Pink for a Princess?

Welcome to the world, Princes Charlotte of Cambridge. You are only a few days old, but in your honour, the Royal Mail are producing pink stamps and Westminster is being lit up pink.

You may not even have worn anything pink yet.

You probably don’t even know if you like pink yet.

But don’t worry, you will.

You see, there’s a sweeping assumption in our capitalist economy that women like pink.

You only have to walk into the toy aisles of any supermarket or store to find that girls like pink. They must do – so many of their toys are pink. Their toys? Yes, we know those are for girls because they are pink. It’s an unwritten gender identifier.

Women must continue this love of pink into adulthood– there are pink versions of mobile phones and computers, and the dominant colour of mother’s day cards and gifts this year was again pink.

Pink is soft. Pink is feminine. Girls are sugar and spice and all things nice, so pink is for them.

The colour name comes from the flower (as it does in other languages, albeit a different flower, usually rose). Girls like flowers, so pink is for them.

Always has been this way.

What do you mean it hasn’t?

Some people get very upset when they hear that pink for girls, blue for boys, is not innate and is in fact only a convention that is around one hundred years old. They write angry comments on the Internet about trying to turn boys into girls and things just ARE, so GET OVER IT.

But it is nonetheless true that the pink-blue divide didn’t really happen until the first decades of the twentieth century. The reasons appear to have been a combination of technology, and fashion.

Until this point, babies of whatever gender tended to wear white clothes (yes, boys in white dresses and long hair, something probably regarded as horribly feminising today!) which could more easily be boiled clean and which couldn’t fade unlike the dyes in brighter clothes.
Boys were more likely than girls to wear pink, because men wore red uniforms and the convention was that boys were simply small men. Blue was associated with the Virgin Mary and so a more feminine colour.

This changed when sailor suits became fashionable – it was the height of fashion to dress small boys in these blue and white outfits and, with the advent of faster chemical dyes and mass production of children’s clothes, it was easier to dress children in colours more generally.

The transition of pink to a colour for girls took place gradually over the 1920s-1940s. Somewhat more horribly, its softer, feminine connotations were one of the reasons it was chosen as the colour of the Nazis’ symbol denoting homosexuality during the Third Reich.

But it’s SCIENTIFIC FACT, the online comments tell me. Little girls like looking at pink more. Well no, it appears that the test which “proved” this actually found that both adult men and adult women prefer blue tones, and that at the margins women preferred the red-purple spectrum and men the green-yellow, but children and the colour pink itself were not actually tested (thanks Wikipedia!)

More worrying is what pink has come to symbolise.
It is used as shorthand for what is expected of little girls, and by extension of women.
The focus of “girls’ toys” is so often physical appearance, shoes, clothes, nurturing and motherhood, art, romance, and domestic chores, as if those are the only things in adult women’s lives. Make the toys doing that pink, covered in hearts and sparkly, and you send the message that the subject and the colour things are interrelated.

The focus of “boys’ toys” is so often war, action, saving (in the superhero sense), science, technology, mess and trouble, and blue, black, dark green, and sludge colours. Include no female figures, or write “no girls allowed” on the front, and girls soon learn that these are not toys aimed at them.
Pink is only a problem when it becomes a barrier to children discovering their own interests, either because they learn to reject what is not “appropriate” according to their peers, or because an adult simply never thinks to give them a toy because it is for the “wrong gender”.

In the same toy range, boys get play tool kits, girls a play make up purse.
Boys get a whole train set of boy characters (girls get one or two added-in pink engines) while girls get a whole dolls house of women and baby characters with cupcakes to eat, and boys get maybe a “Daddy” or a boy with a football, if they are lucky.

Boys get war games, superheroes and science kits, girls get pink play versions of domestic appliances, princesses and they can have a science kit as long as they use it to make perfume or cosmetics.

I’m not saying one set of toys is superior to the other, just that there are some assumptions being hidden behind the colour pink and it is being used to stereotype our kids.

We should be aware of it.

If we have become accustomed to it to the point that we RAGE VIGOROUSLY against anyone suggesting that it is not the natural order of things, then we have a problem.

At this point, we often meet the just-ignore-it brigade.
“If your daughter wants a toy aimed at boys, she can.” But how much better if it was just a toy, that didn’t make her feel a bit excluded?
If a boy wants to play with a pink toy, he can, of course, and we’d support him in so doing. I just wish no peer or social judgement would be made of him, that he won’t have assumptions made about him, his masculinity or his sexuality?

What we tell our children in our words and actions and assumptions is not consequence free. But it is our job to try and help them to be themselves just as hard as they can be.

What I’m trying to say is that, if a real Princess wants to wear a plastic tiara, sparkly plastic high heels and a pink nylon dress to pretend to be a “princess”, she can.
Equally, if she wants to wear trousers, get muddy, fire weapons and make weird coloured science experiments she can do that too.
But she can also pick and choose, no child is a stereotype and finding what she loves to do and be is the secret of happiness.

There’s more than one way to be a girl.

There’s more than one way to be a princess.

Let’s hope Princess Charlotte has the freedom to work out what she enjoys, even while the world’s media try to watch her every move and commentate on it.

 

Lego Egg-on-face shaped silliness

 

 (Image from blog at today’s parent.com)

Over the past week there has been an absolute outcry about the latest issue of the Lego Club magazine. I don’t have my own copy because my little Lego club subscriber gets the boy-oriented edition in which the item didn’t feature.

The item in question was something you would see in any women’s magazine, how to get a haircut that flatters your face. I’m sure when producing the magazine the Lego team just thought, well that’s what girls like, beauty tips, spa days, cupcake recipes… And do you know what, they do.

They didn’t really have spa days as a thing that normal people did when I was growing up. Spas were health farms- dreaded places with austere diet regimes and hard work, not pampering and luxurious body oils. If someone had told me about spas, I would have loved it. My best birthday present when I was seven was some pink, brush on peel off nail varnish and a bag of eleven brushes and combs (30 years on I thought I had broken the last brush, but no, my mum turned up with two more!) 

The thing is, while my best friend and I wanted to be Snow White and Rose Red (now there’s a fairy story that Disney hasn’t covered), we also liked imagination play, running around, reading, cooking, trying to find a climbable tree, building space buggies with Lego Technics, played with Sindy (Barbies were too vulgar),  dressing up as all sorts of things and people, maths games, fuzzy felt pictures, making potions with all the stuff in the bathroom… Obviously we liked clothes, and playing pop stars, and curling our hair and girly things too, even ending up as models for painter Dianne Flynn but – and this is the important bit- we did all of these things.

My experience of growing up was multifaceted, and I know I am lucky that my childhood sounds like a Joyce Grenfell sketch. It was a time of confidence and happiness. I didn’t worry about how I looked, and even pre-Harry Potter getting glasses was ok for me – if they called me speccy four eyes at school I must’ve been too busy off doing fun things to hear it.

Which is why it is sad that girls today are being pigeonholed. Why should their toys be pink plastic irons (mine was cream coloured metal!), why should their science kits be for making lip gloss rather than indoor firework snakes, why are  building blocks coloured pastel pinks and purples “for them” rather than part of the whole rainbow available to all kids? Why are there now three girl-oriented Lego ranges, one linked to Disney princesses and two in the same limited palette offering spa options?

Can’t girls be interested in more than just how they look nowadays?

Which brings us back to the Lego Club magazine. Haircuts to suit face shapes.* Because girls of seven ought to be worried about whether their hair looks prettier cut a different way? No, Lego, just no. Your are best when your figures are standard, yellow faced, interchangeable. Where what the best hair looks like is a question of which one clicks on that matches the character the player is building for the story they are telling. Stay in the games, get out of the real world. You have already made long-haired, big-eyed special (non-compatible with normal Lego) Lego Friends figures, then shortened the Lego Friends clothes, exposing midriffs, showing more leg. Now you are explicitly making those Friends characters tell our girls about what is beautiful. Just no. I think the backlash is telling you you have egg on your faces with this one. I hope you have haircuts that make them the prettiest they can be…

* sorry about the link to the Daily Mail. The reader comments underneath show what the problem is! 

Ashford town centre: revival

Dear local politicians – we have a problem with Ashford Town Centre. It doesn’t work. Here’s why, and what to do about it…

ashford Adam Coulton

The Problems

1) Town Centre retail doesn’t cut it

  • There are far too many hairdressers, charity shops, discount stores, betting shops and estate agents,  and not enough shops to actually buy essentials. How can these shops afford the rents but others can’t?
  • Ashford town centre has no shop selling fitted shoes. Children need school shoes, that necessitates a trip into town (which with pester power and attractive shops around bringing additional spending), but that town cannot be Ashford.
  • The retail units are too small – M&S and Debenhams in Ashford don’t stock a big enough range to be attractive to a broad spectrum of shoppers, so they lose out. They are therefore not the destination stores that they could be.
  • Without destination stores, other stores cannot flourish unless they are competing to offer bargains over quality. Independent stores, such as Savia, are closing down.
  • In any case, the traditional high street no longer reflects how most people shop.
  • The parking is expensive compared with the delivery charges on internet shopping.

2) The Designer Outlet shopping is an alternative centre

  • People go for a shopping trip to the centre they can walk around and where they can park for £1. With a footfall of over 3 million a year, this is a success story.
  • The outlet is too far from town for shoppers to easily choose to go between the two.

3) The non-retail side of Ashford is played down

  • The town centre has still got some history and heritage, but the tourist office is hidden and doesn’t even offer the two walks guide any more.
  • The memorial gardens are the only significant green space centrally, but don’t offer anything except grass for young children.
  • Revelation St Mary isn’t as full as it could be.
  • Cafes are scattered, you have to choose which part of the town you want to go to to get coffee. those that are there haven’t thought through who their clients are likely to be – no space for push chairs, no children’s area, no outdoor seating.

The solutions

Some radical thinking:

1) Retail alone is not the answer:
Ashford is not a city filled with students with loans to spend, and is too close to Canterbury, Maidstone and Tenterden to compete with all the destination stores they have. In any case, the sort of units available to stores don’t seem to match what people say they want. A town needs more than just filled units, it needs people to want to go there. So Ashford needs something different.

2) What does Ashford have?:

  • There is a thriving craft scene. Many of the businesses that went into the (now closed) pop-up store were crafty in some way.
  • Ashford has a railway heritage and is conveniently located for business and tourism.
  • Ashford has an international station.
  • Ashford has a giant outlet shopping centre away from the town centre, and other satellite destination zones (John Lewis, Eureka park etc.)
  • With the arrival of residents in the Panorama building, the town centre will have residents! There are also quite a lot of families in the villages and estates around Ashford (just think about Repton, Orchard Heights, Singleton, Finberry, Park Farm/ Kingsnorth, Kennington, Willesborough, Great Chart, Stanhope, South Ashford and that’s just the first three miles from the town centre!) but Ashford has little for families in the centre.
  • Ashford has plans for Elwick Place, including a hotel and a cinema, plus decent restaurants. Elwick Place spans the gap between the International Station and the town centre.
  • The Borough Council is buying Park Mall. This gives local democratic control over a significant area of town and a chance to do something with those empty units…

3) So…

Start with the outlet. yes, expand it. But if you do that, it needs to link to the station (that’s probably on foot but it needs to be safe, well lit and frequently used) and to town. An irregular bus service won’t cut it. Instead, the transport needs to be the destination. That means something like this…

CnstSent07…although there is something a bit Simpsons about a monorail (this one is a Hitachi, photo from the linked webpage). But given the investment needed for the set up and the cost of running, that’s clearly a no-go. So, instead, you need one of these…

petit_train2_560

This is the Petit Train Touristique at Le Touquet, as pictured on the town’s tourism website (NB the weather is no better in Le Touquet than in Ashford). Great Yarmouth has one already, but no photos easily available online. You can even get these little trains with disabled access and luggage space.

This is not just something for parks or seasides. Ashford has a great railway heritage so it is entirely fitting to have a little train for transport as well as being an attraction for tourists in its own right. The point is, if you have regular little trains, people are more likely to get on it at the outlet and therefore get a chance to see the rest of the town. People in the surrounding area who do not come into Ashford may bring their kids for the ride. As I said, the transport IS the destination.

4) Think beyond retail. Think Residents

The Council has bought Park Mall – they could just flatten it!
Seriously, given the number of empty units in the town, Poundstretchers could take its pick elsewhere in the town, same for the hairdressers, tanning salon and DJ supplies stores. Wilkinson’s could probably stay where it is, or even increase in size taking over a number of empty units elsewhere, which would be very welcome.

This would give an opportunity to either put in a hotel (necessary if tourism and promotion of Ashford as a best placed place to stay took off), or, more likely residential housing. I guess they’d propose flats but wouldn’t it be great if these could be family homes, with room to spare for gardens and a play park.
Either would help general regeneration – people in the town centre need services, places to eat out, things to do and, yes, shops to shop in. In any case, the town centre is about to get more residents with the conversion of the ugly Charter House office block to decent flats.This means entertainment in the town centre will be needed that suits younger urban residents with disposable income- that’s restaurants beyond fast food, too.

5) Or, think more radically.

The town needs rezoning  because rather than an eclectic joy it feels a mess – there’s the bandstand for live music but flanked by the 99p store it doesn’t send a positive message about the town. The cafes are randomly off down Bank Street, and on the lower High Street. Relocating the cafes in a group around the bandstand would create a positive, outdoor ambience for the centre.
Given that Poundland has just taken over the 99p Store, I wonder how much longer it will stay there taking that prime central site anyway?
The tiny Tesco could relocate to the old Blockbuster or Pizza Hut buildings where it could help regenerate that end of the High Street because people actually want to go there. There are few places in the centre of Ashford where you can buy decent bread!
Demand more historically sympathetic shop signage, and fine businesses and landlords that do not maintain historic buildings.
01_184034176_31b16621d320by20lin20mei
There’s a lot of empty shops and grubby blank walls – make Ashford a town of murals. This has been done successfully in Sheffield (Tasmania, Australia), Nar Nar Goon (Victoria, Australia, pictured below by Leon Sims on the melbourneourhome.blogspot.co.uk website), Jonesboro (GPicture 018eorgia, USA), Angoulême in France, in Brussels, Belgium (the picture here is from the inspiringcities.org website, by Lin Mei), and all over the world to attract visitors. Where the murals are culturally appropriate, which both of these examples are for the locations they are in, this can look amazing. It would also be a chance to reinstall the town mural in the town centre, which has been in storage since the library was rebuilt as the Gateway Plus Centre.
While we are on an arts and culture theme, Revelation St Mary is trying hard with classical music and opera, but honestly, stick on a few more 1990s bands and you fill the place and keep it in business. It’s a question of matching dispensable income and the group that has it to what you provide. Ashford’s not quite in the space of high arts at the moment.
harmonic-motion
But really, Ashford needs a USP. The town’s big thing is arts and crafts. So my most radical proposal is this: buy a Toshiko Horiuchi-MacAdam installation (big, beautiful crochet thing that kids can play on, really fun and usable indoors or outdoors, see one pictured here on the roof of MOMA Roma and another below in Japan, taken by Masaki Koizumi). Install it in the centre of Park Mall and use that as the centrepiece of an arts and crafts revival for the town. If you did this in Park Mall, you could invite Emporia, Cross’s, the sewing centre etc to move into the units around it. If kids go to play there, then adults need coffee, so that’s more units needed, and little independent craft shops attract local foods shops, and local shops… You might even attract outlet shoppers if you really go kid friendly and set up a heritage trail too. Destination play, reached by Destination transport. Now that’s a town worth a visit.
crochet7
So, dear politicians of Ashford, here’s my challenge to you. Think a bit more radically about what the town centre is for in the 21st century and how we actually shop. Look forwards, not just backwards, preserve and protect heritage where we still have it, but be willing to replace mid-20th century rubbish with something new if it will attract destination stores. Remember the residents. Rezone the town, think about what makes us unique, and take a risk. After all, if any more shops go, we really will have nothing to lose.
Thank you. Feel free to get in touch if you want a bit more consultancy on the future of Ashford.

Tits up

So, as we feared, the disappearance of the topless Page 3 girl for one day was a publicity stunt.

Perhaps merely covering the expected daily vision of a young woman’s nipples with bikinis somehow didn’t result in a massive surge in sales from women? But wasn’t Page 3 the only thing holding back these potential readers? What did those wretched Feminazis want? 

It was a piece in The Times, the sister paper to The Sun, that set out that this was the end for page 3. The proprietor Rupert Murdoch had tweeted that, after 44 years, page 3 was looking “old fashioned” and ”aren’t beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes?”

The Sun treated it all today as a big joke: a “mammary lapse” in fact, a correction and clarification. The editor tweeted that they had never said bare boobs on page 3 were going.

Jodie Marsh tweeted to say that perhaps No More Page 3 campaigners should put their campaigning effort into something that matters more like ending FGM… and that’s a point worth looking at just a bit more.
The vitriol about some of the population asking a mass circulation newspaper please to stop portraying them merely as decorative objects or giving them twee little snippets to say about world events shows us that there’s a problem here.
Comments on feminist stories online range from go knit your lentils in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, to don’t you get it it is all just supposed to be like this… If it’s not go away and campaign about female genital mutilation, it’s you’re putting female models and photographers out of work, not very sisterly of you is it? Or you should be concentrating on low pay for women not this metropolitan elitist obsession. Or well it’s not stopping Boko Haram so shut up, and even suggestions that somehow this apparent prudery in only showing female celebrities in skimpy bikinis rather than full-on naked nipples on a nineteen year old from Northampton was brought about by pandering to the fear of religious fundamentalists – as if the key argument here were let’s publish bare tits or the terrorist have won!

Bare breasts mean – what? Babyfood and sex.
But breasts are political. Although breastfeeding in public is not only allowed but is supposed to be encouraged given that breastfeeding passes on nutrients to babies, people are embarrassed about seeing a breast doing what it is naturally supposed to do. They concentrate on the breast as a body part emitting milk rather than that the baby is using its food source to gain sustenance (which explains why people think it acceptable to ask that breastfeeding be done in a public loo, comparing breastmilk to urine rather than thinking what it would be like to ask them to eat their lunch in a smelly cubicle) and demand it be covered because breasts have become so sexualised in society that seeing them is rude. Tits for titillation only.
This is what Page 3 perpetuates.

No More Page 3 is a totemic campaign.
It’s a small thing in the big scheme of things, yes.
Except it is not, is it? 50% of the population is being told that what matters is their beauty and their breasts, not their brains.

Some are probably ok with that. Women as well as men.
No, really, it’s a judgement thing.
Imagine a kind of scale that has Disney Princesses at one end of the scale (the old fashioned ones with their passivity and waiting to be rescued, the modern ones with the sass they have in the movies drained out of them to be pretty dolls, still with unrealistic and unattainable figures etc.) and pornography at the other (women as objects, to be used, for the sexual gratification of others).
Somewhere in the middle like a complicated bubble is freedom to dress how you want, live how you want, do what you want. Something we in the West apparently stand for.
Everyone has a point on that scale at which they stop thinking that’s ok, and that point will be different for each individual.

For example, some women treat themselves as living dolls, pump themselves with silicone, publish multiple biographies that read basically like soft porn with themselves as the star. Everyone likes soft porn (maybe some don’t. Maybe it depends on the storyline).
Well, good for them, exploiting the patriarchy to make themselves a fortune.
But maybe, just maybe, we should recognise their business sense as a great thing and still not be too happy that the product they are selling is themselves as a woman.
This is objectification.
And the thing about an object is that it is there to be used.
It sits right alongside the concept of entitlement: e.g. she owes me sex because I bought her dinner. She’s putting it on display so I should be able to have it. I want her so she ought to comply.
Oh.
That’s a message all women should be afraid to see sent out into the world.

Maybe that all feels a long way from a teenager’s tits on Page 3.
But really, it’s not.
Focus on being pretty and happy, say the glittery, pink girls babygros and t-shirts. Have domestic chore related toys!
I’m a princess! I’m a princess! Yes but apparently one that’s going to have to do her own ironing and hoovering with pink plastic appliances.
You want construction toys? Have pink meccano to build wands and butterflies! Have Lego Friends, so that you only have a female-focused consumerist world to play in, and your male friends never get to see that as a normal part of life.
Computers? I only do the design ideas, I need Steve and Brian to do the programming, says Barbie.
“I’m too pretty to do my maths homework” says your next t-shirt.
Science is hard, why not ice a cupcake or make a lipgloss from a special science for girls kit?
Music! Blurred Lines! He said WHAT now? Hang on…
You’ve worked hard, got a degree, got a job (statistically with a slightly higher starting salary than a man’s, don’t worry, that changes)…
You fall in love…
Sex tapes! Break up – you did delete it, didn’t you?
Working hard again, new relationship, proposal…
Wedding! OMG bridezilla, I must have a £2000 dress and a balloon arch otherwise it’ll be the worst day of my life.
Working hard… it’s a blue line, look, a blue line!
Baby – wow – was everything really this blue or pink when I was little?
Oh wow – childcare, childhood illnesses, actually it’s only my hours I’ve reduced my brain still functions perfectly well, yes I’m still ambitious, constantly tired, constantly trying to balance everything… And I couldn’t cope without the support of low paid nursery workers, a cleaner etc. and can’t afford a nanny or househusband…
Another baby! Have you seen the size my incredibly painful boobs have swollen to? I need to feed her for my own relief as well as her hunger…
Sorry? Cover her up when she’s feeding? Go and sit in the toilet?
Because my breastfeeding tits are rude?

It was always a risk that the end of Page 3 wasn’t for real, and it is a shame.
There’s such a swirls of things going on… and we haven’t eve touched on the fact that society doesn’t value parenting because the adult is not in the workplace, or how race, disability or LGBQT makes this even more tricky…
You can’t take on everything all at once. You can’t expect everything to succeed. You shouldn’t be told by others why are you doing this, there are other bigger problems you ought to tackle instead. Winning any tiny battle won to get women treated like equals not objects is like pebbles on a slope – if enough of them move there’s a chance of a landslide.

So it hasn’t gone tits up for feminism because there are nipples on Page 3 again today. One little pebble didn’t shift this time, that’s all. It doesn’t mean we should stop kicking them as we walk along life’s beach.

PS What about the men? OK, well, men are affected by the patriarchy too.
Page 3 is part of you being told to judge women by their attractiveness rather than listen to what they have to say. That’s the patriarchy, setting out what you “should” think.
You are told from a very young age that you need to be into building, computing, vehicles, war games, dinosaurs, have “here comes trouble” on your dark coloured t-shirt, that it is wrong to love a kitten or butterflies because they are for girls (even though male butterflies are the ones with the most beautiful wings!), that you need to be tough or a geek, play football not dance, skateboard not choir, that you can get any woman you want and if you can’t that’s her doing something wrong in holding out on you.
You may be entirely comfortable with all this- if so, good for you. I hope you have the job and the relationship you want if that is what you want, and are very happy.
Or you may not. You might think it is odd to have your choice limited in that way. In which case, hello. If you think men and women are different but equally important and have equal rights, feminism is here to help. The word might be a barrier to you, but as comedian Aziz Ansari says:
“People think feminist means like, some woman is gonna start yelling at them. … If you believe that men and women have equal rights, if someone asks if you’re feminist, you have to say yes because that is how words work. You can’t be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a doctor that primarily does diseases of the skin.’ Oh, so you’re a dermatologist? ‘Oh no, that’s way too aggressive of a word! No no not at all not at all.’”

Party Leaders Debates 2015: let’s hear it from the boys?

Ofcom today issued its consultation on who should be allowed to participate in the Leaders debates on TV in the run up to the General Election and, as “major parties” be allowed two party election broadcasts on TV and radio in advance of the election.

Their suggestion is that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats be allowed to participate as before, UKIP as a party that has recently won two by-elections and has the majority of European Parliament seats, it also has that status.

The Prime Minister has joined those who oppose Ofcom’s proposals, saying he would not want to be part of the debates if the Green Party were to be excluded. He is being accused of being chicken about the debates, but he makes a case of fairness as to why they should be included.

I’m not a member of any political party. I am not really a fan of Leaders’ debates – but that particular genie is already out of the bottle.
If the debates want to make it all about who comes over best on TV (“I agree with Nick!”) then it is only right and proper that the leaders of the parties running with a reasonable chance of obtaining seats in parliament are allowed to put their messages across.

Five thoughts:

1) Defining Major Parties
The Green Party, which had an MP at the last election rather than just obtained by by-elections, won three European Parliament seats and also has control of a local council (Brighton and Hove), according to recent polling has a younger, more female and better educated demographic – up to 18% of potential voters aged 18-24 (and 10% of 25-39 year olds) said they would vote Green according to data from YouGov.

The latest polling puts the Greens 2% ahead of the Lib Dems who are defined as a major party.

According to the House of Commons Library, the SNP (92,000) has a larger membership than the Lib Dems (44,000), UKIP (39,000) and the Greens (29,000). That means in terms of people willing to pay to belong, the SNP is closer to the Conservatives (134,000) and even the Labour Party (190,000) than the small parties, despite only putting forward candidates in one part of the UK!

Now that’s a bit confusing…

2) Content matters

We are about to go into the most uncertain election in decades.

While people in the media and beyond have criticised the Coalition, and the Lib Dems have lost support for “propping up an unpopular Conservative minority in a government no one voted for” (as a friend put it to me recently) rather than standing as a principled but powerless opposition party, it seems most likely that there will be another coalition, possibly with more than two parties in it after the next election.

That means that content matters.

We actually need to know what the parties stand for because – as was the case last time – what the next government actually agrees to do may well be an amalgam of policies from the manifestos of the parties that form the coalition, the coalition agreement taking the place of the manifesto as an agreed statement of government.

So arguably, while not national parties in the sense of standing in constituencies across the UK, the nationalist parties views and policies might conceivably be part of the government’s statement of government and can’t just be ignored as only relevant to a part of the UK population smaller than the number of people resident in London.

 

And it would be useful to know about the leaders and what really matters to them if they get into power.
Here’s an example… When the Lib Dems were negotiating the coalition agreement, Nick Clegg gambled that securing constitutional change – with a referendum on the voting system and reform of the House of Lords plus taking on the until-then pretty much ceremonial role of Deputy Prime Minister – was enough to change the face of British politics that other key policies (such as tuition fees) that could not be agreed between the parties could be sacrificed. The Lib Dems also secured one of the two Cabinet posts from HM Treasury and a couple of important departments aligned with their world view, but on a fifth of the votes and a fifth of the government posts, they could only really expect to secure in the coalition agreement a fifth of the policies. The gamble didn’t pay off – the referendum didn’t offer voters the STV voting system but AV, the alternative vote system, which can produce results as far from the actual votes cast as the current First Past the Post system, but without being as simple to understand. Lords reform vanished off the public’s radar, mired in the general mistrust of all politicians, elected or appointed.

Could anyone have guessed this from the chummy “I agree with Nick”s of the TV leaders’ debate? Probably not – I don’t recall coming away from watching the three debates feeling that, if in a coalition, the Lib Dems would put all their eggs in the constitutional change basket. But those were the first real TV debates, and the leaders were not pushed on that issue. I hope that they might be this time.

Given the dev max that was effectively proposed as an alternative to Scottish independence, what could an SNP coalition partner ask for? What about the Northern Irish parties? UKIP? The Greens? As the 2010 election showed, we need to hear it because the commonalities could put one group of parties in power.

3) Context setting

Both of the issues above lead to a realisation.Debate will be very different if the Greens are included.

Think about it this way.

Ten years ago, UKIP was a fringe party of what David Cameron felt free to call “fruitcakes and loons”. With persistence and help from the rightwing press, their key themes of immigration and the EU have become mainstream issues on which all the parties now have to have views. Farage was portrayed as a character, and – like Boris Johnson – being a bit of a joker, a bloke, allowed his statements to be made without being picked apart properly by opponents. Now securing more votes is leading to greater scrutiny.

Farage is right about one thing: the professionalisation of Westminster politics means that there has been more focus on getting the soundbites out than on actual discussion of what the country we want to be looks like, acts like in the world and how we treat each other and our planet.

Today the Greens are smaller than UKIP. But small parties grow, as UKIP shows. The demographic that votes UKIP (older, male, less well educated) is almost exactly the inverse of those that intend to vote Green. Younger voters will statistically be voters for longer… so the political current should be with the younger group, if they are persuaded to vote at all.

If the Greens are not represented, the debate will be filled with Farage making statements that fit his world view. As was shown by the Clegg-Farage EU debates- no matter how sensible (and accurate) the points put against him, he will set the agenda, he will dominate the coverage, he will be the story.
The context of the debate will be ideas of the right, and a distortion of all the possible thoughts out there about what is important for the country. Having the left-of-centre Greens in the debate will open up wider issues: not just the environment but the economy, human rights, and allow for better quality of discussion.

4) Let’s hear it from the boys???

If Ofcom’s proposals stayed unchanged (and with the Prime Minister’s intervention that now seems unlikely), the audience will yet again be presented with a range of middle/ upper middle class, white, middle-aged men. They may even all be millionaires (even if it were only property-price paper millionaire status).

My heart sinks. If politics is seen to be a rich, white man’s game, then how do we encourage younger, more diverse groups of people who are entitled to vote that they should exercise their right to do so? Much as we wish it wouldn’t, the appearance of things matters.

Just hearing if from the boys is a really big deal.
Women lead the Greens (Natalie Bennett), the SNP (Nicola Sturgeon), Plaid Cymru (Leanne Wood), but you wouldn’t know it if you just saw the leaders of the (apparently) big four.
How can we trust that issues that predominantly affect women are understood if there are few women, and even fewer mothers, involved in politics and – when they are – they are excluded from being publicly visible in key debates?
And that’s only for the representation of 50% of the population. What about race, disability, those of us that aren’t millionaires?

For this reason, if no other, Natalie Bennett ought to be featured.

5) But what is the purpose of the Leaders’ Debates?
To hear what a potential Prime Minister might say? Then there would be almost no point in either the Lib Dems or UKIP being represented either.
To be a stage managed, presentation of part of the political discussion in terms that make it simple to write headlines? Is that really what our broadcasters are for?

Concluding thought:
So there would seem to be a case for the Greens to be involved in the debates. 
Less so the nationalist parties, as none of the leaders are seeking to become UK Prime Minister. It would be more likely that Clegg, not Sturgeon, would be the UK Birgitte Nyborg…
Now to write to Ofcom…

P.S.

You might be thinking “so what” or “oh dear”, or even “whatev’s”. You might genuinely think none of this matters.
There was a fascinating section in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe review of the year – a brilliant personal view from Adam Curtis on why “oh dear” is not a good response for democracy.

 

Late Fragments and life

Imagine you have picked up a book.
The heroine of the story is a freckled, grinning girl, you know you are going to want to be friends with her. She is also seriously clever, well read and confident. You could feel jealous, but she’s too nice for that.
Where would you want that character to take you? Imagine she takes you into the world of politics, into 10 Downing Street, listening to opera as she works late into the night, briefing the Prime minister on horribly tricky issues, becoming the youngest ever female senior civil servant.
Then out, giving it all up for love and pursuing a Masters Degree, then out again, chosen by the former Prime minister to head a charity working to alleviate poverty in Africa. She thrives, it thrives and all is going brilliantly.
As you root for this woman, working hard and surely with a brilliant future ahead of her as a stateswoman, she becomes pregnant. Like Margaret Thatcher, she produces twin boys, a Lean In-friendly efficient way to have a little family and return to a career. She lives on her blackberry, “changing the world one paper clip at a time” as she puts it.
If you thought the book best as a happy story, you might end it with a wedding to a soul mate with a shining star in the ascendant.
But life doesn’t just stop with a wedding. The woman has cancer. After remission, it returns and it is terminal. The husband, the boys, the amazing life will all be left behind. All this achievement before death, on Christmas Day, at the age of just thirty six.
The title of this blogpost is a clue.
This is not my story. It’s not a novel.
This is an obituary.
Kate Gross, my fellow civil servant. We worked together for just one year in a small but intense, intensive and high powered team in the Cabinet Office. Ridiculously more talented than me, inspirational to me in her working life and – I discovered one day after I ran into her at Victoria Underground station and we stopped to chat, then renewed our acquaintance on Facebook – a charity CEO, talented writer and cancer blogger whose words at www.kateelizabethgross.wordpress.com draw you into her world. Poetic, poignant, witty and yet so hard to read when you are of the same age and have children that don’t understand why you are suddenly hugging them tight with tears in your eyes.
I realised how big an impact Kate had had in the world not just by the national press coverage of her death, the lives changed in Africa, the social media flurry, but when talking about her with my own family after Christmas, my brother said “you knew that Kate? She was in the paper- the blogger who was at Addenbrokes? She had loads of followers for that blog.” Kate Gross, making a success of dying with dignity and spreading the calm, the peace that she found (and some thoughts on practical organisation for afterwards) for people around the world who may have faced or yet may face what she did.
My heart aches, not just for Kate but for her family, and everyone more closely in the spiral that she describes who by definition are more affected than I am by her death.
I am cross that the world has lost someone of such talent, sad that her writing is confined to the blog and to just one book, “Late Fragments”.
Kate had just started the publicity for publication of “Late Fragments” and appeared on BBC Radio 3 in “Private Passions” telling more of her life through music. I defy you not to cry when she talks quietly about her recent baptism and the show ends with “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”. She said she didn’t want to be told she was brave, courageous or I don’t know how you do it. But she was, in everything she put out to the world, and many people wouldn’t do all that she did to make it all just a little bit better for everyone else.
But rather than just read a short obituary by a former colleague, please pop over to Amazon or drop into your local bookshop and buy “Late Fragments” and read for yourself the words of the frankly scarily awesome Kate Gross.
It is named for a Raymond Carver poem, perfect, poetic and short. There’s an irony there.
Kate, I wish I had got to know you better in the short time we overlapped in London. I’m so glad you found happiness, and felt blessed.
You probably didn’t know it, but an act of kindness from you changed my life. In the pain of a relationship that broke up, I needed to find a new church. You suggested one your friend went to and arranged for her to meet me so I didn’t have to walk in alone. That church rekindled my interest in my faith.
And, well, heaven is supposed to be a place of contentment both with proximity to God and because he loves us, allowing us personal fulfilment- I’m certain that If God needs something done he has just gained the perfect person to do it.
You inspired many, including me, with those words on life, and I intend to use my year off work to make the most of my family, smell the roses, write the book, and live, really live.
Thank you.

A new chapter

As I leave work tomorrow, for the first time in over fifteen years I am unsure whether or when I will be returning. It is scary but also liberating.
I have an idea of a direction of travel. I know my responsibilities. I want to give time to my children. I am blessed with a supportive husband.
But for the first time, I am not thinking about my profession, climbing the career ladder. I am Leaning Out.
Or am I leaning in? Much as I dislike the onus being put on women to achieve in business via the Lean In concept, Sheryl Sandberg is right that for women mid-career, it’s not a ladder but a jungle gym.
So I will be playing in the ball pit for a while.
I am a rubbish house wife, I am too in touch with my inner child and will live with the mess if there’s dressing up to be done.
I’m not totally opting out of the adult world- I have voluntary things that also fill my time.
And if you are a publisher looking for Relationship Lit rather than 50 shades, send me an email and we can talk Jake’s Ghost.
But there are little people that need me. It shouldn’t have to be something to worry about, wanting to raise my children. It shouldn’t mean a permanent set back in my career. It shouldn’t be that my worth is determined by my paid work activity- why is caring for my own children not socially useful? It shouldn’t be that only richer households can choose in this way to opt out for a while.
There are votes out there for parties willing to recognise that raising your own children is a worthwhile pursuit for both women and men, that childcare availability is not the only family issue that people want to hear about, and that this is something that should be an affordable option no matter what your family set up. We talk about education but forget to value parenting.
It is a new chapter for me, a choice not an imposition. I know how lucky I am.
But that doesn’t stop it being just a little bit scary.

A cup of tea for Jesus

I was listening to a sermon.
Shocking, I know, if you watch church services on TV you would assume that sermons are the dull bit of a church service where most people doze or daydream. (Maybe I watch The Simpsons too much).

Anyway the passage being preached was Matthew 25:43, the verse that was being preached to was the bit where Jesus says (in the ESV):

I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.

This is a challenge.
We live in a world where political dialogue is about the “other” – the limitations needed on immigration, who is worthy of state support. Actually accepting a stranger into your household would be a risk deemed foolhardy- murder, rape or robbery would surely follow.
And with headlines about crises in the prison service, and prison guards having to get hep jabs just in case, who would visit unless they had to?
And as with hospital visiting unless it is friends or relatives who has the time?

I know myself – I’m not a spiritual hero.
So the sermon got me thinking and I recognised that while I clothe the needy (usually donating clothes via charities), and donate to our food bank (with some unease- I heard the CEO say he wanted a food bank in every town but I would prefer that our brilliant welfare state be properly funded to support those in need rather than a return to the pre-20th century approach that the church and civil society should provide), this sermon was a challenge to me.
What if it was Jesus sitting at the roadside? He of course says it is him (Matthew 25 again):

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

So how can I do nothing with this clear message in front of me?

I can argue I don’t do nothing- I worked for a homelessness charity and would always donate money to them rather than hand over cash because of the risk of fuelling self-destructive drink and drugs.
I can think about the charity donations and the churchgiving, and maybe I can feel I do my bit and be thankful for the life I have that means I can do the giving.
But that’s Pharisee thinking.

Jesus as always makes things a bit less comfortable.
So with this sermon still ringing in my ears, I got off the bus to walk to work. There was a man there in a battered old leather jacket: “spare any change for a cup of tea?”
Argh!
I walked on. But I felt awful.
He was there the next day too. I walked past.
And the next- I took a different route.

Then I considered what I was doing.
I was so bothered by what a sermon at church asked me to think about that a specific situation was calling on me to act.

So what to do?

The next morning I stopped at a coffee shop and got two cups of tea.
“Sugar?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess.”
I took a handful and a stirrer and got on my bus.
On the way I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing.
What should I do, hand it over and walk off?
Stay for a chat?
What if he refused it? Maybe he doesn’t actually want tea?
Would it just be massively embarrassing for both of us?
What if I got mugged for my bag/ phone etc. through showing I was a soft touch?
What if once I had done this once he expected a cup of tea every day?

He wasn’t there.

So I did the same the next day.
And the next.

But he hasn’t been back.

I can reflect that God gave me a chance to see how I react to a specific challenge from a specific sermon.

Or I can think, I hope that man is ok. I hope he has a good reason for not being at the bus stop asking for change for a cup of tea and that his life has changed for the better. I hope his story has a happy ending.

And if I see him again I will buy him that cup of tea.

Cars with character

My son got me thinking. When we changed car, he cried and he hugged the old one goodbye. He wanted to know where it lives now, whether the garage who took it as part exchange is treating it well and whether, crucially, as the new one is a different marque, would it get a chance to be with ones the same or have to get used to being the odd one out?
We tried explaining that, as a car and not a person or animal, it wouldn’t notice, but he was insistent.
He noticed that the new car’s face – two headlamps, grill and number plate – was lower and wider than the old one, and it looked less open and friendly. He is right. The old one was an SPV, an designed to be loved by families. The new one is designed for drivers who happen to need to transport their family and lots of stuff. Its face is rakish, louche , all twirling moustache and controlled power under the bonnet. This is not a family friendly face, and it is so much more fun to drive!
A week or so after changing car, singing Buck Rogers every time we get in, I asked my son if he missed the old car. “No. Can we open the sun roof and get out the cup holders?”

How to remove a Dart Tag

This may seem like a bit of a departure for my blog, but here’s something really practical…
As you may know, Dart Tag is going, being replaced by Dart Charge. As this is to be a London Congestion Charge style payment system, there will be no need for a physical device to make automatic payments.
Regardless of the reasoning behind deciding to keep charging for an infrastructure project now paid for, something else was bothering my husband: how on earth do you get the Dart Tag holder off the windscreen of the car?
The Dart Tag holder is stuck on with a 3M sticky pad, which seems to be equivalent of No More Nails… Really pretty difficult to shift. My husband had pulled at it, but it was stuck fast. He was afraid he was going to crack the windscreen, or the holder (who wants broken plastic glued to their windscreen?)
Google was my friend. I found several suggestions, but one from the Australian E tag company rang a bell. I dredged up from the back of my mind that, to separate layers glued together with a pad, you need to twist one layer gently from side to side, repeating with increasing pressure and twist to break the seal. The Aussie site suggested putting the tag back into the holder for added leverage…
Success! Tag holder removed and the method is so efficient it didn’t even leave the sticky residue behind in enough quantity to require a cleaning wipe.