Sunday, 19 November 2017

On believing women


One of the howls that has emerged from the #MeToo stories and the ongoing breaking news about accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape in multiple industries is the objection to those who say we should believe women when they come forward.

"But what about the women who falsely accuse men?" is the inevitable reaction, regardless of how many statistics from multiple countries on the low rate of false reports are cited. I am pretty sure this will always be a kneejerk reaction to the notion of believing women.

Would the howls stop if we said instead that when a woman comes forward with an accusation that she is taken seriously? Can we please at least get to that point?

This is not about denigrating the vital legal principle of innocence until proven guilty. It is about treating women with respect when they come forward to report something that is incredibly serious. 

Because there is no other crime where the accuser, the alleged victim, is not taken seriously.

When someone reports a burglary, the initial response is not usually: "But were you really burgled? Are you sure you just didn't put the TV in another room? Maybe you sold all that jewellery and you just forgot about it.". Yet a woman is often made to question her judgement, to second-guess herself, to ask herself if she really was sexually assaulted, if her memory is failing her.

When I was sexually assaulted and called the police, the first thing I was asked was: "Are you sure? Are you just making this up?". As if I was calling for a lark on the weekend, as if that is how I planned to spend my day off.

If someone is burgled after leaving the house with a door or window left open, the worst they might get is to be made to feel a bit silly, but they are not going to be made to feel like they were totally asking to be burgled. Yet women are accused of "asking for it" all the time with the short skirt or the low-cut neckline or the tight dress being the unlocked door equivalent for a woman's body.

When I was sexually assaulted, I was asked what I was wearing and instead of telling the amateur Perry Mason on the other end of the phone to fuck off, I sheepishly said I was wearing a knee-length red dress and black tights. The tights were torn in the assault, for God's sake. The neckline on my dress was not low yet my attacker managed to scratch my chest, drawing blood. 

Or maybe the woman was not sexually assaulted while being dressed "provocatively", whatever the hell that means except to insult men by implying that they are a pack of sex-crazed beasts with no self-control, and to insult women by removing our agency and implying that we should all dress like nuns at all times to protect ourselves. 

Maybe she was assaulted in her own home by a man that she lives with, while she was dressed in a onesie and slippers, or maybe she was assaulted by a man whom she invited into her house, which could be for any number of reasons. 

But what if you threw a party and got burgled, or that royal wedding street party kicked on after the kids had gone to bed and a few neighbours went over to yours for a few more beverages, and you got burgled? Most people's reaction would be: "How terrible. You invite some people over and that's all the thanks you get!" rather than "Well, you were asking to be burgled by being so hospitable!".

Yet that is how women are made to feel when they are attacked in their own homes. If a plumber comes over and nicks your cash when you're not looking, you might well get more sympathy than if the plumber raped you instead of unblocking the loo. Throw a party and if you're raped while a bit drunk, you will probably be blamed for your attack in a way that would not happen if instead of being raped, you were robbed instead.

If you were drunk when you were burgled, you will probably get more sympathy than the woman who was drunk when she was sexually assaulted. 

Contemplate that - a woman may get more sympathy for a stolen television than a violation of her body.

And then there is the old chestnut about why a woman didn't speak up at the time. Obviously, I would urge every woman, girl, man or boy who has been sexually assaulted to speak up, to report it, to tell someone. But if there is a real likelihood of being interrogated about everything from choice of clothing to alcohol consumption to sexual history to why you were alone with that person in the first place, there are plenty of reasons why someone felt as if they couldn't come forward.

When I was sexually assaulted, I reported it quickly but I was asked why I didn't scream. I did scream. Anyone who has known me for more than two minutes would probably not be surprised to know that I yelled and screamed. I told the officer I screamed. I was then asked why nobody came to help me. Fortunately, I managed to get away before I was raped but even if I froze in fear and didn't make a sound, it would not lessen the seriousness of what happened to me. There is no correct way to react when someone has pushed you off a footpath, shoved one hand down your neckline and the other hand under your dress when you are walking home after being unable to find a taxi.

And if you have ever slagged off a woman for being too mouthy, for having the temerity to be loud or outspoken, or you have tried to silence her for making herself heard, you have no right to demand to know why a woman didn't make more noise at the time of her attack. If you are telling any girls in your life to be quiet and demure, to never speak up or make a scene or draw attention to themselves, you are part of the problem. Women are routinely told to shut up in a way that men, in general, are not. An outspoken woman may be seen as a bitch, as a mouthy cow, while an outspoken man is more likely to be seen as assertive, powerful, statesmanlike.

If we raise our girls to be demure, fearful women who don't feel as if they can speak up, then of course it will take days, weeks, months and even years for women to come forward when they have been sexually assaulted.

So we could argue until we are blue in the face about whether believing women is the right language to use here. Or we could quit being collective brutes as a society and treat attacks on our bodies with the same seriousness that we give to stolen material possessions. Whether it's an accused rapist or an accused burglar in the dock, they both have the right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. But the people who report the crimes deserve respect too. 

My body is not the same as a goddamn stolen television.









Photography by Pablo Fernandez/Flickr

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Post-Hef-post-Weinstein confessions of an ex-men's mag employee


I suppose I should be grateful to Hugh Hefner. With Playboy, he created the market that created a job for me from 2003 until 2006 - in those years, I was working as a sub editor at the Australian edition of FHM, the men's magazine which launched in 1985 and, ultimately, was eaten alive by the internet.

But in my time there, I worked with people who actually had ethics. I received nothing but support from male colleagues after I was followed by a man in a car when I walked home alone one night after a 15-hour day in the office, or when my terrible neighbours were having drug-fuelled arguments outside my flat door at 3am and I turned up to work looking like death, and when there was a family tragedy. The office fell silent and sad when we looked at our watches and realised that a young Australian man had just been executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in mitigating circumstances in 2005, and when a member of staff was sent the video of the beheading of Kenneth Bingley in 2004.

There was was one bad apple who was on staff briefly. He was a very junior member of staff, who I later discovered behaved in a sexually aggressive way towards a friend. He ended up being struck off my friends' list when he revealed himself to be a racist worshipper of Stefan Molyneux. And a member of staff, who worked across other magazines in the company, was dealt with severely, and rightly so, after he called one of the entrants in an FHM modelling competition after spotting her phone number on the back of the photo she sent in, back when people still entered competitions by post. I still remember how appalled the guys in the office were when word got out about that incident.

When it comes to writing, there are very few sacred cows in the barn when you work on such a magazine and everyone is under constant pressure to be the funniest person in the room. But jokes about race or rape or paedophilia, for example, did not find their way into the pages. A lot of the jokes were self-deprecating jokes about men written by men.

There were lines in the sand. We didn't really need to be told where the lines were, and if anyone was unsure they'd run it past someone else, or it would be filtered through the editing process, because we were essentially decent human beings. FHM was an excellent example of media self-regulation, something which tends to cause panic among fans of censorship and restrictions on press freedom.

Sure, there were gags in bad taste - I made a few crass jokes myself in the line of duty - but there was an innate sense of decency even amid the farts, belches, hangovers and comedowns.

We did not exploit the women who appeared in the magazine. Nobody was forced to pose for photo shoots in bikinis or lingerie against their will. The women who appeared in FHM all had agency and were treated with respect. I supervised many photo shoots myself and I can honestly say nothing bad happened to the women on any of them.

Yet I am not going to worship at the altar of Hugh Hefner.

Yes, Playboy published many excellent articles, genuinely good and groundbreaking journalism, witty opinion pieces from men and women. He paid writers well and, in many cases, they were pieces which would not have found their way to press anywhere else. 

Yes, Hugh Hefner gave airplay to black writers, activists and entertainers through publication of their work and interviews.

Yes, Hugh Hefner donated extensively to civil rights causes.

Yes, the Playboy Foundation funded the first rape kits in America, which are essential for evidence-gathering in such cases.

Yes, Playboy was one in the eye for prudish conservatives and lovers of censorship.

But here's the thing. Hugh Hefner could have achieved all of the above without doing anything from the list below.

He didn't have to sleep with Dorothy Stratten to apparently further her career, with the support of her obsessive husband, Paul Snider. Snider, by the way, ended up shooting her when she was just 20 years old, before turning the gun on himself. Nor did Hefner have to ensure she posed for Playboy when she was still 17.

He didn't have to publish full frontal nude photographs of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields posing in a bathtub, her face plastered in makeup.

He didn't have to publish photographs of 11-year-old Eva Ionesco in the Italian edition of Playboy in 1976.

He didn't have to refuse to wear condoms during his sex parties at the Playboy Mansion.

He didn't have to pay Marilyn Monroe a pitiful $50 for her Playboy shoot, a shoot from which he profited handsomely over the years.

He didn't have to be a douche in death by spunking $75,000 for the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe's final resting place.

He didn't have to impose controlling rules such as 9pm curfews, restrictions on social life, and insistence on sex on demand, on the women in the Playboy Mansion. If you seriously think every woman in there genuinely loved her time in the mansion or truly had a wide range of life choices available to her, you're deluded. Plenty of women came out of the mansion physically or psychologically damaged - it's not sex-phobic or prudish to say so. It's reality.

And so here we are, in the post-Weinstein era, with Hugh Hefner barely cold in his grave, and plenty of men are whining about how they just don't know what to do with themselves anymore. Apparently, for these poor little petals, a new culture where girls and women are not afraid to speak out about the whole spectrum of sexually abusive and inappropriate behaviour, will be the death of flirting and will prevent people from having relationships.

Except that nobody has said that flirting or touching or sex with consent should be banned, or that workplace relationships will suddenly stop. Hell, I met my own husband at work without either of us exploiting the other. If the right to say no does not exist, the right to say yes is meaningless. If the right to give consent disappears, we live in a wilderness where entitlement to the bodies of girls and women reigns supreme.

Men do not have to rape women, or harass women even after they have told them they are not interested, or stalk women after break-ups, or follow them home as when they walk alone, or call them sexually explicit and unasked-for names in the workplace, or kerb-crawl them, or demand they smile when they have the temerity to not beam like a beauty queen at all times.

All the things we are asking of men are not onerous demands, just as Hugh Hefner did not have to do any of the awful things he did when he was alive.

So I am not going to sit here in eternal gratitude for Hugh Hefner. Even if his legacy never happened, even if FHM never happened, I am pretty sure I still would have found work in publishing and, more importantly, progress in areas such as civil rights and rape case investigations still would have happened. And I am pretty sure the men I worked with at FHM would still be decent human beings and not exploiters of women and underage girls.






Photography by Alan Light

Monday, 16 October 2017

Womansplaining #metoo


Inevitably, my Twitter mentions filled with outraged, self-righteous men this afternoon after I had the temerity to tweet with the #metoo hashtag. 

"BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MALE VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT? DON'T YOU KNOW HOW MANY MEN COMMIT SUICIDE? WHY ARE YOU SILENCING THE MEN?" 

Making people aware of how many girls and women have suffered sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual violence, all manner of intrusions on our personal space, on our bodies, on our dignity does not diminish the pain of male victims. 

It's often hard for women to speak out about sexual abuse, to gather the strength to report sexual offences, to call out the creep at work or on public transport. Making it hard for women when they do speak out makes it harder for male victims to speak out too. "I don't feel I can speak up as a male victim of sexual abuse so I am going to belittle women who speak up!" is completely unconstructive. The cognitive dissonance is astounding. 

For girls and women, there are aspects to the abuses we experience that are, for the most part, our own. Here is a handy checklist of why girls and women needed today, just one solitary day, to be listened to and taken seriously.

- Because of the sheer relentless of it all, the harassment and aggressions that seem minor but are genuinely tiresome, annoying, upsetting and, for so many of us, frequent, just part and parcel of being a woman. 

-  Because we automatically grab our keys and thread the ring over our fingers as a makeshift knuckleduster as we get off the bus or train to walk home, as we walk to our cars, as we walk to our places of work, as we walk anywhere by ourselves.

- Because we tell each other to call or text when we get home safely and panic if someone forgets to call or text.

- Because what starts out as "flattering jealousy" in a relationship can quickly turn to stifling control.

- Because what is perceived as a grand, romantic gesture when people mistake real life for a rom-com can quickly turn to stalking, especially when a woman has decided that a relationship is over.

- Because the workplace creep is routinely laughed off as a bit of a lad when he actually makes women feel uncomfortable, sometimes to the point where they can't face going to work and will quit rather than go through the stress of making a formal complaint or even just telling him to fuck off.

- Because too many of us put up with harassment, inappropriate touching, kerb crawlers - it can just seem easier than constantly calling it out.

- Because it doesn't matter how enlightened a legal system may seem, women are still made to feel as if they asked for it if they are sexually assaulted while drunk, wearing a short dress, wearing a low cut top, walking home alone, wearing shoes that are not conducive to running away...

- Because women are not protected from sexual assault by wearing dowdy clothes, no makeup, long skirts, tracksuits, hijabs, high necklines, pyjamas, baggy trousers, big jumpers, caftans, trainers...

- Because leaving an abusive relationship isn't always as easy as simply walking out the door and can force women and children into poverty.

- Because rich, powerful men can settle out of court to avoid criminal charges, freeing them up to assault and harass again and again.

- Because the mere desire to not make a fuss can be enough to not speak up. 

- Because the real fear of a ruined career can be enough to not speak up.

- Because receiving unsolicited messages from men you've never met is tiresome and creepy.

- Because study after study shows that false reports of sexual assault are rare.

- Because trying to unlock the front door at night in the dark with your back to the street can be a genuinely panicky experience.

- Because sometimes it's the person on the other side of the front door who will harm you.

- Because girls experience sexual harassment in primary school and this is not new, it's not "because of the internet", it happened before smartphones.

- Because a woman may already be struggling on a day-to-day basis with racism, poverty, homophobia, disability, physical or mental health issues and so on and so forth... Dealing with unwanted sexual attention can fall to the bottom of the list of priorities.

Taking women seriously when they talk about their awful experiences paves the way for male victims to do the same, to start their own campaigns, to get justice. No reasonable person is OK with men being sexually assaulted. When women sexually harass and assault men, that is not OK either. It is stunning that this even needs to be said.

And now that women from all over the world have spoken out and shared their experiences, it's up to men to take responsibility for their actions, it's up to parents of boys to not raise empathy-free arseholes who feel entitled to women's attention and to their bodies. And it's time to hold an unflinching mirror up to male violence because, whether it's assaults on men or women, men still make up the overwhelming majority of perpetrators. 
     

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The State of it all



On the morning of the Parsons Green terror attack, I was not in London. Thankfully, I was safely in a long queue waiting to check in luggage and clear some pretty onerous security at the airport in Marrakech. The Parsons Green story came to my attention when I spotted it on someone's phone as we waited to have our carry-on X-rayed after our Moroccan adventures.

Morocco's security situation is a confronting one for anyone who believes that those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither, the context of Benjamin Franklin's quote notwithstanding.

"A pretty police state" is how my husband described it, as the bus from Marrakech to Essaouira cleared a checkpoint on a major highway. Morocco is not a democracy as we understand it in Britain - it is a constitutional monarchy where no party can win an outright majority in the 395-seat parliament. As a result, Morocco is permanently under coalition governments with the king holding ultimate power. He did give up some authority during 2011 protests but for Morocco, any Arab Spring-style activity was muted in comparison to other states across the Middle East and North Africa.

In April this year, the king managed to break a six-month post-election deadlock and agreed to the latest coalition. The election was won by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and there were concerns about such a party having so much power, particularly among royalist. It took six months to broker a deal where PJD shares power with five other parties.

Crucially, PJD lost control of the Ministry of Justice and Public Freedoms in the new deal. This ministry had been led by Mustafa Ramid, who was an outspoken critic of the Moroccan security service when he was a lawyer and human rights activist. 

While there has been much scrutiny of terrorists of Moroccan origin in Europe, extremist activity in Morocco has been seriously limited. The last major terror attack was in Marrakech in 2011 when some dickhead bombed a restaurant, killing 17 people. And prior to that, there had not been a terror attack in Morocco since 2003 when 12 delusional idiots blew themselves up in multiple locations across Casablanca, killing 33 people.

The 2003 attacks were the start of Morocco taking security measures that we look on as draconian in the west. Dozens of cells have been dismantled in Morocco, making it very difficult for would-be jihadists to operate from the North African country. The government has surveillance powers for telecommunications beyond anything that would be legal under British law.

But there have only been two terror attacks 14 years and only one attack since the security laws were beefed up. Is this an acceptable trade-off for the depletion of civil liberties? The "I have nothing to hide so why would I care if the government read my emails?" brigade would probably think so and would warmly welcome that level of scrutiny here in Britain.

In 2016, 10.3 million tourists visited Morocco and that figure is set to grow this year. The economy would not survive without tourism and Morocco has no interest in ending up in the tragic hole in which Tunisia finds itself after some pitiful bellend gunned down 38 people, mostly British citizens, in 2015.

I ask again, is it worth limiting freedoms to preserve security? Has Morocco done the right thing in order to achieve a lower body count since 2011 than the UK? Thirty-eight people in Britain have lost their lives to terrorism since 2011, compared with 17 in Morocco. With 35.28 million people in Morocco compared with 65.64 million people in the UK, there isn't a whole lot of different in the number of people killed in either country as a proportion of the population. But the frequency and events that are "not as bad as they could have been", such as Parsons Green, continue to scare people.

Of course, the incredible work that goes on behind the scenes in Britain in thwarting terrorism is never reported for obvious security reasons, whether it is high level intelligence work or stopping potentially dangerous people coming in and out of our borders.

And when citizens of either Morocco or the UK end up fighting with Daesh in Syria, the prevailing attitude in both countries seems to be "Good riddance to bad rubbish and I hope they end up dead and forgotten for there will be no virgins in heaven for them".

But what of the people who join Daesh and then want to come home again? It's pretty hard to feel any sympathy for people who would give up the relative safety of either Morocco or the UK, to turn their backs on countries which, for all their differences, do offer their citizens education and opportunities.

Yet that is one of the more controversial aspects of The State, a Channel 4 drama which screened in August this year. The meticulously researched Peter Kosminsky drama managed to perform the Piers Morgan-like feat of simultaneously pissing off elements of the left and the right. There were voices from the left who thought it was unnecessarily brutal while voices from the right disapproved of the humanising of characters who left Britain to join the vile forces of Islamic State.

Both sides are being ridiculous. The brutality portrayed in The State was accurate and, as such, was not gratuitous. There is nothing pleasant about a scene where you can hear a knife slowing sawing through the neck of an innocent man, or a beheading where the neck is first scored by the blade and filled with salt before the final blows of the sword, or a woman having the soles of her feet lashed for talking briefly to an unrelated man. But the apologists for Daesh need to see this, to realise exactly what violence and misogyny they are giving a despicable leave pass.

The humanising aspect is also important, particularly of the characters of Shakira, the young mother and doctor who stupidly believes she will be able to do Allah's work in the occupied hospitals, and Jamal, the young man who is labouring under the misapprehension that he can be a heroic martyr like his dead brother.

Terrorists are made, not born. They are not created in a vacuum. Nobody is born wanting to leave their friends and family and everything they have known to fight for a sickening cause. To know this is to still have hope that the current insanity will pass, that we can live in a world where no young man or woman thinks that joining Islamic State is a reasonable thing to do.

For both Shakira and Jamal, they realise they have made a terrible mistake. Shakira was happy to put up with the passive-aggressive Mean Girls In Hijabs environment of the women's compound in order to work as a doctor but her final straws come when she is asked to remove both kidneys of injured American soldiers for transplants and when she spots her son playing football with a severed head. Jamal, meanwhile, found almost homoerotic camaraderie with his fellow recruits but realises he has not got the stomach to either watch or carry out beheadings. When he rescues a Yazidi rape victim and her daughter, he treats them tenderly but ultimately cannot save them.

The ending is pitifully appropriate - as Jamal is led away after being unable to behead a pharmacist he has befriended, you know his future is not bright. As for Shakira, she manages to escape with her son but upon her return to the UK, her ludicrous dream to stop more young women leaving for Syria by speaking out in the media about the realities of life under Daesh is crushed by the authorities at the airport.

Instead of becoming the poster girl for reformed jihadi brides, a BBC talking head as opposed to a severed head, Shakira's reality is that she will have to be an informant, constantly looking over her shoulder as she seeks out possible cells of radicalisation and reports back to the authorities on their activities, all the while living with the horrendous guilt of exposing her son to vile ideology and some of the worst violence on the planet.

On balance, I endorse such actions by our authorities, if the fictional dealing with a Daesh escapee is the reality. Only time will tell if the British approach or the Moroccan approach will be more successful in stamping out terrorism.

In the meantime, I would urge people to check out The State if they haven't already. Hell, it's worth it for the cheeky adverts Channel 4 has included in the download. I'm not sure if it was by accident or design, but it was a perverse joy, amid some of the hardest television I've ever watched, to be regaled with adverts for things that make the extremist lunatics really mad - the secular Jewish family getting together for food, wine and piss-taking in Friday Night Dinner, the sex-and-drug-fuelled rampages of teenagers in Skins, and Father Ted, featuring Roman Catholics laughing at themselves in a way the extremists never could.



Photography by Gwydion M. Williams/Flickr

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Uber loses its licence, London loses its grip!


Congratulations to everyone complaining about Transport for London's (TFL) decision not to renew Uber's licence. You have managed to make Londoners look like a pack of spoilt brats, demanding cut-price taxi fares as if it's a human right on par with food, water and shelter. Honestly, the way people have been carrying on, anyone would think that before Uber, Londoners simply never left their homes. Uber did not rescue London from being a bizarre city of hermits.

As ever, nuance has been the first casualty of the inevitable debate, especially in regard to the risk of sexual assault in an Uber taxi. According to a Freedom of Information request by the Sun newspaper last year, 32 of the 154 allegations of sexual assault against taxi and private hire drivers over a one-year period were against Uber drivers. That's an allegation every 11 days. TFL has raised concerns about Uber's lack of expediency in referring sexual assault allegations to the police.

This led to mindless whataboutery. "What about sexual assaults by drivers of black cabs?" is the cry that has rattled all over the internet over the last few days. Obviously, it is not OK for black cab drivers to sexually assault people either. Or for anyone to sexually assault people. It is stunning that this even needs to be said.

I have a novel idea. How about we strive for a world where nobody gets sexually assaulted in taxis? The "my preferred taxi service is less rapey than your preferred taxi service" chatter is race-to-the-bottom nonsense. 

Then there are the other scandals that led to TFL not renewing Uber's licence. Thousands of background checks on drivers have been deemed invalid, and there have been instances of drivers paying dodgy GPs for falsified medical certificates, and concerns about the possible use of Greyball software. In the US, Uber has faced allegations of Greyball software to identify when local officials were using the app and ignoring their requests for a taxi in case they were seeking to find drivers operating in areas where they were not licenced. Uber has denied using this software in the UK.

Of course, plenty of people have accused those who are supporting TFL of being anti-consumer choice. There are plenty of apps that you can use instead of Uber - Gett, Kabbee, MyTaxi, Addison Lee, Taxify, Taxiapp... People whining about a black cab monopoly don't appear know what a monopoly is or they don't seem to realise there are plenty of alternatives to taking a black cab.

And if you have the Uber app, you obviously have a smartphone so if all else fails, you can use your damn life skills to simply Google licenced minicab companies in the area and make a phonecall. Retro, I know. On top of all this, London has one of the world's best public transport systems - every time I travel anywhere, I come home with a renewed appreciation of the tube and red buses.

Indeed, even the narrative that Uber is a benevolent company for the people is a myth. This is a company that has indulged in price gouging during terror attacks. It is a business model that is designed to reduce consumer choice by undercutting other taxi companies into oblivion or merely replacing one monopoly with another, as has been the experience in Sydney. Anyone wringing their hands over potentially 40,000 Uber drivers being out of work is being ridiculous - Uber's modus operandi will result in drivers from other companies losing their jobs.

On top of all that, many Uber drivers work for the app to supplement their income from other low-paid jobs. According to Uber's own research,  almost 40% of their drivers have another job. This means that there are a lot of drivers out there for whom one job is not enough to pay the bills, particularly in London. And if you don't care about the low wage culture that has swept through Britain's labour market, consider that many Uber drivers will be driving people around after knocking off from another job. Are you happy to be driven home by a driver from a company where there is a very high chance that he or she will be completely knackered behind the wheel?

If Uber is taken off the roads next month, plenty of their drivers will be able to find work with other taxi companies. The demand is there in a city the size of London. According to today's news, Uber could make concessions in regard to TFL's demands for improved safety and better working conditions for drivers in order to get its licence renewed. This strikes me as a far more sensible use of their time over the next few weeks than challenging the decision - that would truly put the livelihoods of drivers in limbo.  

My hunch is that Uber will stay on the road - and if it does so with improved safety procedures for passengers and better conditions for drivers, that is a win for everyone. And then Londoners can find something else to whine about, because we always do.  



Photography by Thierry Manac'h'/Flickr

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

On high heel fauxrage and other natural disasters...


So Melania Trump walked on a damp road in a pair of heels? So what? They're her damn feet, she can trudge about in the hurricane aftermath wearing a grass skirt, clown shoes and mittens if she likes.

Honestly, like slagging off Theresa May for her leopard print kitten heels, there are plenty of good reasons to criticise the Trump presidency, or indeed May's atrocious attempt at being prime minister, without taking petty cheap shots at footwear. Grow up. Do better. Quit reducing women to their shoes.

Hell, while I'm in the mood for confessing to unpopular opinions, I am not even convinced of the need for presidents or prime ministers to personally visit natural disaster areas. They have television sets, internet access, telephones, and plenty of people to keep them up to speed on what is going on. There is no need to physically put oneself in the middle of a natural disaster to understand that people are suffering, or that the recovery and rebuilding process of homes, bodies and lives will be long and expensive. 

When a leader visits a natural disaster site, it's really just a photo opportunity. And it's an expensive photo opportunity at that - by the time you factor in the transport and security costs, all of which come out of the public purse, it's a ridiculous indulgence.

But, idiotically, we are living in the era of good versus bad optics. And it is good optics for a leader, and ideally his or her partner, to visit a disaster zone and generally get in the way, diverting resources away from people in genuine need. 

People demand to see their leaders furrow their brows and do the empathy face as they talk to fire brigade staff who have better things to do, or victims who have just watched their worldly possessions and the cat get washed down the road. It's as if we have never really gotten over our need for a benevolent king, deigning to throw gold coins at the starving masses and squeeze the cheeks of adorable urchins.

And woe betide the leader who flubs the visit. George W. Bush was criticised over the photograph of him looking pensively at the devastation on Hurricane Katrina from a plane and for taking too long to get to the Gulf Coast - the storm took place on 29 August 2005 and he flew back to Washington from holiday on 31 August, flying over the disaster area on his way.

Barack Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy, including his embrace of Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, turned out to be slightly better optics, apart from partisan hacks who condemned Christie for getting too close to the president.

And back in 1974, Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, found himself in the midst of a media storm after Cyclone Tracy flattened the northern city of Darwin on Christmas Day. He was on holiday in Greece at the time and he cut his trip short to briefly visit Darwin on 28 December, three days after the cyclone. Then he flew to Sydney on 30 December, where he chaired a cabinet meeting. It was at that meeting that it was decided to form the Darwin reconstruction commission, made up of representatives of the federal departments of housing, construction, urban and regional development, the Northern Territory and Darwin City Council. But in that long-gone era, a time that predated social media and 24-hour rolling news coverage, the urban myth that Whitlam never went to Darwin at all was given oxygen. Whitlam had a busy, productive three or four days back in Australia before returning to his European adventures.

Good for Gough. I'm glad he continued his holiday after doing what he had to do, delegating responsibilities to people who were actually in Darwin. What more could he do? What would be the point of him lingering around Darwin like a fart in car? People who knew what they were doing did what had to be done. That is the best possible outcome after an awful weather event which killed 71 people.

We should judge our leaders on their actions in times of crisis, on whether they make it easy for the public and private sector to play their roles, on whether they lead with humanity, on whether they are constructive rather than using visits to disaster areas for self-promotion. Melania Trump's shoes shouldn't even be a conversation point.   







       

Photography by swister_p/Flickr

Saturday, 26 August 2017

On fatness


Heather Heyer is dead, mown down by a car at the age of 32 in a counter-protest against white supremacists.

Twenty-year-old James Fields, an unambiguous supporter of Donald Trump and neo-Nazism, has been charged with second degree murder. Amid the many respectful tributes paid to Heyer, Andrew Anglin, the vile editor of the vile Daily Stormer website decided to stick his vile head over the moronic parapet and write a truly disgusting obituary. In his vomiting of hateful bile, he called her a "fat, childless, 32-year-old slut".

People like Anglin, who look upon The Handmaid's Tale as a manifesto rather than a stark warning, hate women when they don't marry as blushing young virgins so they can breed the next generation of arseholes. But it's his use of "fat" as an insult that I want to examine.

Why is it so awful to call someone, especially a woman, fat? Surely fat women simply need to toughen up, put the doughnuts down and lose some damn weight, right?

It's awful because what Anglin and his ilk are saying to women when they resort to "fat" as a criticism is that they are repelled by us, we are difficult, we refuse to conform to a stereotype, we have the temerity to take up too much space. And if we are outspoken as well, we are reduced to being good-for-nothing, fat, mouthy bitches who should shut up and quite literally shrink away. It's a sexist form of shorthand.

Of course the swift defence of anyone who routinely calls women fat is that they are merely worried about their health, as if fat people don't know they are fat, as if the health risks associated with being overweight are a state secret, as if the reasons for gaining weight don't vary, as if people put on weight deliberately to piss off the slender and sylph-like. Oh, please. Just stop. The "I'm just worried about your health, Fatty" is concern-trolling, justifying an unconstructive insult directed at someone who is probably well aware of their own body.

Even The Economist was disappointing in the wake of Heather Heyer's death. Amid an otherwise well-written obituary, the writer felt the need to mention her weight and her appearance in a way that would never have happened if it was a man who died that day in Charlottesville.

The obituary said: "She was bubbly, funny, strong-minded and, at 32, happy with herself, even if she put on weight too easily (cigarettes helped with that), and even if her hair had too much natural curl (she’d found products that really worked to sort the hair out, until some of her profile pix drew “Wow!” and “Saaaaaamokin!”)."

Jesus, really? What a reductive and depressing load of crap. How is the conversation following the events in Charlottesville advanced by mentioning Heather's weight, or that she resorted to cigarettes to control her weight, or that she used hair products to restrain her naturally curly hair until she was rewarded with the ultimate accolade of the Facebook age, of being told one's profile picture is hot? 

Why perpetuate the grim narrative of women's bodies, right down to the hair on our heads, being things that need to be controlled, even when you are protesting against goddamn neo-Nazis?

The news cycle moves on from Heyer's death, even if the story of race relations in the US and whether people need to see statues of Confederate generals in public to stop themselves from enslaving people rages on. Amid the noise, there was the story of actress Gemma Arterton claiming that she was sent a personal trainer on location in Morocco, put on a ridiculous diet, and filmed in the gym so that studio bosses were reassured that she was losing weight in order to meet the required standard of hotness deemed suitable for starring in The Prince of Persia.

Obviously, this led to comparisons with male stars going to great lengths, including unhealthy methods such as dehydration, to become muscle-bound, six-pack-owning gods for film roles, in the usual attempts to minimise what a woman had to say on the matter. 

Firstly, pointing out what women are forced to go through to meet a silver screen ideal does not negate the experience of men who are put in a similarly unhealthy position. Christian Bale nearly died when he lost weight to play a desperate insomniac in The Machinist and people were, rightly, shocked when they saw his skeletal form in the film, 

Secondly, it is the disproportionate numbers that make the situation especially absurd for women. When men lose weight or bulk up for roles, it's pretty much always integral to the role, such as Robert De Niro as a boxer in Raging Bull, Russel Crowe in Gladiator, or Robert Downey Jr for the Iron Man series. 

Actresses are, however, forced to lose weight, usually off already slender bodies, to play lawyers, waitresses, teachers, stay-at-home mothers and so on and so forth... It's not the same as losing weight to play a ballerina or a gymnast. It's pathetic that this is considered simply part and parcel of being an actress, as if people will stay away from the cinema in droves if the lead actress is anything bigger than a size 8. 

We never heard Tom Hanks pontificate on losing weight via a diet of dried apricots and birdseed for Bridge of Spies or Liam Neeson forcing himself to hit the gym for several hours a day to play a single dad in Love, Actually.

Whether it's about slagging off a woman for paying the ultimate price for protesting, or actresses whittling themselves down even if there is no real reason in the script for doing so, it's still sexist bullfuckery. It is about keeping the focus on women's bodies, regardless of their size, when there are more important things to be discussing - but woe betide the woman who discusses the important things while not being in possession of a wasp-like waist or cellulite-free thighs. 

It's about putting women in their place - and that place is a skinny box where they are inoffensive and quiet and, above all, not disruptive.




Photography by Georgia Lewis     

   

Sunday, 13 August 2017

#JeSuisTalayotic



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Boots boycott conundrum


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photography by Banalities/Flickr

Sunday, 16 July 2017

On vulnerability


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Photography by Beth Punches/Flickr

Sunday, 2 July 2017

No winners in the tragic case of Charlie Gard



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


______________

Here is the link to the Supreme Curt judgement

Here is the link to the Court of Appeal judgement

Here is the link to the High Court judgement







Photography by Lindsey Turner/Flickr

Friday, 16 June 2017

The fire that was always going to be political


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

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

And rightly so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Photography by Zdenko Zivkovic/Flickr