Sunday, 6 January 2019

In defence of Miley Cyrus



If I was Miley Cyrus' mother, I'd be proud of how my daughter turned out. Of course, this would also mean that I had sex with Billy Ray Cyrus in 1992, which my 16-year-old self would find hilarious, but I digress.

Miley has turned out well.

The criticism levelled at her is usually sexist or prudish or both. As far as her detractors are concerned, she commits the heinous crimes of dancing in possession of an arse and having the temerity to wear clothes that are too short or too tight or too midriff-baring. Her Christmas appearance on The Tonight Show, in which she sang a feminist re-working of Santa Baby, predictably outraged anyone who thinks women are taking over all the men's things for the purposes of establishing an evil gynaecocracy - or anyone who is permanently outraged about even the slightest display of female flesh.

Good on Miley for speaking up for all women with a smart song that deservedly went viral - equal pay for equal work, not being sexually harassed at work, not having to put up with men sending unsolicited dick pics, being financially able to take care of yourself without relying on a man - these are issues that resonate with women everywhere.

Of course, her path to becoming an intelligent 26-year-old woman with a grown-up career was not a seamless transition from her child star days. When she was twerking at Robin Thicke to the frankly repulsive, if annoyingly catchy, song Blurred Lines at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards,  it was not a career highlight. But it was nearly six years ago and since then, she has spoken out about how she felt conflicted by it all - on one hand, she wanted to make a statement about female sexual freedom but on the other hand, she says that overtly sexualised dance moves were expected of her and it seems that she was not entirely comfortable with it at the time.

Twerking in front of a creepy man in a crap suit and a global audience of millions is a specific situation that not every 20-year-old experiences, but it is hardly rare for a 20-year-old woman to do something sexual that she later looks back on with regret or makes her wish she exercised more agency at the time. It's just that when most of us are being ridiculous 20-year-olds, our collective ridiculousness does not end up on front pages or become a subject for national debate.

I am glad that when I was 20, I had the freedom to figure out who the hell I was and the worst consequence was risking becoming the topic of small-town gossip in rural Australia - although the damage that can be done to people's lives when someone becomes the subject of gossip cannot be underestimated. That is not something unique to this online era but the risk of going viral certainly magnifies things.

Miley Cyrus has moved on, grown up and ultimately made a good transition from child star to adulthood. She shot to fame as Hannah Montana in the eponymous TV show in which she played a girl with a double life - high school student by day and pop star by night - it was fun, it was cute and Hannah's character was funny, smart and, even with the pop career, still relatable. Having the excellent Dolly Parton as a godmother can't have hurt her development either - indeed, Miley's cover of her godmother's hit, "Jolene" is absolutely gorgeous. She has a great set of pipes and real talent should always be encouraged in this world of mediocrity.

The fact that Miley Cyrus has come out the other end of the child star sausage factory sane, stable, alive and not plagued by any number of awful problems that have either killed former child stars prematurely or led them into a lost adulthood, particularly if the cuteness is replaced by ordinariness post-puberty, should be celebrated.

I would much rather those who slag off Miley Cyrus, especially those who claim to be feminists, reserved their ire for genuine oppressors of women. In 2019, there are still plenty of things to be angry about and none of them involve cutting down a talented young woman.






Photography by Ted Eytan/Flickr

Friday, 21 December 2018

Young women should never stop travelling




Phuket, 1998. I was 22. I had about $1,000 in credit with a Sydney travel agency after I cancelled a trip to spend Christmas 1997 in Japan. Naturally, there was a bloke involved in that particular debacle. When I was back at work in the new year, feeling more feisty than heartbroken, my boss told me I had "way too much annual leave owing" and asked if I could take a week's leave soon. How dare I save it all up to take a long trip later that year, eh? 

"Fine!" I said with all the breeziness I could muster. "I'll be on the beach in Thailand next week."

My boss made a noise like Henry Crun and said: "Oh, I didn't mean quite so soon...".

I knew my rights so I went to the travel agent after work and used the credit to pay for a week in Phuket, one of those rite-of-passage places for young Australians. I was on a plane within days of the ridiculous conversation with my boss.

None of my friends could get the time off work at such short notice or they were short on funds, so I buggered off for a week by myself. I rode an elephant, saw some alarming monkey-based entertainment, posed for a photograph with a snake coiled around my legs and shoulders, bought myself awful pink sapphire earrings that made my earlobes look infected, drank beer with some friendly Irish lads, got into an argument over a sunlounger on the beach after being told I'd paid the wrong person, the usual holiday fun...

In the middle of the week, I met two young Swedish men over breakfast at the hotel. They were hiring motorbikes to go to Karong Beach and asked me if I'd like to join them. Sami looked like a bulkier version of Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper but seemed very sweet and Ari was blonde and cartoonishly muscle-bound like Johnny Bravo and seemed rather sure of himself. Within half an hour, we were careening around a winding road on motorbikes. No helmets because it was the age of invincibility that everyone should experience in their 20s. I was on the back of Ari's bike, clinging for dear life. I took a peek over his shoulder and realised the speedometer was broken, stuck on zero.

"How fast are we going?" I yelled over the wind rushing into my face.

"Who cares?" he replied. And I didn't particularly care.

The three of us spent the day on the beach, which was uneventful until a sea creature stung me and my pallid chest and bikini-exposed abdomen briefly erupted in red spots. The lifeguard had some potion which calmed the rash down and then we were back on the bikes in search of a bar.

When one of the bikes broke down, Sami and Ari abandoned both bikes by the roadside and we walked to a bar. A terrible Bon Jovi cover band played, the beer was watery and, after a few hours, I was bored so I made my excuses and got a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. I paid the driver and as I handed him the cash, he grabbed my face in his hands and aggressively kissed me. I snatched the money back and ran into the hotel. The concierge, a pretty young man who sported eyeliner and a long coke nail, asked me how my night was and I told him it was OK. 

As I cleaned my teeth vigorously, the phone in my room rang. It was the concierge, not for the first time that week, calling my room to ask me if I wanted to join him "on my motorbike for discotheque". Every time he called, I'd politely refuse. 

I'd had enough of that day so I went to bed, naked under lovely, crisp hotel sheets, and promptly fell asleep. A few hours later, I was woken up by a solid, naked man spooning me and licking my ear, his erection making inquiries around my buttocks.  

It was Ari. I sat bolt upright, gathered the sheets around me like a toga and demanded to know what he was doing.

"I thought you wanted this," he said.

"No, when did I ever give you that idea?" I asked.

"Oh, come on..."

"If you don't get out of my room right now, I will scream so fucking loudly, the whole hotel will hear."

And with that, he gathered up his clothes from the floor and left. I will never know if he had assistance in accessing my room or whether I simply forgot to lock the door or didn't lock it properly.

It could have been so much more horrific. The result of the whole sorry situation was four days of awkward breakfasts at the hotel before I flew back to Sydney. I weighed about seven stone back then. It would not have taken much for Ari to pin me down and rape me or worse. 

When the horrific news about the murder in New Zealand of Grace Millane broke, it was chilling. Like me, on holiday alone in Thailand, she was just 22. Some news stories feel personal. It could have been me in the news in 1998 if Ari decided to proceed. And you can guarantee that there would be assorted trolls blaming me for the crimes, just as a disgusting cabal have in response to Grace Millane's murder. 

Indeed, there are probably people reading my account of the events in Phuket from 20 years ago and tutting at me for having the temerity to go to Thailand by myself or to agree to ride on motorbikes with men I'd just met in the hotel or to wear a bikini or to have a few watered-down beers or to jump in a tuk-tuk alone. I can just see these judgemental, joyless prigs going over my story like a hate-filled editor, drawing lines through my words with a blue pencil of sexist fury.

Nothing much has changed since 1998, except for the addition of Tinder and social media as a way of meeting people, which has given those vile cretins who blame anyone but murderers or rapists for murders and rapes a new way to tell women that they were asking for it. 

Jacinta Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand was right. Grace should have been safe in New Zealand. Her statement was one of immense decency and it should ring out whenever a woman is not safe on her travels. As Grace Millane's devastating story ebbs and flows in and out of the news cycle with the arrest and forthcoming trial of the accused, the sickening news broke that two women had their throats cut in Morocco. A suspect has been arrested for the murders of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, a 24-year-old from Denmark, and Maren Ueland, a 28-year-old from Norway, and police are investigating more people.

Grace, Louisa and Maren should never be forgotten. But their legacy should not be an end to women travelling the world.

Since my Thailand trip, I've had assorted adventures, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied, all over the world - Turkey, Greece, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Laos, Ghana and Nepal are just a few places that spring to mind when I think of travel anecdotes best told over a beer. 

Over the decades, I've found myself in situations that might scare some people into burning their passports but what would be the point of that? In a perfect world, Grace, Louisa and Maren would have come home from their travels full of stories, they might have gone on to see more of the world, they would have lived long, fulfilled, happy lives.

But life isn't always that good to people. And the sad, depressing reality is that staying at home won't guarantee any woman's safety. Across the world, girls and women are killed in their own homes or their own towns and it is often by someone known to them, someone they thought they could trust.

Travelling is not the problem. Seeing the world is not the problem. Having adventures in faraway places is not the problem. Travelling alone is not the problem. Wearing a bikini is not the problem. Having a few drinks is not the problem. Hanging out with people you meet along the way is not the problem. Being independent is not the problem. 

"Doing the right things", whatever the hell that means, to prevent your untimely demise while travelling is no guarantee of safety either. I will happily offer advice about staying as safe as you can, based on my experiences travelling the world, especially when someone is apprehensive about going somewhere for the first time. But I would never tell anyone, male or female, not to travel. 

The rewards of travelling far outweigh the risks. Not everyone will come home safely. But when the act of coming home is a risk for so many, you may as well take your chances with a suitcase and a passport because being scared of the world is no way to honour the memories of Grace, Louisa and Maren.













Photo by Dương Nhân from Pexels

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Tony Abbott's Brexit blather unpicked

Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister of Australia, well-known misogynist, homophobe and climate change denier, stuck his head over the parapet on Brexit and his Spectator article keeps doing the rounds online. It's tiresome and ridiculous so I thought I'd break it down. Just to be clear, to quote the hapless Theresa May, Tony's words are in black and my words are in red.

It’s pretty hard for Britain’s friends, here in Australia, to make sense of the mess that’s being made of Brexit. The referendum result was perhaps the biggest-ever vote of confidence in the United Kingdom, its past and its future. 

OK, Tony, I'll stop you there already. Sure, people in other countries are baffled by Brexit for a wide range of reasons but it's the bit about the vote being a vote of confidence in the past that is especially pitiful. It is about nostalgia for "good old days" that weren't that good at all - it is a hankering for a time when the UK was known as "the sick man of Europe", when manufacturing was in a terrible place, when GDP lagged dramatically behind those of Germany, France and Italy, and trade with European partners was constipated. But you know what reversed all those trends? Joining the EEC and then the EU!   

But the British establishment doesn’t seem to share that confidence and instead looks desperate to cut a deal, even if that means staying under the rule of Brussels. Looking at this from abroad, it’s baffling: the country that did the most to bring democracy into the modern world might yet throw away the chance to take charge of its own destiny.
Oh, please. Enough with the "British establishment" - the loudest pro-Brexit voices such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are the very definition of the establishment. It is a campaign that has largely been led by a moneyed elite who will be largely unaffected by a catastrophic Brexit, probably never expected the Leave vote to win and, as such, had no interest in taking responsibility for the outcome or doing the serious, intellectually and economically rigorous work required to not make Brexit the car crash we are now witnessing.

And the "under the rule of Brussels" rhetoric is Daily Express-in-bumper-sticker nonsense which ignores the fact that we have elected MEPs and the power of veto as EU members. Sadly, the work of MEPs has been pitifully under-reported over the years or deliberately mis-reported, particularly by Boris Johnson when he was play-acting at journalism as an EU correspondent. And when I say "mis-reported", I mean "made shit up".

Let’s get one thing straight: a negotiation that you’re not prepared to walk away from is not a negotiation — it’s surrender. It’s all give and no get. When David Cameron tried to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, he was sent packing because Brussels judged (rightly) that he’d never actually back leaving. And since then, Brussels has made no real concessions to Theresa May because it judges (rightly, it seems) that she’s desperate for whatever deal she can get.

Let's get one thing straight, Tony - David Cameron was frequently terrible, but his negotiations with the EU as Prime Minister gave us the best deal of all EU members.

Here is a helpful list:

1. We have kept our currency. 
2. It was written into EU law that the UK was exempt from any documents referring to an "ever-closer union". 
3. Newly arrived EU citizens are banned from claiming jobseeker's allowance for three months and have to go home if they haven't found a job within six months. 
4. If EU workers lose a job through no fault of their own they are only entitled to jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit for six months. 
5. Access to benefits for newly arrived EU workers was limited for a period of up to four years from the commencement of employment. 
(Newsflash! By a long, long way, the old age pension makes up the biggest proportion of the UK's welfare bill, people born here are more likely to be on benefits than people who have arrived from the EU, and the proportion of people in work who still need welfare to get by keeps rising)
6. As we are outside the eurozone, the UK is not required to fund euro bailouts and will be reimbursed for central EU funds used to prop up the euro.

The EU’s palpable desire to punish Britain for leaving vindicates the Brexit project. Its position, now, is that there’s only one ‘deal’ on offer, whereby the UK retains all of the burdens of EU membership but with no say in setting the rules. The EU seems to think that Britain will go along with this because it’s terrified of no deal. Or, to put it another way, terrified of the prospect of its own independence.

Christ, here we go again with the EU "punishing" the UK for leaving. To enjoy full access to the single market and the benefits of the customs union, we have to abide by certain rules, such as freedom of movement. 
And the pitiful whining about how we will have "no say in setting the rules" needs to stop - if you voted to leave, you voted for the UK to have no MEPs, no representation in any EU institution, and therefore no say in the rules. But we will still have to trade with the EU post-Brexit - even Brexiters realise this - and to do so, our goods and services have to meet certain standards. It's just that we won't have any say in those standards but having no say is literally what you voted for when you wanted to render MEPs unemployed. 

But even after two years of fearmongering and vacillation, it’s not too late for robust leadership to deliver the Brexit that people voted for. It’s time for Britain to announce what it will do if the EU can’t make an acceptable offer by March 29 next year — and how it would handle no deal. 

Sit down, Tony. You're peddling myths again, starting with "if the EU can’t make an acceptable offer by March 29 next year". We're the ones who are leaving, the onus is on us to tell the EU what we want from this brave new post-Brexit world. If our demands are seen by the EU as giving the UK rights over and above EU members, why the hell would the EU say: "OK then, you can leave the EU while still retaining the benefits of membership with none of the responsibilities, you wacky kids!"?

Freed from EU rules, Britain would automatically revert to world trade, using rules agreed by the World Trade Organization. It works pretty well for Australia. So why on earth would it not work just as well for the world’s fifth-largest economy?

Another lie from Tony! But there has been so much utter tripe spouted about the giddy, giddy joy of trading under WTO rules that it comes as no surprise that Tony has glibly said "it works pretty well for Australia". Australia does not trade solely under WTO rules, which would be the default plan if we crash out with no deal. Australia has multiple free trade agreements including those with New Zealand, China, South Korea and the USA, and negotiations have started for an agreement with, you guessed it, the EU. 

The only country in the world that trades pretty much exclusively under WTO rules is Mauritania, a country most people struggle to find on a map (hint: it's in north-west Africa) and is frequently confused with the honeymooners' paradise of Mauritius (hint: the Mauritanian economy does not do well out of tourism, let alone tourism from honeymooners). Mauritania has an economy heavily reliant on agriculture, fisheries and iron ore. While a significant hydrocarbon discovery off its coast, which it shares with Senegal, has the potential to transform Mauritania, this project is still in the very early exploration stages. The Mauritanian economy, as it currently stands, is not one the UK should seek to emulate in a hurry.

In any case, Mauritania, while still being hamstrung by WTO rules, is part of the growing trend across Africa to form economic blocs of neighbouring countries, as well as being part of the African Union. So committed is Mauritania to having a seat at that particular table it hosted an African Union summit in June this year. The EU has been very busy in recent years signing Memoranda of Understanding with blocs across Africa - and these MoUs are a vast improvement on some of the terrible trading arrangements Europe has had with African countries in awful years gone by. The forming of blocs across Africa, as well as a strengthening of the African Union, is helping African trade enormously. Good Lord, it's almost as if forming close economic ties with your nearest geographical neighbours might be useful! Who'd've thunk it? 

A world trade Brexit lets Britain set its own rules. 

No, Tony, it means we will crash out with no deal, endure absolute bedlam across multiple industries and have to trade under the limitations of WTO rules until we get our shit together and sort out trade deals with the 50+ countries with which the EU has trade deals. Surely even you know, Tony, that trade deals aren't sorted out over a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge. They can take years and when we're not negotiating them with the support of our fellow EU members, it won't be as easy. And there is no point trying to make a start on these amazing deals before it's clear what our relationship with the EU will look like - that will influence what sort of hand we will have going into any trade deal negotiation.

It can say, right now, that it will not impose any tariff or quota on European produce and would recognise all EU product standards. That means no border controls for goods coming from Europe to Britain. You don’t need to negotiate this: just do it. If Europe knows what’s in its own best interests, it would fully reciprocate in order to maintain entirely free trade and full mutual recognition of standards right across Europe.

Sure, Tony, we can "just do it" but that won't make negotiating trade arrangements with the 50+ countries we already have deals with as part of the EU any easier. See my previous comment. And see my even earlier comment about how we still won't have any say in standards across Europe if we leave the EU. Bloody hell, I am repeating myself now. It's like dealing with a slow-witted child.

Next, the UK should declare that Europeans already living here should have the right to remain permanently — and, of course, become British citizens if they wish. This should be a unilateral offer. Again, you don’t need a deal. You don’t need Michel Barnier’s permission. If Europe knows what’s best for itself, it would likewise allow Britons to stay where they are.

Oh, Tony, Tony, Tony. This is so naive it's almost adorable. Yes, of course the government could simply guarantee the rights of all EU citizens currently in the UK to stay and become British citizens with those funky red, I mean, blue passports. But, given that the perception and quite possibly the reality is that plenty of people voted leave to reduce the number of Europeans living here, and given that the Conservative Party is still obsessed with pandering to anti-immigration elements, that is not what is actually going on. EU citizens will have to go through the bureaucracy of applying for settled status, if they have lived here for five years, and "pre-settled status" if they have been here for less than five years, at a cost of £65 per adult and £32.50 per child under 16.

Hurrah! More bureaucracy!   

Third, there should continue to be free movement of people from Europe into Britain — but with a few conditions. Only for work, not welfare. And with a foreign worker’s tax on the employer, to make sure anyone coming in would not be displacing British workers.

Tony, see my list above about the limitations of welfare for EU citizens before you start embarrassing yourself any further. 

As for a foreign workers' tax, how exactly will that be enforced? How will employers prove their European employees are not displacing British workers? What if they are forced to sack European workers and they can't find British workers to fill the positions? Will those companies be compensated or just taxed into oblivion? That doesn't sound conducive to economic growth. I thought you were a low-tax, limited government conservative, Tony, yet here you are proposing a new tax that would potentially damage businesses and create additional administration for an already stretched civil service.

Hurrah! More bureaucracy! And a fun new tax!

Fourth, no ‘divorce bill’ whatsoever should be paid to Brussels. The UK government would assume the EU’s property and liabilities in Britain, and the EU would assume Britain’s share of these in Europe. If Britain was getting its fair share, these would balance out; and if Britain wasn’t getting its fair share, it’s the EU that should be paying Britain.

Sigh... Here we go again with the "let's just bugger off into WTO wonderland without paying a penny" claptrap. The "divorce bill" is not a fine for leaving the EU - it is about meeting financial obligations in a responsible manner. If we leave without paying the bill like an indignant diner who is angry with the restaurant because they don't like the colour of the tiles in the loo, that will not help our international standing, particularly when it comes to negotiating future trade deals outside the EU. It's going to be hard enough to negotiate 50+ trade deals without the support of our fellow European negotiators without further diminishing our international standing by behaving like petulant toddlers.

Also, spoiler alert, Tony: Britain was getting its fair share from the EU and then some.

Finally, there’s no need on Britain’s part for a hard border with Ireland. Britain wouldn’t be imposing tariffs on European goods, so there’s no money to collect. The UK has exactly the same product standards as the Republic, so let’s not pretend you need to check for problems we all know don’t exist. Some changes may be needed but technology allows for smart borders: there was never any need for a Cold War-style Checkpoint Charlie. Irish citizens, of course, have the right to live and work in the UK in an agreement that long predates EU membership.

The hard border isn't just about tariffs or pre-EU agreements, Tony. It's about inspections of goods as they cross the border once the UK is out of the customs union. Once we are out of the EU, we are out of the customs union - again, this is literally what people voted for when they voted leave so I have no idea why any Brexiter is crying about this. Hell, it's almost as if some people had no idea what they were really voting for, and didn't realise we are facing the prospect of UK trucks held up at every border in the EU for inspection as they try to transport goods easily around the continent, even with "smart borders".

Oh, and there is the not-insignificant issue of a hard border risking reigniting the troubles in Northern Ireland. But don't just take my word for it. Click here to hear from a retired member of the Irish Defence Forces on the risks and woeful lack of preparation on the side of the republic. Combine this with moronic, dismissive rhetoric on Ireland from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and equally poor preparation for a hard Brexit by the UK and it soon becomes clear that this isn't as simple as just bunging in a few cameras and scanners. 

Of course, the EU might not like this British leap for independence. It might hit out with tariffs and impose burdens on Britain as it does on the US — but WTO rules put a cap on any retaliatory action. The worst it can get? We’re talking levies of an average 4 or 5 per cent. Which would be more than offset by a post-Brexit devaluation of the pound (which would have the added bonus of making British goods more competitive everywhere).

Tony, levies of 4 or 5 per cent add up when we're talking about goods worth millions of pounds. As we face economic uncertainty and ongoing skyrocketing costs just to deal with the bureaucracy of Brexit, additional levies are not going to be helpful. As for the devaluation of the pound, we could always make like Germany and Sweden and ensure we manufacture high quality goods rather than relying on a tanking currency to help exports, but you've always loved simplistic, race-to-the-bottom ideas, haven't you, Tony?

UK officialdom assumes that a deal is vital, which is why so little thought has been put into how Britain might just walk away. Instead, officials have concocted lurid scenarios featuring runs on the pound, gridlock at ports, grounded aircraft, hoarding of medicines and flights of investment. It’s been the pre-referendum Project Fear campaign on steroids. And let’s not forget how employment, investment and economic growth ticked up after the referendum.

Tony, we haven't actually left yet. We still do not know what our relationship with the EU will look like with just 131 days to go until we leave the EU - sure, there was hyperbole about a Brexit armageddon but we won't know for sure how bad it will be until this ongoing saga is resolved. Under every credible economic model, the UK economy will shrink post-Brexit. It's just a matter of how bad the shrinkage will be, something a Prime Minister well-known for appearing in public wearing Speedos after swimming in cold water should know all about.

And the employment figures have been bolstered by the growth in zero-hours contracts, Tony. In Australia, this is known as the casualisation of the workforce - and, no matter what you call it, is is a trend that does work for some workers in certain circumstances but overall, it leads to economic uncertainty and limitations for so many others. 

But you were never one for workers' rights, were you, Tony? That may explain why you didn't weigh into the debate about whether EU workers drive down salaries in the UK - someone might just ask you about endorsing and enforcing a higher minimum wage to make low-skilled jobs more appealing to British workers, which is something which needs to happen at Westminster level, not at EU level, and might make you look a little bit socialist.

As a former prime minister of Australia and a lifelong friend of your country, I would say this: Britain has nothing to lose except the shackles that the EU imposes on it. After the courage shown by its citizens in the referendum, it would be a tragedy if political leaders go wobbly now. Britain’s future has always been global, rather than just with Europe. Like so many of Britain’s admirers, I want to see this great country seize this chance and make the most of it.

Give over, Tony. You're delirious.


Photography by Sittoula (a.k.a. Sitt) Sitlakone/Flickr

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Bring on the dancing girls! Just don't pity Theresa May...



Much has been made this week of Theresa May dancing awkwardly in South Africa and Kenya. There was uproarious laughter from some quarters, pity from others, cries of "sexism!" at those who laughed, others still offered patronising coos of "At least she had a go, bless her!", Alex Clark, meanwhile, wrote a piece "in praise of female awkwardness" in the Guardian

Whenever a male politician makes a berk of himself when he tried to dance in public, he is usually pilloried just as Theresa May was this week. Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson were mocked for their lame attempts at dancing in Saudi Arabia, Justin Trudeau was mostly given a leave pass by liberals but criticised by those who don't share his politics when he joined in a display of bhangra dancing, and Jeremy Corbyn caused a mass cringe among his opponents when he tried to rally the troops by showing off a few moves at a union rally Sunderland. 

Sure, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't when confronted a situation where it is considered polite or at least sporting to join a dance - and a bit rude and uptight if they try and sit it out - but we shouldn't have our giggles censored when this situation arises. There are good reasons for such images, regardless of the gender of the politician involved, being a long-time staple of Private Eye covers. 

They are all powerful and privileged men and women.   

And in the case of Theresa May, all I really saw was desperation as she danced in South Africa and Kenya, because while everyone was busy arguing over whether it was OK to laugh at her moves, nobody was really talking too much about the reality of the trade deals she was attempting to make on her whistlestop tour. 

Last year, the UK exported £2.4bn worth of goods the six southern African countries included in the deal she tried to crow about. In contrast, the UK's exports to the EU and the rest of the world combined are worth £339bn. And the six-country deal is just a replication of a deal the UK already has as part of the EU. Theresa May will need to do an awful lot of replication - and dance to an awful lot of tunes, literally and metaphorically - to come close to making up for the post-Brexit shortfall in trade we currently enjoy as part of the EU.

Let's just examine Africa, shall we? Africa's nations are moving ever-closer - there are assorted economic blocs all over the continent, such as ECOWAS, which is comprised of 15 west African states, the Arab-Maghreb Union, comprised of five North African states, the Southern African Customs Union, comprised of five states in the south of the continent, and in the east, the East African Community has customs union and common market arrangements, including provisions for free movement of labour, goods and services between six states. 

The EU has been very busy, particularly in the last three years, in making agreements to facilitate trade with these blocs. And, unlike many earlier attempts at European trade with Africa, which often took place under a grim shadow of colonialism or arrogant post-colonialism, lessons have been learnt and trade agreements that are win-wins are becoming more common. These deals involve meaningful aid for projects such as education and healthcare and investment that is aimed at creating jobs with respect to the local content laws which many African countries have passed to increase the skills of their people and reduce the reliance on expatriates. 

Critically for the global security, local content laws aim to reduce the problems created by economic migration in poorer countries, which in turn leads to economic migrants often ending up in dangerous places where either their own lives are put in danger or the risk of radicalisation increases - and contributes to the influx of refugees into Europe. It is essential for Europe to be part of the solution to this problem through investment that will create jobs that have dignity, purpose, prospects for advancement and living wages.

On top of all this, the African Union is getting ever-closer. The African Continental Free Trade Area is the result of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement between all 55 African Union members - in March this year, 44 of the 55 states signed the proposed agreement and if it is ratified, it will be the largest free trade area since the WTO was formed. It should come as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to the world that many African leaders in business and politics look to the EU as a model for free trade across a continent. If the EU ultimately does a free trade deal with the AU, the UK will be, to quote Theresa May "naked and alone" on the world stage. She may have been referring to a post-Brexit Jeremy Corbyn, and she was correct, but if her mismanagement of Brexit continues, she will be in the same position.

And if you are still feeling sorry for Theresa May because the mean people laughed at her dancing, maybe you will feel less sorry for her if you consider that she has had to form an unholy alliance with the sexist, homophobic DUP to cling to power. Or maybe you might want to think about her terrible tenure as Home Secretary, where the Windrush scandal happened on her watch. 

Or perhaps you haven't noticed her complete lack of authority as Prime Minister. She can bang on about her "Chequers deal" all she likes but it's not a deal for post-Brexit Britain. It's a pie-in-the-sky laundry list of wishes made of unicorn guano and pixie dust, a list that the EU will never agree to in its current form, a list that has angered the hard Brexiters and led remainers to shrug and ask why we're bothering to leave.

So frankly, who cares if she dances? Who cares if she doesn't dance? Who cares if her moves make her look like the arrhythmic lovechild of a praying mantis and an ironing board?

None of it will matter if a catastrophe unfolds between now and March.
        


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Who needs standards in journalism?



In this era of "citizen journalism", insisting on high standards in reporting - demanding pesky things such as accuracy, genuine balance, correct spelling, punctuation and grammar and, God forbid, paying journalists for their work - exposes one to mockery. 

Never mind that accuracy is the foundation on which credible journalism is built, or that balance on issues of climate change will not be achieved by wheeling out Lord Lawson to punch science in the face, or that journalism is more readable when spelling, punctuation and grammar are in order, or that journalists should be paid for their work because, well, it's work...

Instead, as part of the world's inexorable descent into idiocracy, the rise of the "citizen journalist" means that anyone, it seems, can call themselves a journalist. We wouldn't allow "citizen brain surgeons" to open our skulls but, it seems, many of us are happy to let "citizen journalists" tell us what to think, whether its accurate or not.

"Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?" I hear the indignant crowd shriek at me. After all, I've made a pretty good living out of being a journalist for more than 20 years now. Why would I want these untrained upstarts parking their tanks on my lawn? Why don't I just go back to my manual typewriter and report on the intrigues of the church fete and let "citizen journalists" take over?  

OK, I'll tell you why. Because journalism is a profession. Training is required. Journalists do not need to spend years and years at university, as is the case for doctors, and it is a shame that the days of cadetships, where aspiring hacks could leave school at 16 and work their way up the ladder at newspapers, have fallen by the wayside. But there are skills that need to be taught, an understanding of media law is essential, and ethics are as important as ever. These can be taught at college, university or on the job - or a combination of these - and they are essential for professionalism. 

This is not about Old Lady Lewis yelling at technology. It's great that social media can be used to break news, for people who are on the spot as news events unfold to film or write about what they see through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook Live. 

Hell, I'd be a massive hypocrite if I demanded that bloggers get shut down, particularly as bloggers have shown incredible bravery in less liberal parts of the world in their quest to expose true horrors and corruption. Raif Badawi, for example, is still languishing in a Saudi Arabian jail. He has been publicly lashed over charges, including insulting Islam and apostasy, because of his pro-free speech blog.

But plenty of bloggers and assorted social media users seem to be unaware of the responsibilities that come with writing either reportage or opinion pieces. They risk getting sued for libel or prejudicing court cases. Often, they contribute to the growing mountain of bullshit that can be filed under "fake news". 

The tidal wave of ignorance about the British criminal justice system and rules in regard to reporting on court cases has been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks. First, there was the #FreeTommy crowd, foaming and indignant that Stephen Yaxley-Lennon could be guilty of contempt of court when they thought all he was doing was telling the truth about rapists - except that his "reporting" has the potential to cost the taxpayers thousands in aborted trials and could cause rapists to go free. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is not a journalist.

And ever since the trial of cricketer Ben Stokes commenced earlier this month, the armchair experts have been out in force crapping all over social media with their inane pronouncements of guilt or innocence. These fools do not care that the trial is ongoing and, at the time of writing, not all evidence has come before the jury. 

As well as being told to avoid the traditional forms of news media, jurors are now being advised to steer clear of social media, lest their decision is coloured by online pitchfork-wavers. The journalists reporting on the case have to be very careful with the language they use, to not allow opinion to creep into their stories, but head over to Facebook and everyone seems to know exactly what happened that night and what should happen to those involved. It's pathetic.

Of course, not all journalism is perfect and bad journalism should be called out. This week, for example, there was a mass outrage because apparently an innocent British woman was jailed in Dubai for the heinous crime of having a glass of wine on an Emirates Airline flight. Except that's not quite what happened - and the reporting of this case in the UK media was almost universally terrible.  

The woman in question, Ellie Holman, a Swedish citizen who lives in Kent, arrived in Dubai from London with her daughter. At passport control, she handed over an expired Swedish passport. Understandably, she was not allowed into the country, as would be the case if she tried to enter any country with an expired passport. Ms Holman then produced an Iranian passport - Iranian citizens cannot get a tourist visa on arrival to the UAE, just as they can't if they want to visit the UK. She had the option of paying on the spot for a visa which would allow her, as an Iranian citizen, to spend 96 hours in the UAE. But she refused. 

As the situation escalated, she filmed the border control officials - again, this would land you in trouble at pretty much any international airport. In the UK, for example, while filming in public places is legal, airports are privately owned businesses and, as such, they can set their own rules in regard to filming and photography. 

Ms Holman was asked if she had been drinking and she said she'd consumed a glass of wine on the plane. But her detention was not for drinking a glass of wine - it was for visa irregularities. However, it was decided that charges would not be pursued and Ms Holman and her daughter should be arriving back in the UK today. 

If someone rocked up to Heathrow on an expired Swedish passport and then tried to enter the country by producing an Iranian passport without a valid UK visa - and then filmed border control officials as the situation escalated - they too would be taken aside and public sympathy would be non-existent. 

As someone who has herself fallen foul of the law in the UAE, I am not going to sit here and tell you all that UAE law is perfect. It's not and there are plenty of good reasons to criticise it. But I am also someone who believes in accurate journalism and there is nothing to be gained by reporting on Ms Holman's case in such a shoddy manner. It undermines the good work other journalists have done on reporting on legal matters in the UAE and neighbouring states.

If people who declare themselves "citizen journalists" would like to become professional journalists, there are multiple options available for training. It would be great if such people did take the time to make themselves aware of media law, of rules and conventions particularly in regard to court reporting, and of media ethics. Good things have come out of the rise of blogging and social media - but when you publish something, you have responsibilities. I'm sure plenty of people, if they have made it to the end of this blog post, will still dismiss me as a boring and bitter old hack, trying to take all the fun out of their crusades - but if you cannot be bothered with accuracy, you are not a journalist. 








Photography by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Sunday, 5 August 2018

The "You know what? Fuck it!" era of politics



We are now in the "You know what? Fuck it!" era of politics. This is being exhibited during elections and referenda and by politicians themselves as throwing caution to the wind - or simply blurting out exactly what's on their mind rather than fudging and waffling.

The YKWFI trend can be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint, and you might be delighted with certain manifestations of YKWFI while despairing at others. These moments are not necessarily limited to one end of the political spectrum.

Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as US president are the two most obvious manifestations of YKWFI. This is not to insult those who voted leave or for Trump - indeed, for many people, to have the YKWFI moment in the privacy of the voting booth in either the EU referendum or the last US presidential election was not necessarily because of stupidity or paucity of intellect* or lack of serious thought and soul-searching before polling day. For many, the YKWFI moment was borne of desperation, of years of feeling neglected, of wanting change even if might seem unpalatable to others, of figuring their vote could lead to an outcome that was a risk worth taking. 

But it's not just voters who are having YKWFI moments. Obviously, Donald Trump's still-fledgling political career has been one big YKWFI moment after another, usually tweeted from his toilet. Anna Soubry, rocking a drunk-office-worker-at-All-Bar-One-at-5:45pm-on-a-Friday vibe, said exactly what she thought about Trump (a "dickhead"), Jacob Rees-Mogg (he's running the country) and Boris Johnson ("he should have been sacked weeks ago") on Channel 4's The Last Leg a few weeks ago. 

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, meanwhile, told audience of The Last Leg that there are "some nice Tories", implying there are plenty of bloody awful ones too. 

And speaking of the bloody awful Tories, the Cro-Magnon spectre of Dominic Raab had a YKWFI moment combined with a potent brain fart when he told Andrew Marr to "forgive me if I don't keep a laser-like focus on the substance" of what EU representatives are saying in relation to the rights of EU and UK citizens. Except, as the new Brexit secretary, that is exactly the kind of thing he needs to focus on - still, within days of his appointment Theresa May had a panic-stricken YKWFI moment of her own and watered down his job description. Raab has a great future outside of politics as the bouncer of a nightclub with a misspelled name, such as Pryzm or Khlamydya. 

Theresa May, who usually comes across as the quivering lovechild of an unconvincing used car sales man and a virgin at an orgy, then had another YKWFI moment on Marr when she revealed that Donald Trump told her she should "sue the EU". It was the boldest, coolest thing she has perhaps ever done. She seemed relieved when she said it. And she said it twice, with the gusto of my late Aunty Nance deciding to have a second sherry at Christmas. 

She may be an incompetent Prime Minister but in that one YKWFI moment, she exposed Donald Trump as an undisputed idiot. To simply sue the EU is a typical Trumpian YKWFI reaction. As someone who favours bullying capitalism, his solution for eliminating competition or getting out of paying his bills is to lawyer up and drive smaller businesses to the brink. Trump would not have been able to elaborate on any relevant laws for suing the EU or explain exactly what Theresa May was meant to sue the EU for - instead, he would just assume she could foist that task onto a hapless lawyer.       

Regardless of how Brexit pans out, it will finish her with rocks and hard places at every turn - if we leave the EU with no deal next year and chaos ensues, she will be blamed because everyone else who should be taking responsibility has resigned; if anything close to the Chequers deal-that-was-really-just-an-absurd-laundry-list happens, she will have no credibility with anyone; and if she decides to call the whole thing off, that will delight half the country and enrage the other half, give or take those whose reaction will be "meh" with a hint of "whevs". 

Whether Theresa May will have any more YKWFI moments between now and March 29 remains to be seen, but she has nothing to lose if she does. Whether the rest of the country will lose as a result of any future YKWFI moments she may have is anyone's guess. 


* Disclaimer: The YKWFI Brexit voters who Googled "what is the EU?" the day after the referendum or voted leave but didn't really want to leave the EU and bovinely moaned and gasped about this on the news on 24 June 2016, however, are not deserving of sympathy. They genuinely are stupid.




Photography by Bill Smith/Flickr

Friday, 13 July 2018

On reclaiming decency


Sadly, the notion of decency is often associated with joyless pearl-clutchers expressing disgust at everything from nubile young women in minimal clothing to gay couples having the temerity to get married to anyone having sex outside of heterosexual wedlock. But to automatically link decency to displays of flesh or other people's sex lives is to merely be a pathetic busybody rather than an advocate for genuine decency. 

Indeed, plenty of people who are synonymous with decency are actually pretty terrible - the TV evangelists who inevitably fall from grace when they are caught in bed with people other than their wives while expecting sexual purity - and money - from everyone else, the anti-gay zealots who force people into the closet and inspire homophobic violence, the exposed flesh police who play no small role in creating a vile culture where short skirts and low-cut tops are blamed for rape rather than rapists.

But it is good to see that in the wake of England's surprise performance in the World Cup, decency has been the winner. Gareth Southgate, the team manager, has emerged as a genuine role model - a man who has been humble, respectful and compassionate while still being a strong leader. His young team responded well to this sort of leadership and their World Cup was not marred by scandal or idiotic comments during post-match interviews. Usually when football managers and players end up on the front page rather than the back page of newspapers, it is because they have behaved like dickheads. Not this time. Instead, these fine men made it to the front page because they inspired love, loyalty - and everyone was glad of some temporary respite from stories of catastrophic Brexit negotiations and Theresa May's amazing collapsing cabinet.

Southgate and his team have all been thoroughly decent.

Not so decent were the idiots who jumped on an NHS vehicle and damaged items in an Ikea store after England defeated Sweden in the quarter-finals. In this era of social media, it wasn't long before video footage of these people went viral - the woman involved was quickly identified and has been arrested. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the men involved have not been tracked down. I hope they are found and arrested too.

Inevitably and ridiculously, there were pleas to not ruin the lives of these young people by sharing the videos of them vandalising publicly funded emergency vehicles. "Calm down, nobody died," one tosser moronically opined on a Facebook page. Would he be as sanguine if it was his car that was vandalised, or one of his loved ones experienced a delay in receiving treatment because that NHS vehicle was off the road? 

And the NHS vehicle in this case was so badly damaged that it was taken off the road - the bonnet was dented, the windscreen was shattered, a wing mirror was destroyed and the radio was broken. This is not OK. It is criminal damage and the repair bill will be footed by the taxpayer. 

To deliberately jump on an NHS vehicle is an act of indecency. 

Doing daft things when one is drunk is not unusual but there is a world of difference between nicking a traffic cone to wear as a hat for a selfie and rendering an emergency services vehicle unroadworthy.

Yes, it is very easy to be publicly shamed in this internet era - and for some people, the shaming is unfair and unjustified, or blown out of all proportion. But equally, the internet can make it easy for people to make amends, to publicly apologise or to set the record straight. And just as today's dead tree newspaper is tomorrow's chip paper or kitty litter liner, the content-hungry beast that is the internet means that while the story may live on in Google searches, other stupid things will happen to make people forget about it and move on.

And the existence of the internet does not mean an end to adults taking responsibility for their actions. The woman who was arrested was 21. That means she is considered in the eyes of the law to be responsible enough to drink alcohol, drive a car, get married, join the military, buy property, consent to sex, and vote. The comments on social media about her thighs and body were revolting, unnecessary and irrelevant, but the outrage at someone behaving so irresponsibly was justified, as was the outrage at the fools who were egging her and the other car-jumpers on.

At 21, you are expected to be able to distinguish between right and wrong, to not jump on an emergency vehicle, even when you are drunk or encouraged by other drunks. Howls of "But she's so young! Her life is ruined!" are infantilising nonsense. At what age is it OK for someone to be held to account for this sort of mindless vandalism? I wouldn't expect it of my seven-year-old nephew - if I did catch him jumping on my car rendering it unroadworthy, he would not see the calm side of Aunty George for quite a while and his parents would not be amused either.

The contrast between a small minority showing off the worst of Britain and the decency of Gareth Southgate and his team is immense. His squad was the second-youngest in the tournament and they behaved like grown-ups. Indeed, plenty of much older sportsmen have, over the years, lacked the decency of the England team - I'm looking at you, Shane Warne.

The English squad's conduct on and off the pitch was something to aspire to - the term "role model" is bandied about too often but in this case, it is perfectly apt. The term "decency" is often mocked as old-fashioned, of being from the dull, prudish world of Mary Whitehouse - but in the case of Gareth Southgate and the England squad, we have an example of genuine decency, a decency that does not dwell on the activities in one's bedroom or the brevity of one's clothing because it is much bigger than that. 

True decency is not petty. True decency is not limited to any one religion and it is does not have to involve religion at all. True decency is not self-serving. True decency recognises the good that can be found everywhere. True decency is about showing respect, thinking about the consequences of your actions, taking responsibility, being honest, recognising that you are part of something bigger than yourself. And, sadly, the stories that are once again wiping the World Cup off the front pages show true decency is in very short supply.









Photography by Dean Johnson/Flickr

Sunday, 1 July 2018

From abusive sex tourism by the privileged to Love Island


I have been reading a terrible book. It's called Sultry Climates by Ian Littlewood. The book's subtitle is "Travel and sex since the Grand Tour". Within its pages, you will find an uncritical, morally lazy look at sex tourism of the privileged without any voice given to the people with whom these men - and a few token women - were having sex.

A direct line can be drawn between the apologia for pederasty by men such as Byron, as recounted in this book, and the horrendous advocacy of sex between grown men and 13-year-old boys by deeply insecure, attention-seeking troll-for-hire, Milo Yiannopolous, who is rapidly becoming a fringe figure as he desperately tries to stay relevant. 

For many, Milo's comments were a bigotry too far - after being totally fine with his racism, sexism and Poundland economics - just as the fan bases of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris rightly withered away after revelations of their sexual abuse of minors came to light. It is a sign of an improved society that child rape - for that is what paedophilia is - is looked upon by most people as being abhorrent. 

In Sultry Climates, Littlewood quotes the writings of white, wealthy British men (and the rather dreadful Paul Gaugin) who could afford to travel to Europe as well as countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tahiti, in centuries gone by. Some of these men are gay and the book does nothing to dispel the myth that all gay men are paedophiles. Excerpts, mostly from diaries and letters, about seeking out inevitably "beautiful boys" and men procuring these kids for each other, are published without any real critique, except to say that travelling away from conservative Britain was a blessed release for gay men in a less enlightened time.  

There is no attempt by Littlewood to find out who these boys were, whether they were prostituted at the behest of poor families, what physical and emotional damage was left behind when these selfish, self-indulgent men returned home. Obviously, it is appalling that until relatively recently, it was very difficult and indeed illegal to be openly gay on Britain - but that does not excuse child rape. 

And it's not just gay men getting their rocks off with children who are romanticised by Littlewood. There is an account of a man having sex with a girl of 12, again written about with any real thought to what the experience would have been like from the point of view of the victim. It's just something men do because they can, because while abroad, they are free of the apparently terrible constraints that prevent them from raping girls. That particularly disturbing passage was all about how the man in question could not believe his good fortune.

And when the book shares accounts from further afield in South Pacific, you can almost hear Littlewood's hand furiously grinding away in his underpants as he again lets the privileged men describe their encounters with local women. These women were, as far as they were concerned, all willing participants, offering themselves to ship-weary travellers. Like the "beautiful boys" who were picked up in Europe and North Africa, all the women of the South Pacific are described as physically magnificent to the point of fetishising them. He describes the men who were drawn to the South Pacific as "rebel spirits" when "rapists" is more accurate. But there is zero research conducted into the lives of these women by Littlewood or the real consequences of men landing on their shores and colonising their bodies as well as their land.

Indeed, women take a secondary role across the entire book, aside from a few paragraphs here and there. The women are, like the men in this book, wealthy enough to afford to travel in pre-Easyjet times to places where they can enjoy sexual freedom away from Victorian expectations of marriage and childbirth. The stories of their sexual encounters, in which they miraculously seem able to steer clear of abusing kids, are dropped in with minimal research. 

Embarrassingly, the book concludes with references to Club Med as a latter day equivalent to the sexually free tours of abusive posh gits in days of yore. I had forgotten Club Med was still a thing and, having taken a peek at their website, I am amazed that it still is a thing - their prices are ridiculous and the search engine is terrible.

Obviously, the "what happens on tour stays on tour" mentality still exists for many people (most of us know of at least one married or partnered-up person who uses business trips as an excuse to shag around) and there are still plenty of British men who sexually exploit women while on holiday - and this is no longer limited to wealthy men in this era of more affordable international travel. It would be naive to think otherwise - but these exploits are not necessarily romanticised in the way Littlewood does in his pitiful tome. 

And that brings us to Love Island, which has people across the nation glued to ITV to see which of the nubile young contestants will be "coupled up", who will get "mugged off" and whether it is possible to form a serious relationship while doing "cheeky challenges" for the cameras.

It is all too easy to sneer at Love Island, to consider oneself to be socially, morally and intellectually above the contestants. But it is more honest and wholesome than any of the abusive behaviour that happened when wealthy, privileged men escaped Britain to chase sex elsewhere with scant regard for consequences or consent. Sure, Hayley thought Brexit might mean that all the trees will be cut down, but she epitomises the not-uncommon phenomenon of the physically glorious young woman who has only had one lover. For all the moral panicking going on out there about teenage sexual behaviour, research from the Next Steps Project found that one in eight people aged 26 are still virgins, a much higher proportion than around one in 20, as studies of earlier generations found. 

So far, only two, maybe three, couples have had sex in the current series of Love Island, with the first couple "doing bits" on episode 16. Only a seriously tedious prude would consider that rate of shaggery as some sort of orgy. The fact they refer to sex as "doing bits" tells you everything you need to know, bless 'em.

And unlike the wealthy creeps of centuries past, the sex that's happening on Love Island is consensual. Nobody is underage, nobody is being exploited, nobody is bothered about social class, and even if "doing bits" is a euphemism that makes me think of grinding things with a mortar and pestle rather than one's genitals, the young men and women are able to talk about what they're getting up to without rushing to either confession or their mothers. Only the nation's dreariest wet blankets are getting upset. 

Give me a society where sex is consensual and discussed without embarrassment over one where sexual freedom is only for the privileged few at the expense of the vulnerable in faraway lands. Whether they realise it or not, the Love Islanders are flipping a massive bird at past hypocrisies and for that. I salute them.


Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The World Cup should be political


Predictably, when Peter Tatchell, a long-time gay rights campaigner, was detained in World Cup-crazy Moscow last week, there were plenty of wails along the lines of "Why can't people leave politics out of sport? What did he expect when he broke the law in Russia?".

Tatchell held up a banner that accurately said: "Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people", was arrested, questioned and detained for a few hours and then released on bail to appear in court on 26 June. He has since been allowed to fly home.

The protest put the Russian authorities in a sticky predicament - on one hand, the government had temporarily tightened already tight laws on freedom of assembly, making it illegal for a single-person protest to take place during the World Cup. On the other hand, Russia is desperate for the World Cup to be a public relations triumph. It would have been a marketing disaster if it emerged that Tatchell was locked up without charge or experienced any kind of police brutality. 

Tatchell himself said he was treated well by the police. It was a stark contrast from his visit to Russia in 2007 in which he was attacked so viciously by Russian neo-Nazis that he suffered brain damage, compounding the effects of an attack in 2001 by thugs in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. He is way more courageous than the random bellends on Twitter complaining because someone might have made the World Cup a little bit political. Those same random bellends have probably never been beaten almost to death because of his sexuality. I say "his" because it is almost always a man who gets upset when someone shines a light on an important issue during their ball game. And Katie Hopkins, because of course she did. 

When football associations around the world are working hard to fight homophobia and to ensure that all players, regardless of sexuality, feel comfortable and safe when they play, represent their country and socialise after the match, it is only right that Russia's record on gay rights be questioned. The tragedy of Justin Fashanu's suicide could easily happen again, particularly in Russia. 

By making a statement in Moscow, Tatchell joins a long and distinguished line of people who have politicised sport to great effect.

The most obvious example is that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who both bowed their heads and raised their fists in the black power salute when they won gold and bronze respectively at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The silver medallist, Australia's Peter Norman remained close to Smith and Carlos, both of whom were pallbearers at his funeral in 2006. It is one of the most iconic images in sporting history and it is still relevant today. 

In 1936, Jesse Owens' triumph in multiple events at the Berlin Olympics dented Adolf Hitler's desire to use the games as a showcase for Aryan superiority and it emerged that Jewish athletes were banned from competing, apart from one athlete with a Jewish father. Many Jewish athletes who had competed at the highest level perished in concentration camps and Captain Wolfgang Furstner, the head of the Olympic village, killed himself two days after the games after being dismissed from the military because of his Jewish ancestry. 

It is ironic that Jesse Owens' presence and success at the Berlin Olympics was, in and of itself, a political statement against Nazi racism and at the same time, the pageantry of the Berlin Olympics set the tone for patriotic spectacles at the Olympics in the decades to follow. It is, therefore, only right that the Olympics, as well as World Cups, are used as an opportunity to contemplate what it means to be patriotic and whether patriotism should be blind loyalty to your country.

In tennis, the late Arthur Ashe turned his AIDS diagnosis into an opportunity to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. He used his last years well and his high sporting profile played an important role in overcoming prejudice and ignorance and certainly helped pave the way for better health policy, increased accessibility to medications, effective prevention campaigns and fundraising for research.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, sport played a role in ending the scourge of apartheid. While it would be fatuous to say that apartheid would not have ended without international sporting boycotts, particularly in rugby and cricket, from 1968 until the early 1990s, they were important in keeping the issue in the news. The decades of sporting wilderness were an acute reminder for South Africans of a racist and untenable political situation.

And it's not just Peter Tatchell getting political at this World Cup. Alliance For Choice, a group which is campaigning for abortion rights in Ireland and Northern Ireland, has been tweeting comparisons between abortion rights for every country competing in the World Cup as they play their opening matches this week. Even Paddy Power, the betting shop chain with a mischievous marketing team, has got in on the act, pledging to donate £10,000 to causes which are working to make football more LGBT+-inclusive every time Russia scores. With Russia giving Saudi Arabia a 5-0 drubbing in the opening match of the tournament, the fundraising is off to an excellent start.

With the next World Cup scheduled to be held in Qatar, it is clear that politics is not going to vanish from football, or indeed most other sports, any time soon. Qatar's human rights and worker safety record has, quite rightly, been widely reported - and its ability to retain the right to host the tournament could well depend on the political situation in the Arabian Gulf over the next four years. Meanwhile, Trump supporters have lost their collective shit over American footballers taking a knee during the national anthem as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign - this most peaceful of protests, amid examples in the streets of violence, has played no small role in keeping stories about race relations in the US on global news cycles.

So enjoy the World Cup, cheer on your country's team, get a bit excited if your team wins in the office sweep - there is nothing wrong with any of that. But if you think politics is going to vanish from sport any time soon, you're naive and you are siding against people of courage from across the decades.


Photography by Коля Саныч