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

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Kathleen Dehmlow: The sheer rage against women who leave

Kathleen Dehmlow's death notice went viral. Instead of the usual platitudes about being "much loved" and "sadly missed", Kathleen's children, Gina and Jay used the death notice for revenge against the mother who left them in 1962.

It didn't take long for Twitter to erupt in a self-righteous festival of online pitchfork-waving at a woman they never knew. A woman who dares to leave her husband and kids receives a special kind of ire that simply doesn't happen when a man does the same thing. Even if the first instinct is to condemn a man who leaves his wife and kids as a bastard, it's easier for him to rehabilitate himself - Will Smith, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Ted Danson are all better known for their careers rather than the fact that they all left wives and kids for other women. 

The fact that Kathleen was pregnant by her brother-in-law when she left Dennis, Gina and Jay added extra fuel to the fire around the virtual stake to which she was now tied. 

But Kathleen's death notice raises more questions that it answers. Firstly, it's not an obituary, even though people keep referring to it that way - obituaries are written by journalists and should not be used as a one-sided revenge attack. That is not how obituary journalism works. It is a death notice, a classified advertisement paid for by someone who wants to announce that someone has passed away.

But journalistic pedantry aside, it comes as no surprise that a relative, Dwight Dehmlow, spoke up, telling a newspaper that "there is a lot of stuff that is missing" from Kathleen's story. He said she was admitted to a nursing home a year ago and died with her sisters by her side, perhaps the first indication that she was not an evil witch who abandoned her kids on a whim or ended up in a sexual relationship with her brother-in-law for frivolous reasons.

Was her first marriage abusive? Did she find happiness with Lyle Dehmlow? Why were Gina and Jay then raised by their grandparents rather than their father?

It is important to look at Kathleen's life in historical context. Assuming the dates in the death notice are accurate, she was married by the age of 19, had two children in less than five years - by this time, she was just 24. It was around this time that she fell pregnant to her brother-in-law and left her first husband and two kids.

If her marriage was abusive, either physically or psychologically, or even if it was just plain miserable and there was no hope of it ever becoming a joyous union, she may not have had many options in the Minnesota of the late 1950s. 

Today, Minnesota is a no-fault divorce state with "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage relationship" as the only grounds for divorce. This is a good thing, especially for anyone in an abusive or loveless marriage. But this did not become law in Minnesota until 1974. When Kathleen left her husband and children, anyone wanting a divorce in Minnesota would have to prove that their spouse was guilty of one or another of a list of grievous offences toward the other spouse. If Kathleen's marriage was violent, her options were probably limited - the Domestic Abuse Act wasn't passed in Minnesota until 1979. Roe vs Wade, which enshrined the right to abortion in the US wasn't passed until 1973. The birth control pill was not approved by the FDA until 1960.

This is by no means a criticism of Minnesota or indeed America - the late 1950s and early 1960s did not exactly comprise a golden era for women in terrible relationships in most places. 

It could also have been the case that Kathleen was suffering from post-partum depression or she was struggling to cope with motherhood at a young age - again, she was living in an era where mental healthcare for new mothers was not exactly brilliant and, if this was the case, she may not have had many options, short of being dismissed with a bottle of pills or nothing at all by a doctor. She may have been fobbed off as "hysterical".

The 1950s was the start of a busy time for research into depression but it is debatable as to whether those findings would have turned into good treatment in Wabasso, Minnesota.  

Admitting that motherhood is difficult can still be a tough thing to do. The expectations have always been ridiculous, whether it was automatically engaging angelic 1950s motherhood mode or today when women are expected to be invincible supermums, juggling multiple commitments with aplomb while raising perfect kids. 

But Kathleen will never get the right of reply - all we have are testaments of people who have known her for a long time coming to her defence, people who are able to acknowledge that none of us are perfect.

Nobody reasonable would argue that going through the experience of one's mother leaving the family home would ever be easy. It would mess with the minds of young children in 1962 just as surely as it does today. But, with the benefit of the intervening 56 years of changed divorce laws and social mores, as well as better research into mental health and relationships, it is unfortunate that Gina and Jay do not appear to have benefited from the modern trend towards talking through family issues and seeking appropriate counselling. We may well be living in the age of the overshare, but when it means people actually communicate and seek sensitive, professional help for the problems that affect every aspect of their lives, that is no bad thing.

I remember spotting a book at home called The Heartache of Motherhood  by Joyce Nicholson - my mother bought it sometime in the 1980s, when I was in primary school and when my sister and I were probably more of a handful than we realised. As a teenager, I read Joyce's account of becoming a mother in Australia around the same time as Kathleen did in the US. She wrote of how she felt as if she didn't fit in with other mothers at social gatherings. She would gravitate towards men at parties so she could discuss something other than child-rearing, only to get told, sneeringly, that she "liked the men". It was easier to shame her rather than consider the boring truth that she simply liked conversation that was not about nappy rash.  

Joyce Nicholson did not leave her husband until she had been married for 35 years. Obviously, by that time, her children had left home and when a marriages ends after such a long time, people are generally a bit more sympathetic. "Oh well, you gave it a good shot," you'll probably be told in such circumstances. Joyce would not have been branded as an abandoner of children in the way Kathleen has been.

For my own mother, I am sure there were large swathes of the book to which she related. I remember one morning when I was about seven and my sister was about four, Mum became so frustrated with our constant fighting that she grabbed her car keys and handbag and said she was leaving us. She was a woman of her word, driving off in her Mini, leaving my sister and I alone in the house and aghast. She was probably only gone for about five minutes but it seemed like eternity to me. As a seven-year-old, I didn't yet have the logic to realise Mum wasn't going to be gone for too long or get too far with nothing but her handbag and an ageing car for company.

The incident is nothing like the experience of abandonment that Gina and Jay went through but I bet plenty of people will read that and be horrified at my mother's behaviour. I'm not. I don't blame her. I remember how awful my sister and I could be when we fought as kids. Something must have snapped. She just needed a few minutes to drive around the block and calm down. I am not psychologically damaged by it. That's a ludicrous suggestion.

There are probably plenty of mothers out there who have had the urge to drive away from their kids, even if it is only for a few minutes. Equally, plenty of mothers over the centuries have probably wanted to leave awful relationships even if it meant leaving children behind too. The very notion of maternal abandonment offends people so mightily because it's about women not fitting into the ideal of motherhood, that they are somehow belligerently defying nature if they have children and then realise it's difficult or depressing - or it was not the right decision because of time or circumstance.

If Kathleen was 19 today, her life may have been completely different. Would she have married so young? Would she have had two children in relatively quick succession? Would something drive her to leave her family? 

We will never know. But we can be pretty sure that, thanks to the age of the internet, we will probably hear from Gina and Jay again. One can only hope that they find some sort of peace in taking out a hatchet-job death notice and that perhaps they try and find out more about their mother's early life, even if it is too late to tell her she is forgiven.

Photography by Johannes Plenio

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Reflections on World Club Foot Day

There they are, in all their misshappen, scarred, unfiltered, modern Prometheus-like glory - my two club feet. The challenging appendages at the end of my pale, corgi legs, the body parts that cast a shadow across every aspect of my life. 

I was both fortunate and dead unlucky to be born in Australia in 1976 - fortunate because Mr Peter Dewey, an excellent orthopaedic surgeon happened to live and work in the town where I was born. He started work on my feet from the time I was a baby, right through to when I was 18 and 19 for my final surgeries, for which he came out of semi-retirement, in between doing amazing work with land mine victims in Cambodia.

Without him - or if I was born in a less developed era or lived in a less developed country - I probably wouldn't be able to walk. I would have been doomed as a sad, crippled girl who would not have had the opportunities to get educated, travel the world, drive cars, work as a journalist in three different countries, meet the love of my life in an Abu Dhabi newspaper office after chasing boys with varying levels of success, and generally have a pretty amazing time. I still laugh when I think of the time my friend Stephen said I could open a bar, call it Club Foot and the slogan could be "Club Foot: Where you get down and fall down". 

But since 1976, the Ponseti Method has come a long way and I will never know if it could have prevented me from having to go through 13 reconstructive operations, involving long stints up to my knees in plaster, multiple stitches on the tops of my feet, the sides of my feet and up the back of my ankles, internal clips, and heavy scarring.

Even with Mr Dewey's brilliant work on my feet, I still get intense swelling in extremes of hot weather (or even on this mildly warm British day...), ironically white-hot pain in cold weather, arthritis has bedevilled my left ankle to the point where I cannot be trusted to safely operate a clutch, the way I walk affects my knees, hips and back, it can can enhance my inherent clumsiness, and sometimes I have to sit down or lie down or take painkillers. Or I simply might not leave the house because it's too uncomfortable and I don't always trust my feet not to seize up on public transport or while trying to walk somewhere. It won't get any better as I get older.

Despite the desperation of a mansplainer on Facebook the other day who presumed to know my own reality better than I do, my experience of club feet is not a "minor condition". Forty-two years of experience with these damn feet means I know how to manage the condition but it's something that I am aware of every single day to a greater or lesser degree.

On a superficial level, I get frustrated when trying to buy vaguely attractive shoes - I can walk in plenty of ugly shoes but buying shoes for special occasions is a nightmare. If one more person, no matter how well-meaning, tells me I simply haven't found the right high heels or I just need to buy really expensive high heels, I cannot be responsible for my actions. I cannot walk in anything higher than about an inch and I do not need people telling me that I would suddenly dance about like a gazelle if only I bought Manolo Blahniks or had a pair of heels especially made for me. Trust me, I have tried and failed to wear heels and I am less gazelle and more stumbling, newborn foal. My feet are held together with clips and cannot bend into the unnatural pose required to convincingly wear skyscraper shoes. Leave me the hell alone with your obsession with getting me into shoes that will only cause me needless misery. I am at peace with my huge collection of flats.

But I write this not to wallow in self-pity - such innovations as DSG gearboxes, good painkillers, carrying Deep Heat and Deep Freeze in my handbag, cute flat shoes, kitten heels, physiotherapy, strapping for my ankles available at any pharmacy in the land, and simply being affluent enough to afford a warm, comfortable house and bed are among the things that improve my life. Even though I am too old to take advantage of the less invasive Ponseti method for club feet, I do not want the next generation of club foot patients to miss out, no matter where they are in the world.

In the UK, the Ponseti method is available on the NHS and Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in particular do great work in this regard. I met a beautiful little boy at a friend's baby shower a few years ago. He was resplendent in a pair of bright blue boots as part of his Ponseti treatment - and it was an absolute joy to reassure his mother that life with club feet will not hold him back. It would be amazing if this good fortune was global and therefore merely the way things are rather than a matter of luck in life's lottery.


To find out more about club feet and to ensure club feet patients everywhere here are some helpful links:

Steps Charity

The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital


Cure Clubfoot

Global Clubfoot Initiative

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The depressing impasse of #MeToo


The #MeToo movement only started last October. On one hand, it feels like it has been around for much longer, perhaps because of the sheer volume of words written on it - and here I go, adding to those words, which will inevitably cause some eyes to roll, I am sure. But on the other hand, it feels like the #MeToo car, which was on an empowering ride, has crashed into a brick wall, like a prosaic and mundane alternative ending to Thelma and Louise.

We see progress with the arrest of Harvey Weinstein and one can only hope the wheels of justice turn surely and fairly. But while he is a grotesque warping of the leading man role, the one at whom we can all wave our pitchforks, it still feels like nothing much has changed. For the past seven months, the same arguments are going round and round on an eternally unconstructive hamster wheel.

When the men that we rather like are accused, we don't want to believe the allegations. Instead, we seek out alternative narratives, the accounts from those who thought he was delightful, a proper gentleman, when they met him. When eight women came forward to accuse Morgan Freeman of inappropriate touching and harassment and CNN ran a detailed report, nobody wanted to think about a man who has literally played God being the next one to fall by the wayside in a shameful pile along with Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey.

And so the same arguments keep breaking out ad infinitum. 

"Poor men! They're too scared to even ask a woman out now!" is a pretty common howl, as if all human relationships have suddenly ground to a halt since last October, as if some unseen force has caused Tinder to freeze and nobody is getting laid anymore. If a man wants to ask a woman out (or vice versa), all he has to do is politely ask. If she says yes, they can go on a date. If she says no, he should accept her rejection graciously and move on with his life. This is not hard or oppressive to men. 

The same goes for sex - why is striving for a world where consent is given freely and clearly, where men and women are comfortable and confident enough to say yes without fear of judgement or say no without fear of assault, such a terrible thing? Why are we instead setting the bar so low for men and women?

"Why was she in a hotel room with him in the first place?" is another common question. Hotel rooms are often used for meetings. I've conducted interviews in hotel rooms where I've been alone with a man. These interviews have never ended up in bed and I have never been harassed or propositioned in any professional situation in a hotel room. The closest shave happened in 2006 when a creepy guy on a press trip to Ireland called my room and asked if he could come in and give me a massage. I told him: "Good God, no!" and hung up the phone. 

I should not feel like I need to breathe a sigh of relief because this is how my life has panned out, that I have never been groped or harassed or raped in a hotel room in the line of duty - it is simply the way it should be. 

And even if every woman in the world refused to have professional meetings in hotel rooms, even if it was illegal to have meetings in hotel rooms, that wouldn't stop the problem of sexual abuse. The abuse would simply move to other locations, in much the same way that banning abortion in Ireland didn't stop Irish women having abortions. It merely moved the abortions to England. Sexual predators have an awful habit of finding a way to do what they do in all manner of places. It's just that "hotel room" has seedy connotations that "meeting at Costa" does not - but that doesn't mean women aren't harassed over coffee. Hell, Max Clifford allegedly groomed one of his victims at the Wimpy burger joint down the road from my place. He didn't need to book a suite at the Dorchester. 

Or there are the inevitable non-sequiturs - "Why are all the feminists making a fuss about this and not about female genital mutilation/the kidnapped girls in Nigeria/the raped Yazidi women/child marriage?" - except that "all the feminists" is not a homogenous blur. "All the feminists" covers a diverse group that transcends national borders, religion, ethnicity, body type, socio-economic status and so on. And plenty of feminists speak out about issues apart from #MeToo and do some incredible work with girls and women all over the world - women are capable of being angry about more than one thing at a time and taking action. We are pretty damn amazing in that regard.

The #MeToo movement does need to go beyond the world of celebrity so women who have been exploited, harassed, abused and raped in all industries can speak out and get justice. We should stand behind every actress who has been abused and equally we need to stand behind the waitress who is being groped by her boss on the promise of better shifts, the nurse who gets her arse pinched in the hospital corridor as she tries to do her job, the immigrant cleaner who is raped in exchange for her silence on illegal workers.  

And then there are those who worry about men's careers being ruined. If someone is found guilty of harassment, abuse or rape, his career is not going to be at the top of things I'm especially worried about. This plays into the narrative of false accusations - which are terrible but rare. Seriously, think it through, everyone - the shit women go through when they speak out or try to report such crimes is frequently horrific. If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be sitting here writing this and there would be no need for a #MeToo movement.

Then there are those who claim that all these women are coming forward because they want to be famous. Here's a test - without Googling, tell me the name of the woman - first name and last name - who accused Bill Cosby in the court case that led him being found guilty of drugging and indecently assaulting her. Go on, it was just last month.

While all this is going on, guess what? Men are getting away with it. There have always been men who get away with it. A self-confessed pussy-grabber was elected president, for God's sake.

Roman Polanski may not be able to come back to the US any time soon without being arrested but that has not stopped him making award-winning films - and it certainly hasn't stopped plenty of celebrated actresses from working with him and singing his praises. Rob Lowe was caught out in a sex tape scandal in 1989 after he claimed to have no idea that one of the two participants in the threesome was actually 16 years old. But since then, he rehabilitated himself as slick Samuel Seaborn in The West Wing and too-good-to-be-true Chris Traeger in Parks and Recreation. Enough water seems to have passed under that particularly seedy bridge that he even made a parody of the sex tape in 2016. Hey, we should all be able to look back and laugh at the time we shagged a minor, right?

And Morgan Freeman? My prediction is that the worst thing that might happen to him is the reconsideration of a lifetime achievement award. He will still die a wealthy, multi-award-winning actor, and because he is one of the guys that nobody wants to think ill of, his films will be rewatched over and over again. He may be a sex pest, he may not be - but what I do know is that when people come forward with accusations, they need to be taken seriously. This is not the same as all accusations being automatically believed - but if #MeToo is going to mean anything, allegations require proper investigation. Sweeping it under the carpet may have been the way it used to be in the "good old days", but the more we learn about what used to go on, the more we realise that for many girls and women, the "good old days" were bloody horrific. 

Photography by

Monday, 21 May 2018

The real purpose of royal weddings

Now the bunting has come down and the prosecco bottles are consigned to the recycling, it has become abundantly clear what royal weddings are for - they are a national (and international...) form of catharsis, a global opportunity to be as rude as we wish we could be at actual weddings.

Let's be honest - only the truly saintly among us have never snarked at a wedding. Whether it's speculating from behind an order of service about how long the marriage might last, telling a bride she looks beautiful when you secretly think the dress looks like a feral shower curtain, or judging the choice of a Celine Dion track for the first dance, we've all been there. Sometimes snarkers aren't even subtle - I was told I was "brave" for not wearing a white dress, as if getting married in silver and black was heroism on par with rescuing orphans from a burning building.

But when it's a royal wedding, on telly for all of us to see, we let loose. The white lies and good manners that lubricate the wheels of polite society dry up. This is not new, despite social media.

When Charles and Di got married back in 1981, Princess Anne's omelette-like hat and the crush-fest of a wedding dress attracted much low-tech snarking. Indeed, this was immortalised in Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, with Adrian reporting that the princess wore a "dirty white dress". In the TV adaptation, Bert Baxter, the curmudgeonly OAP, said: "I know a wrinkle when I see one!" as everyone watched Diana enter St Paul's Cathedral looking like she was dressed in the handiwork of the Andrex puppy.

And with Twitter and Facebook, snarking went into overdrive as soon as the guests started arriving at St George's Chapel on Saturday. In between people expressing delight at the simple elegance of Meghan Markle's wedding dress, plenty declared they were bored by the dress, as if she got dressed solely for their entertainment, as if she owed the world a riot of sequins, itchy lace and a big old arse bow.

During the wedding service itself, collective pearls were clutched during the lively sermon given by the Reverend Michael Curry, the African-American primate and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. This was hilarious (such as the starched fart faces of certain people in the congregation) and a bit disturbing - an angry online mob of white people complaining that a black bishop is talking for too long is somewhat unseemly to witness. Of course, when I dared point this out on Twitter, a bunch of white people landed in my notifications to tell me I am racist and that they really didn't notice the bishop was black.

Apparently, 14 minutes of airtime was more than some people were prepared to deal with, even though it was the most entertaining and memorable part of the whole damn wedding.

The Venn diagram of people who have ever screeched "Britain is a Christian country!" and those who felt the need to complain about Reverend Curry going on a bit would probably overlap quite significantly. How many of these supposed defenders of the Church of England against threats, real or imaginary, regularly attend church?

Fourteen minutes is by no means an epic sermon, as anyone who goes to church can attest. The eminently forgettable sermon at William and Kate's wedding ran for about eight minutes but both wedding ceremonies lasted about an hour in total - the Book of Common Prayer marriage liturgy can be a wordy, time-consuming thing, especially when you add hymns to the mix. Give me a lively 14-minute sermon over a couple of dirgy seven-verse hymns pooped out of an arthritic pipe organ any day. 

And here's the inconvenient truth for those who thought the reverend's sermon was too long or too over-the-top or both - if you are genuinely concerned for the survival of Christianity in the UK, you might want to congratulate black British people for doing their bit to keep churches open. The British Social Attitudes survey documented from 1983 to 2014 a steady decline for the Church of England and a slight decline for the Roman Catholic church but a substantial increase in "other churches", many of which are dominated by people of African and Caribbean heritage. Between 2001 and 2011, white Christians declined by 18%  in London whereas black Christian growth was at 32% over the same period. The growth in church attendance is fuelled by black and ethnic minorities, not white Brits.

And if that means lively sermons are getting bums on pews, anyone who has panicked about the decline of church attendance in Britain should celebrate these extra bums regardless of the colour of the cheeks.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Meghan Markle conundrum

Here's the thing about the royal family - even though their lives are far removed from ours, we still feel like we know them. Based on their limited, highly controlled interviews, absurd magazines and the occasional tell-all from a "palace insider", we reckon we have them all figured out.

Hell, I have Kate and William pegged as a nice but dull couple, the kind of people you'd trust to feed the cat while you're on holiday - but you wouldn't give them the task because then you'd have to invite them over for dinner and that would be excruciating. But Zara and Mike seem fun so I'd happily give them the house keys while I was on holiday. And - this is my controversial opinion - I think Camilla would be a right laugh too. She can pop over for a cheeky G&T.

We know them on first name terms even though we're supposedly meant to address them by ludicrous titles. And as of this weekend, Meghan and Harry will gain their very own ludicrous titles as they embark on married life and attempt to carve out their place in the world.

And speaking of places in the world, with the bizarre news that Prince Charles will walk Meghan at least halfway up the aisle today, in the absence of her ailing father - and despite her mother being in town - plenty of wags have suggested that finally after nearly 70 years on this planet, the hapless Charles has found something to do. The poor bugger has spent his entire life resembling a slightly beside-the-point Quentin Blake illustration.

Of course, the past week's who-will-walk-Meghan-up-the-aisle TMZ-fuelled brouhaha meant everyone felt the need to share their views on the whole notion of men giving brides away. Let's be honest - "giving a bride away" is hardly a feminist statement but when I got married at the ripe, old age of 34, Dad, a man who supports me in all I do, walking me down the aisle was lovely

That said, now we all know Prince Charles is doing the honours, opinion is divided, again as if we know the royals personally and have been privy to all the behind-closed-doors discussions. Did Meghan really ask Prince Charles to do this or was the Kensington Palace statement fake news? Is it a nice way to welcome her to the family? Is it sidelining Doria Ragland, the mother-of-the-bride? Surely the bigger story is sweeping homeless people off the street and not putting on a bunch of hog roasts for the people allowed into the castle grounds? Is it all just a bit weird for a father to give a woman to his son?

My first reaction was "Ick!" but I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that, even in the face of extreme awfulness by Sarah Vine, below-the-line Daily Mail commentators and other assorted racist, snobbish prudes, Meghan Markle is being supported by her new in-laws. Hell, there is a really awful sub-culture on Twitter of women who hate Meghan - they are racist, jealous and generally angry. Their comments in regard to the colour of her skin are not so much racist dogwhistles as honking great bullhorns.

For what it's worth, I like her - she comes across as fun, caring and a bit saucy. Anyone who upsets racists, snobs and prudes is fine by me. They are probably the same people who are, as I write this, whining about the multicultural BBC royal wedding coverage team - although I don't want to ruin my Saturday by going onto Twitter to see if there are idiots who are genuinely angry about the very presence of the gorgeous Naga Munchetty at Windsor Castle.

At the end of today, Meghan Markle will be the Duchess of Sussex - she has had to convert to the Church of England faith, if she has any children with Harry, they will join the in-line-to-the-throne production line and it is all part of an institution that is not based on merit, has only become moderately less sexist with the changes to primogeniture rules and could easily be thrown into confusion if an heir to the throne turns out to be gay. Her life will no longer be her own and everything she says, does and wears will be scrutinised for the rest of her life. I have no doubt that she will do what she can to continue the path of modernising the creaking old institution of the monarchy - and will probably be much quicker about choosing the causes she will support than Kate Middleton was.

Good for her and all that. Only a person with a truly rancid heart would wish Meghan and Harry a miserable marriage. Even a cranky old republican like me can smile at the sight of two people in love. If Meghan somehow brings down the monarchy, as the haters think she will, I would not be upset. But chances are, she won't cause the fall of the House of Windsor - and that will really annoy the haters.

Photography by Last Night of Freedom/Flickr

Friday, 4 May 2018

Local Elections 2018: Limited gloating opportunities

Hopes were high for post-local election gloating for both major parties, particularly in London. Here, Labour hubristically thought they might take Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, and Wandsworth councils from the Conservatives and wrest Barnet back from no overall control. The Tories won all four. 

Meanwhile, the Conservatives thought they were in with a shot in Sutton but the scandal-ridden local Liberal Democrats prevailed, albeit with a 12-seat haemorrhage. The Conservatives also lost pro-remain Richmond-upon-Thames and Kingston-upon-Thames to the Liberal Democrats.

Jeremy Corbyn had planned to go to Barnet in North London to gloat today but instead, there was a last-minute change of plans and he travelled some 240 miles to Plymouth, the one bright spot for Labour, although by no means a bellwether for the national mood. Labour gained four seats in Plymouth and the Conservatives lost one.

Theresa May, meanwhile, went to Wandsworth to gloat over a result that should surprise nobody with a functioning brain stem - the Conservatives have presided over a low council tax borough where the streets are clean, the parks are green and crime rates are low. That said, the Conservatives only clung on by 141 votes and lost eight seats, while Labour gained seven.

But this is not just about London - across England, there was not a whole lot for either Labour or the Conservatives to sing about. Labour lost Nuneaton to the Conservatives in the Midlands, the Conservatives lost Plymouth to Labour. South Cambridgeshire has gone to the Liberal Democrats, a previously Conservative council. Three Rivers, in Hertfordshire, went to the Liberal Democrats after formerly being under no overall control.

It is true that at local elections, local issues are important. For example, Britain is a nation obsessed by the bins - you don't have to look too far to find someone who will complain that bin collections are not frequent enough, there are too many bins, too few bins, not enough is being recycled, recycling is an onerous burden, some idiot keeps fly-tipping instead of disposing of festering mattresses responsibly and so on and so forth...

But it would be naive to suggest that people didn't use this election to give the major parties a kicking over bigger issues than bins, parking, potholes and dog poo, particularly in regard to Brexit. Leavers and remainers are feeling equally powerless as they watch this government negotiate with the European Union with all the agility of a walrus on a trapeze and struggle to figure out exactly what Labour policy on this not-so-insignificant matter. On top of this, plenty of people are dismayed with the way Labour has dealt with serious accusations of anti-semitism. Therefore, the local elections were seen by many as a good excuse for a protest vote. 

So how did this pan out? It panned out pretty well for the Liberal Democrats and Greens with both parties picking up the votes of pro-remain voters, many of whom are currently feeling politically homeless. 

Overall, the Liberal Democrats increased their share of the vote by three percentage points to 16% at the time of writing - they were on 444 seats nationally, an increase of 49. This included some curious results, including Labour losing a seat to the Lib Dems in the Pallion ward of Sunderland council. That would be the same Sunderland that voted 60% in favour of Brexit, despite the area's biggest private sector employer, Nissan, setting up shop there in 1984, urged on by Margaret Thatcher who successfully sold the Japanese car-maker the idea of basing a factory there because of free access to the European market. 

The Green party won a few more seats - at the time of writing, they had 34 seats across the country, up from five. Interestingly, more than 80 per cent of the council seats gained by the Greens were snaffled from the Conservatives. That would indicate that there is a handful of seriously disillusioned Tory remainers out there, as well as Labour losing pro-EU voters to the Greens.

UKIP proved themselves to be a spent force in British politics with a pitiful three seats across the country, a drop of 121 seats. It would seem that the Conservative Party has scooped up these votes, suggesting the Tories are appealing strongly to a voter base that seeks massive cuts to immigration, probably doesn't give a toss about anyone affected by the Windrush scandal and is startlingly sanguine about the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal and having to revert to WTO rules. Last night and this morning, as election results rolled in, Conservatives were happy to go on TV and say they had gained votes from UKIP.

And this is a crucial difference between Labour and the Conservatives right now - the Conservatives are taking a pragmatic approach. Plenty of Tories are appalled by UKIP but they will cheerfully Hoover up their voters. Hell, the Conservatives have cravenly taken control of Pendle council in Lancashire thanks to the reinstating of a councillor who was suspended from the party for retweeting a racist joke. It's not necessarily a principled approach but this is not an era for conviction politicians in Theresa May's desperate Conservative Party. 

Meanwhile, a common tactic in the murky world of Twitter political debate among Jeremy Corbyn's increasingly delusional Momentum fans is to accuse Labour-leaning Corbyn critics of being "red Tory scum", "Blairites" and to "fuck off and vote Tory" - colour me shocked to learn that this mindless strategy has not been converted into enough votes to control crucial councils up and down England.

The results are not really a ringing endorsement for either equally incompetent party leader. The only saving grace to come out of all this is that we might be spared having to vote again this year. Another general election would probably result in a similar outcome to the status quo - and Theresa May does not need two consecutive elections in which she recklessly sought a huge mandate but emerged with a grip on power like a limp handshake. Her reputation as a "safe pair of hands" is in tatters, Brexit negotiations will continue to be a car crash, and the Windrush scandal won't quite go away, despite Amber Rudd stepping down as Home Secretary.

But it all boils down to a big pile of "meh" with a huge helping of "whevs". With votes counted in 136 of 150 councils at the time of writing, Labour has 1,896 councillors, an increase of 58, and the Conservatives have 1,256 councillors, a drop of nine. This looks like an easy gloat for Labour but their problem is that this has not translated into a red landslide of taking control of councils across the UK. And it is not an easy gloat for the Tories because nothing much really changes for them, apart from losing Plymouth.

And people up and down this green and pleasant land will still complain about the bins.

Photography by Martin Deutsch/Flickr

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Incels and Daesh: lethal mysogynists

This month, so-called incels finally got the attention they have been craving so pathetically after Alek Minassian became their poster boy. Ten people were killed and 15 injured in an act of terrorism in Toronto - a van mowed people down as they went about their business and Alek Minassian was arrested for the atrocity.

It has since emerged that Minassian frequented white supremacist sites and praised racist murderer Elliot Rodger, who, aged 22, shot people at random and then killed himself. Minassian posted on Facebook: "The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!".

"Incel" is short for "involuntarily celibate" and in their hateful little subculture, "Chads" are the men who are getting laid and "Stacys" are the women who have sex with these men. 

Incels do not take responsibility for their romantic and sexual failures. They are not interested in personal change so they can become happier, better-adjusted men. They just want to blame others for their lives, and this extends to harming innocent people in vile acts of terrorism. 

These are the men who may seem harmless enough when they whine about constantly being "friend-zoned" but for these men, there is no value in friendships with women if they refuse to have sex with them. Instead of viewing healthy platonic friendships as part of a normal adult life, these men view women as gratification machines and if they drop in enough friendship tokens, sex will eventually come out.  

If incels actually cultivated healthy friendships with women, they might learn that sometimes we don't have sex as much as we'd like either. Women get dumped, women get friend-zoned, women's partners may lose interest in sex - being "involuntarily celibate" isn't just for men. Sorry, guys, you're not special. And when this happens to a woman, it can hurt, it can be embarrassing, it can crush self-esteem and it can lead to feelings of worthlessness. But it's not women who are reacting to romantic and sexual disappointment by plotting cowardly acts of violence because a man wasn't interested. 

When women aren't getting laid, we might get together and whine about men over a bottle of wine or a tub of ice cream, but you're not going to find us organising to kill innocent people. Sure, not every woman will handle being rejected in an entirely rational manner but the murderous bunny boiler of Fatal Attraction is a rare exception, rather than the rule, as crime statistics will bear out. 

Like Daesh, the incels have started a deadly movement and the parallels are chilling. Incels and Daesh prey on vulnerable, lonely young men, men who feel disenfranchised, men who are yearning to feel powerful and important, men for whom the ability to control women to the point of rape and murder is appealing, men who get very angry when they are referred to as losers. And now, with the Toronto attack, it is clear that incels and Daesh are both planning to kill more innocent people in the name of hateful and perverse ideologies. 

Incels and Daesh both hate women. They do not like to see women empowered or educated. They feel entitled to women's bodies, whether it is for their own selfish gratification (can anyone seriously imagine either an incel or a Daesh recruit giving a damn about female pleasure during sex?) or to breed a new generation of haters. 

There is no respect for women in incel chat rooms or Daesh training camps. They both hold juvenile, reductive views of women, they want to control us but they are also disgusted by us. They are the very worst examples of toxic masculinity. Their murderous foot soldiers might be dismissed as lone wolves but they are the useful idiots for the leaders of horrific ideologies. They are both terrorist organisations. They both need to be stopped.

Photography by cocoparisienne

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Thoughts on today's anti-semitism protest

Today, I know quite a few people who are attending the protest outside the Labour Party's headquarters in London. The protest is about inaction on anti-semitism within the Labour Party. Among the people protesting are those who feel politically homeless because anti-semitic abuse has been tolerated and not properly dealt with by the Labour Party. 

These people are routinely slagged off as "Red Tory scum" by certain elements of the Labour Party even though they support a such principles as a strong NHS, the welfare state, ending austerity, and a taxation system that does not favour the wealthy at the expense of the working class. These people are not natural conservatives, they have spoken out against Conservative Party policy, in many cases for decades. Some of these people are now voting for other parties, some now spoil their ballots, some have stopped voting, sometimes for the first time in their politically active lives.

Absolutely disgusting things have been said to Jewish people within the Labour Party, including threats, the dragging up of vile stereotypes that would not be out of place in the appalling propaganda of Nazi Germany, and calling Jewish female MPs, such as the eloquent Louise Ellman, "sluts" and "bitches" for daring to speak out. Ruth Smeeth MP has received 25,000 abusive messages and is now under police protection. It has to stop if the Labour Party is at all serious about being in government. 

When these people say they have been subjected to ugly anti-semitic abuse, I believe them. I have seen the awful evidence. I am not Jewish so I am not going to presume to tell Jewish people that their anti-semitic experiences within the Labour Party are invalid or not serious or do not warrant serious investigation and disciplinary action. The people who are responsible for the abuse would probably, quite rightly, not minimise reports of abuse towards Muslim people so why are they incapable of respecting Jewish people in the same way or taking their concerns equally seriously?

I suspect that a lot of anti-semitic abuse is excused as criticism of wealth and greed, of the Rothschilds as shorthand for all Jews, even though that is clearly wrong and ridiculous. Just as Muslims are tired of telling people that they are not terrorists, and black people are tired of telling people they are not in violent gangs, and women are tired of having to explain pretty much every life choice we make to someone, Jewish people are pretty damn sick of this stupid, offensive stereotype being perpetuated, complete with the horrendous rich-Jews-with-big-noses trope in the hideous mural Jeremy Corbyn claimed he didn't look at properly before defending it. 

Indeed, the motion which has been put forward by the Bristol West Labour Party in opposition to their MP, Thangam Debbonaire, attending last month's Enough Is Enough rally against anti-semitism doesn't so much contain a racist dog whistle as a honking great bullhorn - the motion actually said that "when people see inequality, ecological disaster and war alongside the accumulation of unprecedented wealth, in the private hands of a few, it is reasonable that they seek out explanations". If you can't see the problem with that, I can't help you. If those calling for Ms Debbonaire's deselection succeed, I hope they are proud of themselves for cutting down a talented female MP from an ethnic minority because she spoke out in support of people who are experiencing intolerance. This is an intelligent, compassionate woman who called to allow MPs to vote remotely in special circumstances after she juggled her parliamentary duties with breast cancer treatment. If that is the kind of person you want to remove from parliament, you really need to ask yourself who the real racists and haters are.

But the wealthy are an obvious target for the left and if Jewish people get scooped up in the criticism, that just seems to be viewed by many as mere collateral damage. It is possible to be critical of the morality of many wealthy people and big business without detouring down anti-semitic rabbit holes. I also suspect that criticism of Jews is seen as criticism not just of the wealthy and privileged but also of white people and that somehow makes it OK for many, even though it is racism on top of racism. Never mind that this is completely ignorant and flies in the face of the diversity of Jewish people who live in every continent. 

One of the defences has been "But there are anti-semitic Tories too!". Yes, this is true. And it should all be called out. Jacob Rees-Mogg should be held to account for rubbing shoulders with the dreadful Gregory Lauder-Frost just as the Labour Party was held to account for allowing holocaust denier Alan Bull to be a council candidate. But the argument that there are anti-semites in the Conservative Party as well is not really an argument at all - it just drags both parties into an awful race to the bottom where all forms of racism and intolerance become OK because the other lot are at it too. 

Jeremy Corbyn, the ball is in your court. Try not to hit it into the hands of those who are responsible for abusing Jewish people.

Photography of the Kindertransport statue by UggBoy♥UggGirl/Flickr

Friday, 9 March 2018

International Women's Day. International. The clue is in the name, people.

I spent International Women's Day flying from Abu Dhabi to London, The simplistic metaphor for that journey is that I flew from a backwards, sexist society to a place where women are free. But it's not that simple. 

The reality is that I flew from one country where feminism is still necessary to another country where feminism is still necessary. I flew from one ally of Saudi Arabia to, er, another ally of Saudi Arabia. 

Theresa May might have won the exchange during Prime Ministers's questions in which she was able to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of mansplaining feminism when he asked her about meeting Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on International Women's Day, but let's be realistic. For all Theresa May's bragging about being a female PM meeting the Saudi Crown Prince and challenging him on human rights, only the terminally naive believe that her meeting yesterday will make a difference to women. 

Britain will still sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and these will be used in Yemen, a truly appalling place for women. The bombardment of Yemen is pushing the impoverished country even further backwards, doing nothing to empower Yemeni women. Just 55% of women aged 15 and above in Yemen can read and write. This is a country where a woman who was campaigning to improve female literacy rates was shot dead last year.

I was in Abu Dhabi covering a security conference, before drafting this blog post in longhand on the flight home. At the conference, I led an all-women editorial team representing Australia, Britain, India and Slovakia. We covered the news from a male-dominated industry event where female speakers were scarce.

But the conference's awards for student innovation offered hope. In the university students' category, all three prizes were won by all-female teams. In the school students' category, the prize for the best security invention was won by a girl. This should come as no real surprise - in the UAE, way more women than men are at university. More than 70% of Emirati university students are women. Record numbers of women are going to university in Britain too. 

But then there are terrible similarities for women in the UAE and Britain, with serious issues in regard to how rape cases are dealt with by justice systems. Rapes are certainly under-reported in both countries. In the UAE this is often because victims are worried that if the defendant is acquitted, she could face adultery charges for consensual sex with a man to whom she is not married. In the UK, many rapes are not reported for fear of a truly appalling experience at the hands of the system. Here, it is a place where women are, with depressing frequency, made to feel as if they were asking for it, for daring to walk alone at night, dress a certain way, drink alcohol, go on a date, be in a relationship, not be a blushing virgin and so on. 

Neither country's situation is acceptable. This is not an either/or thing. The issue of justice for rape victims is a genuinely international issue that affects women all over the world. And there is the crux of International Women's Day. It's a day for girls and women across the whole world. The clue is in the name.

There are issues which are universal for girls and women everywhere and there are issues which pertain more to some countries than others. And they are all important.

International Women's Day is not a day for sneering mansplainers to tell western women that we should shut up and be grateful that we are not under bombardment in Yemen, enslaved by Daesh in Syria, restricted by the guardianship system in Saudi Arabia or risking being kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria or threatened with the horrors of female genital mutilation.

Our little ladybrains are more than capable of caring about more than one issue in more than one country.

We are capable of rising up in support of our sisters all over the world. We are capable of doing things to make a real difference to the lives of girls and women everywhere. 

And we are doing this. We are angry. We are not going to be sidelined because of our biology. We are not going away. We will not be quiet. We will fight our battles great and small. We will celebrate our victories. And it won't just be on International Women's Day. This happens every day in every country in the world. Deal with it, sexists. This is our time.

Photography by jooleah_stahkey/Flickr