Society

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Don’t Reign On My Parade

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II en route to St Paul's Cathedral, 5th June 2012. Photo: Defence Images

The Queen on her way to St Paul’s Cathedral

As a metaphor, the image of the whole country going down the river for the Jubilee is so appropriate, I’m surprised more wiseacre commentators haven’t picked up on it. It is galling enough that a country in such dire straits — with high unemployment, a double-dip recession in progress, a failing health service, and its myriad other problems — can afford to splash out on celebrating the one person in the nation who never need worry about the spectre of poverty or work (the Queen is, after all, permanently underemployed) not dying.  But that the manner of this spectacle should be her sitting idly while a pageant of her subjects float past on what might as well be a river of tears, in barges crafted from their dashed hopes and dreams, is nothing short of cheek.She stood watching this flotilla of filthy followers for hours, we are told, as if that was enough to justify her privileged position. The time, money and effort of thousands of people was evident, while all she had to do was put on her best hat and watch them pass in their little boats with the rain beating down upon them, giving them the appearance of drowned rats. It must have looked like something out of a postmodern Wind in the Willows.

I wonder, as she stood there, undoubtedly bored, whether she was aware of what some of her subjects had to endure to enable this event. The Guardian reported that a number of long term jobseekers were forced to work as stewards without pay during the event. That, in itself, doesn’t count as out of the ordinary in this Tory Britain, but the details revealed a sequence of uncaring treatment that was described as akin to slavery. They were bussed in from Bristol in the early hours of the morning and abandoned, told to camp under a bridge like common trolls, made to change into their uniforms in public and had no access to toilets for the whole day. I don’t expect the unemployed to be treated like royalty, but I’d demand at least they be treated like human beings.

A Celebratory Message for the Queen. Photo: jordi.martorell

Celebrating the Jubilee

I tried my best to avoid coverage of the Jubilee, but the signs and signifiers were everywhere. I reached a point where I swore that, if I saw another Union Jack, I would wrap myself in it and immolate myself in Trafalgar Square. Displays of excessive jingoism only seem to manifest during royal events, football tournaments and wars; the rest of the time, most citizens couldn’t give two patriotic shits about the country. But stores have done a roaring business in red, white and blue tat – from bunting and tableware to clothing and cushion covers – so every home can look like the venue for a BNP rally. The only theme that I’ve found more annoying is constantly being confronted with the litany that I should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ on posters, mugs and T-shirts. In the current political and economic crisis, that’s the equivalent of saying ‘What iceberg?’ when the ship is already sinking. I, for one, will be donning my T-shirt featuring the slogan ‘Time To Panic and Set Fire to Things’ any day now.

I’ve nothing personal against the Queen. As run of the mill old ladies go, I suppose I find her inoffensive enough. If I were in a post office queue, she’s the kind of person I’d rather was behind me than in front of me, as you know she’s going to try to engage the person serving in conversation about her various aches and pains, the doings of her million grandchildren, and what her husband said to the Chinese ambassador this time. I’m also not going to let this article descend into an over-reaching republican diatribe, in spite of that being the general thrust of my opinions. My issue here is with the misplaced and mystifying adoration of her social position.

In 2002 a BBC poll revealed the country’s preferred list of 100 Greatest Britons, which placed Elizabeth II at number 24. Two monarchs beat her: Queen Victoria and her namesake, Elizabeth I, the only crowned head to reach the top ten. But, tellingly of the contrary nature of all of us, Oliver Cromwell, who chopped off a King’s head and briefly turned the country into a republic, beat all monarchs bar one. Three Prime Ministers and a man who tried to blow up parliament with a King in it also placed nearly as highly, or higher than, our present Queen. The rest of the top of the list was completed by notable scientists, authors, explorers, mathematicians, military leaders and musicians – in other words, people who actually contributed to the betterment of the nation and its people, not just someone who got to where they are merely by being born. So do we really love our monarchy as much as all the pomp and trumpeting would have us believe?

Tradition was you’d rid yourself of a troublesome head of state by divorcing their head from their body. Now, any policy passed by parliament must be signed into law by the monarch, meaning they would have to sign the law removing themselves from the constitution, and finding any monarch progressive enough to throw themselves from the royal gravy train is as likely as finding a stone that bleeds blue blood. The truth of the matter is that we still have a monarch because this system is set up in such a way that no government would make so radical and potentially unpopular a proposition as to abolish the monarchy, and no monarch would put themselves out of a job. It’s a classic elephant in the room dilemma. Everyone knows the role of the monarch is entirely ceremonial and symbolic, but no one is prepared to take the steps to cut away the dead flesh. It’s tradition, but that’s just another way of saying we do something a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I’m not sure that our adoration, bordering on religious idolatry, doesn’t come about largely because it’s expected of one.

I also wonder what the rest of the world thinks when they see the footage on their evening news. Undoubtedly the royals are good for tourism, they’re a spectator sport. But so are the Hunger Games, and if the country needs a distraction in these troubled times I would rather the O2 Arena was rechristened the O2 Thunderdome and the privileged few would be forced to duel until only one was left standing, and in that way at least they would have earned my respect, and any right to parade.

Cereal Killers

Last week, research scientists sent an open letter to a group of activists called “Take the Flour Back” imploring them not to damage and destroy a field in Hertfordshire during a day of “planned action” at the end of May. The field is part of Rothamsted Research’s study into a genetically modified wheat which, it is hoped, will be highly resistant to aphids. A crop, which if successful, could eradicate the need for pesticide use.

Which is a good thing right? Well clearly not according to some.

We’ve been tinkering with the science of genetics for thousands of years, it’s almost as old as agriculture itself. Wheat, the most widely grown crop on the planet, is already a hybrid of many different species. Commercially grown modern wheat, untended, wouldn’t even survive in the wild; human beings have changed it beyond what would ever appear naturally. The grains are a lot bigger than undomesticated varieties and it has a real issue with seed dispersal, an impotence which has been cultivated through years of selective breeding: so it’s easier and more worthwhile to harvest. We’ve also bred in “dwarfing” which means the stalk is shorter, so the energy of the plant can be more usefully diverted to the production of seed. Trying to grow it in the wild would be the agricultural equivalent of releasing a sausage dog into the wilderness and expecting it to survive. All the aspects that make the dog desirable to us – in this case resembling a tiny-legged-sausage-with-a-face, would be exactly the things that would give it no chance. It is as far from a wolf as it’s possible to be – because that’s how we want it. But to most of us it’s not a dangerous abomination, it’s just a sausage dog.

So what has inspired such promises of violence towards a field of GM wheat? After all, since the late 90‘s when the widespread commercial use of GM crops started in the US, there has never been a single proven case of anyone ever having suffered ill effects through their consumption. All those millions and millions of people and nobody’s grown another head or a third armpit. Presumably because extensive trials, like the one under threat in Hertfordshire, are carried out to ensure the product is safe. GM Crops undergo a far more rigorous process of regulation than their non-GM equivalents and have since the very beginning.

“Take the flour back”, have suggested the threat of contamination, but that doesn’t really ring true. The safety measures in place for this particular trial are impressive to say the least: the crop will be surrounded by inert fields far beyond the dispersal range of the wheat’s pollen, making the threat of contamination as effectively close to zero as it is possible to get.

It’s difficult to understand the mindset of a group, whose concerns regarding GM include the fact that not enough research is being done, destroying that very same research. Protesters often cite the dangers of corporate oligarchy – control and profit, as a reason against GM crops, and whilst this is a very valid reason for scrutiny and where my own concerns normally lay, it doesn’t apply here either: the end-product, if successful, will not become a patented biocrop only available to the highest bidder. Despite all the doom-mongering, Rothamsted Research is not a malevolent multinational, hushing up mutants in it’s basement, it’s a group of well respected scientists whose aim is to improve on what we have and share it with the world. Their ultimate aim is a crop whose yield, resistance to drought, nutritional value, shelf-life and cost to grow could help end starvation in the Third World.

When I hear people say that we don’t know the results of long term use, that we’ve only been using GM crops for 20 years, I think to myself – that is considerably longer than millions of Africans are currently living. With around 15 million children dying of hunger every year, destroying this important work is destroying a manifesto whose ideals would wipe out famine.

In keeping with the subject of mutation, the word “activist” is one whose meaning has perhaps mutated as much as the crops some seek to destroy. In this instance though it is a moniker that seems destined to ring true. Rather than the admirable mission of concerned citizens, activist is now the “go-to” word to describe any campaigners associated with some degree of violence or destruction. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that this is exactly the wrong thing, as a protester, to do. As soon as you become a crusader with the mindset of a terrorist, then you sacrifice, not your ability to be noticed, but your ability to be taken seriously, it dilutes the purity of your message. The role of a protester is to engage sympathy through peaceful actions, to shine a light on inequalities or dangers and thereby expand your audience. Once this has been achieved you voice valid points to that audience – be they the community, the government or the world.

You raise your voice, not your fist.

Stuff The Jubilee

Bin the crownIt’s not happening until June, but I’m seriously fed up with the Diamond Jubilee already.

I make absolutely no effort to find out anything about it, yet every time I turn on the TV, browse the internet, walk down the street, read a newspaper, go to a pub or a shop, even go to work, it’s being rammed down my throat so hard it makes me sick.

Ironically, the propaganda churned out by the Royal press machine to brainwash the population that these celebrations are worthwhile has served only to increase my opposition. The more I am encouraged to take part in and enjoy the jubilee celebrations, the less I want to. I’ve always had anti-monarchist tendencies, but ever since the ridiculous charade of the Royal Wedding last summer, my Republican views have grown ever stronger.

But let’s remember that wonderful day last April – wasn’t it just the Wedding of The Century? Britain at it’s best?

Kate’s lovely dress! Will’s dashing uniform! Their kiss! The carriage! The flag waving school children! An extra bank holiday! A nation united!

Bollocks. What a ridiculous fuss over the marriage of two people we don’t know and we are unlikely to ever meet. I can’t understand why there was such adulation over two people, who, if they were not obliged to, would not give a flying fart about 99% of those who profess to love them. Millions of pounds spent on security that could have been better spent elsewhere. The unconvincing attempts to portray a public schoolgirl of millionaire parents as a People’s Princess. The totally one-sided sycophantic 24/7 media coverage. Or the baffling obsession with Pippa Middleton. I wouldn’t. (No offence Pippa, if you’re reading this).

And we’re getting it all again…

The Queen’s wonderful service to the nation! The concert at Buckingham Palace! Kate’s charity work! Harry larking around (he’s such a card)! William protecting the Falklands! The barge parade on the River Thames! The flag waving school children! The community spirit! Street parties bringing the nation together! An extra bank holiday! The economic benefits to our struggling economy!

The last one is rather questionable. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that each bank holiday costs the UK £2.3 billion and the Diamond Jubilee is no exception. Even the government’s own impact assessment for the extra bank holiday states that “inevitably there will be an impact on economic output as most workers are likely to be given the day off by their employer”.

Of course it’s not all about the economy though. In a further attempt to justify the celebrations, the impact assessment gushes that there will be a lifting of national spirit, improved national identity and increased profile of the UK to the rest of the world, extra tourism and trade, etc (it actually says etc). These benefits are naturally all intangible though and are impossible to accurately predict or measure. Isn’t that convenient?

Leaving aside the Jubilee for a moment, the arguments for and against the monarchy have been well documented over the years. For: history/national pride/tourism. Against: cost/undemocratic/inequality.

Much better writers than me have debated these arguments in detail so I don’t intend to discuss them here, but what I do want to do is highlight a few of the many recent royal stories that have attracted my attention.

The first one concerns our Brave Prince William, who was recently sent to the Falkland Islands to fly a helicopter around.

anti-monarchyI quote Rear Admiral John ‘Sandy’ Woodward: “To have a Royal anywhere near the front line is a bloody nuisance for the rest of the front line. You have to take extra precautions that he doesn’t get shot down, that his plane doesn’t fail. You maintain it three times as carefully. If you have a Royal on board your ship it is the end of your career if he gets so much as a scratch. It’s never said, but it goes without saying. He’s not there as a military man, he is there as air sea rescue which is really not military at all. It’s civil. I think it’s pointless, I can’t imagine why they sent him. Maybe they were just trying to wind up the Argentinians, I don’t know.”

My personal view is that this was a marketting exercise ahead of the Jubilee to increase our pride in the Royal Family and for them to highlight their usefulness to the nation – but then I am a cynical bastard.

Without question this episode demonstrates the blatant inequalities created by the very existence of a Royal Family: one man’s life valued much higher than that of the Joe Nobody’s around him, simply because he was born into a family of privilege.

Further evidence of these inequalities was recently provided by Buckingham Palace itself.

The Royal Household advertised for a trainee butler to serve the Royal Family. The salary is £15000 for a 45 hour week.

The job’s duties include: “collect and deliver tea/coffee trays, breakfast trays and newspapers for Royal and Household purposes in an efficient and discreet manner” and “to be responsible for the valeting of guests and Members of the Royal Household invited to stay with the Royal Family ensuring that clothes and uniforms are cared for to the highest standards”.

Christ, this doesn’t half boil my piss. It’s England in 2012, and we still have people serving other people. Masters and servants. This needs to stop right away. Let them carry their own trays, pick up their own newspapers and wash their own clothes like everyone else.

And they want us to celebrate this shit?

 

The University Without Walls

Open University students graduating from the MBA programmeIf I told you that there is a way to get a degree without A levels, would you believe me?  If I told you that the university accepts all students, and that you can study at home, in prison, on an oil rig or anywhere else that you might happen to be?  If you could study how and when you like, whether that be in bursts of activity with gaps inbetween, steadily in short bursts on the bus or when the kids are in bed, or full time?  That you would get support off a tutor, optional tutorials and online social support?

The Open University is a wonderful organisation.  Launched in 1969, it currently has more than 260,000 students, mostly in the UK.  A network of nearly 7000 tutors support these students, often alongside working in a traditional university, and 1.6 million people have studied with the university since it was founded.  The university has a stated aim of helping people acheive potential despite barriers that would prevent study at many universities – 12,000 disabled students a year study with the OU, and up to 44% of the student body started without the qualifications that would normally be needed for university study.  However, the degrees and other qualifications are well respected – studying with the OU shows a determination and level of self organisation that many employers find very attractive.

The university produces television documentaries and study resources for other universities and schools.  It also makes a huge range of learning resources freely available at OpenLearn, which is well worth a look for anybody interested in thinking and learning, as well as through iTunes and YouTube.

It is now at risk.

Due to changes in student finding arrangments, the university is having to stop providing the financial support system that it has been helping thousands of students with.  Fees are increasing for all students across the university – a student starting an honours degree in September 2012 will pay approx 15 thousand pounds for their degree in total, around three times the full fee the year before. Many students currently pay either a reduced fee or no fee at all, depending on income, and all students have access to a budgeting account to spread the cost.

What’s more, students will now have to apply for funding through the student loans system, meaning that students who already have a degree or who are otherwise barred from student loans will have to find the money themselves.

Studying with the OU is still much cheaper than study at many traditional universities, and the nature of the courses means that working full time alongside study is very possible.  Still, the university is suffering from the increase in fees, and many students that could have changed their lives and achieved their potential will be put off by the cost.Scene from educating Rita, a play and film about an OU student and tutor

I really hope that the university can continue to provide this wonderful service for all of us non traditional students.  If you feel the same, please sign this petition or, even better, why not register on a course?  It is still the cheapest and most flexible way to get your degree, and might just change your life.

Mindless Vandalism

Mining Family Miners Memorial statue in Concord, Washington.  Photo: Alicia Duffy

On a sunny but windy Saturday 31st March, residents of Washington, young and old, gathered along Concord Front Street to witness the unveiling of the new Miner’s Statue in the heart of the town. With speeches from Councillor Kelly (Portfolio Holder for Safer City and Culture), Sharon Hodgson, Member of Parliament for Washington and Sunderland West, the Chair of the Durham Miner’s Association and the Deputy Mayor of Sunderland City Council it was a day that many had been eagerly anticipating.

I stood with the crowd and watched as the statue was unveiled, people filled with anticipation waited to see what the end product would be and it did not disappoint. The statue was greeted with a warm round of applause and a gentle undertone of genuine appreciation. A few of the comments I overheard included: ‘What a wonderful, traditional statue’ and ‘It has been a long time coming’.

Indeed this statue has been a long time coming!

For a few years now, individuals and community groups have been raising money to get the statue erected in Washington and support has been coming from many different organisations to the cause; from the Durham Miner’s Association to Sunderland City Council. I, like many others, donated money to the Miner’s Family Statue through buying a miner’s lamp key ring a few months ago.

Yet this day of commemoration has been marred by recent events. Not even three days after the statue was unveiled on Saturday afternoon, an unnamed suspect tried to ruin the statue. News broke this morning on Facebook that at around 1AM the statue was targeted by metal thieves trying to hack off the leg of the child – a part of the statue portraying a miner and his family. This news comes as a major blow to everyone who was involved in the planning, fundraising and campaigning to bring this statue to Washington and to all those people who attended the event to see the statue unveiled.

It is sad to think but it was inevitable that some where down the line the statue would be defaced but sadly things like this happen to statues in busy public areas. I spoke with a few local councillors afterwards who had these fears but every one felt that the statue represented something so special to the community of Washington that no one would deface it. How wrong we all were.

Damage to Washington Miners Statue - Photo:Alex Cargill

This mindless criminality is exactly why people feel that doing projects like the Miner’s Family statue are worthless. Why should we spend money on something we know is going to be ruined by some thug? No doubt this thought will cross many people’s minds over the coming days, but we should not have this attitude towards future projects.

Firstly if we let this deter us from future projects then we have let who ever did this win. Secondly, the way the statue has brought people together. The statue represents a sense of community and a sense of worth that we lost decades ago.People are proud of the statue and the past that it represents in a time when people feel that society gives us nothing to feel proud about.

Why should we punish ourselves for one persons evident disengagement from the significance of the statue? Simple answer, we should not.


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.

Please sponsor me at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=LucyCartwright

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.

We Believe You

We Believe You is the name of the latest Mumsnet campaign, launched this week to raise awareness of rape, how prevalent it is and how many myths surround it. Please go and read about their campaign – the research they have done is quite eye opening, to say the least.

“Victim blaming” is so prevalent in our society that I honestly believe that many women are afraid to report rape and assault for fear of being blamed. I just read that sentence back and it sounds really silly doesn’t it? Who, in their right mind, would blame a woman for being raped? Well, a hell of a lot more people than you might think.

Women are criticised if they don’t dress modestly. If a woman is raped on a night-out  people will openly wonder what she was wearing, had she had too much to drink, was she stupidly wandering down an alleyway on her own.

Sound familiar?

If you’re not shocked at these attitudes let me tell you why you should be. There is NO excuse for rape. Placing even a tiny part of the responsibility of an assault on to the victim is wrong. I would like the freedom to wear what I like, walk where I want to without being told it may get me into trouble.

A society, where attitudes like this are prevalent: blaming the victims to a greater or lesser extent – is a society where rape is tacitly accepted. “No, rape is never acceptable,” you might say, and you’d be right. But it appears that we live in a society which does accept it.

That’s not a very nice thing to realise is it?Rape Pre-dates miniskirts - banner at a slutwalk.  Photo: cathredfem

Rapists can, and very often do, get away with their crimes, because our society doesn’t believe the victims who come forward. They say things like “oh well if you go out at that time of night on your own you’re asking for it”. Who say that? You’d be surprised. Men, women, of all generations, think that way.

No. No woman is asking to be raped.

How about if you then learn that in over 80% of cases of rape and sexual assault, the victim knows the aggressor. “Yeah, date rape,” you might think, and millions of us will shudder at that very phrase. Date rape. That’s not real rape is it? Not proper rape. If a girl goes up to her boyfriend’s flat she’s asking for it isn’t she. She can hardly complain if she changes her mind at the last minute.” Can she?

Yes. She can. Date rape, (ugh) or rape within a relationship is rape too. It is just as serious, just as brutal, just as damaging as any other kind of rape. In fact it can be even more so. Because you go and tell your average Joe Bloggs that you were raped by your boyfriend, or husband, or even on a casual date. Most people just won’t take you seriously. It’s not considered real rape. Ask Ken Clarke. The guy in charge of the British justice system.

So, a victim may be accused of having asked for it in some way, or her experience of rape might be belittled and treated as non serious. That’s bad enough isn’t it. But it gets worse. Because lots and lots and lots of people just simply don’t believe women when they say they have been raped or assaulted.

Can you imagine having such a traumatic and life changing experience, and turning to the people around you for support and them not believing you? And when it goes public (because there’s nothing the press love more than a nice juicy rape case) the onus will be on you, the victim, to prove you are the victim. And often people won’t believe you. Lots of people. People who should be helping you, like the police. Some will, some won’t. You don’t want to have to deal with the people who don’t believe you.

A case in the news recently that I blogged about several times was the chambermaid in New York who accused Dominique Strauss Kahn of assault. Regardless of what has happened since (and no, he wasn’t cleared, there were issues with the evidence) the reaction in France when he was arrested was shocking. I blogged about it here.

The Mumsnet campaign makes for some pretty depressing reading. It is the 21st century and rape, how it is treated and how easy it is to report it, hasn’t changed all that much. Far too women are still being raped. And far too few cases are being reported. And even fewer convictions are happening.

It’s very  very sad.

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves…

Life goes on. The world turns – civilisation evolves and adapts. For the travelling community, nomadism – that intrinsic need to roam – is as much a choice as it is a survival technique.

From traditional Yurt communities, to Bedouin tribes and the Eastern European Roma, the gadjo (non traveller) represent a confusing mix of authority and conflict.

Settlement acts passed from the early 1960’s in former Communist states which intended for travelling families to establish themselves and work in the oppressive Land regimes forbade the use of identification as a Roma or Gypsy and forced integration into a society which, for many at that point in time, they neither had a natural affiliation to or comprehension of. Even British legislation prevented ‘vagabondism’ in most forms – causing the outlawing of occluding public by-ways and roads. Yet none of these techniques worked to incorporate a transient and Travellers on the Glen Road, Belfast, 1980. Photo: Bobbie Hanveymobile nationhood of people into host populations. Constantly persecuted, frequently misunderstood and a mystery to both the non traveller and themselves, the history of these people is a fluid and inflammatory story of optimistic struggle and straggling survival. One to which no one is immune, nor alien to.

Current popular interest in the lifestyle of traveller families has highlighted the differences between the old notion of extended support networks – which many Roma enjoy – and the insular autonomy of host nations which prevent, to an extent, the ability to disengage and re-engage at will into everyday life. The majority of Roma have settled due to financial stability which a permanent residence encourages; those that choose to continue a mobile livelihood face prosecution and persecution. This is undeniable. Media fear mongering – the idea of the gypsy as sly, dishonest, dirty – still permeates in news reports which ostensibly serve to both integrate and isolate the traveller community.

No solutions are advanced, the traveller community ‘travels’ and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to move on when the local community feels that this time has come. No other migrant community has such an uncertain future. Two days, three weeks, four months in one place at the most. When land is acquired, not only do they have to navigate a planning process which is confusing even to gadjo but they face the added suspicion as to how this would impact on local population. But does it really matter, in the long term? Surely a settled community – even one which flouts planning laws, is better than one who is hounded and hindered.

And this can be violent in its extremes. France and Italy have progressively legislated against traveller input into their respective societies. In Romania and Balkans areas violent attacks on settled traveller camps have increased according to the ERRC. Very few of these attacks are prosecuted, out of court settlements are meagre and do not reflect the severity of these. For instance, retributive justice, whether real or imagined, often take the form of burnings. Whole communities set alight. Maimed and broken. Women, children and men – those who have been neighbours – are targeted as embodiments of criminality and treated as such.

Trawling the archives of the ERRC and social sciences departments throw up truly sickening accounts, each followed by interviews by both victims and offenders. Offenders here is loosely used, frequently they miss the justice system. And similar justifications occur throughout these: we don’t want them here. They bring nothing to society. They dress provocatively. They don’t want to work. They have no respect. They deserve everything they get – taking our jobs, our benefits. It is a tale as old as time. One to which no minority community has been exempt. A basic lack of understanding of culture clashing, simplistic, indeed, but sometimes a simple statement starts a debate rolling.

Traveller children are instilled in respect of older generations, often they live in close knit groups and they have a very real feeling of family. In many areas there is a complete innocence toward everyday living. Education is secondary – and this is understandable to an extent. If no one is willing to see the person, the potential to excel, why invest in a system which is geared toward ideals they do not hold. Education is a key to future, a key to employabTraditional Gypsy Caravanility, but if no one will employ a traveller above a menial position, why bother? Why bother sending a child to school to be ridiculed, put in special institutes (a common practice) because they do not conform to a pattern of life which is so skewed against them? Isn’t it better to have the children close, to teach them what has been tried and tested as useful?

Gender is also an issue in traveller communities. Women are often not valued as autonomous people, but as glue to the community. They are an amalgam of mother and nurturer – an old fashioned premise but one which is diffused between all the group. Traveller women are usually proud of this role – and if lack of ambition is to be reviled then they truly lack a feminist impulse. But this is a contentious statement. Feminists everywhere will argue for and against, and here is not the place to pull this apart.

In times of recession scapegoats are easily found. Be they Jewish, Islamic, poor or rich…Aushwitz was home to over half a million Traveller families; marked by a ‘Z’ on entry. Hardly any were liberated. Mengeles systematically medically tested traveller people seeing them as subhuman, denying them an identity and a history. Denying them culture, as the Nazi regime sought to do with most disenfranchised groups, minority ethnicities.

Yet it is only within the last 30 years that the loss of life has been acknowledged by governments. They are a sideline in history, and for most travellers’ this collective amnesia has worked to preserve them. A people with no past or future can glide through life, but they cannot enjoy it fully. They cannot step proudly and say who they are. The controversy that has surrounded recent documentaries, the sensationalistic reporting denotes a change, a change in perspective in the gadjo community – could this be a recognition of the freedom that Roma enjoy – but with an ignorance towards the cost that this represents? Now is the time to see the bigger picture.

The Right to Create

We hear a lot about rights. And rightly so, in most cases. Human rights, equal rights, the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to work, the right to a living wage, the right to a free education, the right to bear arms, the right to party, the right to take a dump in public and such like. Much is written about these rights (well, most of them), so I’m going to write about another right, one which you may not have heard of, because I’ve just it made it up: the right to create. Right, so moving on (with no more crappy plays on the word right I promise)…

I do some creative things. I’ve hosted a few art exhibitions and displayed my stuff in public and all that kind of arty crap, so I like to consider myself an artist. (No, please don’t stop reading. It makes me feel better  to consider myself an artist when I’m at work stacking shelves in a supermarket at 3 in the morning). But because I need to earn a living I have to go to work full time, so I can only be a part time artist. And this pisses me off. And gets me thinking.Artist Studio, with paintbrushes, illustrating the right to create.  Photo: See-ming Lee

I’m faced with two choices. One, produce commercially viable art which makes me enough money as a full time artist that I don’t have to work but which compromises my art. Or two, produce art which satisfies my artistic integrity but which compromises my ability to make money and therefore means I have to work as well. (Don’t anyone dare mention three, produce art which satisfies my artistic integrity but which is also commercially viable, because rather like a relationship with Laura-Mary Carter of Blood Red Shoes, this is The Impossible Dream).

I choose the second route, because I feel that my art is something I should do to make me happy, not to make me money. Though I have even been a full time artist in the past. An actual arty artist too, doing the art I wanted to do and not the art I had to do to make money. But then I ran out of money and had to go on Jobseekers Allowance. And this meant that I had to find a real job. It didn’t matter what job I wanted to do or what job I could do well because those jobs weren’t available. I was obliged to get a job as soon as possible. Any job. I got a job in a call centre. It was very,very, shit. I was working shit hours for a shit wage in a shit job. It was a shit life.

But that’s fine, because at least I’m working huh? At least I have a job. At least I am paying my taxes. I am paying my way. I am not a burden to the working man. I am not a turd-encrusted pube on the asshole of society. I am not some scruffy arty tosser sponging off the state (I am just a scruffy arty tosser). No, I work. I am a good and useful citizen. Well if that’s all true, why was I miserable as fuck?

Because I was just existing.  I wasn’t creating.  I was a walking National Insurance Number. And I’m not the only one. I know countless artists, musicians, actors and actresses, dancers, writers, photographers, film makers, designers, performers and poets who work not in artistic fields but in call centres, shops, garages, offices, care homes etc etc. I don’t mean to demean those jobs and the people who do them, but my point is on the issue of choice . Many people want to work in those jobs, but many need to because they don’t have a choice. Shouldn’t a person be free to try and pursue the career they want? How many thousands of creative and talented people across the country are stuck in their non-creative jobs, compelled to waste their creativity and talent and ultimately their life by the conventions of society and the pressure to earn money? How many people are compelled to go through their life miserable as fuck, just so they can work and contribute and pay their rent and pay their taxes and therefore be a good and useful citizen?

Too many, I say. There is however, a solution to this sad state of affairs. It is based upon the idea that a person’s value to society is not based upon their monetary value. It’s not about the amount of taxes they contribute weighed against the amount of benefits they receive. It’s about the non-monetary value they can provide to society. Imagine if a person had the right to do the kind of work they enjoy and are good at. Imagine if they had the right not have to work in any shit job just because they have to. Imagine if  a person was allowed to use their skills, their personality, their talent and their passion to benefit others. Imagine being helped by that person. Imagine being that person. Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Man, wouldn’t everyone be much happier?

And to help create that happiness? I propose that artistic and creative people are given the right to create.

I propose an Artists Allowance. This would allow an artist to pursue their artistic activities without the need to work and without the resulting financial worries. Instead of being forced to work in shit jobs they are allowed to do what they want to do and do what they are good at doing. They are given the right to create.

What is this idealistic tosh? How could this possibly work? Naive? Ridiculous? Do-gooder lefty hippy bollocks? In these times of austerity, a whole load of people are going to get paid by the state to sit around on their arses so long as they call themselves an artist? I have got to be kidding, right?

No, because it’s not as simple as that. Firstly, the allowance should only be the equivalent of what the artist would receive if they were not an artist – i.e on Jobseekers Allowance or Employment Support Allowance or Housing Benefit – no more. A person would clearly be better off financially if they were working, thus ensuring that the Artists Allowance was not pursued just for the money. Who would give up a full time well paid job to receive a subsistence poverty income? Certainly not everyone. Those whose heart isn’t in it, wouldn’t. But I would, if I could do my art.

Secondly, the artist would have to prove they are an artist. They would have to attend the Jobcentre regularly to prove that they are pursuing artistic activities. Rather like filling in the oh-so-impervious-to fraudsters little Jobseekers Diary. Except the artist could prove they are pursuing artistic activities. A film maker would have to show their films. A painter would have to show their paintings. You couldn’t make it up.

Thirdly, and this for me is at the heart of the point I am driving at, the artist would have to contribute to society with their art. This is where we see the value of a person not just in monetary terms. Isn’t it right that a person is judged for what they can do for others rather than for how much money they earn? Yes, the state pays this person, but this person pays back society. There are many, many ways an artist can use their skills and create art to benefit their community. If the artist can’t think of a way, they won’t get the Artists Allowance and they can sell their shite and their soul to Ikea instead. This is a mutually beneficial allowance. Give and take. Not something for nothing.

And here we also have the state creating work. Not taking it away. We all know there are not enough jobs to go round at the moment. So let’s enable people to create their own. Let’s give people the work of their choice. Working for the state, for themselves, and for the community. Give an artist some money to spend on art materials and arts activities and arts events and their increased spending stimulates the economy. We would move away from the perception of art as a luxury for those who can afford it, but towards art as a more accessible, more local, more essential, part of the community. Furthermore, thousands of community or state artists who would now be working within the arts would mean that thousands of other people would be able to do the other jobs the artist would otherwise have been pushed into. Damn, we could even get the good old private sector involved too so they quit their tedious whinging about the bloated public sector and privileged public servants. Companies could sponsor an artist on the Artists Allowance. The artist could work for them on joint projects. The company could even get a tax break in return for their support (that should get them onside)…

So will there ever be a right to create? Will there shite. Our esteemed politicians go on about “progressive government”  and “Big Society” but they’re about as progressive as a brown Ford Cortina with a flat tyre stuck in reverse gear and as for the Big Society, well something else with the initials BS springs to mind instead. Should we have this right though? Bring on the debate…

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