" brigade. That brigade had already come out of the woodwork, shitting on the whole concept of presumption of innocence. Nobody is saying that women cannot be the perpetrators of domestic violence - of course they can - but everyone accused of this dreadful crime has the right to a fair trial. 

This brigade of (mostly) angry men was emboldened by pictures published by The Sun of a bloodstained bed at Flack's flat, pictures which, horrifically, were still on the newspaper's website at the time of writing. The publication of the bloodied bed was, at best, in poor taste and, at worst, not in the public interest, particularly before her trial had taken place.

There is a rush to blanket-blame "the media" for Flack's death - and she has long been an object of tabloid obsession, particularly after she dated a 17-year-old Harry Styles when she was 31. No age of consent laws were broken, but eyebrows were raised when Styles was photographed leaving her flat. It didn't take long for her to be pigeonholed as a "cougar", a sexually aggressive and adventurous seducer of younger men, a woman who is seen as a threat to the ideal of a demure, compliant woman. 

She became an easy target for hate and it wasn't restricted to the usual tabloid suspects. Everyone with a Twitter account and a misguided sense of moral righteousness could pile in. 

And the public lapped it up. If there wasn't a market for these sort of salacious stories, they wouldn't be written or broadcast in the first place. We feed the beast when we click on the links. Entertainment journalists are often quick to defend their profession, to point out that it's not an easy job (it's not) and they are obliged to constantly seek out the stories that will get the clicks and the sales (also true). But it is unfortunate that in the quest to keep eyeballs on screens and papers, fingers furtively scrolling or turning pages, that not only does accuracy often fall by the wayside, but public interest tests fall short and there is little time to pause and contemplate if a story is kind or even necessary.

Advocating the end of entertainment journalism or holding "the mainstream media" solely responsible for Flack's death is reductive and simplistic, ignoring the role of social media in this complicated story, especially as that was the only way Burton was able to communicate with Flack since December. However, it shouldn't preclude entertainment journalists from pausing to think about how they cover stories, especially those involving celebrities who may be vulnerable, may have mental health issues, may be struggling with addiction, or may simply be going through a tough time, as can happen to any one of us. 

The guidelines for reporting on suicide, issued by the Samaritans, are an excellent resource - it is not a restriction on press freedom to report responsibly.

Ultimately, gossip is part of human nature. That's never going to change. We devour gossip about our friends as readily as we devour celebrity gossip. Hell, I have an episode of The Bachelor burbling mindlessly away in the background as I write this and I just rolled my eyes as a doe-eyed blonde used her one-on-one time with the prized Colton, the hot, virgin bachelor, to call her mother for the first time since her release from prison. I'm not going to pretend I'm immune to taking a pervy interest in the lives of beautiful people I'll never meet. Of course, with every celebrity death, there's always one sneering blowhard who feels the need to comment "Who?" under a tweet or Facebook post, as if not knowing about a figure in popular culture is some form of moral superiority. 

But the truth is that none of us are superior. We're all flawed and farty and prone to awkwardness, even those who, on the surface, appear to have everything under control. And any one of us could end up in as dark a place as Flack found herself in her lonely final hours. May we all pause to be kind to each other and to ourselves.

Photography by Alex Borland.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Wanting young people to suffer: the new sadism

It starts out as a seemingly harmless thing that most of us have heard from our parents or grandparents: "Young people today! They don't know they're alive! They know nothing of the suffering we went through as kids..."

Hell, as I become an increasingly old hack, I'll roll my eyes at journalism graduates when they baulk at having to make a phone call or look aghast at the days of heavy reliance on fax machines or dial-up internet only being available on one computer in the office. But I'd like to think that I'm not a bitter sadist, mercilessly wishing we could all go back to the paste-up era of newspaper production, or wanting to deprive young journalists of the convenience of fast internet to teach them a lesson.

But the cries of young people not knowing true suffering now go beyond the jocular overtones of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch or laughing at trigger warnings supposedly demanded by the snowflake generation. There's a nastiness, a disdain for comfort, a yearning for good old days that were actually terrible, a desire to see young people have as hard a life, or harder, than previous generations, rather than wanting to see the next generation be more successful, more comfortable and more prosperous.

Misplaced nostalgia for WWII is a good example of the new sadism, and it is particularly embarrassing when it comes from people who were not alive during the horrors of WWII or have never served in the military. Someone who courageously tweets anonymously as Brexit Stonking Majority Tory tweeted the following miserable nonsense:

In 1941 teenage RAF pilots were flying old MK1 Hurricanes & putting their life on the line against Luftwaffe veteran pilots in the brilliant ME109F.
Remainer teenagers today.... #marr

The image is a still from a video of a pink-haired teenager dancing joyously in support of the UK staying in the EU rather than spending his youth bombing neighbouring countries in a war that we won with the help of European allies (but don't tell Brexit Stonking Majority Tory that...).

We've had almost four years of Brexity blathering along the lines of: "We got through two world wars, we'll survive Brexit!" to jolly people along in the face of evidence of a forthcoming recession, increased prices, bending to US standards to get a trade deal with Trump, job losses and anything else that indicates that the leave campaign's grand promises turn to dust upon any contact with reality.

The reality is that leaving the EU will most likely lead to hardships - because Brexiters can't refute this, they are instead revelling in the possibility of suffering, getting their pitiful excuses in early, saying it'll be a price worth paying for some intellectually bankrupt notion of sovereignty, rather than preparing to take any responsibility for any hardships which might come as a result of their vote.

Wishing another war on young people to somehow harden them up is appalling. There are already plenty of young people across the world suffering the horrors of war on a daily basis. Adding more young people to their number won't make anything better for anyone. 

Liz Kershaw joined in the sadistic idiocy last month in an awful attempt to squash the notion of period poverty, that anyone in the UK was suffering from a lack of access to sanitary products. She tweeted:

Sorry if this is gross.
But #periodpoverty FFS?!
My mum had to use old rags which my grandma boil-washed and she re-used.
How did she ever manage to get a scholarship to grammar school, go to Uni or become a headteacher without free tampons???

The most charitable reading of this tweet is that Liz Kershaw is an eco-warrior, calling for more widespread use of reusable sanitary products, but she's really just advocating a time when things were harder, especially for girls and women. There are certainly very good reusable sanitary pads on the market today but they are not cheap and they do rely on access to good laundry facilities. A return to shoving any old rag in in your pants is a return to, at best, the risk of a humiliating bloodstained accident and, at worst, the risk of infection. Liz mindlessly generalises from the example of one person and glorifies suffering as a result. She is the same woman who twisted the 430 job losses in East Anglia as a result of the closure of the Philips factory as some kind of Brexit benefit so you'll have to forgive me if I fail to see any altruism in her sadistic period tweet.

Still, the good news for anyone crowing about the possibility of young people suffering or wishing hardship on them all is that their sadistic dreams are coming true. There are measurable examples of things getting worse rather than better for the next generation.

Last year, the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries reported that life expectancy in the UK is declining and it is a trend rather than a statistical blip. Compared with 2015 figures, the institute now expects men aged 65 to die at 86.9 years, down from 87.4 years, and women aged 65 are likely to die at 89.2 years, down from 89.7 years. While this is not on par with Chad, with a life expectancy of 50.6 years, it's not something we should be celebrating either as it reflects a decline in healthcare, living standards, individual affluence and the overall economy.

The Learning and Work Institute projected last year that the UK will drop four places in world literacy and numeracy rankings by 2030 - so the good news for the sadists is that we're apparently less healthy and less educated.

Housing is becoming less affordable too, even if those pesky kids quit spending their deposit on avocado toast. A report released by the Office of National Statistics last year revealed that on average, full-time workers could expect to pay an estimated 7.8 times their annual workplace-based earnings on buying a home in England or Wales in 2018. The figure was 7.6 times annual earnings in 2016 and 3.6 times earnings in 1997. And these figures are based on people in full-time employment - this does not take into account the gig economy or people languishing on zero hours contracts when they would love job stability.

This is not catastrophising or being what Boris Johnson, a man who cares little for facts, stats, details or nuance, would call a "doomster and gloomster". This is modern reality.

So, well played, sadists! Take a fucking bow. You're achieving your dream of the next generation having it worse than you did. If this is what you need to do to feel proud, I feel sorry for you - but I feel even more sorry for the young people who are genuinely suffering, even if you're deluding yourself that they're all pampered softies living a life of luxury.

Photography by kai Stachowiak

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Childhood memories up in flames

In 1982, I was six years old and we lived in a cul-de-sac called Nicholi Crescent in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Everyone knew each other - we used to play tennis on a makeshift court painted onto the road by a neighbour, safe in the knowledge that no cars would ever speed through. At the end of the dead end, there were acres of long grass - we played there too, never thinking of the possibility of a snakebite, in pre-nanny state Australia. These days, the long grass has been replaced by houses, the cul-de-sac bulldozed into a street, although it's still called Nicholi Crescent. A snoop on Google Street View shows that our old house still has the terrible yellow 1970s glass on the front, although the magnificent Nicholi gum tree, the one in which I got stuck in 1986, is gone.

One warm Thursday night in 1982, we got home from late night shopping to find the end of Nicholi Crescent on fire. Everyone was staring from their front lawns as the fire brigade went to work. I even remember what I was wearing - pale blue pedal pushers and a blue floral shirt handed down to me from close family friends with slightly older daughters. My photo ended up in the local paper, the Daily Advertiser. It was a picture of me, my mother and the old lady next door with concerned expressions on our faces, but nobody was hurt and nobody lost their home.

It was terribly exciting. 

Being in the paper was akin to being famous for a few days in Wagga Wagga in the 1980s. The next day, I got to wear my pink dress to school - unafraid of burglary, the windows were left open when we went shopping and my uniform, lovingly, nerdishly laid out for Friday, reeked of smoke. I had a great story for class news that day - a fire, the newspaper photographer, my pink dress in a sea of blue and yellow checked school uniforms - I loved the attention.       

But that was 38 years ago. I can't remember what caused the fire at the end of Nicholi Crescent but neither can I remember any discussion of climate change. Throughout my Australian childhood, serious bushfires across the country made the news in summer, there were long, hot days, and droughts. But this summer's fires and temperatures have gone to the next level. This time, bushfire season started in September, which is still spring in Australia. 

It has been relentless. For many farmers, droughts have become the norm rather than the exception, and yet still, Scott Morrison refuses to accept that the climate is changing, that it cannot be ignored as a factor in these horrific, destructive fires. 

In 2013, the CSIRO (Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) released a report which found that Australia can expect higher temperatures, more extreme heat and longer fire seasons. Then, in 2014, the CSIRO released a report that found since the beginning of the 20th century, average annual temperatures have increased and, crucially, in the 50 years leading up to 2014, temperatures increased at twice the rate than in the previous 50 years. Alongside this increase, rainfall has decreased. The data is real and there was a time when it wasn't being ignored.

In 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced a carbon tax - in three years, this tax helped reduce carbon emissions but in 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott repealed the tax and ramped up coal production and carbon emissions have been increasing ever since. The summers keep getting hotter, the coral of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef is suffering a visible extinction event, and this year's bushfires have, at the time of writing, destroyed more than 900 properties, killed nine people with four people missing, and burnt more than 5.1 million hectares. Oh, and funding for the CSIRO has been cut by the federal government, which should surprise nobody who knows about this wretched government's anti-science, anti-environment agenda.

 It is no longer terribly exciting. 

The fire at the end of my street in 1982 happened at a time when there was limited awareness about the human impact on climate. It all seemed so innocent at the time but we had no idea that we were contributing in ways big and small to the situation we have today. 

It's easy to mock Greta Thunberg for saying her childhood has been stolen. It is easy to say that she should be in school, that she is being manipulated by powers bigger than her, but she is right to suggest that economic growth is meaningless if it comes at great environmental cost. Instead of directing ire at a teenager (and in some vile cases, expressing a desire to inflict physical violence on her), that energy would be better spent finding solutions.

Unfortunately, I can't see the Australian government stepping up any time soon.


If you're feeling powerless to help Australia, especially from other countries, here are some links where you can make donations, although it would be nice if the federal government stepped up and ensured adequate funding made its way to the states. If this summer is any indication, Australia will not be able to continue to rely on volunteers to back up the full-time firefighters. Scott Morrison's thoughts and prayers can, with all due respect, get in the bin.


Photography by Kim Newberg

Friday, 13 December 2019

What next after the Johnson triumph?

"Get Brexit done!" That's what cut through at this election as swathes of once-safe Labour seats fell to the Conservative Party, particularly in the north of England. Just as "Take back control!" was an appealing, simple message during the EU referendum campaign, after three years of abject incompetence in trying to leave the EU, "Get Brexit done!" sounded very appealing.

It doesn't matter now that plenty of useless architects of the Brexit negotiation shitshow have kept their seats in parliament, or that if the spectacularly self-serving Boris Johnson and others had voted for Theresa May's still-terrible-but-better-than-Johnson's-deal, we'd be out of the EU by now. That's all completely irrelevant.

It doesn't even matter that "Get Brexit done!" - as if it's going to be quick, easy and painless, and then we can just get on with other things - is a massive, simplistic lie. It worked. It resonated with people. Labour wasn't able to compete on that playing field, even if it would actually make sense for Corbyn to stay neutral during a second referendum campaign and then implement the result untainted by how he campaigned - that was a major stumbling block for Theresa May. Corbyn's Brexit stance became irrelevant. And, ironically, he has always been a Brexiter.

Jeremy Corbyn has to resign. He should have resigned in his concession speech, clinging to a few shreds of dignity. Labour has lost two elections on his watch.

It doesn't matter what he promised in his manifesto. Out on the doorsteps, especially in the north of England, the Midlands and South Wales, he is not appealing to voters. It doesn't matter how deeply you analyse his manifesto. Out on the doorsteps, the feedback is that he's too far to the left, he's an overgrown student protester, he comes across as being happiest when he's churning out pamphlets on a creaking old Gestetner in an Islington basement rather than leading a country.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was able to get away with puking out endless, easily disproved lies, promises that will be impossible to keep even with a healthy majority, hiding in a fridge, pocketing a reporter's phone, refusing to be interviewed by Andrew Neil and running away from small groups of protesters for bullshit security reasons, mostly because people cut him some slack. He's a truly terrible human being, a self-serving, over-promoted charlatan and a pathological liar, but people still fall for the contrived lovable rascal act.

And let's not forget anti-semitism in Labour. It is there and it is real. It is still not being properly addressed and this was not lost on large numbers of Jewish voters, as well as non-Jewish voters who are not prepared to throw their Jewish friends under a bus. There is plenty of racism and bigotry among Conservative Party ranks and it would be naive to deny that, but it's never a good look for anyone to resort to whataboutery when their own issues with racism are called out. It's not good enough to dismiss charges of anti-semitism with a wave of the hand and a sniff or to minimise anti-semitism as somehow being a lesser form of racism. Labour needs to deal with this issue properly as part of its process of renewal.

If Labour can't work out what has gone wrong from the top down over the last few years, it will not be an effective opposition in the days, months and years to come. It will not be in a position to hold a Boris Johnson government to account. A strong, credible opposition is essential for a functioning democracy in a civilised society. We do not have this right now, and at this moment, we need this more than ever.

Photography by DPP Business & Tax/Flickr

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Leaving women alone should not be a big deal

This blog post should be filed squarely under "I cannot believe this even needs to be said" but here we go... Yesterday, Mallory Hagan, a former candidate for Congress and Miss America 2013, tweeted the following truth which should be self-evident:

Dear every man in America, I’m sitting at the bar by myself because I want to. Please be self-aware enough to know when we are simply not interested in carrying on conversation. Sincerely, 
All women

Sadly, it should come as no surprise that this tweet triggered men far and wide and soon Mallory had to deal with an online pile-on from overgrown, entitled toddlers throwing testosterone tantrums (with apologies to the perfectly adorable and polite toddlers I know). And there were, depressingly, a few women joining in - generally the "but I love being chatted up!" brigade.

Let's go through some of the asinine responses to break down why they're tweeting utter horseshit, shall we? *rolls up sleeves, has bottle of brain bleach at the ready*

Of course Stefan Molyneux piped up. Any opportunity to be a misogynistic dick, eh Stef? He tweeted:

"Drinking alone in public with a hostile and entitled attitude. RUUUUUUN!!!!!"

I see you, Stef. I fucking see you. You think that if you say something rude about a woman and then imply that this makes her unattractive to men everywhere then she'll realise the error of her ways and go out of her way to make sure next time a man talks to her, she'll fawn all over him whether she wants to or not. You big hero, Stef! Look at you speaking up for the men who feel entitled to conversation from every woman they meet, claiming that you're actually helping them rather than telling women what to do. Because that's not at all creepy...

And now for a tweet from a guy who, without irony, claims to know why all women do the things they do:

"No woman goes alone to a bar/club if she is not looking for attention. She goes with her girlfriends."

Sorry, but you clearly don't know any women who travel regularly for work (or indeed women who have gone out on the pull with a few girlfriends - and that's perfectly fine too). I am a woman who travels for work. Sometimes I want to have a quiet drink after a long day working. Inevitably, I've been talking to people all day, I'm possibly jetlagged and the last thing I feel like is a conversation with a stranger. But I might want a glass of wine and some time alone. I might use the time to lazily scroll through the news on my phone, check emails, write up my notes or I might just want to have a drink and watch the passing parade. Whatever the case, it's nobody's business but mine.

If someone tries to talk to me under these circumstances, I quickly and politely let that person know I'm not interested in a conversation - as I'm sure Mallory does too, judging by her patient replies to the idiotic tweets. Usually I am then left in peace. Sometimes I feel the need to flash my wedding ring and let it be known that I am married - but I shouldn't have to do that, just as a single woman shouldn't feel obliged to invent a husband or boyfriend to be left alone. But if someone is persistent and you're alone, especially if you're far from home, that is the kind of thing that women often feel they have to do to feel safe without causing offence. 

We are conditioned to not cause offence, to always be polite and demure, even if we're receiving unwanted attention and don't feel safe. That is how fucked up things still are for women. 

Then there's the tweet from the guy who assumes that a woman who wants to be left alone will suddenly change her mind when an Adonis appears at the bar:

"Translation: “Unattractive Beta males should know their place and not approach me. If you are attractive it’s your duty to approach me.”

This guy would be stunned to know that there are women who don't want to be approached at a bar by anyone, regardless of where they might fall on the scale of attractiveness, conventional or otherwise. Of course, it could be that a good-looking man might enter the bar, the lone woman may spot him and it could be one of those love-or-at-least-lust-at-first-sight moments and if she decides to have a conversation with him, that's her right just as it is to ignore him - except that LIFE IS NOT A GODDAMN MOVIE! There are myriad reasons why a woman might be drinking alone in a bar and for many of us, it wouldn't matter who walked through the door, we'd still like to have a drink in blissful solitude. 

And there were plenty of tweets mansplaining bars to Mallory, such as this genius:

"People go to bars to SOCIALIZE. It's that kind of place."

The use of capital letters always makes a point more valid, right? And sure, the majority of people in any given bar probably are there to socialise. But that doesn't mean that people who want to have a drink by themselves should stay away. If a solo individual wants to buy a drink, whoever owns the bar is hardly likely to stop them give they're in the business of making money through selling drinks. Anyone who tweeted this sort of tripe while claiming to be a free market capitalist is, with all due respect, an idiot. 

And here we go with one Dr Saad. He's a professor of evolutionary biology, according to his Twitter bio. But here he proves that having a PhD does not exempt a man from being a dick:

"If you are sitting at a bar, it is perfectly reasonable for people to think that you are open to social interactions. It takes a lot of courage for most men to approach women. If they do so politely, act kindly rather than as a smug schmuck to half of humanity. Dr. Saad- A man"

No, Prof, it's not "perfectly reasonable for people to think you are open to social interactions". You have no idea why that woman is alone in the bar. Maybe she has just received some bad news and wants to process it over a drink. Maybe she is there to get away from a pesky man in another bar. And sure, you won't know unless you approach her - but if you approach her with the assumption that she is "open to social interactions", you're already being an entitled twat.

And, yes, I get it - it takes courage to approach a woman, just as some women need to summon up courage to approach a man - or just as any of us have to summon up courage to have any number of difficult conversations in this life. But even if it took every ounce of courage you possess to talk to a woman in a bar, she still does not owe you her time or a conversation. You do not get to assume that she really wants a man to insert himself into the situation or into any other part of her life or anatomy.

At no point did Mallory suggest that women shouldn't "act kindly" if someone approaches them politely so to go straight to accusing her of being a "smug schmuck to half of humanity" is a rather un-nuanced escalation for someone who claims to be an academic.

This tweet is just the academic version of the common man-whine of "How are men and women meant to get together if men can't talk to women anymore?". Sit down. Nobody is saying men can't talk to women. We are simply saying we don't owe you anything if you talk to us and if we make it clear we're not interested, back off. Men and women are still getting together, and if they are doing so in a more mutually respectful manner these days, that's a good thing. 

And then there is the patronising oversimplification from a man:

"Try this simple hack: “Nice to meet you, I’m not interested in talking right now.” Works every time"

No, it doesn't work every time. If a polite response worked every time, it wouldn't be a problem for women. How the hell would a man know if it works every time anyway? He is only speaking from his own experience. If he can accept that a woman is not interested, good for him but he can't assume that every man who is politely turned away will take no for an answer. 

There were plenty of responses to Mallory's tweet along the lines of  a sarcastic "the struggle is real", as if she is detracting from what a bunch of men on the internet have decided to deem as genuine oppression against women. The struggle is real. We know the struggle is real because conversations where women have told someone they're not interested have ended up in their rape or murder. That's why it's a struggle and that's why we have the right to be angry about this issue along with the thousands of other reasons from around the world for why feminism should still exist.

And here are a few terrible responses from women, such as this one:

"Well Mallory, there are many of us women out here who adore men. In fact, take me as an example: I quite prefer conversation with a man over a self-absorbed puppet propaganda female."

Thank you for perpetuating the myth of the man-hating feminist. It is possible to "adore men" and expect these adorable creatures to show us respect if we want to be left alone. You are perfectly entitled to talk to men instead of women. Literally nobody is stopping you from doing this.  

And just as there are patronising men, there are women who are not above patronising other women:

"Dear men, Not all women are like this. If you speak to me, I’m perfectly capable of being polite. I’m often blessed by the stories/people I meet when I don’t close myself off. A brief conversation never hurt anyone. And listening is a valuable skill to develop. Sincerely, me."

Oh yawn. Any civilised adult is "perfectly capable of being polite". The problem is that a polite refusal is not always respected. Good for you that you've been "blessed" by the strangers that you've met because you don't close yourself off. But nobody should be expected to be permanently open to chatting to strangers, no matter how fascinating they may be. As for the patronising guff about listening being a valuable skill to develop, it is precisely because I've spent all day listening to people that I might want a drink by myself when I'm off duty.   

"Dear Men, when I was single, I was mature enough to carry on a conversation with men, and when their attention was unwanted or inappropriate, to let them know that I wasn’t interested. PS, you all responded as mature humans as well."

And this is the terrible female equivalent of the man of the "simple hack". Just as he has never seen an example of a bad situation as a result of a woman rejecting a man politely, this lucky woman is here to tell us that when she politely rejected men, 100% of the time they "all responded as mature humans". That's great but extrapolating from the example of one is stupid. 

If you refuse to recognise that not every polite refusal ends in a civilised manner, you are denying the real experiences of real women than happen all over the world every day. When these interactions go sour, at best, it might result in an awkward conversation - but, hey, nobody ever died of embarrassment, right? Or it could escalate to an angry conversation. Or it could end in unwanted touching, which could be an insistent hand on the arm, hand or thigh or it could be rape or murder.   

Because men who feel entitled to a conversation from a woman can easily be the men who feel entitled to our bodies.

I stand with Mallory.

Photography by Frederic Poirot/Flickr