Sunday, October 29, 2006

Gender Genie

Via Little Red Boat, (which I must get around to blogrolling), comes the Gender Genie, a way of finding out whether what you write in characterised by masculine or feminine keywords.

I just checked and seven out of nine of my most recent posts came across as 'male'. Particularly odd because I thought the last week's subject matter, detoxes, writing, cooking, pole dancing has all been deeply girlie, (unusually so for me.) I checked out some other posts from the 'best bits' sidebar - all 'male' too. Then I stuck a few chapters from the book into the Genie. It comes out 'male' as well, though only just - about 52% male and 48% female, whereas the blog posts are much more definitely male. So when I write, I am mostly a bloke, it seems. How confusing.

I'm not sure that people must remain 'in gender' at all times - that their gender informs and affects and defines every aspect of their life, the internal as well as the external. It has never occured to me that gender defines how people think and write and communicate. Maybe for some people it does, and I may have underestimated quite how much, but for so many people, myself included, it seems to be a lot more fluid. I certainly don't think of myself as writing 'as a woman' or 'as a man' when I start typing: I just write.

I was talking about this recently to a female friend who is a professional writer, and she was saying that one of the publications she writes for has a policy of not giving writers' bylines but simply listing all the contributors at the end in alphabetical order. This, she said, gave her a great sense of freedom, as people could read her work (which, for this publication, is is political commentary and satire) without filtering it through a 'oooh, a woman wrote this' lens first. She says she writes 'like a man' anyway and that everybody she knows thinks so too. (I will put some of her stuff through the gender genie and find out if the programme agrees.)

There are some people who do seem to make a very conscious effort to write 'as a woman' or 'as a man': having just read the Sunday Times I was particularly annoyed by the inane twitterings of colunist India Knight who was banging on this week about women and shoes. Again. Are women all really obsessed with shoes? (Or with chocolate for that matter, the other great cliche that keeps doing the rounds in opinion columns?) I know quite a few men whom I would say are pretty damn fixated with trainers, one guy I know posseses over fifty pairs kept in their original boxes. I know plenty of men who are obsessed with records, owning thousands and thousands of them and spending hours on the decks mixing them.

I cannot ever recall meeting a woman who is fixated or fascinated with shoes, or who buys shoes as 'therapy'. Yet this 'all women love shoes' thing keeps appearing in print. But could it be just me? It could be that the women-shoes-chocs-thing is actually true, not just lazy journalism. Perhaps my habit of forgetting that I have been given a box of chocolates (I tend to shove them in a cupboard ''for when visitors come round'' only to find them years later when moving house), means I am an anomaly amongst my female peers, who according to the popular wisdom of columnists, are unable to get a box of All Gold without devouring them all in one go, preferably whilst reading a magazine about a celebrity's cellulite problem. (Though when Allan at Green River chocolates sent me a wonderfully kind gift of some of his wares, my friends - male and female - and colleagues - feasted with much joy and gratitude. They were quite spectacular.)

Maybe the fact that I habitually buy two pairs of knee length boots each winter, one pair with a heel, one flat pair, and wear them day in, day out, with everything - until it gets warm enough to go back to wearing sandals - means I am not a proper woman. Possibly that is why no woman has confessed to me that she lies awake at night fantasising about malibou mules: I must give off an air of being a lost cause to the shoe-fetishising secret sisterhood. I like clothes, but I absolutely hate shopping for them. I know what suits me, I work out where I can probably find it, and then I go in and get it and come straight out again. I tend to find one shop which has a lot of stuff I like and get what I need from there all in one go, then belt straight home. Sorted for six months. Apparently this is ''how men shop''. (I thought it was just how people who don't like shopping, shop. ) Perhaps I am in denial and a trite newspaper column and a linguistics software programme has made me start to realise a truth about myself that I never recognised until now. Perhaps I am not a normal woman.

And yet, I absolutely feel like a woman, and I love being a woman. A woman who dislikes shopping for clothes and shoes and who is not very interested in chocolate. A woman who apparently writes like a man. Argh.

This is all is making me explore my attitudes towards what I understand by 'gender'. I have never understood the taboo about the crossing from one gender to another, whether as a playful experimental visit, or a desire to find and honour one's true self. Gender has always seemed a label, one of many labels, rather than the main definition of who a person is.

Pondering it, I think that I have always seen something magical and powerful about moving between genders, and it has just occurred to me that since I was a teenager I have constantly had one or more friends in my life who are TV or TG ( transvestite or trans-gender). I never really thought about it until now, but it's possible that my 'masculine' writing style is a clue. Perhaps I have a masculine thinking style too? Mind of a man, body of a woman? Do I like mixing up the kaleidescope of gender and sexuality and labels because I am somewhat 'mixed up' myself? But it doesn't feel like that at all. It just feels like I don't fit a bunch of popular stereotypes. And, frankly, nor does any else one I know. Surely the definition of gender and sexuality is far more interesting and complex than how it is usually presented to us, and, to use a well-worn phrase, we can 'think in colour not black and white. And maybe that is why I've always had friends who are from all the shades of the spectrum; and I think of myself as lucky, and honoured, to know so many interesting and wonderful people.

Last night I was out with J and my friend Jane, and a good friend of ours, whom we have known for about eight years, and who has recently started being more public about his desire to dress up. So 'Deborah' my friend's alter-ego has been making more appearances recently, first at parties or meals at friend's houses, then in public. We went to the Black Cap ( a gay pub) in Camden, where it turned out that there was a Halloween party going on ( damn, I could have dressed up as well in my fallen angel outfit with my red feathered wings and my ace wig, if I'd known). Afterwards, J, Jane, and Deborah came back to our flat and drank tea and gassed on 'til about 3am. Deborah bemoaned her lack of money and wardrobe, asked if Jane or I were thinking of taking any clothes to charity shops, if so, could she have a look first? So I had a rummage, and I found Deborah some clothes which were too big for me - a beautiful black trouser suit, a black skirt with a knee-flounce, a couple of V necked sweaters, two dresses, and also some Clarins and Boots makeup and skin care samples which were not my skin type or colour but which were just right for my friend. And Deborah was absolutely delighted and went home in a new outfit and swinging a big bag of goodies. And I was delighted to see my friend so happy ( and to see my clothes looking so good on someone else!)

For Deborah, dressing up in feminine clothes and wearing make up is something compelling, frightening and wonderful. It's about freedom and self-expression and playfulness and courage. Being Deborah is a means of expressing something very powerful. I feel honoured that Deborah feels she can express herself so happily in my company. I enjoy being with Deborah and I also enjoy being with my friend when he is in his everyday identity ( earlier in the day we went to Arsenal together to watch the team play in the new stadium and drank lager and sang along with the chants, drinking in the atmosphere of blokeish bonhomie).

So it's all mixed up, and I think that is a good thing. I am glad that it is this way, my life feels richer and more truthful and satisfying for not conforming to these media stereotypes and for being full of friendships with people who do not conform either. If the price I pay is getting utterly fed up with columns in Sunday newspapers, and being regularly puzzled by published definitions of ''masculine'' and ''feminine'' self-expression - art, music, writing, whatever - then it is a price worth paying, to live happily in a rainbow world.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Popular Science and the Role of the Pole

It's the weekend, so enough politics already, and let us turn our thoughts to dancing and science. Following on from the earlier clash between Family Values Campaigners and Tescos over the availability of the ( rubbish) Peek-a-boo pole dancing kit from their website, and the possible corruption of the nation's youth, blogged earlier, ( and today on Boing Boing) the always-interesting-reading Not Saussure has drawn my attention via an email to a fascinating study of the physics of pole dancing on Popular Science website. Pole dancing is all about centrifugal force, or at least, it is if you are approaching it from a scientific point of view.

Here you can see the video of a young lady poledancing to which Popular Science refers. I urge you to study it carefully. Bit jerky with the hip technique, but she's certainly got rhythm, and the general idea, though she isn't actually pole dancing properly, more clutching the pole as support whilst she wriggles about. And then, oops, oh dear, thump. Popular Science points out where she falls foul of Newton's laws.

Now if you want to see proper pole dancing, may I recommend you have a look at one of the entrants to the World Pole Dancing championships, here, a nice routine here or to get an idea of the the sort of things we do in my class, here are some moves demonstrated by a lady called Jamie in Birmingham.

EDIT: Actually, never mind them, look at this, sent by Glamourpuss - absolutely GORGEOUS

You can also have a look at Glamourpuss's poledancing blog, for more fascinating insights into why we ladies like this pole thing so much, or read my blog/Sunday Times piece on it.

How to learn to pole dance and get your own pole here, two easy moves to try out, a poledancing footballer, and a must-watch - pole dancing on roller skates.

It's the weekend. The lamp-posts are calling you!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Won't somebody please think of the perverts?

From ( but of course) the Daily Mail, and picked up with glee by Not Saussure , Tim Worstall and Devil's Kitchen and Robbie Millen at the Times comes the faint-making tale of how dastardly Tescos are purveying filth, depraved filth I tell you, to the nation's youth and luring children into the sleazy world of pole and lap dancing. It is surely but a short step from buying the Peek-a-boo pole dancing kit and ''unleashing the sex kitten within'', to gyrating naked in front of hordes of baying middle managers on a corporate jolly at Browns. Won't somebody think of the children? pleads the Mail. And bloggers ask, won't somebody think of the perverts?

Dr Adrian Rogers, of family campaigning group Family Focus is certainly in a fulminating froth. He said yesterday that the kit would "destroy children's lives".
"Tesco is Britain's number one chain, this is extremely dangerous. It is an open invitation to turn the youngest children on to sexual behaviour.
"This will be sold to four, five and six-year olds. This is a most dangerous toy that will contribute towards destroying children's innocence."
He added: "Children are being encouraged to dance round a pole which is interpreted in the adult world as a phallic symbol.
"It ought to be stopped, it really requires the intervention of members of Parliament. This should only be available to the most depraved people who want to corrupt their children." [my italics]

Yes, indeedy - as Robbie Millen writes:
'' I like the idea of setting up a register of depraved people who are allowed to buy pole-dancing kits and the like. Perhaps, the list could be overseen by a bureaucratic body (let's call it PervCom) which could spend its time deciding what goods or services were suitably depraved. Given strong enough powers, it could save children's innocence from the pernicious influence of folk-dancers who want to groom children into dancing around maypoles.
Or better still. We could set up a register of self-styled, self-appointed family-values campaigners who will be banned from having contact with lazy, quote-hungry Daily Mail journalists...''

It's clearly a simply ghastly state of affairs.

Or is it? Firstly, let us untense our butt cheeks and unpick the story. Let out a deep, shuddering breath. Mmm-hmm, feels go-o-o-od. Shake out your shoulders too, toss your hair, maybe rotate your hips a little before reading on. Yeah, baby. Now you are all relaxed, and ready to free your mind ( whereupon, of course, your ass will follow if we are to believe the disco anthem, and who doesn't?) let us see what is actually going on.

Firstly, the pole dancing kit is clearly marked as a toy for adults. It is only available online, not in stores, so trolley-pushing Mums concerned that young Lianne has not yet developed sufficient poise and athleticism to join the under-eight's netball team won't be tempted to sling in a pole dancing kit along with the turkey dinosaurs and cheeze strings to help daughter get some fun exercise practice at home. Other toys and games available on Tesco's site include the 24 DVD game (24 of course being an adult drama featuring torture, terrorism, maiming and biological/nuclear warfare), the Party Poker gift set and Horse Racing game( gambling, illegal for under 18's, natch) and the Da Vinci Code Board Game ( based on the book and film featuring murder, shagging and heresy). Not all games are for kiddies, see. Grown-ups get to play sometimes too. Anyway, the Peek-a-boo pole dancing kit has now been moved to 'Fitness Accessories' in Sport and Leisure.

It must be said that as a fitness accessory the Peek-a-boo pole dancing kit is rubbish. You can't swing or climb on the pole, using your upper body strength to hold your weight in poses or hang off one arm or one leg whilst you spin; you can't do handstands against it or throw your legs up and hang upsidedown and if you try to do more than wander round it, wiggling a bit, it will fall over. (All the above moves, which require a lot of strength and grace and training, are reasons why pole-dancing classes are amongst the fastest-growing, most-demanding fitness/dance classes in the UK today.)

Forget the Peek-a-boo kit, if you want exercise, you might as well go and do some lunges and squats. Wearing high heels, if you want the extra balance challenge. If you want to work up a sweat in the bedroom, go stick on some high energy music and dance about in your best pants, then slip 'em off at the end and whirl them round your head. Woo! Fun, but not for all the family.

Anyway, parents (and perverts) can relax. Our nation's children are safer today, (though if your daughter swings round a lamp-post on the way to the playground, or dances along to Beyonce on MTV whilst you make up her lunch box, you may want to pop into your local police station and report yourself, just in case.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


25,000 words written in two weeks, phew, and off it goes, with a synopsis to interested parties. That was hard work, but good. Fingers crossed. Now I can take a breather from the bedlam, and get some rebalance back in my life. I've started a detox - not a fullblown juice fast, which I have done in the past, which can be quite emotionally and physically gruelling, but a more gentle regime, of mostly vegan meals and no tea, coffee, alcohol, wheat, red meat or sugar. The idea being to nourish body and soul for a few weeks and get back to basics. Deciding to walk away from a successful 12 year career to go my own way was pretty scary, with many sleepless nights preceeding it, then there was the immediate rush of writing to meet an important deadline. Today was the first day when I really had time to take stock, and have a moment to reflect on what has happened and how far I have come in the last few weeks. I am still very glad I am where I am.

I'm very sorry I haven't replied to all the emails, I will do so tomorrow (and thank you for your patience.) I got to a point where I realised that I needed to have a day's break from staring at a screen, having spent hours and hours in this little messy study surrounded by lists and drying washing and a determined cat jumping in front of the monitor every five minutes. I took a short break today from following the news, and all the dramas and complaints and upsets and sadnesses that you find when you look at a screen too much and take it all to heart. What I did instead today - cooking nourishing food from scratch, made from vegetables and herbs I have walked home with from the local grocers, stirring soup whilst listening to music - ( thank you for all the suggestions following the Allison Crowe post ) - felt wonderful. Detoxing isn't just about cutting junk food out of your life. It's about letting more good things in.

J has been busy too, as he doesn't start his new job until November 6th. He has been landscaping the garden (when not playing Grand Theft Auto. 'I can't work in this rain, Rach'). He is now secretly ( he thinks) eating cold pizza and watching a horror movie in the other room. He liked the breakfast fruit, liked the lunch of spiced chickpeas and tomatoes with basmati rice and pomegranate seeds and lime juice and herbs; he loved supper of roast tomato and basil soup, stuffed peppers and huge baked field mushrooms, but as he has been dragging bags of topsoil and gravel about all week, whilst I have been stuck inside typing furiously, he deserves his illicit cafe fry-ups and late night greasy stodge as well. ( 'Otherwise I'll fart myself to death, honey' Hmmm. Quite possibly there is a grain of truth in this. I notice that the cat has fled from us both and is hiding under the bed.)

I'll be back on the politics soon, I can't keep away. I owe the Sharpener a piece, and I owe 18 Doughty Street a piece too. I'm watching/listening to 18 Doughty St now. And I couldn't restrain myself from watching Newsnight either. That report on Afghanistan. It makes your heart ache. It's an utter bloody mess. We are so damn fortunate here in this country. Right now, I am counting my blessings.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


A while back I blogged about fellow-passenger Gill's message of Peace and how she has become am ambassador for Peace Direct.

Gill and the PeaceDirect team have been sending out a newsletter every week, and it is short but packed full of practical and inspiring suggestions, so if you want to sign up for it, please visit the site and find out about grass-roots peacebuilding. It will take you two minutes and it might change your life!

Thanks to Gill for her work for peace. Namaste.

Monday, October 23, 2006

That 'right-wing explosives plot'...

...which didn't appear much in the main stream media, but was picked up by the alternative press and quite a lot of bloggers ( good round up of links here from veiled4allah) should be covered today, as it is 23rd October, the day that the two men are due in court, having been remanded in custody since their arrest in the first week of October.

There was consternation in the blogosphere that the arrest of two white men men for allegedly possessing 22 chemical components, a rocket launcher and a' master plan' to make explosives was not covered by the mainstream media. If they had been Muslims, people asked, wouldn't it have been front page news? As it was, it made the local papers and a quick para in the Sunday Times.

Anyway, I just chased up the BBC and the Mirror who are 'on it', apparently. Let's see what unfolds over the next 24 hours.

UPDATE; Case adjourned until tomorrow. There really is no excuse not to cover it this time around, ho hum.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sunday reading

Back to politics after a brief break. Big article and discussion in the Sunday Times about whether it is time to take God out of the State. I read Henry Porter: Now we know what we know, why is Blair still in office? ( Observer, today) Then found this poem left under the Observer article, by a poster styling themself as ''sbsmith'', October 22, 2006 04:41 AM. Thought it was good, so am reproducing it here.


you lied in word, in deed, & by omission:
you blamed Saddam for things that you had done

& failed to do - the Shia insurrection,
incited, left to founder – ‘sorry son!’
with VX, sarin, stuff for nuclear fission -
you armed him, supplied anthrax by the ton,
you egged him on to fight Iran, then ditched him...
& now you cannot find the smoking gun?
too long past their use-by-date. ‘oh? fine!’
(don’t bother to say sorry: just resign.)

you lied about ‘eviction’ of inspectors
whom the UN ‘withdrew’ - you wanna bet?
phials, anti-poison-gas injectors,
antidotes to dangers to be met,
& posters: how to cope with radiation
were hailed as ‘proof of clear & present threat.’
duty-bound to free a captive nation?
(ever think of rescuing Tibet?)
oh. it’s unfair to hold you to that line...
don’t bother to say sorry: just resign.

there’s some bad bastards, but it’s no use fretting -
ex-Soviets Belarus & Kazakhstan.
our ‘hatred of dictators’ could not threaten
Suharto, Burma, Saudi, Pakistan.
adjust the odds, it makes for safer betting;
where standards are too high, let down the bar.
for Chile we strained the rules, left Pinochet in;
Somoza, Marcos, Franco, Salazar,
we backed; who claimed their right to rule divine,
& never did say sorry, nor resign.

Afghanistan: ‘we’ll never walk away!’
you left them unexploded cluster bombs
like food parcels - they go off every day! -
to add to 20 million Russian mines.
& all the billions that you said you’d pay
keeps war lords ruling as in former times.
the bulk of it is mis-spent, gone astray,
they don’t add up, the economic sums.
‘damage limitation?’ not this time.
don’t bother to say sorry: just resign.

you lied about the poison factories;
lied about their nuclear capacity;
on links to Al Qaida came a freeze -
‘Bush yes, Blair no (gulp gulp)’; it took audacity...
‘45 minute standby’ - there’s a wheeze -
‘imminent threat!’ in coping with this facet we
might have bypassed other forgeries -
‘uranium from Niger?’ sheer mendacity!
you’ve been found out, you’ve overstayed your time,
so do what Denis Healy said: resign

you lied. you said it wasn’t about oil.
you bellowed this until your face turned blue.
& yet, available to any literate child:
what Goldstein said to Bush’s cronies (whom,
cringe-making, blatant, we will not imbroil)
‘after the war the inverse will be true.’
I quote the Wall Street Journal - your blood boil?
mine does. we all could read it! so could you.
maybe you did; it chanced to slip your mind?
don’t even promise. do it now. resign.

20 Things to do before I die

Inspired by a post on urban75 where people are thinking of 50 things to do before they die, which is a bit ambitious. 20 things is still quite a lot to think of, but I'm going to have a stab at it, and I'd love to hear what you would like to do before you die - either in the comments or by linking to your blog. If you can't think of 20, never mind, stick as many as you can think of up. Mundane or mighty, frivolous or deadly serious. It's a good way to spend an hour on a grey and rainy Sunday afternoon. Even though I am meant to be working.

In no particular order...
  1. Marry J
  2. Raise a happy family
  3. Publish a book
  4. Publish lots of books and make my living as a writer
  5. See the Northern lights
  6. See a whale close up ( not a dead one or a distressed beached one)
  7. Swim with a dolphin ( I know almost everyone says this but if a busy dolphin can fit me into his schedule I'd be very happy)
  8. Learn to play the guitar
  9. And sing at a gig, accompanying myself on the guitar
  10. Make a truly beautiful garden
  11. See the Inca/Mayan ruins
  12. Get my finances totally sorted
  13. Crush grapes with my feet to make wine
  14. Learn to speak Spanish and Italian fluently
  15. Learn a martial art
  16. Learn to flamenco dance
  17. Climb an active volcano
  18. Go to the other side of the world and back again
  19. Stay healthy
  20. Become a great grandmother

J can only think of ten at the moment. (He will add more when he has thought some more)

  1. Raise a family with me
  2. Go to a World Cup final. Preferably one with England in it.
  3. Go on the Orient Express
  4. Retire abroad and dodder about growing flowers and herbs in the sunshine going 'Rachel! Where are my glasses?' every half an hour
  5. The dolphin-swimming thing
  6. The watching Northern Lights thing
  7. Not the whale thing ' I don't think we should go anywhere near whales. I think we should leave them alone. They aren't tourist attractions. Or food.'
  8. Know King Fu to black belt standard
  9. Grow very old and wise
  10. Write a book as well ( copy cat).

Friday, October 20, 2006

And now for someone completely talented...Allison Crowe

I have been spoilt for live music recently. After a year of self-imposed famine, because I could not listen to music without falling apart and howling, I have been catching up. Last week, Kathryn Williams at Islington Union Chapel, who made that lovely building incandescent with her gentle lyricism; last night, La Traviata at the E.N.O - my first Traviata, my face wet, my hand in J's, his face wet too. And tonight, I went to Lauderdale House on Highgate Hill and saw an astonishing talent: 25-year old Canadian singer/songwriter Allison Crowe for the first time.

I didn't know about Allison Crowe until a few days ago: she is not well known in the UK. I blogged last week, unhappy and frustrated about the unwanted attentions of the paranoid, the lonely, the angry, and how one song was keeping me sane. That song was a cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and after googling it and listening to a score of versions, one leapt out at me because of its technical adeptness and its passionate power.

And then I got an email from Allison's manager who must have checked his site stats: would I like to come and hear her? This Friday or Saturday night? She was in London. And I said yes, on the strength and power and beauty of one song, that had blown me sideways. I didn't know anything about her. But I knew what I had heard was special.

Here, listen. Have you ever wanted to be able to say to people in twenty years time: I first heard her a long time ago, I knew...

Well, then, this is one of those chances. You can see her tomorrow, Saturday, at The Halo, 317 Battersea Park Road, London, England SW11 4LT, an Oxjam gig ( for Oxfam) . And you can tell people you were there.

And I am not going to try to describe precisely what she sounds like, because this is the internet and you can listen and decide; listen to her accompanying herself on the piano, and you can hear for yourself. This is miracle music that is as natural as breathing, this is passion that is too big for the small room she played tonight, this is a talent that you feel privileged to discover once every ten years.

Listen some more...
(Especially this one: a cover of A Case of You, (Joni Mitchell).

Beacon House

A dear friend has asked me to pass on information relating to the completely gorgeous Beacon House in Whitstable which she says is available to hire at the moment. I have stayed here several times and always found it to be a special place of calm beauty, whether for company away-days, shoots, retreats, or holiday breaks. In fact, it was here that I stayed for a week to heal up in 2002, and I have still-sweet memories of stretching my bruised body in the morning sun, wandering barefoot on the warm decking, drinking in the art on the walls, the jewel colours of a local craftsman's mosaics discovered under my feet, the flowers and birdsong everywhere; the wood behind, the sound of the sea twenty feet before me. Walking outside Beacon House, (which looks like it has been transplanted from New England, with its huge wooden veranda, arts and crafts tongue in groove work and decking) you will find the faded pastels of the lines of beach huts on the shingled shore, and you can tramp down the coast road listening to wheeling sea gulls circling in the huge wildness of the sky. On your return to Beacon House, you can devour tea and scones by an open fire , or on a fine day, feast in the garden on the local oysters barbequed til their shells pop open. Cooking oysters this way is special: the taste of the sea, smoked. The balance of fire and water. Elemental pleasures. I remember salt on my lips from hot chips eaten on the beach by starlight, a shivering morning dip in the sea, sunsets that Turner could have captured. I read this poem out loud to myself once, on the verandah, as the moon rose, saying it under my breath as the sea boomed and shushed, as the night fell, as the last walkers returned home to their fires.

The sea is calm to-night.The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in...

If you can, go. Or if you know someone who you think would like it, please pass it on.

And if you are a painter, or photographer, or you want to shoot a fashion story, I recommend it, especially during the winter: the light is something else.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Write on

Well, I'm over 18,000 words into the book, with the first four chapters, plus the synopsis. I'm now halfway through chapter 5, and I'm editing and adding stuff as I go through, following feedback from a writer friend, Jacqui, who was on the Edgware Rd tube. I've been writing for about 2 weeks, and getting these18,000 words written includes taking 5 days out of writing the book this week to work on other stuff, so I'm quite pleased with progress so far.

J is off work until the first week of November when he starts his new job, so we've been doing some nest-building stuff as well. He has bought himself Grand Theft Auto game to play whilst I bash away on the computer. And he has been working too, digging up the back yard and is about to put bricks down to make a patio where the sun shines alll day and bin our rickety bench and weedy gravel. We've been into town and bought some new lights and bedlinen with the gift vouchers J got as a leaving present, ( how odd it felt, shopping in the middle of a week day) - and we've also relaxed. Properly. Without feeling guilty. I did not realise how tired I was, or how tired he was, until we stopped.

So we've been curling on the sofa in the evenings, with a bottle of red, feasting on TV series we missed. We have watched Lost series 2 part 2 ( exciting but frustrating) and we are currently working our way thorugh Life on Mars ( clever and funny). I am cooking each evening, and walking to the local butchers, greengrocers, cheese shop, bakery to buy what we need each day, squeezing fruit and sniffing herbs and talking to the shopkeepers like a 1950's French housewife. The first week after leaving work, I was on a mad deadline to get the three chapters done and a synopsis ready, and I did 15,000 words in 4 days, eating cold toast at my desk when I remembered to eat, typing for hours each day. I didn't even notice time passing. But it is pretty harrowing to write because as I write it, I am living it. So I gave myself a few days off this week. I hadn't stopped since I walked out of the office for the last time: I have been working harder since I left the job than I was when I was at work.

I need to settle into a balanced routine and get some more exercise factored into the days. That'll come, I guess. I find that I write best first thing in the morning, and if I start opening all my emails it wrecks everything, so I am going to have to be strict and not do anything apart from focus on the book until after lunch. This week has been busy because as well as the book I am helping an anti-suicide charity with a pitch for funding, talking to the police about an ongoing investigation I am helping them with, talking to another charity about coming to their AGM, working on yet another charity fundraising thing with some 7/7 passengers, and talking to a group of people who are interested in continuing with the a campaign for a 7/7 independent inquiry. Plus I still have to do my expenses from my job and hand them into my ex-employers, and try and keep the blog up as well. Oh, and teach poledancing on Tuesday nights. And I still haven't done a piece for 18 Doughty Street yet, which I feel very guilty about, but that will have to wait until next week.

I cannot think how I managed to do all this sort of stuff before AND do an advertising job. Well, I am still feeling very happy and contented with my life-changing decision. And Miff loves us being at home. She is jumping on the desk now, getting in the way of the computer screen. She is still as fat and sassy as ever. Right, I'm making some tea and then I'm going to do another 1000 words and go for a walk with the wind in my hair. Because I can. Thank God, I can. Bless this good fortune, this sense of easy freedom and the satisfaction of doing work I love.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

It's a new day...what can I do?

Please go visit Kieton's site, ( and email me if you want to help), please send a thought to HG as they embark on a new life, and let Nina inspire you today.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Drink. Feck. Drink. Rape.

The Sunday Times lead headline today was surprising. 'Blair to toughen rape laws. Drunk Women Protected.' This is quite encouraging; after last year's disturbing Amnesty survey results, where 1 in 3 respondents thought raped women must have been asking for it, seeing victims as ''partially '' or ''completely responsible'' for their own rapes if they behaved flirtatiously. Meanwhile 1 in 4 of the 1000 interviewed thought that rape victims were ''at least partly to blame'' if they were drunk or wearing sexy clothing.

This week, a new 'Know Your Limits' campaign highlights the risks from binge drinking - from accidents and falls and beatings to rapes. This isn't victim-blaming - it is quite true that being very drunk makes you very vulnerable, and that predators target the vulnerable, whether that is to rib them or rob them or rape them.

What the papers and the Government calls 'binge-drinking' and what the drinks industry calls ''hi-energy vertical session drinking'' ( meaning ''drink products targeted at an audience standing up, consuming drinks at some speed , buying rounds, in social groups, with music pumping in the background'',) is the most common marketing strategy adopted to shift products and make profits. Despite alcohol-manufacturers' straight-faced initiatives such as '' Drink Aware'' and
''Responsible Drinking '' messages on alcohol products, you only have to walk into a busy bar on a Friday night to see the offers, the flyers, the promotions and the general strategy of getting the punters shit-faced and buying as many drinks as possible, being very successfully executed as the tills ring. We haven't yet had a campaign which baldly states


possibly because the big brewers would fight it as being bad for sales? Or because people don't want to hear about it? But it would be an honest campaign, if it ever ran. Like the ''Don't Advertise Your Phone to Thieves'' campaign.

There have been some attempts to curb the 'binge-drinking' culture, and to call alcohol manufacturers and pub chains to heel with some of their more ''irresponsible'' ruses such as buckets of bottles of beer for a tenner, buy one get one free/''buy 2 glasses and get the bottle of wine for free'' offers, and the promotion of products that are clearly designed to get you as smashed as possible as quickly as possible. These promotions are now being more strongly regulated. The drinks industry also self-regulates via the Portman group and there are strict controls on the marketing and advertising of alcholic drinks: when I worked (in advertising) on lager briefs, we had to jump through all sorts of hoops. Not link the product with social or sexual success, not show models who were under 25 years of age and so on. Nonetheless, we Brits love a good old drink-up. And women now have the spending power of men, and probably twice the pulling power, and unfortunately, not at all the same drink-holding power, and every weekend, hundreds of thousands of women lash out on getting lashed up, just as men do. And some of them get raped.

And that's when the equality stops. Because if you get raped when you are drunk, or high, even now, in the twenty-first century, you are going to have one hell of a battle on your hands if you want to get justice. And you'll need a lot of luck as well. Where you live will make a difference: some police forces have excellent facilities such as The Haven rape/sex assault suite to deal with victims; they have specially-trained units such as the Met's excellent Operation Sapphire units. The investigating officers will be patient and kind and avoid saying things like ''Changed your mind, did you?' and '' What sort of knickers were you wearing? Were you wearing any?''. But once you get to court, if you ever get to court, you can expect to hear those sorts of questions, and worse. Your sexual history is supposed to be left out of the cross-examination, but still many defence counsel will apply to bring it up citing it as ''relevant'', especially in ''date-rape'' cases. ( And most rapes aren't stranger-rapes).

Then there's the latest defence lawyer tactic - if your sexual history isn't brought up, your medical history can be wheeled out in court instead - including any instances of, say, being prescribed tranquilisers for air travel, or exam nerves, or having a history of depression or anorexia - and can be used to discredit you as ''unstable'' and ''hysterical''. (See the Dispatches prograamme on rape which caused an outcry in 1993, and its follow up 'Still Getting Away with Rape in 2000) . Manage to keep it together in court? Numb with rape trauma syndrome and wierdly calm? Then you run the risk of the judge and jury assuming you have suffered no great trauma.

Not looking good is it? You should be worried, if you are a potential victim of rape - whether male or female. Fewer than 6% of rape allegations result in successful convictions.

Police recorded 14,449 allegations of rape last year, one of the highest figures so far. Between 1991 and 2004 the number of rapes recorded rose by 247%. However, only 12% of cases actually reached court, and only one in 19 men was convicted.
In many cases, police filter out cases involving alcohol and drugs at an early stage, ''advising women who admit that they were drunk at the time of the alleged incident to drop the complaint because they stand little chance of being believed in court'' ( Sunday Times)

The 1 in 19 statistic, remember, is based on cases that actually make it to court. So Mr. Blair, personally, the ladies' friend - if the spin is to be believed - is pushing for further changes. Ministers are considering letting juries see the initial interview a victim has given to the police describing the attack, often soon after it has happened, and allowing women to be helped through the ordeal of a trial by having a 'victims' advocate' to support her, (as recommended by the excellent Dame Helena Kennedy in her book Eve Was Framed ages ago).

This isn't about reversing the burden of proof, but curently, women are judged as being able to consent to sex if they have been drinking, as long as they have not actually lost consciousness through excessive consumption. The Swansea Crown court case last year where a student complainant of rape, (who couldn't remember giving consent or not) was told '' Drunken consent is still consent'' caused widespread disquiet, and the rape conviction figures are shameful: 6% of cases resulting in convictions shows that the system is failing victims. Even more so, if the victim had been drinking or using drugs before her rape.

Vulnerability is not culpability. Yet too often victims are viewed as culpable in their own rapes. The thing is, you can try and help victims every step of the way from giving their statements and being filmed doing so, you can have victim advocates in court ,and screens, and 'special measures' to protect witnesses. But whilst we have an adversarial rather than inquisitorial system that is based on winning against the other side's arguments, rather than getting to the truth, and relies on painting an emotive and extreme picture of the victim's lifestyle/behaviour; and whilst this panders to the prejudices of people who think drunk women should be ashamed of themselves and are asking for it, we are going to struggle to get justice in rape cases where it is one person's word against another. Rape cases depend on the ''credibility'' of the witness, and the credibility of the witness is dictated by ancient prejudices about what women should and shouldn't do, say, wear, think, feel, act. And even though most women are raped by people who know them, rather than strangers, there is still this perception that malicious and false complaints are common, and that women change their mind or regret drunken sex and stitch men up for it.

I hope these latest mooted changes make a difference, along with the extra training of barristers, judges, police, and the extra information given to juries. But when you next walk into a big chain pub on a Saturday night, and see the drink and leisure industry's latest successful execution of a ''high-energy vertical session drinking'' strategy in action, the flyers, the promos, the wall-to-wall advertising, you might wonder if this latest ad campaign stands much of a chance. You aren't just talking about awareness, after all, you are talking about actually changing people's social behaviour. Education is as important, not just educating women about the risks of being off your head, but educating men that tacit consent is not to be assumed just because she is wild-eyed, giggling, dancing on a table, flirting, wearing a revealing top and halfway through her second bottle of Pinot Grigio. Actual given consent - in fact, full-blown enthusiastic partipation is what a real man should be after, not assumed access based on opportunism and assumption, prejudices and peer pressure. I'm not sure that this campaign stands much of a chance of what advertisers call ''cut-through'' or ''mind-share'' when the perma-message is 'Get out. Get Get of It' 365 days a year, and twice as loudly on Fridays and weekends. Still, I wish it every success.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Anger. Yes, its another conspiracy theory vent.

A recurring theme this last year has been anger. Anger that the attacks happened, anger at the Government, anger and anxiety at where we seem to be headed. I guess this is all part of the process and to be expected. I don't have counselling,I don't take anti-depressants. I come here and I write, and I campaign, instead. And it helps.

I have noticed that one of the major triggers for my anger is what are known as conspiracy theorists. Before last summer, I had little idea that there was this whole other world of communities on the internet obsessing about what they think is a series of criminal cover-ups, lies and distortions, allegations of a shadowy sinister Power behind the scenes that controls Governments, people, business, markets, and which is a force for evil in this beautiful blue planet that we all share. Like many far-out theories that spread like wildfire, there is a grain of truth in it. Just as the greatest insults are those which have a small shred of truth in them. Power corrupts, politicians lie, there is spin and self interest and lies and deceit, and this has done much damage to trust and to truth. But there is a healthy cynicism, and then there is keeping your mind so open that your brain falls out (in a famous phrase attributed to many people over the years.)

I knew that there are some people who think the moon landings are faked, or have theories about the assasination of JFK, or that Elvis is still alive. I just thought of such people as harmless cranks, before this last year, if I thought of them at all. I had no idea of the ''9/11 Truth Movement'', or what was to come later, the 'July 7 Truth Movement'' - people who thought that the story behind the London bombings was very different to what they had heard on the news.

When I first came across people who were reading my blog, linking to my words, misquoting them and positing wild theories of their own, I was puzzled. Why were they so intent on questioning what they called ''the official version'' of what happened last summer ( even though there was no official version, just a series of police briefings on an ongoing investigation and a rolling, multi-sourced developing news story) . Did they doubt everything ever written or said by the mainstream media and the police, ever, or was there something unusual about the events of July 7 and September 11 that had them asking so many questions? Actually, it wasn't the question-asking that I had a problem with, but what seemed to be the agenda behind the questions. It was clear that there was a definite, yet vague theory informing everything, that the authors of these sites saw were selectively filtering what they saw and read to find anomalies and to jump on them and cry 'cover up! conspiracy!' .

Sometimes the agenda was blatant, sometimes it was more hidden. Much of it seemed to stem from a belief that huge numbers of people were being lied to, on a spectacular scale, and that 9/11 was the primary example of this. There was, I noticed, a worrying arrogance in amongst the paranoia; those who were self-styled ''Truth-seekers'' were the ''enlightened ones'', those who would not Believe in what they called ''the paradigm shift'' and the existence of ''synthetic terror'' were referred to with contempt, as sleeping ''sheeple''. There were mentions of Masons, Facism, Zionism, the New World Order. Searching through more sites devoted to this kind of thing, it got more and more bizarre. Numerology, Occultism, blatant anti-Semitism, claims that the planes flying into the WTC were holograms, that alien shape-shifting lizards secretly controlled the world via an elite cabal, allegations that they worshipped a Satanic owl-god at a secret US camp for the rich and powerful...I would follow the links, curious, wide-eyed, and then come up for air, shaking my head in disbelief.

At a time when the pace of life is faster than it has ever been, when theories can move across continents at the spoeed of thought, perhaps this Wild West of crazy ideas was the shadow side of the internet, with its unprecedented access offering all the ideas of anyone online, ever, anywhere, anytime. Perhaps, in an uncertain and secular age, this was nothing more than an attempt to impose a stable structure on a frightening and chaotic world. To use a phrase I first used a year ago, perhaps it was filling a God-shaped hole. I can see the attraction in such a search for answers. ( I just posted about it on urban 75 website, where arguments with what the site calls ''conspiraloons'' continue to rage.

''It strikes me that with almost all the CT ( conspiracy theory) sites I have visited, what you get is lots of anxious people channelling a vague sense of personal paranoia into a belief that if only they can peer through the Veil they will find the Truth, and the Truth will set them free.

The Truth most commonly posited in CT sites is that everything that is going wrong is all the fault of some global Evil entitity super-state-machine-thing. Believing this, and asking questions and having fun trying on various esoteric theories seems to fulfils a powerful psychological need in some people. It gives them a sense of 'a not-so-nice ordered world where nobody knows what's going on' - apart from them and their fellow 'truthseekers', and there is a comfort and a feeling of superiority in that. It's not your fault, it's not that you are depressed or paranoid, not as successful in life as you'd like. It's all the fault of the Evil Machine and its uncertainities and manipulations. You, the anxious internet truth hunter are thus off the hook, and you can amuse yourself by searching through endless theories, asking endless questions, feeding your innate paranoia and thus making yourself feel better for generally feeling a bit of an odd one out and always having had this creeping sense of alientation and doom. It's not you. It's Them. Your'e not wierd. You're Neo in The Matrix films.

So I say to the conspiracy theory fan: Play on the internet if if it makes you happier, ask endless questions, gad from theory to theory like a mayfly, but don't start trying to convert me to whatever your current fave set of doubts is today, or to expect me to have much patience with endless positing of doom-mongering possible sinister theories, asking of endless questions about ''the official version'' of everything, ever, when there's little or no evidence presented to back up these claims, apart from your own selective reading. And a general malaise of societal unease and anxiety that you've had since you were a nipper which you feed with the internet sites. Because it is just tiresome. Yes, asking questions, challenging authority is good. But not if asking the questions and then just asking another load of questions is the be-all and end-all of it all - never listening to the answers and considering them and using rationality and logic to form opinions. At some point, it stops being ''truth hunting'' or ''research'' and just becomes akin to OCD.

The world is a messy, fucked up, chaotic, beautiful place. It is what we make it. There is no shadowy force behind everything, it doesn't all link together, so if you ask the right questions enough times and join all the dots, all will become clear.If you want ineffable certainties in life, go pick a religion. All this CT stuff just winds people up, and drives people madder and madder, because it's tilting at windmills, chasing shadows. It makes the anxious more anxious, the paranoid more paranoid, the angry, angrier. There is no Grand Conspiracy. We are all part of the same dream, the same conspiracy. We are all it. Deal with it. Live it. Engage with it. Step away from the realms of paranoia and ceaseless, pointless speculation and if you want change, make it happen.''

And I believe that. But I have been deeply troubled recently by my own personal reaction of distressed anger towards the self-professed ''July 7th Truthseekers'' in particular. I find it extremely difficult to deal with all these posts about me on their messageboards and blogs, where I have been accused in the past of being a counter-intelligence professional, ( or even a team of M15 agents) in the employ of a corrupt Government; that I tell lies, that I am fake, a ''shill'', a racist, and so on. Well, of course I am going to be angry if complete strangers post up personally abusive rubbish about me, anyone would be. But there is something frightening about their relentless proselytising that affects me more deeply than just this personal abuse nonsense; and it is the allegations that the bombers were innocent, that there is no such thing as Islamist terrorism, that the bombs were not made and planted by 4 young British extremists but by the State. The way they carry on reminds me of a cult, and I think that it is sinister.

I have gone over to their websites on several occasions and tried to debate it with them, on messge boards where they are speculating about me and what I believe and who I am. It does no good, it gets nowhere, it makes me more upset and angrier still. Yet if someone is publishing and disseminating what I think is false propoganda in the name of ''truth'', and linking to my writing and talking about me in connection with it, then it is very difficult to sit on your hands and bite your lip and do nothing. It feels personal, it IS personal, it is horrible. I don't what feels worse, doing nothing, or trying to fight back and defend myself.

I care about truth, I want an independent inquiry; I want what I think is the truth about the connection between our foreign policy and the increased and deadly risk to our civilians and soldiers in this stupidly-named '' War on Terror'' to come out. I think that the link is becoming clearer and clearer. Even the Chief of Staff of the British army is saying it, for heaven's sake. Perhaps the Government will act on the Lessons Learned from 7 July, and carry out the practical recommendations that we shared, and perhaps the shameful results of their foreign policy, driven by the US policy will come out and be aired as well. Blair, a key architect of the mess will lose his job for it, and then we can try and make it better, without falling into the trap of authoritarian over-reaction and giving away our civil liberties hand over fist in a misguided attempt to be safer by becomg less free.

But I think, meanwhile, that these conspiracy-theorists' wilful refusal to accept that extremist religious terrorism even exists, and the part our Government and the US Government have played in worsening the situation, is appalling. I do not see how we can ever get past this, if this virus of ignorant denial spreads and this festering cynicism flourishes in the place of clear-eyed, righteous anger and determined questioning of what is done in our name.

I hate the picking over of what I say, what other people say in the name of ''truth and justice'' when it is done in the name of something else - an agenda to prove a theory that is held as an article of faith in something that represents almost a fundementalist religion. I am pig-sick of a year's-worth of personal attacks. Some might think that I would want to make common cause with these people, who say they want an independent inquiry,when I want the same thing too. But I do not, not now, not ever.( And I am aware of the irony, for I think that there is some State culpability in the events of 7/7, just as they do, and that makes me have an agenda to a certain extent as well. The difference is, I do not operate in a world that denies the existence of terrorism and seeks to exonerate mass-murderers.)

Oh God, I am so, so sick of this.

I don't see what else I can do though. In all conscience, I think this is too important for me to sit back and let cynical, foetid speculation take the place of the truth being held to account. Whilst conspiracy theories thrive, the demands of those who want things to be made better, fairer, can be dismissed. Conspiracy theories let the guilty off the hook, by obfuscating the calls for clarity with a fug of sick and hopeless speculation that claims a Grand Global Conspiracy - when there is none. What there is instead: cock-ups, cover-ups, failures, greed, ambition, pride, ruthlessness and cruelty. There is humanity, and humans struggling for power and wealth and position. There is not an Evil Machine, we are the machine, we are the the results of our own actions and we can call our leaders to account. Or not. We can sit and post away on the internet about satanic super-states, or we can try and change things.

I can't do very much, but I can write, and I can campaign and I can publicly state my position and keep asking for the truth to be faced up to, keep asking what we are going to do to get out of this mess and bring healing and hope and peace to a troubled, angry world. I just wish that doing so didn't make me feel so despairing and angry sometimes.

It is hard. And it makes it difficult to write; the anger, the self-doubts, the despair. And I know you've heard it all before, but it isn't going away, so I am saying it again.

I am actually considering turning the comment moderator function off just to show people what will follow after this post. I can already guess. I am weary, just thinking about what is heading my way. I am sorry to have to write about this, again. I've been reading some of the unpublished comments that have been coming in today already, before I wrote this, and I just want to give up.

Anyway, I'm going to the pub with J and Jane, because now I have written this down, I feel a bit better. This is a personal blog, and if I want to vent, then I can, I guess. You don't have to read it.

If you've got this far, then thank you. And here's the song that has been keeping me sane recently. Hallelujah - this beautiful cover is by Alison Crowe.

UPDATE: Wonderful essay by Not Saussure. And, a miracle. No obscene comments, no threats, no hate mail, not cut and paste oddyseys, only normality, sanity in the comments tonight. I haven't had to block a thing. That is amazing, the first time in weeks when I haven't flinched opening up comment moderator. Perhaps the detractors, the attackers have finally decided to leave it, and me alone. Oh, I hope so. Thank you, everyone who commented. Bless you, I'm really grateful.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Lightning exits woman's bottom

In other hot news...

''She was wearing rubber bathroom shoes at the time and so instead of earthing through her feet it appears the electricity shot out of her backside," a medic told a local newspaper.

Army Chief ''our presence in Iraq exacerbates attacks''

UPDATE: What do soldiers think? Read their forums...

Dad's ex-Churchwarden, Sir Richard Dannett, the Chief of Staff, Head of the Army, can be heard on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, ( click to listen) and read in today's Daily Mail saying our presence in Iraq is making the situation ''worse'', our presence ''exacerbates'' the situation and the welcome of 2003 ''has largely turned into opposition and hostility. ''In some parts of the country, the fact that we are there causes people to attack us,'' he said on the radio, though he specified that this was ''not right across the country.''

Meanwhile the Mail interview reports him saying ''The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance."

"That is a fact. I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them."

''I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning," he said.
"The original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East."

"That was the hope, whether that was a sensible or naïve hope history will judge. I don’t think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition."

Dad is very proud of Sir Richard and his principles, ''I know his Christian faith his still central to his life'', says Dad, ''What precipitated his outspoken comments? His belief in justice and truth, his pastoral concern for his soldiers, his horror at the waste of life and the waste of resources on a mission that was ill conceived and lost any direction it had? Limited objectives and lower ambitions are all that can be salvaged from this debacle, is what he is telling us. The underlying issue is what in truth and conscience can we as nation and he as an army general commit to when the consequences of such a foreign policy which is undermining our self esteem as a nation committed to decency, truth and justice. Richard, as a conventional Christian knows that we are in danger of losing our self respect and his Christian faith addresses that when part of that self respect is tested against what he might believe God is calling him to do in his witness to truth and justice''

The fairly astonishing interview with Sir Richard comes hot on the heels of the study in the Lancet, (widely reported yesterday) which estimates that 650,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion in 2003 - 2.5% of the population.
"We estimate that almost 655,000 people -- 2.5 per cent of the population -- have died in Iraq," the authors of the study conclude. "Although such death rates might be common in times of war, the combination of long duration and tens of millions of people affected has made this the deadliest international conflict of the 21st century."

U.S. President George W. Bush dismissed the report. "The methodology is pretty well discredited," he said yesterday. Similarly, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters: "These numbers are exaggerated and not precise.

Meanwhile Iraq Body Count puts the number of civilian deaths at between 43,937 and 48,783.

A few comments particularly jumped out at me from the radio interview.
One, how he saw his opinion as '' not being newsworthy'', ( meaning, not uncommon amongst serving soldiers), how ''our destiny is not entirely our own'', with regard to ''our American allies'' and his comment about how he wanted there still to be an army in five, ten years time - ''let's not break it, here'', he said.

Also, a comment about Iraq's natural resources.'' For goodness sake, they're sitting on the second-largest remaining supply of oil in the world, if they [the Iraqi people] can't make a go of that country, I mean, Afghanistan's a different issue, but if Iraq can't make a go of it, with our help, over three...four...five years - we really have got a job on our hands.'' The oil, he mentions, is of course, at the heart of all of this. And the US administration's pathetic wriggles on the subject of oil, their words belied by their actions, is one of the reasons for the anger and antagonism towards the mission of Sir Richard's men.

It's a a sad, I think, devastating interview, an honest man's account of failure of a war, and his personal anxieties about what he calls the ''Islamist'' threat. Sir Richard's faith is clearly a key aspect of his character. "Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind."
"There is an element of the moral compass spinning. I think it is up to society to realise that is the situation we are in."
"We can’t wish the Islamist challenge to our society away and I believe that the army both in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably wherever we go next, is fighting the foreign dimension of the challenge to our accepted way of life."
"We need to face up to the Islamist threat, to those who act in the name of Islam and in a perverted way try to impose Islam by force on societies that do not wish it."
"It is said that we live in a post Christian society. I think that is a great shame. The broader Judaic-Christian tradition has underpinned British society. It underpins the British army."

General Dannatt says he has "more optimism" that "we can get it right in Afghanistan," in the Mail. He also talked about Darfur possibly being the next battleground on Today.

Whether you are a Christian or not, and I'm not, I agree with him about common values and preserving them in the face of threats and attacks from a minority nihilistic extremist death-cult which attacks wearing the clothes of a venerable world religion. Values like the right to vote and have a democratic, accountable government, the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, women being treated equally to men, access to good education, healthcare, justice, fair trials, no inprisonment without don't have to be Judaeo-Christian to value them.

But it is very hard to talk of ''values'' and ''decency'' when we as a country and as a military force are now so associated with winking at torture, with lies, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, with failure and with stinking hypocrisy. Sir Richard is not a hypocrite. But the man he reports into is, and that man's lies, his hypocrisies, his craven buddying up to a dangerous right-wing US administration has put lives at risk all over the world, here and abroad, and Sir Richard, and his soldiers are paying and have paid, a terrible price for it, as are hundreds of thousands of others.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ex-BNP members in explosives plot?

The alternative media is in a lather over an interesting story that appeared in a local paper, Pendle Today. It is also being picked up by bloggers. (Thank you for the comments and emails about it, I have been following it via urban 75 message boards, and I was holding back to see if it got picked up by the national, rather than local media and if more information about the men charged, and the exact nature of the substances found, came out before posting. Only the Sunday Times so I'll dive in)

The story concerns two men arrested and appearing in court charged with being in possession of an explosive substance for an unlawful purpose. The offences are under the Explosive Substances Act 1883. The ''22 chemical components recovered by police at a Pendle address are believed to be the largest haul ever found at a house in this country'' says the local press.

The prosecution alleged the pair had "some kind of masterplan", ( having produced a single witness) saying a search of Jackson's home had uncovered ''rocket launchers, chemicals, BNP literature and a nuclear biological suit.''

Hmmm. ''Rocket launchers'', as an u75 poster pointed out, can cover used 66mms - while techically a fire arm its actually a fiberglass tube - the sort of memorabilia alongside replica guns neo-Nazis love to collect - and can also cover what are ''essentially large fireworks.'' ( Like erm, the popular fireworks known as ''rockets''. In which case, I've got a rocket launcher left over from 5/11/05. It's a stick. And I have just checked, and yes, I have over 20 chemicals in my own home too, including some quite nasty things to unblock drains and clean ovens, peroxide based things, ammonia based things, fertiliser, and so on.)

Anyway, what we know so far....

Some local police - not dozens of anti-terrorism police - raided a home in Colne on Thursday of last week. The house was taped off while forensics officers searched the premises. Neighbours were told to stay in their homes for their own safety ( that's normal. If it had been a pre-Armageddon arsenal in there, the whole town would have been evacuated.) A car belonging to one of the men was also taken away for examination. The two men, who have been remanded in custody, will appear at Burnley Crown Court on October 23rd.

The twist is that the two men were white. One is an ex-BNP member who stood as a candidate in the Pendle Council elections in May. Why has this not recieved wider mainstream media coverage, froth some in the blogosphere? Is it because they are not Muslim/Asian/Black and so do not fit the stereotype of current ghastly threat to the nation's security?

I don't think the media have held back generally from covering stories about white extreme right-wingers, racists, anti-semites, or BNP bone-headed thuggery. I can think of dozens of stories over the last year, so the conspiracy theories doing the rounds that the Government is victimising Muslims and the media are complicit in deliberately fostering race hatred are, I think, largely bollocks. That doesn't mean that there has been some very irresponsible and offensive reporting about Muslims this year, which can only add to the sense of grievance amongst some. But then, our press is like that, and until we stop buying copies, it will continue to pick on people and sell shock shlock as it drives sales. Vote with your feet and don't buy it, complain.

But there has also been a very great deal of responsible reporting, determined efforts to cover news concerning Britain's largest minority in a careful, thoughtful manner. The recent discussion ignited by Straw about segregation symbolised by full-face veil has spawned acres of reflection, debate and investigation, and very little lazy Muslim-bashing. Muslims are in the news a lot these days. Perhaps many of them are sick of it. It wouldn't surprise me. In the 1970's there was a big debate about turbans and motorcycle helmets and Sikhs were in the news a lot then, and apparently many of them got pretty sick of it too. (There were lots of vile stories about gays when AIDS came to the media attention. That was offensive and lazy journalism too.)

The difference though, is that there was not an extremist but highly vocal fringe active within the Sikh community at the time espousing worldwide conversion to the Sikh religion and threatening acts of terror as reprisals for the UK's foreign policy, successfully pulling off a murderous attack last year. And the fact that there is this extremist fringe actively recruiting within British Muslim faith communities and that it is linked to a global, violent, anti-Western political/religious extremist movement, against whom the world's largest superpower has declared itself ''at war'', makes Islam and Muslims hot news, unfair as that is to the peaceful majority who are not represented by the rent-a-ranters who seem to turn up to speak on their behalf with disturbing regularity.

Doesn't mean that white nutjobs plotting explosions aren't equally interesting news though. In fact, the mainstream media should welcome the chance to cover this story, if only to prove that they're not up to their ears in a sinister agenda as the lackeys of the New World Order Government's ( c) conspiracy theorists everywhere efforts to demonise innocent Muslims. So I've pinged off a few emails drawing attention to the story to some journalists, and we will see what happens...I'll let you know.

UPDATE: BBC ''missed it'' and will cover the 23rd October court case instead. The local press picked up on it, then the weekend happened, by which time the arrests were less newsworthy.

I think it's a pair of nutters and their unpleasant little Reich fantasies myself. But what coverage this story would have recieved if they were Asian, or Muslim, is still a hypothetical point worth discussing. Fair and balanced, are we, responsible reporting, the politics of fear, is it, don't you know, what d'you think, chunter chunter, hmmmm...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Homicidal not suicidal

''Controversial posters featuring the aftermath of the London bombings are to appear next week as part of a charity's attempt to stop the number of men who commit suicide each year reaching four figures. The billboard-sized posters feature the image of the devastated No. 30 bus which exploded in Tavistock Square, killing 14 people including Hussain the bomber, and injuring over 110. It has the strapline ''Last year, 4 suicidal British men got our attention. Unfortunately, 973 others didn't. Help stop suicide. Text CALM to 80082''.
( Brand Republic 6/10/05)

The Evening Standard have just rung me up wanting a reaction. I explained, as usual, that I can't speak for all survivors, only for myself, and that I probably wasn't going to be able to muster quite the reaction of gibbering weeping outrage that they were looking for. But, okay, having seen it, I think that advertisement, whilst achieving one of its objectives of grabbing coverage and raising awareness, is a dud. For a charity, CALM ( Campaign Against Living Miserably) to use the 7/7 bombers' deaths in an anti-suicide billboard campaign is wholly counter-productive. As well as being in poor taste and likely to be upsetting to bereaved families and survivors of the London bombings, it is also misrepresentative, and it is likely to alienate and distress those whom the advertisements are aimed at.

It implies that the London bombers primary aim was suicide, rather than homicide. It infers that they were simply feeling suicidally depressed, like 973 other young men who committed suicide last year. It even seems to be saying that perhaps the 4 bombers could have been stopped from committing suicide, maybe if they had been made aware of the charity paying for the ads. But there is no official evidence to support the idea that the young men who killed 52 and injured almost 800 last summer were depressed. In fact, the Official Account of the July 7th bombings describes the young bombers caught on CCTV as ''hugging, seeming happy, even euphoric'' before they killed themselves.Khan's gang of four were nothing like the target audience for this campaign - young British men who are suffering from depression, and who are thinking about killing themselves.

Okay, the bombers were technically ''suicidal'', in that they were intending to commit suicide, but they were intending to commit suicide as a weapon, to turn themselves into human bombs in what their alleged ring-leader called a ''war''. For them, suicide seemed to be a means to an end - to a gruesome notoriety, an eternal heavenly reward, and a political act of retaliation for what they saw as the sufferings heaped upon the Ummah ( the global Muslim faithful) by the UK and US foreign policy.

What comes across from the Official Report is a picture of 4 highly radicalised young men in a small terrorist gang who were deeply immersed in extremist Islamist thinking and who saw ''martyrdom'' as ''evidence of a supreme religious commitment''. Unfortunately, their warped interpretation of their religion made their planned suicide seem heroic and praiseworthy to them - a way, Mohammed Sidique Khan said in his video statement released after his death ''to raise me amongst those I love like the prophets, the messengers, the martyrs and today's heroes like our beloved Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri...''

Perhaps early therapeutic intervention could have changed their course. Perhaps texting the charity or a chat with a mental health cousellor might have stopped the death-cult gang mentality taking hold in these four British men. It's rather hard to know, as we haven't had much experience of the effect of counselling on radicalised terrorist cells plotting destruction and mixing home-made explosives in rented flats.

There is a world of difference between a young man contemplating ending it all, and being a suicide bomber who sees vengeful suicide-homicide as ''martyrdom''. If I was young man who was depressed and feeling suicidal, I would not like to be compared to a suicide bomber. I would be very upset at the stigmatisation. It's bad enough being depressed without people thinking you're contemplating killing innocent commuters as well. Depression is not the same as terrorism, for heaven's sake.

Khan and his fellow-terrorists are not remembered as young men who tragically committed suicide. They are remembered for being mass-murderers. It is deeply offensive to make any comparison between the 973 young men who killed themselves last year, and who did not come to the charity's attention until it was too late, and the perpetrators of the worst act of terrorism on British soil.

And what's with the ''Last year, 4 suicidal British British men got our attention'' strapline? The bombings certainly got our attention. That seems to have been one of the bombers' political aims. But is suicide all about ''getting our attention''? That seems to me to demonstrate a woeful lack of comprehension as to what drives many people to commit suicide. Being unable to bear the pain of going on living is the most common reason left in suicide notes. Depression is an illness that can make life no longer bearable. I am shocked that an anti-suicide charity is linking suicide with ''attention-seeking'', even obliquely.

The more you look at this advert, the more of an incoherent mess the message is. It's a bad ad, and it's a damn shame, because the numbers of suicides in young men is a big, terrible issue, and it needs to be talked about. The charity's aims are praiseworthy. Anything that might stop young men killing themselves in anger and despair is a good thing. But O&M, the ad agency behind the campaign, and whoever signed this off, have made a serious error of judgement. The suicide of nearly a thousand young men each year is shocking enough. Why court this controversy with a picture and strapline that don't even make sense in the campaign's context?
Would they use Dunblane? Columbine? The Amish killings? No, but there is no difference at all. Mass -murder and the killer's suicide. In the three instances given though, the killer killed himself after he killed the innocent others. With 7/7 it was simulataneous. They are all homicide-suicides, and homicide is the crime, homicide is the point. Not suicide.

And this is not a targeted campaign - it is not running in magazines, say, that are read by 15-24 males, its target audience. It's running on billboards which means that it can be seen by absolutely anyone. Including thousands of men and women in London directly affected by the 7/7 attacks. Jacqui Putnam, survivor of the Edgware attack points out in today's Evening Standard 'Calm have given no thought to the hundreds of people - men and women - who are still trying to cope alone with the effects of 7/7, some of whom are also at risk of suicide'.

British advertising has a reputation for being some of the best in the world. What a pity that this ill-conceived, thoughtless campaign is going to grab headlines for all the wrong reasons. Attempts to save young lives should not resort to linking to mass murderers in their advertising campaigns. They shouldn't need to.

UPDATE: Evening Standard article
UPDATE 2: BBC news
UPDATE3: 'The New Marketing' article
UPDATE4: Daily Mail article

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Veiled threats?

There's a debate going on at The Sharpener, and over at Not Saussure's place, and on many other discussion boards, and in the papers, about Jack Straw's recent comments about his personal difficulties meeting his Blackburn constituents when they are concealing their faces with full veils, or naqab. He stressed that he was not making a demand when requesting women remove their veils when talking to him. He was making a polite request, in the interest of enhanced communication. He pointed out the difficulties in communicating with people when you cannot see their faces. (Particularly for him, as he is partially deaf.) Well, he wanted a debate and he has got one. Good, because it's a way of discussing integration and seperation, whether veiled Muslim women are oppressed or not, and whether non-veiled women are oppressed by a culture that sets so much store by what we look like. And that is an interesting debate to have. Sexism, multiculturalism, terrorism/extremism, fear, racism, religion and freedom of speech all in one debate. How timely is that?

Listening to the BBC's Asian network programme on the subject you can hear a huge variety of views. Several callers pointed out that if a woman can't meet Straw's eyes and show her face to him, why doesn't she speak with him on the phone instead? There were discussions about the Koranic meaning of ''dressing modestly''. There was anger at a perceived ''insult to Islam'', and there was frustration about the debate about integration and multiculturalism centering once more on what women wear.

There was a lot of talking about ''respect'', the respect accorded to a woman who is veiled, or fully veiled, or flashing flesh; the respect or lack of respect shown to Muslim culture and Islam in general, the respect or lack of respect shown to the non-veiled people amongst whom you live and work by opting to screen yourself off from them and to totally hide your face and body in public life.

It's a lightning rod, this debate, and of course it runs the risk of turning into yet more Muslims vs. Everybody else polarisation, adding to a sense of grievance, persecution and resentment all round. But the debate doesn't have to be framed in those terms. There are many voices to hear. There aren't ''sides''; how can there be, when Muslims are just as diverse a group of opinionated individuals as anybody else?

It's sad that Straw's respectfully couched ( albeit politically astute) debate opener has been greeted with such extreme reaction by some. Tabloid headlines like '90% back Jack' are not helpful, nor is rampaging about calling it an ''attack on all Muslims'', or ''race-hate''. It isn't. Straw just said that he found it hard to have an equal face to face conversation with someone when you couldn’t see their face at all. Some people have said that as a politician, he shouldn't be discussing religious things, which is daft. Such an extreme declaration of modesty is a political statement in this country, just as tattooing or piercing your face or walking around naked is a political statement. It presents a challenge, because it is so very different to the norm.

We have a lot of free expression in this country. Your can wear a headscarf, or salwaar kameez, or a sari, or traditional African robes, or the black clothes and fur-lined streimel of orthodox Judaism round the streets where I live and it's pretty much normal, in a way that in some other European countries, it isn't. People will look. But people look anyway. That's what happens when you walk about the streets, humans look at each other. They interact. Get over it.

There are plenty of ways of dressing modestly and in accordance with your religious and cultural traditions. School uniforms have been adapted so that girls can fulfil their faith requirements of modest dress, in tunics and trousers that allow them to cover up whilst playing sport and attending lessons. Sikh boys can wear their turbans. No problem. What we culturally understand as ‘modest dress’ does not mean you have to cover up in what is effectively a giant bag with, in some cases, even your eyes hidden. You can signal 'modesty' and 'religious beliefs' very effectively without making such a big deal about it. Surely the point of modest dress is so that the woman’s intellect, opinions, faith, character can come through clearly and truthfully - the niqab seems to take that away by acting as an ostentatious mask - and masks are usually worn to disguise the person wearing them.

Is there a danger that the all-enveloping niqab actually detracts from the woman’s active witness to her faith? By focusing only on one aspect of it - exaggerated ‘modesty’ - covering herself from ‘lustful gaze’ - does she thus miss out a far more important part, which is her witness to her faith lived out through her life; an active witness surely best served by fully engaging with her fellow humans, believers and non-believers alike, as a beloved daughter of God living out her full potential?

Is this Koranically-unnecessary 'competitive' modesty actually immodest? Modesty for me is about fitting in gracefully, rather than trying to stand out to prove your piety. (And making others uncomfortable in the bargain - including some Muslim women who don't cover their faces. )

A woman letting her God-given character, intellect, sweetness, intelligence, etc shine through and making her sexual allure a non-issue other than to the person she wants to have sex with, is, I can see, a woman liberated in that it gives her a freedom from the endless judgements we get about our appearance, body shape, fashion sense and so on. Lots of women dress modestly, for lots of reasons. Sometimes I go about with my hair covered in a headscarf. A headscarf is warm in winter, protects my skin and hair from the hot sun in summer.It's comfortable, practical, and yes, it's modest. Sometimes I like to wear long, loose clothes for similar reasons. Other times I like to dress up more provocatively. I am mindful when dressing of the effect that I will have on others, and I am aware that I am expressing something about myself with the clothing I choose to wear. And honestly, I don't think there's a woman in the world who doesn't think the same way when she gets dressed, even elderly nuns. Of course your clothes are a statement to the world. And the woman who covers herself so that not even her eyes are visible is making a pretty extreme statement. One that the majority of her Muslim sisters do not choose to make.

I worry about the message sent out by the increasing adoption of the niqab by the young women of Blackburn. Isn't it insulting to say that a woman must cover herself totally from the risk of strangers' lust, as if that is all men are, lustful animals? Do we - all of us - and men especially, since they are assumed to be the predators - not deserve more trust and respect than to be assumed to be lascivious, uncontrollable rutting ‘brute beasts without understanding’ as the Book of Common Prayer puts it? If not, then what hope is there for any of us? It seems so negative… and so unnecessary. And, I think, contrary to the spirit of the faith, if you read the whole thing in context. Yes, of course you can get past it and talk to the lowered eyes behind the black sack. But why put the barrier up to that extent in the first place?

Of course I'm not a Muslim scholar. But I can still look at the Koran, the Hadith, can't I? Just as I can read St. Paul telling women to cover their hair and dress modestly in a strikingly similar injunction to the Koranic one. There is of course, no definitive account of the life of either of these men, who lived so long ago and who made such an impact. You have to pick your way through many different theological and critical interpretations of their words, just as you do with many other religions, and as usual it boils down to interpretation, informed by cultural and societal issues.

It strikes me that Mohammed was surprisingly modern for his time in his dealings with women. I cannot believe that he would have wanted women to walk about silenced and 100% covered, as if they are too dangerous and inflammatory to be seen or heard. I think he would have given them, and all of us, more credit than that. In the Prophet's time, women wore loose dresses and head veils but left their necks, throats and shoulders exposed to some degree. The Koran tells women to pull their veils down to cover their chests and to dress modestly. And so the vast majority of Muslim women worldwide don't wear the full veil; they simply dress modestly, wearing the hijab headscarf or some other covering of their hair and decolletage, and they go about their lives with more important things to worry about.

There is, after all, zilch in the Koran to indicate that women disappearing entirely from public view is the way forward favoured by God. And this is the paradox, by wearing the billowing tent-like naqab rather than the hijab which shows the face, but modestly covers the hair and chest you are, I think making the debate all about the body and the lustful gaze of strangers.

It is an exaggerated modesty that SHOUTS at you, and yes, it does get in the way of normal communication in a country where face- to-face contact is the polite, accepted norm of discourse between neighbours, colleagues and friends. Motorbike couriers take off their helmets when walking into buildings, because it is frightening to many people when a masked person enters your space. If a woman is wholly covered, you can't communicate as well, she can't eat with you, drink with you, you can't see her face at all, though she can see yours. It's excluding, and it says something unavoidable to the non-veiled person. You are forbidden to look at me. And that of course, just makes people look more. It makes things uncomfortable on both sides.

If a woman feel so at risk from male sexuality that they must cover up in full , then the problem lies with the menfolk around her, surely? (As if wearing a burqua stops women being raped and mistreated anyway. Go look at Afghanistan under the Taleban, rural Pakistan). You can dress it up as 'cultural differences, just like you can dress up female circumcision as 'cultural differences'. But mutilating women's bodies and shrouding women's faces and bodies is taking something away from them. If its only women who have their movements curtailed, their freedom impinged and their sexual response deadened, because of honour, or shame, because of the behaviour and dictates of men, then, sorry, but yes, it is sexist and unfair. Yes, I know the Koran also tells men to dress modestly and lower their eyes. But look at the way that the injunctions of the Koran are carried out by different groups, countries, societies. And look at who gets more choices, more education, more freedom and more power.

The countries where women cover up head to toe in naqab or burqas tend to be the countries with the worst human rights records and the nastiest treatment of women. That tells you something, as does the fact that most Muslim women, all over the globe, choose not to wear the naqab. Globally, the woman wholly covered tends to be the woman with the fewest rights and choices to speak out and to live freely. I don't think liberal sensitivity to ''cultural differences'' and freedom of speech should wilfully blind us to that. I am sure there are women wearing the naqab in the UK for all sorts of reasons, and as a free choice to make a statement about themselves. But I wonder why they are doing so. You can assert your right to do it, just as a submissive can assert their right to be beaten by their partner. But then to get cross when people stare or look uncomfortable, or debate why you are doing it, is a bit daft. Tolerance, politeness and respect, after all, go both ways.

UPDATE: An interesting article. The Dutch Commission of Equal Treatment passed a verdict that allowed high schools to prohibit Muslim girls to wear the headscarf in physical education classes if this would compromise safety precautions. Muslim girls were advised to wear a swim cap and a high turtleneck instead. A non-Muslim Dutch designer designed sport-hijab coverings, after Muslim schoolgirls were found to be dropping out of PE classes.

More hijab links from IslamOnline