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.

Ashford is no picture postcard town, apparently

photo 2

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot going on in Ashford that I think is positive. I think the planning for Ashford 2030 looks sensible although I have views on the planning of housing (and not that it should all be stopped).
I like the farmer’s market, craft events, Revelation St Mary, Create music festival and the real love and effort put in by everyone to make these things work and attract people to the town.

But oh dear.  I’m going to share my frustrating morning.

I was trying to find a postcard of my town to send to a friend in Africa. Nothing fancy, I thought, just the church and churchyard (as above), Willesborough Windmill, or the tank, or Middle Row. WH Smith? Nothing. Savia? Nope. Where else? The Museum? I was on my way there when I remembered that the tourist office is no longer next door to the Museum. I was not aided in this by the fact that the tourist information signs still direct you as if it is.

photo 3

Instead, the tourist office is on the second floor of the gateway plus centre. I’ve lived in Ashford a lot of my life and I still had to think hard about where that was – most people still call it “the library.” But to hide the Tourist Information Centre on the second floor of a municipal building – what are we saying to potential tourists? Hey guys, want to know what to look at in this pleasant market town? Why not do the treasure hunt to find the tourist office wasting half your time here in the process? This isn’t serious behaviour for a town with a Eurostar station that could be the gateway to the Garden of England in terms of potential tourists.

Mercifully there is a lift to the second floor (not lazy – just accompanied by toddler in pushchair and child on school holidays). On arrival, I searched for the postcards. This is what I found:
– two postcards with castles of Kent (Ashford has a Castle Street but has never had a castle);
– one visit Kent postcard (no Ashford);
– four postcards with hand drawn historic bucolic scenes with hay carts;
– one postcard of Lille Europe Station with a Eurostar and a TGV on it (yes, that would be in FRANCE);
– one postcard of Ashford and Tenterden which, on closer inspection, turned out to have images of Biddenden and Tenterden but not Ashford!
Finally I found a postcard proporting to photo 1be Ashford but I didn’t recognise the images.  The lady at the desk had a look with me and we worked out that it was two shots of the houses around the churchyard and one of the fountain on the lower high street. Two pictures of the churchyard but no church? Is this some kind of militant atheism in postcard production?! (It is pictured here, no copyright infringement intended, please purchase your own version if you like it and are less incredulous about the fact that THIS IS THE ONLY POSTCARD OF ASHFORD AVAILABLE IN ASHFORD than I am…)

But seriously, this is a ridiculous situation. I asked and was told that there had indeed been a degree of frustration expressed by the tourists that had eventually made it to the second floor. Angry tourists – just what every town needs to encourage repeat visits.

At this point I should say that, twenty years ago I did a placement at Ashford Tourist Information Centre. I was studying French and Spanish, and we had to do a voluntary community citizenship placement thingy: most girls went to help with reading in primary schools an hour or two a week but I had been helping my mum with that sort of thing in her classes and wanted to do something different. We worked hard to make sure that tourism in Ashford wasn’t just “hello! Yes we have a windmill but not in the town centre, and have you considered visiting Canterbury?” But knowing something about an issue doesn’t automatically make you wrong, despite the evidence of a deep distrust of expertise in British culture at present.

Ashford mustn’t just be a place to pass through, to leave from to go to somewhere else.

It is fantastic that we have the Designer Outlet centre and can attract people to the Ashford area to shop: footfall of several million a year. That’s a lot of out of town visitors who could also potentially visit the town centre. Perhaps it is worth a tourist office there?
It’ll be even better of course when there is some kind of connection between the outlet and the town especially as there is no free bus any more. I hope that plans for a connecting business quarter and a plaza that more clearly uses the station as the link will also help. Even then, it is a hell of a walk between the ASDA-end of the outlet and the town centre – some kind of mini tourist train (think Le Touquet seafront or York Station to the Minster) or something might work and even be an attraction in itself?

If I recall correctly, there will soon be interactive maps with apps to download to your phone to give you your tourist information for historic Ashford. I guess ultimately this approach means that a tourist office is just a big cupboard for flyers that can be taken put on display somewhere else – hopefully somewhere that tourists can actually find and use them.

It’s starting to feel like, if you want something done properly…

 

Leaps of Imagination

Image from tupian.sucaitianxia.com

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Richard Dawkins said that reading fairytales to children was “rather pernicious” because it encouraged them to accept the supernatural. He apparently said it was “statistically improbable” that a frog if kissed would turn into a prince.
I think he may rather have shot himself in the foot with this one. He now says he has no more to say on the  subject of fairy tales.
Scientists, in order to make discoveries often need to make leaps of the imagination.

The reason we tell our children tales of princes and princesses, dragons and witches, talking animals, flying carpets and magical objects is not to get the to believe in these things.
It’s part cultural – we have a shared national and international culture of sharing traditional tales. We all come from people who told stories – Terry Pratchett talked about humans as not as homo sapiens but as pans narrativius, the storytelling ape. Our ability to communicate ideas and abstract thought unconnected to our immediate environment is stimulated in children, and adults, through fiction and fantasy.  In the times before mass literacy, oral history was essential to show us where we came from and where we are going. Telling stories is what makes us us.
It’s partly about ethics – telling stories helps us develop empathy – putting ourselves in the place of others. Children love larger than life characters and creatures, knowing whether to help someone even though they are an elf is vital to understanding that even though someone doesn’t look like you, they are still worth your time. Cautionary tales too, and graphically horrible things you would hope never to see – a wolf sliced open and the live grandmother hopping out – are also useful in encouraging thought about the implication of situations without scaring the hell out of the children*.
And it’s partly about building imagination. Scientists need imagination to make breakthroughs, even to start from the simple question “what if…?”

Oh, and on the way to school yesterday, I asked my son if he thought a frog, if kissed, really could turn into a prince.
“No,” he said, “but a caterpillar can turn into a butterfly.”
How long did it take humankind to work out that a caterpillar and a butterfly were two stages of the same creature, transformed in the chrysalis? There were probably many dissected chrysalises along the way. I don’t know, but I bet whoever worked it out grew up listening to fairy tales.

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* PS delighted to hear that as someone raising my children with knowledge of the faith that shapes my life, this is not now said to be considered by Dawkins to be tantamount to child abuse. I would also agree that a parent threatening a child with burning in hell for not minding their Ps and Qs is not acceptable, but nor is it what Christians should be doing if following Jesus.

What is it good for?

This is a weird year to think about war, peace and the world we live in.

The first world war broke out 100 years ago – millions died in “the great war”, “the war to end all wars”.
But then 70 years ago today was D-day. 22,000 British flags marked thank you have been placed in Normandy reminding us of the sacrifices made for our freedom, liberty and democracy.

Did these two world wars end all war? No, every year since, there has been a war somewhere in the world. It’s easy to forget this from our lives here in western Europe, peaceful even if in times of austerity.
But we have these lives because people like us, in my grandparents and great grand parents generations were willing to fight, plan, drive ambulances, tend the wounded, see the deal to make peace – to serve.

They did this, sometimes willingly, sometimes through conscription. Why?
In the long term, so that none of us would ever have to again.
In the short term, they fought to stop the spread of a nationalistic, fascist ideology that turned people against their neighbours.  In seeking to find someone to blame for economic and social problems, this ideology scapegoated the “other” whether foreigners, gay people, disabled people, trade unionists, Roma people or Jewish people. Scapegoating turned to persecution, persecution to death on a massive scale.
We can pretend that similar ideologies didn’t have any traction here in the UK. They did – the British Union of Fascists claimed 50,000 members in 1934. But they didn’t win out, partly because the BUF was unable to hold a large scale rally without mass brawling, and partly because of horror at the Night of the Long Knives in Germany which cause a big drop in the BUF’s membership.  Don’t forget that Oswald Mosely wanted negotiated settlement, a publicly popular stance until the invasion of Norway. The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, also favoured appeasement. If it hadn’t been for Wallis Simpson being a divorcee, our history could have been very different.

Some may have fought because they believed in their country right or wrong.  Some may not have given one jot about the things we talk about when describing our country e.g. monarchy, but they fought anyway. Because they thought it was the right thing to do. Becuase they were asked to.  But they came from the whole spectrum of political belief. They fought alongside men from the empire, flew alongside Polish and Czech pilots.
They killed and were killed, with civilians dying as well as the forces in numbers never before seen.
The flag waving crowds after the war certainly seemed to be proud to be British. It’s not a sin to be pleased where the accident of your birth has landed you, and as Cecil Rhodes is supposed to have said “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life” (NB at that time English and British were used as synonyms. Uncomfortable now, but true. Must be, heard it on QI). But I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it takes a big leap from feeling pleased about it to believing you are somehow inherently better than other people because of it.
And it is uncomfortable to realise that in times of economic austerity, we again face choices.

What happened after the wars is really important.
After the first world war, as much pain as possible was inflicted on the losers – starvation, economic disaster and humiliation which as we now know lead to the rise of feelings of unfairness, seeking to blame anyone that is “other” and turning neighbours against each other while looking for someone to stand up for them.
The response to the first world war sowed the seeds of a second.

Thomas Picketty describes the period of the mid to late twentieth century as an aberration, a period in which poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity were addressed in a way that had not been before. Things couldn’t go back to the way they were. In war, traditional social class had been stripped back a bit, and the post-war election resulted in a victory for an ideology promising a fair distribution of resources and the creation of the National Health Service, which even today has resonance as a symbol of this access for all.

So there was more opportunity and equality in the late twentieth century than ever before. Or since.
Today we talk about social inequality, we talk about diversity and inclusion and we try to value difference and use it as an asset to our economy and our society. But we are already in a world of greater inequality with a gulf between the super-rich and the workers which is bigger than at any time since the 1930s, and are apparently on our way to making this irrevocable before 2050. Workers?  Well, unless you are hugely senior in financial services, a pop or film star, a business magnate or inherit a fortune, that means you. The prediction is that we are the last of the middle classes that may actually achieve the dream of a comfortable life.
We need to think about whether this is what we want. We have let the post-war dream of more equality slip from us a bit, and we need to decide if that is what we as voters and workers and a community and as individuals actually want.

Closing ourselves off will not help us.  We may be an island, but we are not a boat. We can’t just up anchor and sail off into the mid-Atlantic. The world carries on around us and we have to engage with it in order to have an economy that allows us to access the way of life we hope to have.
That means we need to talk about the EU.
I would say just for a minute, but I’d be lying. We need to talk about it a lot, because as an issue this one is certainly a bit more complicated.

Belonging to the EU costs us about £1.81 per household per day in the UK (that’s £3 if you insist on the often quoted £55 million a day figure which is gross not net). Not belonging wouldn’t give you all of that £1.81-£3 back in your pocket, by the way. There are costs to handling everything ourselves too, we’re just being told that’s not important right now because the principle of independence is self-evidently more important.

There seems to be a body of people in the UK that think that we are dictated to by a EU superstate and that this is not what all those lives, 100 years ago, 70 years ago, were spent saving us from.
The differences between a brutal, fascist dictatorship and the EU should be obvious.  A few years ago I would have said it was – obviously it still is, but it gets complicated when the EU does things that look dictatorial in the context of the Euro. More of that in a minute.

But for the UK, which is not in the Euro, there is a clear difference. We have a say in EU rules, we have a British Commissioner, British representatives in the European Parliament, British officials in the Commission and other EU bodies, our Ministers are in the Council of Ministers and our Prime Minister in the European Parliament.
As a big member state, we have a big number of votes in the Council. We can “get our way” by working together. We build coalitions. And yet the last four years has shown that we have a long way to go before we are able to discuss the concept of coalitions in political power in any sensible way without screams of selling out.
As a big member state we also have a large number of seats in the Parliament. And yet we say that we are dictated to? We send as our representatives people who say they are not going to represent us in the discussions that take place because they are ideologically opposed to those discussions taking place? We did this to ourselves.
France has done the same, of course, voting Front National. And in so doing, two of the three big member states have weakened their position in the Parliament, and the third member big member state has the most seats in the largest parliamentary group. With supreme irony, give the context, that member state is Germany.
So if you didn’t vote, perhaps inspired by Russell Brand saying not voting is sticking it to the man or just because meh, thank you. Your lack of interest means that those who did turn out have a disproportionate level of political power.
Think about it this way.
We say we want people that will stand up for Britain. We do, at every level of the EU. We’ve even negotiated to ensure Eurozone decisions don’t adversely affect us.
Since when did standing up for Britain have to be No, No, No? Oh that’s right. Handbag time. Right outcome, unfortunate long lasting effect on what “we” expect to see in negotiation.
Why isn’t getting the right deals in negotiations without threatening to walk away also seen as standing up for Britain? Because it is, in a much less polemic way. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it?

We can’t isolate ourselves, because the world will not let us.
It’s actually simple, but it looks complicated when you explain it.
If we are in business and want to trade there are international rules, and there are different standards required of the products we make. We have to meet those standards.
The difference being in the EU makes to us there is that we pool our agreement to a certain set of standards so that our products that we make for our home market are also automatically in line with the massive trading bloc from which we sit 23 miles off the coast of the main landmass (and share a land border in the island on the other side) – a single or common market, if you like.
Then, as a bigger bloc, we have more clout in agreeing standards with other big markets: the USA, China, India, the BRICs.
If we left the EU to set our own standards, we would be unaligned with the bloc next door and would basically be told what the standards would be both by them and by the other big markets. We hear that other, smaller-than-us countries than us have successfully made deals, but for some reason we never look at the quality of those deals. Chile’s deal with the USA was just time to comply with US standards!
So what would we gain? The freedom to be told what to do by other big markets.

We also need to work together to combat bigger challenges: the environment, foreign policy issues that affect us all, crimes where the perpetrator tries to use going abroad to escape arrest and prosecution (the costa del crime?). We can say that there is no man made problem with our environment (despite greater than 95% scientific consensus that there is).  We can say we can handle everything else bilaterally with other countries. But the EU is an existing mechanism for dealing with these things and costs us very little really- if we are worried that everything costs a lot, it seems strange to want to duplicate effort in this way.

One price is seen as unfettered EU immigration. There’s a lot of myths out there about what EU migrants to the UK can “get”, much of it untrue, some true, but the government seems to be acting to close some of the gaps in UK legislation so that we are bolted down to the max. But if EU migrants contribute £1.34 to the economy for every £1 of benefit given out, are more likely to start businesses than indigenous Brits, and are roughly proportionate in number to the Brits living in other EU countries, why is there so much vitriol?  If the problem is we have pressure on our public services, surely we should be asking why we are not spending that 34% economic contribution equivalent on providing more school places, hospital beds and GP appointments? Why are we not pressuring house builders to build more houses? May be it’s not that we are full but that we have stopped building the homes we need (less than 10% of the UK is urban, once you add in gardens, parks etc, you are still at an amazingly small percentage, 13% of land designated greenbelt, that still sounds like a lot of potential brownfield and non-greenbelt potential out there…)! I digress, but when it comes right down to it, we seem to be unable to discuss immigration without one side saying “racist” and the other saying “we’re full and they don’t speak our language”.

I’m not saying that the EU is in any way perfect.

Some of the things that have been done recently are so far from the freedom, liberty and equality that are supposed to be at the core of the EU that I feel queasy. Imposing a government, when economic turmoil in one country could have brought down the economy of 17 others? Ok it was short term, emergency and only in a coupe of countries and saved the day and elected governments are now in place, but this is not the democratic dream, is it? And if your past is full of dictatorship or puppet governments, as is the case for many now-EU members, this is not what you want your membership of the EU to mean.
Nor is the European Parliament’s power grab ideal for selling the idea of the EU as getting more democratic. The spitzencandidate process was an attempt to choose the Commission President by the Parliament choosing in advance individuals that would be backed by the major European Political party groupings.
But this looks like it goes beyond the constitutional rights of the European Parliament, surely? The Treaty says that the outcome of the EP elections should be taken into account by the Council, that is to say the Heads of State and Government, but that is not the same thing as imposition of a specified individual because of their party affiliation regardless of experience. Traditionally, EU leaders have sought a consensus figure. All that is required under the Treaty is for the one they chose to reflect the appropriate political background. And with a lack of decent coverage of this process in the media, not just in the UK, most voters across the EU showed a complete lack of understanding that their vote for a party equalled support for an individual of that party to be the Commission president. I do understand that this was about getting a link to the electorate, but really this seems a very ham-fisted way of attempting to retrofit a democratic element into selection of the Commission President.  As I write, debate on who will take up the role of Commission President is ongoing. It may work, it may be accepted as the way to do things in the future. Or it may not. We’ll have to wait and see.

Then there’s the Common Fisheries Policy (much better now), the Common Agricultural Policy (needs a big shake up still), the waste of money that is the monthly Parliament trip to Strasbourg, the Euro (it didn’t have to be this way but the Euro is to blame for a lot of the undemocratic stuff mentioned above), the embedding of liberal free market principles in binding supranational law… hang on, why are the right wing commentators complaining about that bit? Oh no, that’s left wing commentators.

That’s a lot of downsides, right?  But being in means you can negotiate to make the bits your are less keen on better. As long as you build your alliances.

And there are big benefits well worth £1.81-£3 a day to my household.
Any pro EU list always starts with clean bathing water, no rip-off roaming charges…
I’d also say increased GDP; being a magnet for inward investment from companies from the rest of the world looking to access the EU market brings jobs; a community intellectual property and trademark, competition law, only having to deal with one set of rules rather than 28; better air travel with more routes and rights if your flight gets cancelled; the right to travel, study, work and live anywhere across the Member States, including in retirement; medical treatment on NHS terms anywhere in the EU if you have an EHIC card; guaranteeing social rights including parental leave and equal pay (a big deal for workers – especially women- in employment, but might not mean much to the self-employed I guess); and finally enhancing our chances of prosperity while Germany shows us that membership is not what hampers us from increasing our trade with the rest of the world (they export a higher percentage of their goods outside the EU than we do and don’t even have the headstart that the Commonwealth* could offer).

But there’s a really big benefit that is worth remembering today. The EU is all about making war between us impossible.
After the second world war, there was a push to get European countries to recognise that for peace and prosperity they needed to work together.
There was a requirement to work together to get aid under the Marshall Plan.
And the pooling of resources, starting with coal and steel, meaning that the Member States did not have the capacity to go to war with each other again formed that very first ECSC Treaty. The EEC, the European Economic Community that followed, encouraged working together with common values include liberty, democracy, a respect for human rights and basic civil liberties, and rule by law.
This shows us that the EU is rooted in trying to ensure peace across our continent. Yes, ours. The one we sit just 23 miles off the coast of. The one that was accessible by foot 9000 years ago and is now, if you really had to and could walk through the tunnels without getting flattened by a train. And arrested. I digress again.

Working together with our neighbours in an organisation in which we have a say in the decision-making is not betraying what our forefathers fought and died for. But we need to make sure that organisation cannot become something that does not represent us and our values, those founding values, of liberty, democracy, human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law that came out of those dreadful wars. We can do that from the inside.

We are also free to choose to have none of it – decide that we are too different to our neighbours, we want to pull up the drawbridge, and that when we encounter difficulties those that are “other” are the ones to blame for our economic or social woes… (it’s strange how those words keep coming back).  The reality is that it wouldn’t change the globalised world we live in, nor will it mean others won’t have power over us in terms of trade, finance, what our currency is worth. We’d just be that bit less influential in setting the terms.

I would not dare to presume to know whether those that died on D-day, or in the first world war, would have been in favour of the EU if they had survived to see it.

But thanks to them, we will settle these decisions on who we are and what our role is in the world with pens and paper, not guns and bombs. Words, not violence so everyone can make decisions that affect their lives freely and fairly. That’s what they fought for. Restoring that is all that war can ever be good for.

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* Just as an aside, on the Commonwealth, why does it have to be EU or Commonwealth as a focus for trade? Why can’t it be both/ and? And given that Australia – rather than feeling rejected by the UK as one of its ministers said when Britain joined the EEC in 1973- views itself as an Asian economy these days, who says Commonwealth countries are looking to become bigger trading partners with a EU outside the EU?  Churchill may have had a vision of a United States of Europe (with Britain outside heading her empire of course) but the Commonwealth is not the empire and it feels sometimes that the lack of appreciation of the change of the UK’s global status that is what’s stopping us really getting into the EU. We are a significant world economy, a G7 member, but we’re not head of a global empire any more. And it is not unpatriotic to say so.