Saturday, June 24, 2017

Then and now

At the beginning of 1975 I moved into a very basic privately rented small caravan on a site near Oxford owned by the district council, not far from Radley College, whose students lived very different lives. I'd become homeless on the birth of my son and it was all that the council had to offer. The caravans there were mostly flimsy in construction; a timber frame with aluminium cladding and a layer of some sort of insulation. We cooked and heated them with bottled gas. They were freezing in winter and hot in summer, really only fit for holiday use, not occupation all year round. My neighbours were a mixed bunch and all of us were poor; travellers who'd settled there so their kids could go to school or their elders could enjoy local health care, a few impoverished pensioners, some single parents like me, some hippies, and a few petty thieves who got into trouble from time to time. Some were illiterate, mainly the older travellers, and I helped them with official correspondence in return for gifts of things they'd picked up while wheeling and dealing. With a few exceptions, we looked after one another. The site was surrounded with woodland that was full of bluebells in the spring. Our dogs loved their walks.

That first summer a caravan that was almost identical to mine went up in flames, just a couple of hundred yards away. Two children died in the fire. Their mother had run out of the caravan without them, and when she realised what she'd done it was too late. The fire consumed the van in seconds. An action committee of sorts was formed, consisting mainly of a few angry men who blamed the lack of any fire-fighting equipment on site. There was a water tank with buckets and a hand pump, and the "fire alarm" consisted of a metal triangle that you banged with a metal rod. It couldn't be heard from very far away and not above the sound of revving cars and loud music. After the fire a hose attachment for the fire brigade was installed. Everything went back to normal. We lived there for another seven years. I bought a bigger caravan after a few years, when mains water and drainage were provided. Until then I had to use a stand pipe and walk to a communal toilet and shower block around the corner. If I talk about those times, my son might comment that that was "when we lived in a shoe box on a motorway".

I remembered all this after the Grenfell fire and the panic evacuation of Camden tower block residents, and asked myself what's different now. Social media and rolling news, I guess. Although the 1975 fire was in the local paper, I don't remember it attracting much notice further afield. Yes, you might say that "only" two children died then, not the numbers that have died in London, but that was two too many. If it happened now, I imagine that the council would have had to explain why it offered such limited facilities, in the local press, in the regional TV news, and in court.

I've been a council tenant in a different area for the last thirty-odd years, in a semi that was built in the 1920s. My landlord has modernised it with an indoor WC, central heating and other improvements since I've lived here, most recently with smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. I'm fortunate, compared with the tower block tenants. A lot can change in forty-two years, though maybe not enough.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Vote on June 8th

People aged over 65 are far more likely to vote that young people, and to vote for the Conservatives, yet the result will affect the young for years to come, even after all us pensioners have popped our clogs. Register to vote now, and use it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The will of the people? Which people? Another email to my MP

Dear Mr Cartlidge,

I'm sick to death of hearing people talk about "the will of the people" when discussing or reporting on the referendum. The result was tight and was only the "will" of under 35% of the UK electorate. It didn't reflect the views of those who will be most affected by leaving the EU - young people. It offered a simple yes/no choice on a very complicated subject that many admitted they didn't fully understand. Claims were made in heated debates, but not fact-checked. One of the experts despised by Mr Gove and others is the Liverpool University Law Professor Michael Dougan, who described the Leave campaign as “one of the most dishonest campaigns this country has ever seen”, referring to “Dishonesty on an industrial scale”. The debates I saw on TV weren't very helpful to the undecided or bewildered, as they could be described as a lot of argy-bargy, with very little unbiased explanation of the consequences of leaving the EU. UKIP-inspired racism and xenophobia, helpfully fuelled by The Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun, were shameful, and had very little relevance to the real issues.

It was extremely foolish of Mr Cameron to call the referendum, mainly to appease the Leavers in your party, and very neglectful of him to walk away when all hell broke loose afterwards. I'm unimpressed by his successor's haste to act and the confusion about her negotiating strategy. Sounds to me as though she expects far more than we're likely to gain, as we're in a very weak bargaining position.

I don't accept that the referendum result provided a mandate for the government to trigger Article 50, which will have disastrous consequences for the UK. The economic effects are already being seen. The effect on food costs, with a shortage of agricultural labour and tariffs on imports, will make life more expensive, especially for those on limited incomes. Scientific research and the freedom for students to move between European universities will be affected. Trade with non-EU countries, like India, won't necessarily make up for the loss of trade via the EU, and is likely to result in more immigration from those countries as part of their conditions. Those areas of our country that mainly voted Leave because of industrial decline need new industries and new skills; the development of technologies to conserve energy and combat climate change could help to do that, yet your government has reduced subsidies while committing a huge amount of money to nuclear power that the Chinese will be involved with. It's a crazy way to do things. We need EU healthcare staff, without whom the NHS would be in an even bigger mess than it is now, and at a time when the far right is flexing its muscles and Putin is threatening the security of the Baltic states, it's crazy to leave an EU that we need more than ever, for the maintenance of peace and our shared values. The fact that Putin, Trump and Marine le Pen all want to see the EU break up says it all, really.

If Parliament votes to trigger Article 50, however popular that decision may be in some areas, it will not be acting in the country's best interests; far from it. "The will of the people" should not dictate a decision when those people were not properly informed and almost certainly have not understood the consequences of leaving the EU. Please don't vote to do it.

Margaret Nelson

Dear Margaret,

Thank you for taking the time to write to me about Brexit.

Whilst I campaigned for the Remain side, I want to be 100% clear in assuring you that I fully respect and accept the result of the referendum. It should be noted that I voted for the Referendum Act to come in to law. This made clear that on the subject of our membership of the EU the people’s decision would be final and that Parliament, on this occasion, would not be the deciding body.

As it happens, I did not support the Government’s decision to appeal the judges’ verdict that Parliament should have a say on Article 50. You can see from this Hansard extract that when Brexit Secretary David Davis gave his statement on November 7th following the original High Court decision, I urged not to appeal, saying that it must be ‘blindingly obvious’ to him from what MPs were saying that most of us – regardless of what side of the referendum we had campaigned on – accepted the result of the vote and would vote for Article 50. Instead, the Government waited and has anyway gone and lost the appeal. But David Davis is right: nothing has changed, the big change was the result of the referendum and we are still going to leave.

Given that I accept the result, were there to be a vote in Parliament I would have no hesitation in voting to issue Article 50. I believe that a very strong majority of MPs in the House of Commons feels the same. Yes, a majority of MPs were for remain, but I do believe that most share my view in respecting this vote and recognising that we cannot overturn the decision whether we like it or not. The strong vote on Second Reading for a Bill to issue article 50, which I believe is inevitable, would send a strong signal to the EU and help to put this to bed and show the country had chosen to come together and accept the result. In contrast, if we voted for article 50 and the Lords overturned it, that would be setting an unelected chamber against both elected MPs and the clear will of the people. Such an outcome would be indefensible and, I believe, unlikely.

Ultimately, I think it is possible to have supported remain, but also to have supported the referendum in principle, and furthermore to argue that we should vote in Parliament to show we respect the referendum result. One key reason I supported the referendum is that I felt for too long the country has been torn over its EU membership. That debate is now over. The worst thing for this country was not leaving or remaining but staying in limbo. I hope that we can now finally get on with things, issue Article 50 and start plotting our new future as voted for by the British people in a decisive manner. Better to move forward than be mired in indecision.

Thank you again for taking the time to write.

Regards, James

Monday, November 14, 2016

On feminism, an incomplete introduction

This post is in response to a comment on a previous post by 'Anonymous' or Richard - click here to read it first.
“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
                                             ― Gloria Steinem
Note that she wrote “anyone”; not men or women, but anyone. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Richard that men can be, and are, feminists too. There have always been men who've supported women’s right to be treated equally, not just in terms of their pay, but in every way. Most of my male friends could be described as feminists. I’d find it difficult to remain friends with them if they weren’t. Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Patrick Stewart, Alan Alda and Bill Bailey (the guy in the picture) are just a few high-profile men who are happy to identify themselves as feminists.

Richard commented,
‘… feminists quite rightly identify the disadvantages suffered by women but are sometimes inclined to resort to the very thing they purport to oppose; namely crude prejudice against the opposite gender. This can culminate in examples such as Andrea Dworkin’s well-known statement, “I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig”.’
“Quite rightly identify the disadvantages…”? Rather patronising, don’t you think? In many parts of the world and throughout history, just being a woman is and has been a disadvantage. The list of crimes against women is long. Child marriage, acid attacks, domestic violence, stoning, rape, FGM, sex trafficking, slavery, female infanticide… there are many more.

Using Andrea Dworkin, an American activist, as an example of “crude prejudice against the opposite gender” betrays ignorance of Dworkin and of the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though there were so-called radical feminists whose approach was counter-productive (I knew some), a majority were more constructive. Dworkin wasn't typical of twentieth century feminists, attracting passionate loyalty and hatred in equal measure. Those who loved her are known to have despaired of her belligerent approach, though they understood why she did what she did. Dworkin was abused as a child and raped as an adult. Her campaigning was directed at pornography, rapists and men who were violent against women, and at the police and the courts who so often failed to provide justice for them. Here in the UK, a TV documentary by Roger Graef in the early 1980s that showed Thames Valley Police detectives interviewing a rape victim shocked with its lack of sensitivity and humanity. The resulting debate prompted a review of how the police handled sex crimes. There were improvements, though things are still not perfect.

I was sexually assaulted by a Sunday School teacher when I was about ten, something I didn’t tell my parents about as I wasn’t sure of their reaction. I haven’t been raped but came close when I lived in Oxford in the early ‘70s. Resisting my potential rapist, someone I knew, I was hit in the face and had a bloody nose and black eye. In court, the magistrates, mostly male, decided that as I knew my attacker it was just an argument between friends, and bound us over to keep the peace. I appealed. In the Crown Court the judge said my sentence was “a nonsense”, reversed the judgement and fined my attacker, who’d assaulted my employer, a publican, in the interim. The amount of his fine was less than that imposed on a poacher in the following case. It seems that I was worth less than a pheasant. These sort of experiences aren't uncommon.

During the 1960s and '70s the British women's movement attracted a lot of attention. Spare Rib provided a radical alternative to conventional women's magazines, and the Virago Press published some thought-provoking books for women. Contraception became more widely available, freeing women to enjoy life despite the disapproval of religious conservatives. I was involved in the women’s movement in the ‘70s as a member of an Oxford women’s group, campaigning for equality legislation, and a branch of the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty. I vividly remember a discussion about women’s rights at an NCCL meeting when a trades unionist from the Cowley car factory said that he had no objection to his wife attending our meetings if she had his dinner on the table before she left the house. He wasn’t joking. I was nominated to propose the formation of a women’s rights committee at the NCCL AGM in London and was subsequently co-opted onto the first such committee. We appointed Patricia Hewitt, later a Labour MP, as NCCL’s first women’s officer. The other members of that committee included Anna Coote, Tess Gill (now of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers), and Ben Birnberg, the radical lawyer. He introduced me to his mother, who’d been a suffragist.

A leading suffragist, who Mrs Birnberg would have known, was Millicent Fawcett, from Suffolk, after whom the Fawcett Society is named – I’m a member. Her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson fought to become the first woman doctor. The new wing of Ipswich Hospital is named after her. The difference between suffragists, like the Garrett sisters, and the suffragettes, like Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters, was that the former sought justice by non-violent, legal means, while the suffragettes used direct action that led to imprisonment and force feeding when they went on hunger strike. The women’s suffrage campaign was interrupted by WW1, when women played an active role (as they did in WW2). In 1928 women over the age of twenty-one were given the vote on equal terms with men. Finnish women were the first to be given the right to vote, in 1906. Saudi women were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time last year. Women in Vatican City still can’t vote.

The subjugation of women is strongly tied to the monotheistic religions, which have been used to enforce social control. Earlier societies, particularly around the Mediterranean, were matriarchal. Patriarchy developed with Judaism and Christianity, when the paternity of children and inheritance down the male line became a male preoccupation. The history of women’s role in society before patriarchy was largely ignored until an American artist, Merlin Stone, wrote ‘When God Was a Women’ (published as ‘The Paradise Papers’ in the UK) in the 1970s, documenting the archaeological evidence for her thesis that goddess worship preceded the male gods and prophets we’re familiar with. More recently, Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, the atheist lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at Exeter University, has studied the archaeology too, and made similar conclusions. Both Stone and Stavrakopoulou have reported significant obstacles to their line of research from male academics.

The development of feminism in the UK since the early twentieth century has been linked to the development of humanism and secularism, with activists, both men and women, campaigning for social justice. Humanism and feminism are naturally linked.

Thinking of feminism in narrow terms, as a campaign by shrill women that began about fifty years ago, is to ignore its development throughout history, without being identified as such, to its continuation now and into the future, nationally and internationally. I find it irritating to hear it dismissed in negative terms by men or women, particularly women who preface remarks with “I’m not a feminist but…”. They may be ignorant of history, but every woman who’s achieved personal, financial, social and professional success owes a great deal to all those men and women who fought for the freedoms she enjoys. We should do what we can to continue the campaign for equality for all the millions who don’t enjoy it.

Oh, and on equal pay…

Richard, if you substitute “men” for “women” and vice versa in your explanation of the lack of equal pay, it reads as follows:
"Rarely is an attempt made to analyse the nature of society and why such traits are prevalent in our world. Take for example Equal Pay legislation which has been on the Statute Book for over forty-years—and has still to be achieved.

"The reason for this is rather more to do with the economic laws within a market economy rather than the inherent beastly nature of the female sex. If men’s wages/salaries are raised to equal those of women who will pay for the increase? I haven’t noticed male employers rushing to the aid of the brotherhood! If female pay was 10% higher than that of men then to retain present profit levels, women’s pay would have to drop by 5% to match a similar percentage rise for men. (All things being equal) This would result in the vast majority of men being no better off."
Would you be happy with that?

Click here to read what the Fawcett Society says about equal pay.

And about my post on “cunt” as a swear word...

Dr Richard Stephens of Keele University researched the psychology of swearing for his book, ‘Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad’. He’s said, “In my opinion ‘cunt’ is considered very offensive because of its strong misogynistic overtone.” I share that opinion. It seems to me that the use of the word as a profanity signifies an immature and unhealthy attitude. It is not equivalent to other swear words (I’ve been known to use several) because of its association with cultural taboos.

For many years, in mainly religious societies, women’s bodies and natural functions have been considered unclean by those who ostracise them while menstruating and after childbirth. “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus 15:19).

To read more in this blog about women and women's issues, click here.

Update, 29/11/12:

"Between 2009 and 2015, 936 women have been killed by men. 598 (64%) were killed by their current or former partners, 75 (8%) women were killed by their sons."
                                                               Statistic from UK Women's Aid.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Use your imagination

Thomas L Friedman has written this in The New York Times, aimed at potential Trump voters,
"The smartest thing we can do now is to keep our economy as open and flexible as possible — to get the change signals first and be able to quickly adapt; create the opportunity for every American to engage in lifelong learning, because whatever jobs emerge will require more knowledge; make sure that learning stresses as much of the humanities and human interactive skills as hard sciences; make sure we have an immigration policy that continues to attract the world’s most imaginative risk-takers; and strengthen our safety nets, because this era will leave more people behind."
This applies as much to the UK as to the US. People voted for UKIP for similar reasons to Trump supporters. But our government is as behind the times as those who lament lost jobs, while punishing people for failing to get one. The old manufacturing industries are disappearing. There are too many service and retail businesses. There are too many people worldwide (and I don't mean immigrants), so there should be fewer babies. Money's going to be wasted on unnecessary projects like HS2, Hinkley and another airport hub runway, while projects that need finance, like renewable energy development, less destructive farming, waste control, and affordable energy efficient housing, are starved of it. Where do we start to change things? By untangling the mess that recent governments, Labour and Tory, have made of the education system, closing divisive faith schools, and encouraging creative thinking. By booting out the old guard on the right and left whose values are no longer relevant to life in the 21st century. A new electoral system would be good, and a new way of voting for people, rather than parties. We could do so much better.
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”
                                      ― Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A letter to my MP about Heathrow

I'm absolutely staggered that Mrs May should announce the expansion of Heathrow. It's clear that your government regards the Paris agreement on climate change as unimportant, since increased aviation inevitably means more global warming, which has already reached dangerously high levels. Whether by fracking, aviation or other use of fossil fuels, you're condemning your children and the generations that follow them to a far more uncomfortable existence than you enjoy, with more extreme weather, more refugees from droughts and floods, and the loss of many more species. It's ironic that you should even consider building prohibitively expensive power stations like Hinkley Point, when any such constructions are liable to be flooded by rising sea levels even before they're completed. If the same amount of money were invested in renewable energy, its development and installation, together with a serious energy-saving campaign, we'd have a far better chance of averting disaster.

Claims that Heathrow expansion, or any expansion of the aviation industry, is needed, are nonsense. A significant number of air passengers are frequent flyers, whose reasons for doing so are questionable. Business can be conducted via the Internet, avoiding the need for travel and expensive hospitality. A lot of freight is wasteful of resources and unnecessary. If the uses made of air transport were audited, I'm sure you'd find that we need far less air transport, not more.

Lastly, I have relatives who live under a Heathrow flight path and sympathise with all of those who'll suffer more noise, and even more with those who'll lose their homes. You won't get many more Conservative voters there in future, will you?

I urge you not to support this foolishness, but to support any action that helps to counter climate change without leaving a mess for future generations to clear up.

Yours sincerely
Margaret Nelson

[Address given to show that I am a constituent]

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Pens aren't redundant, yet

I guess I'm a bit old-fashioned. I prefer a book made from card and paper to a digital device, despite failing eyesight - that's why I use a magnifier. There's skill in typography, graphic design and illustration, and I'd rather be able to take examples off the shelf than switch on a machine. And although I type on a keyboard quite a lot, I still use fountain pens and propelling pencils. While I was working as a humanist celebrant, interviewing clients meant writing pages of notes in longhand, as I never learnt shorthand. I know that some celebrants would take out a laptop and type as they interviewed, but that never appealed to me. It placed a barrier between you and the client, who might rattle on, oblivious to your scribbling, but could be distracted by the clicks of a keyboard.

In a recent article in The Economist, the importance of handwriting is explained. The article is about American schools, where children are being taught how to write again. I don't know what's happening in British schools but when I was last in one they seemed to be scribbling a lot, though there was no sign that they were being taught how to write well.

The article begins,
Researchers are also aware that more than mere pride in penmanship is lost when people can no longer even read, let alone write, cursive script. Not being able to exchange notes with the boss or authenticate signatures, for instance, can hurt a person’s chances of promotion. More importantly—and intriguingly—though, learning to join letters up in a continuous flow across the page improves a child’s ability to retain and understand concepts and inferences in a way that printing those letters (and, a fortiori, typing them on a keyboard) does not. It even allows insights gained in one learning experience to be applied to wholly different situations.
So, maybe being old-fashioned is actually a good thing?