Hard Out Here

I have breasts. Therefore it’s my sworn duty to have an opinion on Lily Allen’s new video, or something. I’ve talked about body image hypersexualised content in pop videos and a porn culture before so it’s not surprising that I found Hard Out Here, well, interesting. Musically, it’s awful but I watched it a few times so this post wouldn’t be based on a quick view where the only impressions left once the shit music ended were the endless repetition of the word “bitch” and masses of jiggling female flesh.

When it comes to the racial aspects of Allen’s video I’m well aware that I’m a privileged white 30-something woman. I don’t even like hip hop. I don’t feel qualified to get into the race issues but it’s impossible to ignore them completely so I’m going to say that I thought Hip Hop Doesn’t Need Another White Savior was an interesting read which chimed with some of my thoughts as a non-hip hop fan and took them much further as far as race issues go.

I was surprised by the initial hype among some people who’re acting like Hard Out Here should be celebrated as a feminist anthem. Quite apart from the legitimate arguments about race issues, it’s a very limited song. It’s not a complex sociological commentary on women’s role in society today. It’s only a pop song and it felt like a mix of personal bugbears being brought out more than a serious attempt to address problems. Putting the word “injustice” in a song doesn’t automatically imbue it with depth. It felt to me like Allen’s pissed off about a few things and that the difference between her and most women is she can get a few million hits on Youtube, ably assisted by her record company, when she wants to have a rant. You could say it’s better than nobody within her genre talking about feminism at all but the reason I took it to pieces in my head is because of the people trying to make it go too far. It’s not just fans of the song. Some women complaining about race are suggesting it represents white feminism too. It doesn’t even do that as far as I’m concerned.

I get her decision to use the word “bitch” but personally I’ve got absolutely no desire to see it appropriated. It’s one of a very small number of words where I feel some kind of sisterly requirement not to use it (unusual because I’m quite sweary and I prefer not to create even more barriers between men and women by buying into the sisterhood). But it’s a word only ever used for women and often comes with the word “silly” before it. I don’t feel a desire to respond “yeah! I’m a bitch. That’s our word now” just because every time any woman makes a vaguely feminist statement we’re all meant to jump on the bandwagon.

You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen

Allen starts off by defending her right to work. Maybe my lack of interest in what male pop and hip hop artists have been saying is showing here. Maybe they have been making music suggesting women should get back to the kitchen but it doesn’t chime with me at all. If it had been released in the 1950s it would’ve been revolutionary but seems like a really lazy rhyme. It isn’t a choice between work or the kitchen these days. Modern women have to do both and that is hard. I was talking to a few the other day about the utter exhaustion they feel trying to juggle work and home. It feels like a sloppy play on the saint/whore thing too. I’ve never got the idea that women should be passionless about food, which just adds to my irritability over this line. Any man who wants a saint in the kitchen presumably doesn’t care very much about good food.

I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains

Uh. Ok Lily. Don’t. I sure as hell don’t feel any need to defend the fact that I don’t. My assumption is that she’s drawing a line in the sand between her and materialistic women as well as men so, far from representing all women, she’s having a go at the ones she disapproves of. The article linked to above expands on the race elements of this.

Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain

I have a brain. It functions pretty damned well. I can shake my ass if I want to. I do shake my ass when I want to (although the line reminds me of the Afghan Whigs’ Somethin’ Hot which is a bit slower than shaking). Nobody’s making me feel I have to. There aren’t roving bands of men demanding I do it out here, in the real world. What’s happened instead, with monotonous regularity, is that if I shake it there’s always at least one who thinks he owns it. It’s my choice whether to give it or not and there’s little doubt some men don’t get that. Back in the days when I regularly went clubbing, I had fake boyfriends who were willing to step in as needed if I didn’t have an actual one with me because it was the quickest way to stop total strangers from grabbing me. When we were in a pretty big group, there were always at least a couple of men in the group making sure us women were ok. That’s the real world outside the rarefied air of the pop music industry.

The music industry demands women should strip down and shake their asses and a lot more besides but by wording the line in the way she has, Allen is dismissing all women do it as stupid. How is that a feminist statement? Some women may feel coerced into it. Some choose to do it. Some do it for stupid reasons. Some are stupid. but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between stupidity and ass shaking. Again, it feels like Allen’s drawing a line in the sand between her and any woman who does shake her ass. I did something slightly shameful the other week. I half watched a “documentary” on Miley Cyrus. There wasn’t anything else on and I was curious, partly because I’ve never knowingly heard a single one of her songs. It was really a combination promo for her new album and the MTV Europe awards, which were being broadcast after it. After the US Awards I wondered if she was being manipulated. Not according to her. She said she wanted to cause waves bigger than Britney Spears and Madonna did when they performed at the awards. It was all about novelty and pushing the envelope to her. She wanted to shock. She thought her performance was funny. She even said:
“I live in America and we’re the land of the free. If you can’t express yourself you’re not very free”
Yeah. Calling her stupid, I have no problem with. Calling everyone else stupid is a different matter though.

If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss

It’s interesting that she says “boys” because it makes a clear distinction between men of my generation and boys. I often hope that all the slut shaming stories are blowing the scale of the problem out of proportion but I have the nasty thought that maybe my generation was both the first and the last to come close to sexual equality. Slut shaming takes away a woman’s right to be a sexual person while at the same time pop and hip hop culture is sending young women the message that they should obediently do anything and everything they’re asked to because they’re asked to, rather than because they want to. It’s also notable that Allen’s married. She’s saying people would call her a slut if they knew the specifics of what happens within her marriage? I really hope she’s wrong because if things have reached the point where having a satisfying monogamous relationship makes a woman a slut we really are completely, well, fucked.

Still, there’s also something hypocritical in the line when you consider she’s just called women who shake their asses publicly stupid. She shouldn’t be judged but other women should be? I wonder if she’s ever been in a situation where she’s chosen to shake her ass for one specific “you”.

There’s a glass ceiling to break, aha, there’s money to make

I see the glass ceiling as quite a specific thing. It’s what stops women getting to the top. Women can reach the top in the music industry. They bring something different to the table which has nothing to do with objectifying their bodies. They have female vocals. I pondered the lines and decided the “money to make” is being made by industry execs who tell women they’ve got it made but then require women to do things men would never be asked to as a condition of their label’s full backing but the problems she’s talking about are quite specific to the music industry. For most women, the glass ceiling has more to do with questions over their commitment to work. It starts long before women have children. A partner once said to me he was worried about how heavily the firm had come to rely on young women who might all get pregnant at the same time. A friend was told she wouldn’t want to be a partner because she had a husband at home to take care of. It can also involve stereotyping around “male” and “female” traits and which ones are considered to be more valuable to business. These more mundane problems are a long way from the music industry.

Artists have always been beholden to their audience to a greater or lesser degree. The reality for the past 75 years has been that there’s a choice to be made between commercial success and personal integrity. Some are able to have both but not many. If any artist is willing to just do what they love, they can make a living if they’ve got the talent. That’s about more than just the gender of the artist. Yes, we should question why the most popular artists are expected to play the particular games Allen’s talking about but not everyone does. I love both female and male artists who don’t play the game although admittedly that’s partly because I just don’t like the kind of music that makes the most money, regardless of the lyrics or videos.

Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits

As my generation was the first to whom buying your breasts became acceptable, I don’t see this as a feminist war cry. I see what she’s getting at. It just doesn’t work for me because of those undertones.

You’re not a size six, and you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich, or be real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own

Within the pop music industry and film/tv there’s an enormous amount of pressure to look a certain way and women don’t help by buying magazines that take the piss out of imperfections. I agree that there’s enormous pressure on celebrities and that it trickles down. My read is this was a major factor in the song ever getting written.

Allen’s justification for using dancers in bikinis while she’s in something less revealing is that she’s uncomfortable with her body after having had children. I’ve said before we shouldn’t be too critical of each other’s insecurities. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to say “hey, you. Stop being insecure.” I could kick myself for my own insecurities and how they affect my actions sometimes (seriously, I annoy myself by seeking reassurance he actually is interested) but I’m not about to kick someone else for having some. That said, I find it really hard to see how it benefits feminism for a woman to complain about the kind of societal pressure that adds to insecurities, concede to it herself in her choice of outfit and then have a bunch of perfectly proportioned backing dancers in bikinis behind her. Quite apart from their race, can’t she see how unhelpful that is? Calling it satire isn’t an answer. Keeping her clothes on meant that the satire was lost as the rest of the dancers did a barely hammed up version of what we’re used to seeing.

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?

Well, we all know what this is about and that she’s got Robin Thicke and his pals in the cross hairs. Yes, rape culture sadly seems to be rising but the problem with the simplistic way in which Allen delivers her opinion on it is that it creates more divisions. Who’s her anger actually directed at? Men in general? That would be unfair and anathema to my vision of what feminism ought to be. It ought to be about genuine equality and I’d really like to put the days of crying “all men are bastards” behind us. Based on the exact words, another alternative interpretation to the one that she only has a very specific group of men in mind is available. It could also be read as a criticism of women. Young women mostly. The kind of women who might listen to her music. It reads like she’s calling those women out, telling them to examine their choices and she’s doing it using sarcasm. It’s not wrong to want those women to realise they deserve better but it’s wrong to do it in that way.

We’ve never had it so good, aha, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you misunderstood
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away

The implication of the sarcasm is that other people are saying we’ve never had it so good but not many people really are, are they? There have been improvements in the workplace but very few people are saying we’ve achieved equality. And as for sexual politics, we have an endless stream of unpleasantness coming over from the States, rape apologists from the religious right to rappers, like a particularly virulent disease that’s impossible to ignore.

An anthem isn’t one which concludes we’re fucked and we’d better get used to it. An anthem gives hope. Her final lines bitterly suggest there is none. All in all, I don’t have a clue why anyone would call her a standard bearer for feminism off the back of this song. It hits a couple of hot buttons but it’s personal, clichéd, snipy and divisive. It’s only a pop song though. If she really wanted to be taken seriously I’m sure she could’ve done better. It wouldn’t be hard to improve if she just ditched the pop format and gave herself more space. Not my cup of coffee musically but, in the form she’s delivered it, not my brand of feminism either, thanks very much.

Tories tacitly admit they’re more dangerous than porn

The story’s done the rounds that the Tories have removed old speeches from the internet. Yes, the Tories’ actions do raise questions about the ability of others to hold them to account but, wait. What’s this? It’s the Register pointing out in “Oh My GOD! Have the TORIES ERASED THE INTERNET?*” that the reports are technically inaccurate and Labour have done the same thing (and giving their former colleague, now at Computer Weekly and who started the panic, a swift kick in the shins in the process). Neither of our biggest parties wants us to look too closely at what they’ve said in the past and neither needed to resort to sinister tactics to do it. So there you go. I’d suggest that if you plan on holding the Lib Dems to account for their many many broken promises, you nail the original promises down fast before they do the same thing (if they haven’t already).

Poppy Prejudice

As I’ve read comments about Remembrance Day today I’ve wondered if there’s a note of inverted snobbery in some. It led me to thinking about my own attitude. I’m not talking about the arguments over whether war is glorified in the process of remembrance. That’s a fair debate to have and I agree with those people with an eye on the anniversary of the start of World War One next year who argue that it shouldn’t be romanticised (to me, Rupert Brookes’ poetry should only see the light of day in classrooms accompanied by the commentary that he never saw action in the trenches) or full of patriotic hyperbole (by the way if you’ve never seen Oh What a Lovely War, do watch it – it really is brilliant).

I suppose my thoughts have more to do with poppy wearers than poppy wearing – the people in the public eye who wear them. For the first time today I paid attention to people’s lapels and chests in the supermarket (most of the time they could be in a grizzly bear costume and I wouldn’t notice) and saw how few were wearing poppies. And yet if you put the tv on you can’t escape them. There’s something off about seeing poppies on everybody who comes within 50 feet of a tv camera. Although I haven’t been watching Strictly this year, I assume their glittery poppies are back – those things really piss me off. When every single tv presenter seems to be wearing a poppy but relatively few people are in my (admittedly unscientific and tiny) experiment, I do think it’s fair to suggest there could be an element of corporate compulsion behind poppy wearing. We don’t know unless people are actually asked what they really think (although now it’s in my head I’ll probably Google it to see if there’s anything out there on it) but if that does go on it makes a sham of the act of remembrance.*

There’s that but there’s also the politicians and various other people who grace our screens in the run up to Remembrance Day. I have to ask myself: is the faint lip curl of disgust when I see some people wearing poppies fair? Is it even rational? I grimaced at the sight of energy bosses wearing poppies. For many people wearing a poppy has personal resonance. If the narrative in my head which accompanies that grimace is “like they care” is that fair? Or am I letting my own prejudices get the better of me? For all I know the energy bosses have all been remembering their families today (I hesitate to limit it to men because my grandma was a Wren). If I cast the energy bosses as bogeymen who couldn’t possibly care about remembrance just because they’re willing to defend price rise after price rise, am I guilty of inverted snobbery? I think I am and I don’t like myself much for it. Although it’s not unreasonable to suggest that wearing a poppy has become the done thing in some circles, we should be careful not to let our feelings about entirely separate issues get in the way. On a day which is about remembering I’m reminded not to think of people as two dimensional.

* it’s been pointed out to me that the kind of people who write to Points of View would hit the roof if tv stopped wearing poppies. He’s probably right. That’s just a different kind of compulsion but it’s a fair point.

Fields of Poppies

White poppies have been around since the 1930s and are a symbol of peace. The Guardian’s running a poll to see who wears white and who wears red. I wear red. As far as I know the proceeds of sale of white poppies don’t go to the Royal British Legion and that’s where I want the money to go. I understand some people wanting to wear white and don’t have a problem with white poppies but, for me, red poppies don’t glorify war. They’re just an act of remembrance. From time to time there’ll be people who want to twist the meaning of any symbol but I’d rather carry on doing what seems right to me regardless.

There’s a different kind of poppy I want to mention though because I have a stronger opinion on it. A couple of years ago I heard about purple poppies for the first time. The idea is to remember animals caught up in our wars such as horses and sniffer dogs (ships cats were still around during at least World War One too). I agree we should be conscious that our actions have consequences affecting animals, although when it comes to wars governments have enough trouble recognising that human lives have value. What I’m not happy to do is to donate to Animal Aid by buying a poppy from them. If the money directly helped animals in warzones, I might feel differently. I agree with many of Animal Aid’s campaigns but the fact that they’re a campaign and lobbying group makes it seem inappropriate for them to get involved in Remembrance Day somehow and I can’t shake the sense that someone saw Remembrance Day as a money spinner. I’ve never bought a purple poppy and I don’t intend to.

To me, Remembrance Day is about reflection and recognition of human sacrifice. It’s about millions who died in every affected country during the two world wars (military and civilian) and the survivors, who lived through times my generation can’t begin to imagine. It’s about people who’ve served in Afghanistan and Iraq and died or were injured and I hope poppy donations help to make up for the help the Government fails to give. I believe we were wrong to go into either country but that’s not a judgement on the troops.

Remembrance Day isn’t about governments and it’s not a day for lobbying. It’s always been about the horror of war and the hope of peace. Red poppies and silence speak volumes.

“The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est”

8 November 2013
There was an excellent Comment piece by Harry Leslie Smith in the Guardian today, a man born in the same year as my grandparents as it happens. He shares his feelings, in particular on the risk that the Government’s plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One are likely to airbrush the realities of what life was like at home for most of the people who ended up fighting to create a more acceptable picture of history.

If Big Ben tolled every second starting on 28 July 2014 to mark every casualty in World War One it would stop just 43 days short of the anniversary of the armistice on 11 November 2018 by my calculation. 37 million dead and injured and that doesn’t even begin to cover all the people whose lives were affected.

Remember remember

“The teaching of emotive and controversial history is seriously compromised if pupils do not see history as a subject that is open to debate and argument as they study diferent and competing views of the same events”
TEACH (Teaching Emotive and Controversial History) Report, 2007 Historical Association

I love watching fireworks (except the one blown off course in the high winds the other night which hit the road I was driving on and went off) but every year as they’re set off in the weeks leading up to 5th November I wonder what people are really remembering, if anything at all. I’m not saying Guy Fawkes Night should retain its original meaning. Far from it but it seems as if we’ve reached the point where is has none. Maybe there’s no harm in that but it seems a bit weird to retain the celebration without remembering what it used to mean and why it doesn’t anymore (and shouldn’t). I find myself thinking about the ways the Gunpowder Plot’s roots and aftermath are relevant in today’s world.

Quite apart from its long term significance as a historical event in its own right (the treatment of Catholics before the Gunpowder Plot and the fact that the Plot itself fanned the flames of the religious persecution against Catholics which went on for centuries (and that the celebration itself was later rolled into the calendar of controversial events in Northern Ireland)), it can be compared with and contrasted to the September 11th and July 7th attacks. It makes sense to me that this should be followed up on in schools (not that the opportunity to discuss Ireland was ever taken when I was growing up). Things like comparing and contrasting causes (and international dimensions), the widening of prejudice afterwards, the difference between radical and mainstream, retaliatory attacks on innocent people and how widespread prejudice can increase bullying in schools (how my sides split at anti-Irish bullying when I was at school – all Irish girls pad their bras with semtex, don’t you know) are all things I’d expect older children to be capable of discussing. Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night was mandatory for over two centuries. Today we’re free to form our own opinions but if we aren’t challenging children to think critically their freedom is effectively reduced and prejudices which come from other sources such as family and the media are allowed to grow.

My feelings on torture and capital punishment will be pretty clear frommy last post. When the bald facts of the Gunpower Plot are stated, the fact that Fawkes was tortured is often taken for granted. The school assembly plan provided by the Parliamentary site says:-
“This slide is about the torture, trial and execution of the plotters and Guy Fawkes. The image is of Guy Fawkes signature before and after he was tortured. You can bring to the attention of the children the difference of Guy Fawkes signatures. Additional gruesome facts…”  
Torture and capital punishment aren’t relics of the past. There’s an ongoing ethical debate on both subjects. The right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment is one of the most important in modern human rights conventions. The British Government was found to have breached this right in relation to IRA suspects and America water boarded Al Qaeda suspects. Some powerful and populous countries have retained the death penalty and national security has been cited to justify killing people without a trial (shoot to kill policies and operations like the American one to kill Osama Bin Laden). Mistakes get made too, like the shooting of Jean Paul De Menezes, throwing up issues of racial profiling in general: the rights and wrongs and risk of error.

It’s also been pointed out in various places that Guy Fawkes has become a symbol to people like the Occupy Movement and Anonymous*.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether schools are meeting my standards of what I think could be done with the annual celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. In 2007 the TEACH Report referred to a number of emotive areas of history, many of which involve the interplay between white Anglo-saxon Protestant (or Catholic before the Reformation) Britain and other races, religions and countries. In the section on Key Stage 1 it said:

“re-telling the story of the Gunpowder Plot is ofen closely allied with the celebrations linked with Bonfire Night. In the current context, it might be appropriate to encourage children to explore motivation more fully and also to question whether Guy Fawkes’ attempts to blow up parliament were justifed and should be celebrated. What other ways may confict be resolved?”

No messing about there. Key Stage 1 and they don’t think it’s too soon to be asking kids to really think about it. The Historical Association’s website has guidance on teaching emotive and controversial topics and it explains:-

” Children are surrounded by puzzling and sensitive occurrences all the time and consequently it is important that teachers support children as they try to make sense of them. Teachers may play important roles in encouraging children to question stereotypes and to recognise alternative viewpoints. History provides opportunities for children to engage with these issues as they hear stories about different people in the past. Research suggests that from an early age children begin to identify with particular communities and may make prejudiced statements (Connolly: 2002). Extending children’s awareness of different viewpoints through history may contribute to children’s developing awareness of different life styles and values.”

After considering various areas where opportunities to teach controversial and emotive topics arise in each Key Stage, the Report went on to consider whether they actually were being taught and how. It concluded in relation to Key Stage 1:

“At Key Stage 1, the events and personalities linked to the schemes of work dominate the curriculum and provide few opportunities for extending pupils’ knowledge of emotive and controversial history. Even Guy Fawkes is not portrayed as a controversial or emotive issue. Traditionally, Key Stage 1 has steered clear of controversial and diversity issues, such as the views of older people.”

In relation to Key Stage 3, the Report said

“There are also those issues which are emotive and controversial because they continue to have general contemporary signifcance or personal resonance for students. Potential examples of such issues from Key Stage 3 include the Crusades, the Partition of India, the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, Irish history and the history of immigration to Britain. In contemporary Britain, where ethnic and cultural divisions occasionally lead to direct interracial violence and where recent events have led to heightened racial tensions, learning about the legacy of Britain’s colonial past and about the relationship between the West and Islam are potentially the most controversial and challenging aspects of the Key Stage 3 history curriculum.”

Modern prejudices are inescapable. Unless we evolve to become a perfect society free from all prejudices, children will be exposed to them. Some will hear things at home (from different angles). Most will see them on tv or through social media (trending topics like the Boston bombing and the Woolwich murder can lead to enormous numbers of unpleasant tweets). Some will be victims of bullying in schools and even by adults outside of school. As a 16 year old middle class sheltered white girl I was shocked the first time a total stranger made a sectarian comment to me (all I’d said was “35p please” – it wasn’t that I didn’t know what was happening in Northern Ireland, I just didn’t expect a middle aged man to blame it on me) but some kids will be exposed to that kind of thing on a depressingly regular basis. In addition, some teenagers will be stopped and searched. In both cases, their parents will probably have experienced similar things.

The Report seemed to suggest that coverage of all such controversial topics was still patchy. I haven’t found evidence one way or the other to tell me how much has changed since 2007. Even if I had children their experience wouldn’t necessarily tell me much because a lot seems to come down to circumstances in individual schools. Some schools would have been bucking the trend before 2007, some will have improved since then, some won’t. Based on the Report and the fact that the Historical Association is offering CPD content my guess would be that secondary may have seen greater improvements than primary but that’s a guess based on the reasons for avoiding emotive and controversial history which are laid out in the Report.

If teachers or parents reading this have any comments on this post, I’d be interested to hear them (or if anyone’s stuck Gove’s face on the Guy this year). I’m not writing this as an attack on teachers. The pressures related to teaching history come from a variety of sources and it can’t be easy to find a balance. In fact, one reason it was hard to find measured commentary on teaching controversial and emotive topics since 2007 was the media outcry which followed the publication of the Report. The claim that multiple schools were no longer teaching about the Holocaust (and even that it had been dropped from the curriculum entirely) swept through the media and those inaccurate stories are still cluttering up the internet and sending people searching down wrong paths six years later. The Report itself is a case study in how people see what they want to see through the lens of their own prejudices and fears. There are also complaints out there along the lines of “political correctness gone mad”. One site even claimed the Report was anti-Christian, but the guy saying that clearly hadn’t read the report very closely because he claimed that it didn’t classify Irish history as emotive and controversial – it does.

Apparently in 2006, Michael Gove gave the following as a reason for the rise in certain, what you could call, celebrity historians:

“Most of us who take an interest in our country’s past, who harbour a curiosity about our ancestors, who wish to discover what moved them and understand the conflicts of their times, are not searching for reasons to feel ashamed of our culture.”

As a comment on the tv viewing and popular history reading of adults, there’s probably some truth to this although saying they’re looking for something to be proud of would change the balance of the sentence and (I think) be closer to the truth. As something said by the man who’s now our Education Secretary it’s a bit disturbing. The vast majority of us have no real reason to feel ashamed of the mistakes of the past. If we looked at our individual heritage most of us would find that our ancestors were not the ruling elite or the kind of people who made their fortunes in the Colonies, through the slave trade etc. We’d find our own stories of deprivation. Even though I accept it’s true that some adults prefer their dose of history to be simplistic and jingoistic, that doesn’t justify teaching history to the same standard. That’s what I think people who criticise an honest treatment of controversial topics which is sensitive to diversity are really asking for. It seems to me that history (and citizenship lessons) should encourage critical thinking and where controversial and emotive topics are concerned it’s particularly important to encourage independent thought, discussion and empathy. Doing that enables people to think about who we are today, individually and as a society, and who we could become. It also does more than that. It discourages linear thinking. That gives kids skills which can be an enormous advantage later in life in various careers.

Gove’s proposals for a history curriculum which would put far too great an emphasis on British history and seemed to be encouraging an unrealistic picture of the British Empire earlier this year had to be altered. The extent of the outcry against his proposals remained heartening to me as I struggled to find any follow up materials saying whether teaching has improved in this area since 2007 but what ultimately came out of my fruitless task was an acknowledgement that there’s as much controversy over teaching emotive and controversial history as there in within the relevant areas of study themselves.

* and the Million Mask March took place in various cities tonight, of course

Ain’t afraid of no ghost

Linlithgow sits on the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow and Mary Queen of Scots was born in its palace. We lived there for a couple of years when I was a kid. I think I was 13 when we went on the ghost walk. The walk was the brainchild of a local history teacher, Bruce Jamieson, so it was meticulously researched. The Herald reviewed it a few years later. Nearly 25 years on his stories have stuck with me. There was the man decapitated by a kick from a horse. I still remember where that happened. There were the children who died skating on the loch (a couple of months later I thought for a minute I’d sledge into it – the 3′ (plus?) drop onto a cleared pavement that day prevented that but might be how my L5/S1 disc first got damaged). There were the graverobbers who were caught out by the body they were robbing. There was Burke and Hare, using the canal to take bodies back to Edinburgh. There was the child murdered by her father in the stone dovecote (which was on the route between our house and my best friend’s). He said it was because he couldn’t afford to feed her.

There were many more. Linlithgow is an attractive place with an impressive history but it inevitably included a lot of suffering and death. A bound book was available on the tour. It told all the stories and even contained an invoice for all the items bought to burn a woman at the stake for witchcraft. I don’t remember how the book wound up in my hands. Maybe I just thought it’d be uncool not to read it. Maybe I was thinking of impressing other kids with the stories. Once I had it I began to hate it though. I couldn’t admit it. I was 13 after all. It got to the point where I buried it under a load of other things at the bottom of my wardrobe. At first it was in with some school exercise books there but when I needed to pull an old book out for some reason I’d come across it. It ended up not just under the box of books but under a carpet remnant under the box of books. It stayed there for years.

I wasn’t scared of ghosts though. The stories were sad and spooky in the dark but they weren’t what got to me. What I really feared was more mundane, I think. People. The things they do to each other, most of all in the name of their country or religion and/or under the protection of the law. It’s the actions of the State that got to me. It still is. It’s capital punishment and torture and the seemingly never ending methods dreamed up to interrogate, punish, test, set an example to others and satisfy the public bloodlust. It’s the things human imaginations can dream up to hurt others. What really got to me about that book was the woman who burned at the stake and the petty bureaucracy that kept records of how much it cost to kill her. I don’t remember the details of what happened to her before she was killed but it’s a safe bet she was tortured to try to get a confession.

To this day, I can’t even handle simulated execution and turn away from the sight of a noose or hangman’s cross on tv. I can still see others I’ve seen in museums over the years and in pictures. I can watch gruesome crime dramas like The Tunnel but I can’t get the image of Shaun Ryder and others twitching at the end of their ropes in Malcolm McClaren’s Ghosts of Oxford Oxford Street film out of my head and that was over 20 years ago (4od’s got the film by the way).

My biggest fear isn’t ghosts, monsters or witches. It’s the darkness in humanity which makes society say that cruelty and vengeance are acceptable. It’s the baying mob. Not just the people who would line the streets to watch. For most of our history most of them had no say over what punishments could be meted out. They may have taken pleasure in the spectacle but they weren’t writing the laws. They weren’t even voting for the people who did. We don’t execute people anymore in the UK (although apparently it’s a lark to celebrate it if the executed person’s infamous enough), let alone sell off pieces of the executed person’s body as souvenirs after they’re dead, but my greatest fear is we’re not so very far removed from those days. Today the Guardian reported on the murder of Bijan Ebrahimi , who was beaten, dragged into the street and set on fire because his neighbours (wrongly) believed him to be a paedophile. A quote says that the people chanting “paedo” have to live with the fact that he was innocent, rather than that mob justice should simply never happen.

So much of our history revolves around fear and prejudice: fear of and prejudice towards women who educated themselves so that they could help others; different races, religions and cultures; mentally ill people; even poor people. In addition to the regular functioning of the criminal justice system, the worst crimes committed in the UK were committed by the State: the torture and killing of women, Jews, Catholics and Protestants (depending on which way the wind blew), political dissenters. And then there’s the arrogance and violence of the State’s actions in pursuit of (and to cling on to) colonial power. My innate revulsion towards all of these things probably goes a long way to explain why human rights matter so much to me. I need a legal system I can trust to prevent us repeating history. I fear the State that says the means justify the ends,  leaders (political and religious) who believe absolutely in the rightness of their actions, indoctrination of a public which stands aside and lets things pass, the society which values retribution and the underlying pettiness and nastiness that lie in the hearts of people who would have turned in their own neighbours to face the violence of the State. I don’t fear ghosts.

Little Hero – a little trooper

Thank you to the lovely people on Twitter who’ve sent Begley get well wishes and hugs. I’ve been passing your hugs on. The day after my first Begley post, he took his attitude of mature cooperation even further. Begley’s treated me like I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on for years. In the mornings before I leave for work he reminds me to top up the crunchie bowl (even if he doesn’t want any right then) and if the water level ever gets a bit low he’ll draw my attention to it (usually by politely sitting next to it and looking back and forth between me and the bowl). I know how important it is to give Begley his tablet on time so I’ve set an alarm on my phone. I was deliberately moving tablet time by a few minutes each day so I wouldn’t have to be up so early on weekends but Begley must have decided that his scatterbrain owner needed help so he started a new routine. When I go for a shower he comes upstairs. He sits on the window ledge while I get dressed and moves to block the hallway when I move on to putting on make up. When I’m done, he runs down the stairs ahead of me and then waits to be picked up for his tablet. We’ve got the actual tablet delivery down to a fine art now. He wants me to put it as far back and centred as I can so he doesn’t have to manoeuvre it before swallowing – if I get it wrong it looks like a pinball rattling around in there. Job done, he wants a cuddle but accepts that on work clothes days it’ll be very brief. If anything, I’m the inept one – there’s been two mornings where I tried to do it before coffee and completely missed his mouth! He’s being so helpful that he swallows whether the tablet’s actually in there or not. I’m not sure if he realises I’ve missed either.

I need to stop ringing for a vet appointment at the last minute in front of Begley because he knows that there’s no good reason to hear his name in a brief formal phonecall. He’s got nothing against individual vets – both cats behave beautifully whenever we go – but they both hate the waiting room. Who can blame them. Last time we’d been in there was a dog pitching an absolutely screaming fit over having a tick removed and his claws trimmed. Our next appointment was a week ago last Thursday. Begley knew he was safe until I’d had my shower (it was a non-work day so he’d already had his tablet). Once I was dressed, my clothes confirmed his suspicion. Jeans. Crap. He legged it towards the back door. I casually picked him up and put him on his desk nest (he’d co-opted my cosiest hoodie but I’ve bought him a new bed for the same spot on the desk, which he completely loves). He wasn’t having any of it and ran for the lounge. I have a day bed in the lounge and Ciara’s usually on it at that time of day so she was horrified to find me pulling it forward to try to reach Begley. Before I could grab him he was behind the sofa. When I’d pulled the sofa out and was clambering over the back of it, Ciara joined me, sitting on the back of the sofa glaring down at a miserable Begley. I didn’t have a choice. A full 20 minutes before we needed to leave he was scooped up and crated.

Ciara really surprised me at this point. Once I opened the lounge door, she ran outside but after a couple of minutes of what looked like intense thought she came back in, hovering round me like she wasn’t sure if she was missing out. Last time I’d taken Begley to the vets the capture was quick and quiet. I’m not sure she even noticed he was gone because she was asleep. This time she was waiting for us by the front door when we got back. Ciara’s a funny thing. She takes Begley for granted most of the time but leans on him heavily when they have to go to the vet or cattery. Two years ago we had the nightmare of a suspicious lump. It was the first time she’d ever been to the vets alone and she was a completely different cat. With Begley there, she’ll hop off the table after her exam to investigate the room. Without him her confidence completely deserted her. Begley’s had more solo vet visits over the years – not many but a few – and his demeanour never changes, with or without Ciara. It’s incredibly sweet that the brother she takes for granted and sometimes bickers with is her anchor.

Much as I love dogs (if you don’t follow me on Twitter I feel like I need to point out that I do), some of them behave abysmally at the vets. On Thursday it happened again. The dog waiting to see our vet howled through nearly the whole of Begley’s appointment. Next time I’m going to ask if they do a cat only clinic because Begley also has a stress induced heart murmur. The vet thought that by the time we’d been talking about treatment options for a while he’d be calm enough to check his heart again. I was the one obviously struggling – I’d nearly fainted as she described the risks of surgery and had to sit down but (after I’d tugged his crate towards my chair in response to his look that the stroking had stopped) I could see Begley was still really stressed and I could see why. His ears were pointed at the waiting room, where the howling was coming from. I’m probably not going to decide surgery’s right for Begley anyway because he’s settled into the concept of treatment so well but the heart murmur is an important factor in whether the vet would allow it at all so I really need to try to get him in front of a vet when the walls aren’t shaking to the sound of howling.

Begley does have some limited experience of dogs and they bring out his hero side. The first time I ever heard him growl was when he met my parents’ last dog for the first time. An energetic Irish Water Spaniel, Corin put his paws on my shoulders when I got down to him. It must have looked to Begley like I was under attack because I’ve never seen him act quite so aggressively before or since. Years later when Corin had died and my parents got Quinlan, we decided to introduce the cats to him while he was still their size. Ciara was amazing (possibly a story for another time). Begley did what none of us humans had been able to with this cocky little bundle of rags in a cyclone
most of my puppy photos of Quin are just blurs of brown velvet because the person who termed the phrase “bundle of rags in a cyclone” was absolutely right but here’s a rare one of a sleepy tiny Quin (who can now get his paws to my shoulders when I’m standing)

Begley scared the living crap out of him with just a growl, a glare and 5.5kg of puffed up irritation. Begley had him belly up on the floor, submitting and looking for permission to get up again before we knew it. The cats quite often stay at my parents for a couple of nights when I’m away. Quinlan’d gotten so used to me smelling of cat that he spent the day and evening of their first stay after he came along wondering why I wouldn’t come downstairs to see him. “She’s in Reading” apparently wasn’t convincing in the face of the overwhelming evidence that I smell of cat and therefore I must be in the house if he can smell cat. Mostly there’s an assured mutual destruction thing going on between them and the dogs these days I think. The dogs (Meris has never been formally introduced to the cats) stay downstairs, the cats stay upstairs and no dog ends up with a bloody nose.

Anyway, back to the vets. I got the blood test results the next day and it was brilliant news. Although his weight hadn’t stabilised yet his thyroid count wasn’t just in the normal range. It was hovering at the lower end of it so we reduced the dosage of his tablets. Unfortunately, since we lowered the dose he’s had an upset stomach again. Fortunately, from monitoring point of view, Begley only uses the litter tray when he’s sick. He didn’t get sick on the higher dose so it’s hard to believe it’s a side effect. Diarrhoea’s common in hyperthyroid cats and this is similar to how he was before he was diagnosed. If we hadn’t seen such a dramatic reduction in his thyroid count last time I’d be panicking that he’s back where he started but I just don’t believe that could happen from the reduction we’ve made. There’s been no vomiting or diarrhoea since Thursday night so hopefully we’re moving forward again.

Begley’s brilliant. He does his best to communicate how he’s feeling, even coming to find me if he’s thrown up somewhere I might not notice (which he’s never done for normal things like hairballs). He’s stayed perfectly cooperative over the tablets, despite being sick this week. I thought I might be in trouble yesterday when he went outside just before tablet time but he came straight back in when he saw me. I could hardly blame him if he’d decided that they weren’t working and he’d had enough. His faith in my judgement, if not my memory, is a privilege but it’s also the most frightening thing about pet ownership and I hope it’s justified.


Begley absolutely loves his new bed

Red Ed? Really?

I said I’d come back to some thoughts on Ed Miliband’s speech but then the Daily Mail carnival came to town and I didn’t really want to stroll through the sideshow with you. No offence. I’m sure if we could rustle up some candy floss from somewhere it could’ve been fun but I just wasn’t in the mood. The Mail was (as it so often is) like the screams of every single person on every single ride at a fair, only the rides are shitty feeble things not worthy of all that fuss. Don’t get me wrong, I think what the Mail said was low but it was also absurd. Even the on the Mail’s most knicker-knotted day nobody there can seriously believe that Ed Miliband wants to take his party to the far left. Surely? The Mail’s attack of the vapours was an extreme response to the question many of us must have been asking though: what did Miliband mean when he said Labour are bringing back socialism? What does Labour stand for these days?

When Newsnight asked what Miliband meant, after the Mail kicked off, it suggested Miliband is taking Labour back to 1983 as if it’s accepted wisdom all of a sudden but I found something interesting when I was puttering around on Google. First I’d read Miliband’s speech. Have you read it? Ok. Now read this from Tony Blair in 1997. We’ve gone from spotting what’s missing from the picture in my first Labour Conference post to a game of spot the difference. His language and tone are hardly miles away from Blair’s in the opening section of the 1997 Manifesto. This spurred me on to read Labour’s 1983 manifesto. Stylistically, it’s a very different affair to the 1997 manifesto and Milliband’s speech. Less polished, which isn’t surprising, but it also has a less jingoistic feel. I’m not saying I agree with everything in it and some pledges are unfeasible 30 years later but others are making the comparison between Labour now and Labour then and Miliband himself said Labour’s returning to socialism.

Naturally, there are some similarities in policies between the 1983 manifesto and Milliband’s speech but look at the things you won’t see today. No rent cap. No promise to scrap Trident. And no promise to renationalise privatised services. I’m not even convinced partial privatisation of services in the NHS and probation and courts services would be reversed under Labour, if and to the extent the Government has implemented reforms by 2015, but even if it does it’s a far cry from a sweeping policy of renationalisation of assets, production and services and at the heart of socialism lies nationalisation. When Miliband criticised energy companies, he wasn’t criticising the concept of privatisation. He was saying it should create a genuine competitive market which doesn’t exhibit cartel behaviour. Blair said the same thing in 1997. Where Milliband departed from established wisdom is by saying that if they don’t stop abusing their position, they will find their prices rigged in the opposite direction. Every party agrees that energy is a hot topic. It reminds me of being polled sometime between 2001 and 2003, before I learned to drive. The pollster read a list of issues and asked me to tell her the most important one to me. When she got to petrol prices and I didn’t jump in to say that, she repeated it in case I hadn’t heard her. So many people had listed it as the single most important issue to them that she couldn’t believe I didn’t. It goes to show just how closely our political opinions are tied to our household budgets. It’s only natural politicians want to give us a palatable solution to rising energy bills. They don’t need to give a damn about rising fuel poverty to know energy prices can’t be ignored.

Because time has passed since Miliband’s speech, we now know that the optimism some people felt after it may very well have been misplaced. I have to admit that until I started looking more closely at what was and wasn’t being said on employment and social security for my first Labour Conference post I felt a flicker of excitement myself. Thinking about the similarities to Blair’s manifesto afterwards, I wondered why we wanted to believe a new dawn was coming. I suspect the answer is that Blair was a snake oil salesman. I never trusted him. Miliband has sincerity going for him. He comes across as value driven, an ideologue, not a suit. To some people, this gets put alongside his Mr Nice character and counts against him. He’s often criticised for seeming a bit too laid back and nice, maybe leading to concerns he can’t quite see what’s at stake or that he’s too soft to deal with Cameron. He’s not statesmanlike enough. His characterisation as Wallace plays on this in a pretty obvious way and if you put Wallace in the ring with Preston, it’s hard to see him making it out in one piece without Gromit (and no, I don’t see Ed Balls in the role of Gromit). It was interesting that in a BBC interview about the Mail’s Ralph Miliband story, Ed Milliband appeared mild and smiled frequently when he was clearly furious. It really does seem to be his default setting. Remaining calm can be reassuring but it was always inevitable that some people would ask whether the duck’s paddling under the water or just drifting along with the current. I have personal reasons for not underestimating him – it’s easy for people to underestimate me for similar reasons (too laid back, too pleasant, too prone to making jokes, too drawly) – so maybe I’m imprinting my own experiences onto him but there’s no reason to think he’s not actually ambitious and pragmatic.

On the Monday, before Miliband’s speech but after he promised to bring back socialism, Newsnight called for Labour to appeal to Middle England and banged on about the “conservatory” test. If you haven’t heard of this, the idea is that to get enough votes to win a majority Labour needs to appeal to people who have or aspire to have a conservatory. Apparently Blair targeted people using this test in 1997. I’d quite like a conservatory if I moved to an area where house prices weren’t so high but Labour needn’t sit in the centre on my account. There appeared to be a suggestion again that Labour needed to move right on “welfare” and immigration. Rachel Reeves was on the show (a return visit after the whole “boring snoring” thing) and defined helping people with the cost of living by reference to the minimum wage up to the “squeezed middle”. So, shortly before she was shuffled into the Shadow Work & Pensions job, she didn’t include unemployed people or people unable to work in the list of people who need to be rescued from rising inflation. I can’t say I’m altogether surprised by her interview with the Observer last Sunday.

I’ve mentioned Newsnight in both this post and the one on social security. I know everyone’s getting in the act of accusing the BBC of bias these days but I’m finding that more and more I’m asking myself how often Labour allows itself to be led by the editorial content of the media. As I said in In a spin, it’s not just the policies themselves that I want to see improve from Labour. The sense that they’re reacting to (often quite lazy) reporting and editorials (across the board, not just at the BBC) instead of setting the agenda, selling it and sticking to it is a far greater flaw to my mind than Miliband’s personal presentation.

What it all boils down to is this: I’m still not satisfied, particularly with policies that seem to be designed to appeal to lower to average income Tory voters without any attempt being made to move people in the centre to the left. Despite Milliband’s speech putting a spotlight on a few areas which are key to me, the past few weeks suggest to me that Labour remains determined to steer a course between the rocks of the left on the one hand and the hard place of general centrist ideology which many New Labour voters were comfortable with (and which Cameron claimed as his own between 2006 and 2010). The challenge for Labour if it wants to do that is that it It can’t ignore its left wing supporters, not because they’re likely to vote for anyone else in 2015 but because a public stink over Labour’s failure to meet left wing expectations would make its leadership look weak and put the centrist voters off because they’re already not convinced that Milliband has the necessary leadership skills to be pm. You only have to look at coverage of Labour’s relationship with the unions to see that. Labour is trying to please as many people as it possible to please: here’s a red rose for you disabled person, here’s one for you working mother, here’s one for you unemployed school leaver, here’s another one for you graduate living with their parents…you get the idea. Or, to go back to the fairground analogy, it’s like Labour’s operating a ring toss where we all get to pick our favourite toy or goldfish but the toys are badly stitched and the goldfish are already in advanced old age.

As for the Mail, although the Miliband family are (rightly) distressed by the way the Mail went about it, it’s arguable if you want to be cynical that the Mail did Labour a favour by telling everyone to watch out for commie tendencies. Their reaction was, unwittingly, in the best traditions of the fair. We were supposed to be looking for socialist policies but the shell game meant we ended up with a Marxist under every cup. Where’d reality go? “Why, sir. Look. What’s that behind your ear? It’s Rachel Reeves being tough on social security. Now, I have nothing up my sleeve, except a new-found tolerance for free schools.”

“You talk about it”

In his recent Conference speech Ed Miliband said that, as a country, we’re failing people who suffer from mental illness. I agree. I’ve even written about it. In saying we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about mental illness, though, Miliband said
“if you’ve got a bad back or you’re suffering from cancer you talk about it.”
It was said with the best of intentions towards people suffering from mental illness but the failure to distinguish between intermittent and chronic back pain indicates either a lack of understanding of or indifference to chronic back pain: how much stigma surrounds it; how uncomfortable it can make other people; what it’s like to be called lazy just because other people can’t experience what we’re experiencing. It’s hard to talk about it (hard to blog about it too but I think it matters enough to do it sometimes).

People with chronic back pain (and other forms of chronic pain) are often expected to talk about things we don’t actually want to talk about and to answer any question anyone asks about it*. That includes situations where it’s not just uncomfortable to refuse – when an interviewer or boss asks, even if they’ve got no right to, what do we do? Sometimes I wish I had rheumatoid arthritis, just because conversations would be done with so much more quickly if I had a two word easily recognisable answer. But I don’t. I have a nearly a decade of absolutely non-stop pain which has spread as the musculoskeletal problems have, and another decade before that where I was in pain for at least part of every day. Over half a lifetime of doing some things differently and not doing other things at all, of well meaning but often misguided interest and advice from some people, suspicion and accusations from others. When it comes to work and doctors I still feel particularly defensive as a result of past experiences.

Even when I’d often rather not answer at all, I try to be straight forward when I answer people’s questions, although they’d probably be amazed at how much I’m not telling them. I really don’t understand what compels so many people to ask. I’m not saying people are trying to make me feel bad. Most aren’t but, as I said, I had some really negative experiences in the past and talking about it without my hackles rising is hard. It’s not just that though. I really wish I could be defined by more than the fact that I’m in pain. My body is damaged. One part of my brain receives constant pain signals as a result. There’s so much more to me than that though and it’s frustrating to feel like what I can’t do is so often in the forefront of people’s minds. The great thing about clients is almost none of them know so I’m free of it when I talk to them.

What Miliband’s comment also fails to recognise is how often talking about it is a waste of time, how often we answer questions only to discover the other person wasn’t listening to a word of it or to receive the reply “I know just how you feel. I put my back out gardening on Saturday. It hurt like hell on Sunday”. For all the talk, it’s immensely difficult to get people to actually listen when we have to do things differently to manage a condition. Not to mention the fact that when people do listen it’s often with pity in their eyes and how humiliating that is.

He’s also failing to acknowledge that there are people who care about us and are emotionally hurt themselves by the idea of our living with pain day in day out, that those people might be overprotective and might not want to suggest doing things for fear of feeling responsible for causing us more pain (immediately or as a flare up). It’s so incredibly hard to talk openly about chronic pain with someone who cares, hard for them to understand that we decide to do things knowing they’ll cause more pain because it really is worth it to have a life worth living. It can be easier for us to pretend we’re not in as much pain as we are to protect them. For some people it’s also a matter of pride not to admit to the people they love that there are things things they can’t do any more so they don’t talk about it. They just keep on doing them and suffer in silence.

Does he know that these problems with communication are so common among people who suffer from chronic pain that it’s a requirement for patients at Addenbrookes pain clinic to attend seminars which include talks on handling other people’s attitudes and feelings and being assertive about managing pain. Does he also know how few holistic chronic pain clinics there are providing any help beyond steroid injections? What I would say if I was really going to talk completely honestly about it to someone else would be this:

“Accept it. Accept it rationally and emotionally. I’m in pain. I will be an hour from now, a day from now, a week, a year, a decade. Whatever you imagine that feels like, you’re probably wrong so it’s better not to try. Trust my judgement. I know what I need to do to manage it. I know it will fluctuate through the day and why. I know the things which make it significantly worse. I know what to avoid and how to minimise the impact when I can’t or choose not to avoid those things. Sometimes I’ll ask for help but often I’ll be proud and stubborn about doing the little things for myself. Trust me. The amount of extra pain they cause isn’t worth trying to stop me. If I need to, I will ask. I really will. I know when it’s worth a significant increase in pain for a few hours or days to do something that’s important to me. Some of those are trivial things. Some are huge but it’s my decision to do them. Just accept it all because if you don’t, you’ll never really know the rest of me.”

I never do say it though.

It was just one sentence in his speech but Miliband, inadvertently I assume, dismissed the problems people like me face. We don’t often talk about these problems with non-pain sufferers. If he wants to know how people with chronic pain really feel he should try visiting a forum full of chronic pain sufferers, all looking for advice and understanding. It might be easy to talk about an occasional “bad back” but believe me, it really isn’t easy to talk about chronic back pain.

* If you’re one of the people who’s asked me questions as a result of reading something about the pain on my blog or Twitter, I’ve made a conscious choice to talk about it here/there and by extension to talk about it with you.