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Tony Bennett: Keeping The Music Playing

“If you study the masters – Picasso, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire – right up to the day they died, they were performing. If you are creative, you get busier as you get older.” So said the great Tony Bennett in 1999, at the age of seventy-two, when he had already had what could be fairly described as a good professional innings. Thirteen years later and not far off eighty-six, Bennett, “the world’s most boyish octogenarian”, is certainly busy and still has a schedule that would make even a busy twentysomething artist think: “Where the hell does he get his energy?”

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Tony Bennett

Bennett has just released “Duets II: The Great Performances” on DVD. And what a selection of great performances it is! This is a visual companion to the CD that was released last year, “Duets II”, winning a Grammy and shooting straight to No.1 in the Billboard charts. Featuring collaborations with artists as diverse as Michael Buble (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) and Aretha Franklin (“How Do You Keep The Music Playing”), this shows a singer who is equally at home with fellow legends from an earlier era and modern entertainers. He is also clearly comfortable duetting with singers whose voices are of different styles – how many other artists could sing with Andrea Bocelli (“Stranger in Paradise”), Lady Gaga (“The Lady is a Tramp”) , Mariah Carey (“When Do The Bells Ring for Me”) and John Mayer (“One for the Road”) and still stamp their own personality on each track? That’s testament to Bennett’s immense talent and sixty-plus years of recording – to give you an idea of the span of his career, he has performed for nine U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama.

The release also features a gorgeous “Body and Soul” with the late Amy Winehouse, whose early death (this was her final recording) makes listening to this particularly poignant. Their voices work together so brilliantly, too, and that alone is tear-jerking enough.

Bennett / LatifahParticularly beautiful from this collection of tracks is the rendition of “Who Can I Turn To?” which Bennett performs with Queen Latifah. The lush orchestral score and twinkling piano provide a bed as warm and smooth as a velvet hot water bottle for their voices – and a brief, ringing trumpet solo – to soar majestically over. (Incidentally, this is a track that my favourite jazz artist, the great Bill Evans, performed many times throughout his career, and this got me thinking about the excellent collaborations Evans did with Bennett in the mid-to-late 1970s. If you haven’t heard any of the tracks, here is a little taster for you.

If you want to see Tony Bennett perform – and, after seeing the tracks from this DVD, I’m sorely tempted myself! – then you’ll get the chance in a few months, because he’s coming to the UK for a tour!  He’s playing six dates in England and Scotland in June and July, bringing his unique vocal style to London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester.

Tony Bennett’s “Duets II: The Great Performances” is available now.

The Magic of Reading

adults reading Harry PotterI’ve never really understood the depth of bad feeling that “proper readers” have towards “grown-ups” reading Harry Potter books, it smacks of adolescent elitism and a condemnatory bias based on a book’s sleeve (Hey there should be a saying about that?) for surely by their own logic they couldn’t have read the books themselves? So it’s hardly the strongest base from which to attack?

J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series is about to release her new novel “aimed at adults” and I wonder if the Potter snobbery will cling to this new title as well. I will not critique the original books themselves (I’ve only read a couple) beyond saying that I found them hamstrung by their own logic until the point in the story where it was no longer convenient for the plot progression, at which point new rules were added which circumvented the bothersome pre-established rationality – the resulting inconsistencies got right on my tits.

J K Rowling

J K Rowling authour of the Harry Potter Series

But it happens in this particular genre due to the flexible nature of magic (Witness Aslan’s resurrection and the subsequent awkward exposition in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The concept of a normal boy (or girl as in the worst witch series which trod very similar ground over a decade before) finding that they are chosen for a higher destiny undeniably appeals to something primal in all of us, whatever age, it taps in to the hope that we are all special, that the mundanity of our normal lives can be shed: that adventures are waiting for us all. My fondness for this series though, is as a way of reintroducing those that would never normally read a book to the power of fiction. The real magic of the Potter phenomenom was that children and adults were and are picking up books again; they’re discussing characters and motivation,  asking themselves what they would do? Morality, hypotheticals, nomenclature, relationships, adolescence and at a stretch war, racism, betrayal, propaganda, tragedy, love and loss are all in there. What’s not to like? And if that leads someone to pick up another book on a similar theme and then another on less similar theme until they are in the habit of reading then surely it is to be applauded? Often the disinterest or even the fear of reading starts at school where the chosen literature has a profound effect on reading appetites – if reading feels like work then it is work. I would far rather give a class of 11 year olds a Harry Potter book – which for many might be the first real book they read, than say, Wuthering Heights which remains a staple on the curriculum? I don’t know too many 11 year olds that fully appreciate the destructive force of Heathcliffe’s love or the inherent elemental symbolism, in fact, I can see certain children being very confused by such adult subject matter and put off books for a good long while following such a baptism of fire. That doesn’t mean Wuthering Heights is not a far superior book, it just means, perhaps, it’s something to work up to.

Children reading adult books

A recent study suggested that a fifth of teenagers leaving school in the UK cannot read or write, making them virtually unemployable – I can only imagine how angry and scared and let down that must make them feel.

We should try to avoid making the same mistakes as the schools in that we should ask no more than books must be intellectually accessible to their own audience, it is not up to us to judge or dictate that audience.

Rough It – a Night Outside Sheffield Uni

Last night I slept outside the union of the University of Sheffield, as part of Rough It, a scheme organized by the university politics and history societies to raise money towards a Sunday breakfast club, which is run by the Salvation Army in the city.

Even after sleep and a shower I still feel a bit achy and tired, so I’m very glad I’ve helped raise some money for people who have to do this regularly, and thought I would share some of my thoughts about the night.

At half past seven we settled down under the concourse with our cardboard andRough It Charity sleepout at the university of Sheffield 2012 sleeping bags and went through how the night would work. This would in no way be an authentic night of sleeping rough in the way men and women across our country do every night of the year – we were lucky enough to have access to the union for toilet facilities and hot water and of course were surrounded by friends and were all well prepared.

One of the most traumatic moments was when the tea supply looked in danger due to the greedy cup habits of a group of serious board gamers in the union. I’m not sure but I am guessing dungeon and dragons are not a pressing problem for many people genuinely facing homelessness in Sheffield, but I do think we all got a valuable insight into some of the issues.
Firstly two of the organisers of the Sunday breakfasts for the homeless came and spoke to us. The most striking thing that I took from listening to them speak is that nearly everyone hopes and expects that if we face a downturn in luck or become destructive to ourselves that family and friends will support us and be a safety net. Many people simply don’t have that support net and therefore slip onto the streets.

They told us about the squats across Sheffield and the terrible state which they find them in. This really shocked me – having a roof over your head always seems preferable to being outside on the street all night – but from their descriptions the squats are really dangerous and unhealthy to live in. I am quite ashamed to know I have lived in close proximity to people living in these conditions and I have never given much thought to it. There’s no guarantee that anyone of us won’t face the situation of being without a safe home one day and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to try and help.
As the night went on we played some board games, had a chat and got pizza. One of the things which made me think about the real experience of the homeless was the reactions we got from other students. Of course many asked what we were doing, offered their support and donated. Many more asked what we were protesting about (“we’re not protesting!”) and a few questioned the worth of what we were doing. As the club filled up we got the odd person who decided to offer their (frankly quite offensive) opinions on homelessness. If I was truly homeless I imagine this might be even more frequent and definitely more hurtful. The men from the Salvation Army told us that they serve the guys breakfast to show them some respect which they lack from most people the rest of their week. Having people ignore you and pass judgement on your situation must be frustrating but also very degrading.

When I finally decided to attempt to get some sleep I found out that sleeping rough even after a lovely spring day is very cold and uncomfortable. It seems quite obvious but the temperature was the toughest part, even with many layers it was really hard to ignore. The lack of comfort was also coupled with the feelings of insecurity to make for not a great night of sleep. I was in a large group full of people I know and trust, next to our union which had security watching out for us and still hearing people walking past us made me find it very difficult to relax enough to sleep. I think this must be one of the worst parts of not having a home. Home is supposed to be the safe haven you go to and can be secure to rest and get ready for another day. Without this how people are expected to go and solve all their complicated issues with any energy I really don’t understand.
I hope my one night sleeping rough will really give me more empathy with those I see in this horrible situation and also raise some money to allow some of them to be able to have one meal a week in a safe and friendly environment. The money we have raised will go to providing food and running costs for the breakfast scheme but also provide practical gifts such as sleeping bags and gloves. I am really glad to have done my small part to support the honourable aim that the Salvation Army volunteers shared – not trying to change the world on a Sunday morning, just making a few people’s world a bit more tolerable for a few hours every week.

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45 Years Without Hesitation

The label ‘a British Institution’ is too readily applied to our national cultural icons; from the sublime to the ridiculous – from cups of tea or fish and chips to Katie Price’s cleavage. Forty-five years ago, in 1967, a man named Ian Messiter devised a format for a radio based panel game that was so simple and succinct that it has survived, virtually unaltered, since its inception, and on its anniversary is as popular as ever. The premise was this: that its contestants must speak on a given subject for sixty seconds, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Points were awarded by the chairman, Nicholas Parsons (himself a fully paid up member of the Institution,) for reaching the end of the time period, and for successful interruptions by rival panelists on the grounds mentioned. Unless you’ve been living up a tree and the preset buttons are broken on your digital radio (back at the show’s beginnings, I would have said tuning dial), most people would be able to put name to that program – Just a Minute.

The charm of the show is in its simple rules, which allow the right kind of player almost infinite scope for improvisation. To play well, as well as being attentive to an opponent’s errors, it is necessary to be educated, eloquent, imaginative, confident and, most importantly, witty, as bonus points are available at the host’s behest when the audience enjoy an interjection.

The ultimate achievement in the game is the ‘perfect minute,’ where a speaker continues for the entire time period avoiding any challenge. These events are rare and lauded. Try playing the game yourself, and you’ll see just how difficult it is.

The original team of regulars – often supplemented by a carousel of guests – had ample qualifications. They consisted of the writer, restaurateur and former politician Clement Freud; actor, writer and voice of ‘The Book’ in the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy Peter Jones; actor Derek Nimmo; and Kenneth Williams – he of Carry On infamy. This assemblage was as much a regular fixture on the panel as the self-selecting Arsenal back four of the 1990s. Along with an array of stand-ins to keep the familiar voices on their toes and to add spice, this quartet remained until the death of Williams in 1988.

Each brought something unique to the mix, and played in their own way, whether it was Freud imparting knowledge with paced, monotone delivery, or Williams playing up to the audience. As the original first team departed – Freud being the last, in 2009 – a new generation of talent took their place and continue to keep the show freshly entertaining. Today, Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Gyles Brandreth, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Liza Tarbuck, and Ross Noble commonly have their fingers poised on the infamous buzzers, ready to butt in and spoil each other’s flow.

Present at every recording and often, good humouredly, the butt of many panelists’ jokes, is octogenarian master of ceremonies Nicholas Parsons. His steady, unpartizan stewardship has been a major factor in its popularity. Were he to depart after such a long period in the chair he would undoubtedly be missed enormously. But, like Countdown after Richard Whiteley, even without such an integral component, the show is so brilliantly planned that it could function and go on without him. Where its television rivals for staying power, Have I Got News For You, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks have become tired and predictable, Just a Minute enjoys infinite variety.

In celebration of its longevity, Radio 4 broadcast two special commemorative recordings. One, a three hour collection of highlights featuring classic and contemporary players, Just a Minute: Without Hesitation, the other an episode recorded in Mumbai and starring Paul Merton, Dominic Brigstocke and two Indian stand-up comedians. The audience, mostly, you would imagine, unfamiliar with the format, responded warmly and very quickly were playing along, booing, cheering and applauding in all the right places. A testament to this genius invention, that it can transcend cultural and language barriers.

On BBC2 on Monday 26th March 2012, at 6.00pm, Just a Minute will begin a ten episode run as tea-time television quiz fodder. This isn’t the first time it has made the transition, but now it has a chance to win over the radio-shy segments of the British public and it will, hopefully, become an idea on which the whistle will never blow.

Not Sitting on the Fence

Animal experimentation is always a sensitive subject, whichever side of the fence you sit. When I started out in medical research, almost twenty-three years ago, animals were used in all sorts of experiments, from radical surgical therapies to shampoo testing.

I personally witnessed some horrors in the name of science. It was fascinating stuff though, particularly the work done on developing novel surgical strategies for strokes, heart attacks and bone regeneration after motor vehicle accidents. I can’t say that I enjoyed seeing rabbits being used to test shampoo or make-up, and I’m happy that this rarely happens these days. I fully support campaigns against animal testing.human cancer - immortalised cells

But, I also support those pioneering scientists who over the years have used animals big and small to test their hypotheses and make huge strides in science and medicine.

For example, life-saving surgery performed daily in many hospitals, putting a stent in a coronary artery, a main blood vessel supplying the heart, following a heart attack, would not have been developed if not tried in animals first. This surgery saves hundreds of lives every year. People who go on to live very productive lives after heart attack. Surely this is a good thing?

More recently, I have seen groundbreaking work carried out in genetically modified mice. These mice have been bred without a particular receptor (simply put, this is a grabber for chemicals such as drugs), which is believed to be key in addiction. This work describes how people are genetically pre-disposed to becoming addicted to cocaine or heroin. And it will help to provide strategies for treating a lost generation drug of addicts across Europe. The cost benefit of this treatment runs to millions of Euro’s.*

There is sometimes an argument for using alternatives to animal testing. I always prefer to use non-animal experiments. In fact, I have not worked with animals in twenty years, preferring instead to recruit human volunteers for my research. This is more difficult than it sounds. It often involves drawing repeated small amounts of blood from which I prepare DNA, the genetic material of life. And volunteers are understandably concerned about what scientists might do with that information. Consent is not required for animal experiments.

But ethics is required for types of experimentation. Morals and standards on ethics are required at all times. Public scrutiny is key to this as well, which is why I think it is important to talk openly about the work we do on animals. It is not sufficient to say that a committee of academics and vets approved the work, therefore it’s OK to do it. No, scientists must be called to account at all times.

The scientists who do this work conduct their experiments under the strictest conditions and scrutiny. Far from being hidden away, animal experimentation is a transparent necessity of science. The public has the right to know what experiments are being done in their name.

The problem is that there are some people who are so passionate about not using animals for science and research, that they endanger the lives of others. And that means that we cannot always talk about it openly. It’s a conundrum to which I don’t have a solution, just a plea to both sides. Maintain a dialogue, keep an open mind. Be respectful of each other. Scientists, especially in the UK, who use animals in their research are not evil people, taking over the world. I admit, there are less scrupulous researchers in other countries, but here in the UK, animal-lovers and concerned campaigners should be re-assured that the work is done with the very best intentions, in the best facilities, under the tightest regulations and conditions.

The sad fact is, that animal models are still needed for progress in many human diseases. Whilst it is true that whole animals such as mice or rabbits do not adequately represent the whole body situation in human beings, animal organ systems and cells are extremely useful for science and research. Non-animal models such as immortalized cell lines derived from humans, can only answer one question at a time, because these cells are taken outside the body and are not subjected to the same complex environment.

My mother died of cancer. She died from a form of lung cancer, for which there is no cure. She was sixty-six years old. She was too young to die. If scientists wanted to test drug, or design an experiment to better understand the disease, I would be all for it. Wouldn’t you?

*Note: please understand that I cannot describe experiments in detail or identify scientists here.

Last Word Merchants…

Everyone capable of speech has last words, of course for many of us we just don’t know that’s what they are when we say them – “Slow down Grandad!” or “He looks tame!” being good examples, but let’s ignore those utterances that meet the criteria only through their proximity to abrupt demise and talk instead about those delivered with the conscious recognition of their own morbid significance. Y’know, “proper” last words.

Whether it’s suicide, disease, old age or Death Row, one of the admittedly few benefits of an expected death is that you might get the chance to choose and deliver some “proper” last words – to have them documented and remembered: a legacy of sorts. You might express love or regret, fear or courage, it might be amusing or sad – the point is, if only for a little while, these words will outlive you. So what’s worth saying?

There are famous last words that we might be familiar with, such as Voltaire who, when asked on his deathbed to renounce Satan, said to the priest “My good man, this is hardly the time to be making enemies” or Kurt Cobain’s hijacking of “It’s better to burn out than just fade away” (A forgotten Neil Young lyric). I can’t help but think that while Jack Daniel’s “One last drink please” was playing to the crowd, Churchill’s “I’m so bored of it all” was cocking a final snook at expectation.

But it’s not just the famous and infamous whose last words we care about, nor just our families and friends, it goes beyond that – because with the possible exception of Bruce Forsyth (whose forays on television increasingly remind me of “Weekend at Bernie’s”), death will come to us all, fuelling our macabre interest in the terminal attitude of others: its universal relevance – our own inevitable demise. Last words are our glimpse of that mindset, our window on how we might choose to face the last great mystery when our own time comes. We learn about ourselves by learning about others.

A recent article in the Guardian listed the most popular deathbed regrets as recorded by a nurse who’d heard her fair share; quietus confessions with little contrition but awash with missed opportunities and experiences.

I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish I’d let myself be happier.

I should’ve gone with him.

I didn’t write that book.

I never told her I loved her.

I wish I’d paid better attention to the best before date on that ready meal.

Okay I made that last one up  – but clearly part of the intrigue surrounding last words is that we might learn from the near-passed while we still have some sand left in our own hourglass, because intentionally or not, they are bequeathing real wisdom and from an unrivalled perspective, offering us a chance to avoid repeating their own eternal laments.

Now if I’ve got you thinking anxiously about your own last words, then let me give you this comfort: it’s true that most of us will lack the wit and the eloquence for memorable last words. After all, the distillation of a lifetime’s experience condensed down into the last few shaped breaths is a lot to ask. But try to not to worry: the context of your delivery should imbue even the most bombastic deathbed rhetoric with enough profundity to temporarily transcend the content and by the time people realise that your last words were, in fact, the verbal equivalent of a bowel movement, you’ll be blissfully unaware.

My last words on this belonged to my wife’s grandfather, a Lincolnshire boy, who died a great-grandfather, holding the hand of his wife of over sixty years. I like to think that within his succinct summation lay the words of a man whose life was well lived.

All he said was:

“Well……. I wouldn’ta missed it”

Spike Milligan: The Miserable Maniac

‘It’s a gift and a curse at the same time…You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else.’

Spike Milligan

Can it really be ten years since the passing of one of my heroes, writer, poet, musician, actor, campaigner and comedy anarchist Spike Milligan? His status as the father of alternative comedy and unquestionable influence on British culture has often been documented both in his life and since his passing, and this is not intended as a tribute or biography. The chronicle of his life and works have been recorded elsewhere, better and more thoroughly, and often by those who knew and worked with him.

Prevalent in his life, and what most interests me, underlying every endeavour – The Goons, Puckoon, his war memoirs, the various Q series, his humorous and serious verse – was a long battle with mental illness. The term manic depressive – bipolar disorder, to give it its contemporary label – might almost have been coined for him, struggling as he did against extremes of madcap creative genius and complete mental and physical inertia, accompanied by the darkest, sometimes suicidal and even muSpike Milligan.  Photo:BBCrderous, contemplations.

The often cited trigger for his depression was an incident during his war service in Italy, in which he came under heavy shellfire resulting in a lengthy hospitalisation and a number of complete breakdowns. Shellshock, as it was known then, or post-traumatic stress as you would now call it. He was removed from front line service, although he remained in the army and in Italy until after the war, which was the period in which his entertainment career began.

But according to his confessional appearance on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr. Anthony Clare – originally recorded in 1982, but transmitted as part of Radio 4’s recent programming* in honour of the late Milligan – his anxieties and many of his psychosis can be traced back to his upbringing in India when he was a awkward, introverted child, sometimes beaten by his mother, without his army-absent father, alone until a brother came along eight years later. As a result he grew up overly-sensitive and with little tolerance. His extroverted persona and lunatic behaviour were compensation for an underlying shyness.

With his depression at its worst, Milligan opted for an induced narcosis for three weeks, when he simply could no longer cope with his issues. This hit during what most would consider the pinnacle of his career – The classic, surreal radio comedy, The Goons. He wrote the scripts on automatic, like a production line, and would come to resent this period of his life. The fact that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the stress and mounting psychosis, he turned out an impressive body of ground-breaking material, is an astounding achievement, and what most impresses and inspires me.

I have my own experience of mental illness, both personally and affecting those close to me. When asked if he would swap the illness for a more balanced life, Milligan, as is common with those who suffer with bipolar disorder, declined. Like a sine wave, the unbearable troughs are countered by soaring peaks, in which he and others are capable of their greatest works. Medication, although it takes the edge off the lows, can dull other things too. Being a long standing admirer, I know something of Milligan’s life story, but learning details of the depths he reached, and how he coped with his illness, for me, earned him a new level of respect.

As he aged, he learned to cope better with his problems, although he was never free of them. His controversial epitaph, inscribed in Gaelic on his tombstone, ‘I told you I was ill,’ sums up the man. He maintained his sense of humour throughout, even when facing the end.

I’m always conscious of avoiding direct comparison between my efforts and those of the subjects of some of my articles. I am not a creative genius, nor have I ever plumbed the depths of despair like Spike Milligan, but I can appreciate in my own way what he went through and what it meant to have still been able to write through it all.

* The Spike Show: Milligan Remembered, a compilation of new and old programming, presented by Milligan’s secretary Norma Farnes.

What Can We Learn From the Inherent Malice of Seagulls?

Superstition is a funny thing isn’t it? Not the Stevie Wonder classic, which is an attack on superstition and only funny if, like me, you think that a blind man singing about graffiti is amusing. No I’m talking about the weird little things we still say and do even when, in the main, we don’t consider ourselves superstitious anymore. But we are aren’t we? Deep down in the places you don’t like to talk about at parties you still think that agency can be superimposed upon non-human and inanimate objects – go on admit it! For all our supposed sophistications we still act as if good luck and bad luck can be attracted to us through seemingly unrelated actions. How did that happen and why does it still happen?

Firstly, hats off to the guy or gal who, when told that a seagull had just taken a big liquid crap on them, thought on their feet and in a ballsy voice said

“Nah you’ve got it all wrong – THAT’S LUCKY THAT IS”

“Is it? It doesn’t appear to be very lucky, you have liquid white shit in your hair”

“I’m telling you – someone is smiling down on me today. Wow I feel so blessed”

Seriously 10 out of 10 for that person – that’s probably where the word gullible comes from. I applaud you, whoever you are – but I don’t believe you. I believe in the inherent malice of seagulls. Presumably they then trod in dogshit the following week and thought “Can I get away with this twice?” and to their credit they did. My mum once worked in a care home and one day an old man threw a poo at her. I can assure you she didn’t feel particularly lucky that day. She didn’t rush out and buy a scratch card. She rushed home and sat in a bath of hot bleach for an hour.

Horseshoes, rabbit’s feet, birdshit, crossing your fingers, the right number of magpies and mutant clover are all good. Black cats, the wrong number of magpies, crossing on the stairs, ladybirds, the number 13, ladyboys, going to Dover and walking under ladders are all considered bad luck (I made the one up about Dover, but seriously have you been there recently?). Planes miss out the 13th row, skyscrapers skip the 13th floor; clearly they’re still there but the airlines and builders think that they can outsmart the powers of fortune with the old “different label” trick – in your face destiny, we’ve circumvented your unguessable designs!

The truth is we can’t really deal with the random nature of the universe so we have to create “rules” which we can then mould our perception of reality around. Karma is a perfect example;  I am not denying that the by-product of such a precept is beneficial to mankind but it struggles to explain itself more often than not and we tend to ignore the inconsistencies, the things that don’t fall in line with our beliefs. Witness the Sri Lankan fisherman who, on a whim, went out early and missed the Boxing Day Tsunami – this he might attribute to Karma or to supernatural powers or his lucky fishing rod. He will congratulate himself on being lucky never wondering what the 12,000 drowned children did that morning to deserve their fate.

Because of these inconsistencies I am not superstitious and I believe in no higher powers, so I cock a ribald snook at capricious fortune. You should too – there’s no-one watching.

If that’s too sobering a thought, don’t panic guys, we’re not alone in the universe – there are seven billion of us, each one a marvel of contradictions – it’s what will keep life interesting. Fingers crossed.

The Blame Game

It’s very hard to be grown up when we’re getting divorced. As parents, we’re expected to share nicely, act responsibly, be the bigger person, put the needs of our children at the centre of every decision. As angry, hurt, vulnerable human beings, that’s hard to achieve. We’ve gone from sharing resources to competing for assets.

First, there’s the finances. Divorce requires us to establish separate households.  The more one parent gets, the less there is for the other. Running two households on the same resources as one costs more. So we both end up with less money than before.

Since we’re now living in separate households, we need to agree how much time our children will spend with each of us. Because children need us to support them, one of us usually needs to make a payment to the other, who has primary caring responsibilities. Now we both also have less time with our children than before.

All these things are decided via the same process. Intellectually we know that our children are not a marital asset. But it’s very easy for us both to start thinking of them as one more resource to be shared out in the zero-sum game of the ending of a marriage.

Time spent either with, or without, the children both become points of contention. Is time with the children a benefit or a cost? Are four fun-filled days a month more, or less, valuable than nagging them to get dressed and eat their breakfast every morning? If your ex-partner asks you to take the children for longer, are they ducking their responsibilities or giving you a gift? If you refuse, are you resisting your ex-partner’s manipulations or selfishly prioritising your own needs over your child?Divorce cake, with separate bride and groom.  Photo: DrJohnBullas

It’s hard for us to separate access and money – especially when we both have less of both than we had before. The parent making the payments might think, “Why is the other person getting my money and my children? Why am I being pushed out of the family like this?” The parent caring for the children might think, “Why do I have less freedom and more responsibility and less money? Why am I doing all the hard work and they get to do the fun stuff at weekends?” The parent making the payments may reduce payments, or stop paying altogether. The parent caring for the children may restrict or withhold access to the children. These events may be in retaliation to each other and can come in either order.

Sometimes, one parent’s behaviour is so dangerous or violent that allowing them access to the children would be unsafe. Sometimes, one parent has abused the other. Should a person who has beaten, raped or mentally tortured another adult be allowed to spend unsupervised time with children? And what happens when the person accused of the abuse denies that it took place? Because all human systems are fallible, sometimes mistakes will be made. Parents who are not abusive will be denied access to their children. Parents who are abusive will be granted access.

I’ve been very careful in writing this not to assign gender, at any point. In practice, we all know how and where the dividing lines are drawn. When it comes to issues of residency, maintenance and access, we can draw the stereotypes (feckless wastrel Disney-parent versus bitter, money-grabbing control-freak) for ourselves. I still haven’t assigned a gender. But I bet you have.

That’s the stereotype. But that’s not how it has to be. There are thousands and thousands of couples who have made divorce work for them and their children. Some of us are divorced couples who co-parent in harmony. Some of us are re-married couples whose blended families are happy and successful. Some of us are single parents who are raising our children ably and well. These are the stories we should be telling. These are the examples we should be learning from. As a society, we need parents to get better at managing divorce.

That’s why the current high-profile battle between Mumsnet and Fathers 4 Justice is such a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity. In case you’ve missed it, Fathers 4 Justice are accusing Mumsnet of giving a platform to gender-based hate-speech, committed by women, against men. There are a number of theories about the motivation and timings for these accusations, which – since I have no evidence to either support or disprove them – I don’t intend to review here.

The point is, there was an opportunity here. There was a chance for two groups defined by their parenthood to talk to each other. We could have talked about our grievances, about how to manage divorce and separation better, about how to better draw the distinction between parents who have simply stopped loving each other, and parents who are actively dangerous to their ex-partners and their children. Instead, Fathers 4 Justice took out an advertisement accusing the Mumsnet community of promoting gender hatred against all men and boys as a group, and encouraging the boycotting of advertisers who promote on Mumsnet.

I am one two-millionth of the Mumsnet community, and I don’t speak on its behalf. I am even less qualified to speak for Fathers 4 Justice. But of one thing I am certain: mothers and fathers love their children, fiercely and without reservation, and even when they don’t love each other. This divisive and hateful campaign does nothing to help us work better together at protecting our children in the event of marital breakdown. Children are not a marital asset.  They are the people we love the most. We all – men and women, mothers and fathers – need to get better at putting them first.

We could have done all of this. Instead, we’re trading insults. Shame on you, Fathers 4 Justice. Shame on you.

In Defence of Mumsnet

Mumsnet, one of the major British parenting network sites, has always come in for a lot of flak, most of which comes from two points of view:

  • Those who think it is the same as the other fluffy pink mummy sites, full of bad spelling and tickers
  • Those who think it is a sinister conspiracy against the country: a Boden and biscuits mafia

Now we have a new one – those who think it is a distributor of “man hate”.  Sigh. *

So, what is Mumsnet?  Why does it cause such a problem?

When people say “Mumsnet” what they usually mean is the Talk section of Mumsnet, which is a huge message board or forum, aimed at parents (although the majority of users are mothers, there are a sizable minority of fathers, grandparents, childcare workers and childless people who also use the site).  There are hundreds of sections, covering all aspects of life, not just parenting.  Each section tends to have its own “feel” – so Pregnancy tends to be fairly gentle, Am I Being Unreasonable? is a hotbed of disagreements and strong debate and Feminist Activism can be pretty militant.  There is a site wide policy of very light moderation, so swearing, heated disMumsnet logocussions and pretty obscene conversations do occur (never, ever google anything users of Mumsnet tell you to google…).  Members can name-change whenever they like, meaning that posters can reveal secret details on one thread then go back to joking with long term friends on another, under their usual nickname, which does not tend to be related to ‘real life’ identities.  There are also no avatars, twinkly tickers, signatures or pictures, and only a very small range of emoticons.

Herein lies one of our problems. Mumsnet is very different to the rest of the parenting forums, and I would say that the main difference is that Mumsnet treats posters as adults.  We aren’t mollycoddled, and the only things that get deleted (apart from spam) are personal attacks and hate speech.  Mumsnet as a body of posters tends to be self regulating – so a poster coming on who doesn’t follow the rules will get very short shrift.  This has given us a bit of a reputation for being bitchy, although, to me, it just means that we say how we feel, like grown ups.  Other sites will tend to ban you if you express any forthright opinions, and so there are a good few Mumsnetters who are banned from other sites.

Mumsnet also tends to be a bit more educated than other sites.  That’s not to say that Mumsnetters all have doctorates, or even GCSEs, but there is a higher expectation of basic education.  Text speak and bad grammar are frowned upon, and there are often jokes about things like classic literature and politics.  This is often given as evidence that Mumsnet is somehow elitist, and that “ordinary” people would be pushed out and ridiculed.

To me, there are endless websites where you can post cute little tickers, use vomit inducing euphemisms and tipe lyk u cant speel 🙂 ❤ ❤ 😮 and I think it is only fair to let one site have its own way of working.  Just because the users of the site are mostly women, and mostly mothers at that, doesn’t mean that we have to act like children ourselves.

justine off of mumsnet.  Because of the general culture of the site, there is a higher than usual concentration of professionals and, in particular, journalists.  Mumsnet is often used as a cheap research technique, with posts (usually without the knowledge and assent of responding posters) being used in news articles as the “opinion of parents” (I have had this happen to me, when I posted about an internet joke, and there was one reply – I was quoted twice, as different users, as proof that mothers in general found the joke hilarious).  Justine Roberts, one of the founders of the site, can often be found on talk shows giving her opinion – she can’t give the opinion of Mumsnet as a whole, because the 2 million users that use the site every month can’t possibly have one opinion.

However, that, and the fact that the site regularly hosts web-chats with politicians and other movers and shakers, gives Mumsnet a reputation as attention seekers who try to control the media.

Why is it that people hate the idea of a site where women can get together to chat about sex, politics, parenting and culture?  Men have most of the rest of the internet, and any woman daring to post anywhere else is often attacked if she dares mention anything feminine in any way.  Parents of young children are likely to become isolated, and there isn’t the support network that used to exist to support young mothers.

So, if my baby is acting weirdly, or the cuts are pissing me off, or I just thought up a really good joke about mooncups…I’ll see you on Mumsnet.

*I have deliberately ignored the ridiculous behaviour of a certain pressure group lately.  Don’t feed the troll and all that.


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