Remember when we were kids and you never stepped on the cracks? You always looked down when we were walking together, to make sure. You’d talk and listen and laugh but always with your head down, your slightly shaggy brown hair falling over your eyes and making you unreadable. Remember I’d look up and around me, up at the buildings and over their tops at the sky, and if I wanted to point something out to you, a bird, a funny sign, a pretty cloud, you’d have to stop before you could look. Remember we were never in a hurry so it didn’t matter then. Your feet knew the route – the right path on the solid, unbroken paving slabs – from your house to my house, from my house to yours; it was your house then, ‘my parents’ place’ you call it now, I don’t even know who lives in mine. It might be empty.

Remember sitting on the wall across from the park and watching what we thought of as the ‘little’ kids on the swings when we decided we’d got too old. Do you ever wish it could be like that again? Or later, when we were teenagers and suddenly you were taller and our whole bodies changed, when we lay together in my new attic room and made inevitable love in the afternoon sunlight and the scent of pine.

Remember how we moved together, tentative, curious, but natural and easy as breathing; remember how, once we’d lain naked there that first time, it was as though we could never really be separate again; nothing as pedestrian as clothes could stop that feeling of our sweat intermingled on our skins. Remember later still, how jealous all your lovers were of me, how jealous all my lovers were of you; how difficult it was for them to understand that neither of us could ever really be owned. How difficult for us to understand that anyone could. Remember how our union seemed to irrepressibly laugh at their ideas even when we tried to respect them, how it had gone deeper, then, already, and couldn’t be removed; how unselfishly, how unflappably we shared one another; remember the nights when we admitted that we were single, or the nights when we just didn’t bother trying to resist whatever force it was that pulled us together again, as big as the tide; the nights after dinners or a drink or two when we’d reach into one another’s clothes and find exactly what we expected all over again.

Remember how we’d talk late into those nights, in the dark, feeling the warmth of your breath on the back of my neck, or sometimes my breath on yours; your fingertips in my hair, mine all along your spine. Remember we’d tell each other all the secrets of our various conquests and failures, little things they said or did, you’d make me laugh imitating some strange, silly girl, some poor girl who by then must have realised that you could never really love her, not because of me but because you didn’t know how. Your body became like an extension of my own, I knew every fold and every hair; I could never mind you seeing me naked, never even remember to think about it and cover myself because you’re a mirror. Your eyes are like a mirror – they take the colour of what you’re wearing that day and reflect it, turning faintly blue, faintly green, faintly brown from day to day so you always look put-together; when you’re naked they are grey. I like the way they age as your clothes do; that Batman t-shirt you’ve had forever started out black and so your eyes looked dark when you wore it, and the light in them looked brighter, everything is more lustrous against the darkness. Now it’s so faded, the print cracked and almost disappearing, it’s the same colour as your naked eyes, the real colour, so when you put it on your eyes don’t change, they’re grey, endlessly grey, deep as a whole hall of mirrors, and you look older. When you’re old maybe you’ll start to wear white and your eyes will be pale, colourless as water, and the pinpoints of light won’t show up in them to make them sparkle and you’ll just have two black dots; maybe, but don’t do it until then.

Remember when we both moved away and for the first time had to talk, really talk, to one another on the phone; how I hated the phone, how dreadfully I missed you with that horrible plastic thing pressed to my ear, how far it was from your fondly-remembered lips, your warm morning neck, the brushing touch of little bunches of your hair, still always slightly tangled, slightly overgrown. How your voice sounded different and far; even when I was happy and when you made me laugh, more often than not after those late-night conversations I’d feel suddenly cold, missing you, I’d feel empty and so alone and no-one else could quite do, though heaven knows they tried; I’d distract myself, I’d play with men, it was great fun, I’d never admit that it never felt the same. Hand in glove. Every time we’d finally manage to hang up, I always wanted to call you straight back, the click of the receiver into its cradle a sharp cruel snip to the thread that connects us, the un-bilical cord; I’d feel that cold that starts in my chest, spreads out from the inside, and I’d start to cry, quietly, not knowing why, then sleep and dream.

Remember when I visited you in the spring, the day I arrived was sunny and we sat in your garden among the patchy grass and all the beautiful weeds, the smell of smoke drifted across from your neighbours having a barbecue, we sat there talking until well after sunset. Bindweed climbing up your fence, whisky and ice in a shallow glass, you’d started smoking again by that time too. The next day when we went for a walk, remember you said you’d show me the city, that spring was so beautiful; I had those big sunglasses on and all the stones of all the buildings looked almost pinkish and warm, everything glowing because we were together. Remember that night when we were in the park and you finally told me about the twenty-five girls and the sense of emptiness you felt with them, the difficulty you’d had in trying to understand them, trying to care; remember how you looked away from me, although it was almost dark by now and everything was hazy, streetlit sodium-vapour orange, and for the first and only time I saw you cry. When we’d talked it out and kissed and smoked and kissed again, deeper this time and more urgently, when we’d dried you off, we walked back to yours in silence and this time I was the one to look down and watch your feet: this time you stepped on the cracks.

love, music, wine and revolution

Or: Why I don’t like Valentine’s Day.

Hmm, ‘don’t like’ is kind of not strong enough to express how I feel, but then ‘hate’ is maybe a little much. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else if they are into it, it’s just really, really not for me. And when I talk about this I sometimes get some raised eyebrows, which makes sense, I guess; I’m not single, I haven’t been single for any appreciable amount of time in my adult life, I’m in a happy, stable, mixed-sex relationship, I was born to parents who were and still are in a happy, stable, mixed-sex relationship, I am in love, I love love, I love being in love. I am a hopeless ‘romantic’, in some ways. I love love songs and romantic old movies. I cry like a child at West Side Story (I watched it again last night, NO REGRETS. My partner had never seen it before!) and Carousel and South Pacific, especially ‘A Wonderful Guy‘. I cry at weddings. I cry at the last episode of Futurama. Heck, in the course of ‘researching’ this post (lulz, googlenews-ing ‘valentine’s day’ = ‘research’) I found this story: ‘Couple use the same recycled Valentine’s Day card for 70 years’, and greeted it with a huge DAAAWWWWWWW.

So I thought I’d be dead topical and write it down here: what is my beef with Monday?

Okay, deep breath. The most obvious one first: it’s consumerist as fuck, and I don’t really like consumerism. I don’t want to get labelled a terrible hypocrite here because as some of you will know I like shoes, a lot, and fashion and good food and music and gin and xbox games and books and lots of other things which are available for money and so I do buy things. I just don’t like getting told or feeling pressurised to do so, and I really, really don’t like the idea of someone I love getting told to buy particular things – roses, chocolates, knickers or whatever – for me on a particular day (it’s not even my birthday!) because Society Said So, or because Everybody Else Is Doing It, or because it’d somehow increase their chances of fucking me that evening — more on that later.

The dealio with everyone from stationery companies to salad vegetables desperately cashing in on something as beautiful, multifaceted, joyous and real as human interpersonal relationships just turns my stomach. It makes me sad (okay, I admit it, the ‘love cucumber’ makes me laugh, like a lot (NB: ‘love cucumber’ does not mean what you think it means), but the overall tendency makes me sad). A capitalist recuperation of something that should be uplifting and surprising and wild, reduced to something so uninspired, so tired, so obvious: how fucking romantic.

Furthermore? It’s heteronormative, and it’s boring. This particular commercial appropriation of a religious non-event (seriously you guys, unlike Christmas it is not even in the Catholic calendar of saints and hasn’t been since the 1960s) stares reality down with the faces of countless identikit heterosexual, young, white couples. I had a look at the Cosmopolitan and AskMen websites to back me up on this one and I can’t say I recommend the experience; it made me feel like vomiting, develop some new frown lines, and get so angry and confused I had to go for a walk round the block, seriously. If I may digress for a mo because this shit is bananas, please could you look at this ‘top tweet’ from AskMen:

Wow. I am literally speechless, which doesn't happen often.

WOW HOLY SHIT, I’d better go tell all the single straight guys I know. Guys, guys, Operation Cry Me A Ladyboner is off, abort, abort! It turns out that ISN’T the way to turn women on after all, those mysterious creatures! Because when men cry it isn’t a physical reaction to pain or negative emotions, it’s to get to the pussy. O-kay.

So yeah. I think before that BLEW MY MIND, my point was something about how all those ads and magazines and pop-culture fluffy things, that I’ve seen, are very much aimed at one gender with the aim of impressing, ‘snaring’, or ‘conquering’ members of the opposite one. (‘Make your man melt’ with… some Ray Bans? Erm no thanks Cosmo. Also it’s fucking February). Lingerie company La Senza illustrate my point with their subtle slogan ‘He ♥’s me, he ♥’s me hot [sic]’. Because every woman worth her salt has a male partner, right? And I’m sure we can all relate to that skinny, Aryan-blonde model, too. All of the people pictured on both the magazine pages mentioned above (there are 30 in total, I counted) are young, white mixed-sex couples, or on the AskMen site, young, white women lying around looking available. Yawn.

And dear Christ, the more I look at this fucking AskMen thing, the creepier it seems. Aside from the stunning advice above about crying, the second-most-questionable thing that caught my eye on that page may be “[Vincent] Cassel’s on- and off-screen personas are worth imitating if you want to score big with women.” O RLY, AskMen? Don’t get me wrong, I would agree that Cassel is definitely a sexy man, but the idea of some English loser reading this article and attempting to imitate him is toe-curlingly pathetic. Also, ‘on-screen personas’ that spring to mind: La Haine, Dobermann, Irréversible, Mesrine, Black Swan… yeah, that’s definitely what women go for, innit? Violent criminals, adolescent psychos and manipulative misogynists. We love that shit. It really does talk about ‘conquering’ a lot, as well. Actual quote: “Every girl can be a conquest if you use the Player’s technique.”

Will from The Inbetweeners tells it like it is

So, ‘becoming a better man starts here’, eh? Not so much.

Will brings me on to my next point nicely: It has really questionable, divide-and-ruley overtones about how ‘different’ women and men are (women like flowers, men like fucking?), and, creepier yet, normalises unhealthy interactions by suggesting that it’s pretty okay to trade gifts for sex or intimacy.  You know the stuff I mean, those adverts and articles that helpfully point you to what you need to buy, wear, eat, drink to impress your date, ‘get her in the mood’, or ‘warm her up’ as AskMen so, erm, rapily puts it in this frankly baffling piece where the fashion editor seems to recommend that you ‘make the sacrifice’ of not having penetrative sex, for some reason that I don’t quite understand, but doesn’t go into whether either or both of you get to come.
Now, being prescriptive about people’s sexual behaviour is the last thing I want to do, but I’m pretty sure that in a healthy relationship the only reason you should be having sex is because both (or all) the parties involved want to have sex with each other. Not because they bought you dinner or some other gift, not because you’re wearing nice underwear today, not because you feel entitled to it, not because you feel pressurised into it, not because it’s the 14th of February, not because everyone else is doing it, and fucking definitely not because you want to ‘stand by the water cooler with a smirk on [your] face’ the following day, you creepy bastard. Any suggestion that you have to look, dress, smell or act a certain way in order to be attractive is at once absurd and infuriating to me. And I just despise this idea of love, or sex, being ‘given’ conditionally by one unwilling partner (stereotypically, this seems to be a woman – why? Did I miss the meeting where we don’t actually like fucking?) and guaranteed or recompensed with goods and services. It’s boaktastic, and in addition, as Will might say, it’s a little bit rapey. Normalising the idea of boning someone who doesn’t really want to do it is seriously not cool. And if you ask me, neither is ‘planning a night of fabulous foreplay and steamy sex’. You can plan a wank, if you really want to, but Dr Alice would recommend not ‘planning’ anything ahead if it involves mind-reading what your fellow-sexer will want and feel like doing at the time. Surely that way coercion or disappointment lie? (Apart from anything else, and on a lighter note, all that satin sheets and candlelight and matching lingerie sets nonsense kind of pales in comparison to proper spontaneous sex in my book; that ‘unplanned’, frantic sex when you’re in a totally inappropriate location and still have your jeans half on and, er, anyway, I’ve said enough, there’s a fair chance my mum will read this.)

Last but not least, then: it, and our society in general, centralises and over-emphasises the importance of ‘romantic’ or sexual intimate relationships at the expense of other beautiful and meaningful interactions (between men and women, women and women, men and men). There’s this ridiculous pressure, this idea that everyone should be or needs to be in a consistent monogamous sexual relationship, and it’s stupid and it makes people feel needlessly excluded and lonely and it trivialises how important and supportive and rewarding other relationships can be – friendships, both with and without ‘benefits’; relationships with family or colleagues or teachers, which categorically don’t involve sexual intimacy.
Some people are asexual, some people are celibate, some people want to wait until they’re older or until they get married, some people have lost a partner, some people aren’t monogamous, some people are just single right now, and that’s okay. It’s not weird or wrong or sad or perverse or uncool, and it’s not okay to make people feel like they’re any of those things. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t loved. Love is a lot bigger and deeper and more exciting than the subset of relationships that fit inside the neat playing-card heart shape prescribed for Valentine’s Day. I can think of five or six non-sexual relationships in my life that are vital and fulfilling to me and that I’d be devastated to lose. Sure I love my partner to the end of the world, but at the same time I truly, madly, deeply love my friends, too; I love my brother, my sister and my parents; I love my ex; hell, I love my cat, and she never buys me anything. I want to celebrate and value these relationships, too – although as you’ll have gathered, maybe not with chocolates and roses and the rest of the bullshit that seems to come attached to ‘celebrations’ in this world!
So, oddly enough for someone who’s just spent hours writing about it, I guess my point is: maybe we should all chill out a little bit about sex. Sex is great (in my opinion), but it isn’t everything. It isn’t love. You don’t love someone because they give you things, or because they touch your genitals, and you don’t stop loving them when they stop.

So, er, happy Monday everyone!

When you’re trying hard to be your best, could you be a little less?

Hello there, neglected blog. So, during my big awesome winter holiday (of which today is the last day, boo), I’ve been enjoying lazing around in pyjamas and watching tons of excellent films old and new: from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and West Side Story (1961), via some 1980s gems (Footloose, Weird Science, the Back to the Future trilogy) all the way to Tron: Legacy (2010), which I finally got around to seeing yesterday, in 3D, directly after watching the first instalment (Tron, 1982) for the first time.

I really enjoyed both the films, actually, but for today let’s focus on Tron: Legacy. It left me with a number of impressions, roughly as follows:

  • I love Daft Punk
  • I love shiny things
  • I love Michael Sheen
  • I love bikes
  • I love very pretty girls in very tight outfits
  • Seriously, I wish my job was Daft Punk
  • But… why so sexist?
Cindy Morgan in Tron

Whoa, wait. Tron: Legacy is about a million times more sexist than the one I was in 30 years ago? FFFFUUUU-

Seriously. I find it really difficult to write coherently about things like this, I get very conflicted on multiple levels. As a feminist (sorta, kinda, I think), is it okay for me to enjoy films with terrible gender politics as much as I do? As a bro (sorta, kinda, honorary), and as someone who’s never made a film, is it okay for me to criticise films with excellent direction and acting and photography and music? Can I voice what I actually feel, and have it both ways? It’s a difficult tightrope to tread, for me; I’m very aware that I run the risk of sounding like a humourless killjoy or a brainless ladette, neither of which, I’m fairly sure, are accurate at all.

This issue is pretty much why I never got around to writing down my feelings about another of my favourite films of last year, Inception, and Christopher Nolan’s work in general, of which I have been a longstanding, faithful fangirl (Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige are all magnificent, and I got more excited about each of the new Batman movies than… well, than is at all normal for an adult woman, Christian Bale notwithstanding). I remember that I tried to talk to my (lovely, intelligent, and very film-critical) partner about it on the way home from the cinema, opening gently with something like ‘Um… do you think Christopher Nolan maybe had some kind of bad experience with a woman at some formative point in his life?’, and getting a surprising ‘THOU SHALT NOT QUESTION NOLAN’ stonewall in response. I believe ‘you can’t have everything’, ‘you’re overthinking it’ (NB: Ha. That was before I even knew there was an, ‘not every film is about feminism and equality’ and ‘SIGH, BORING’ came up in the ensuing discussion, along with ‘ARG there were two women in that film out of a large ensemble cast with about 8 strong male characters, both the women are very pretty, but one is a crutch and exists solely to spur the male lead’s ‘character arc’, and the other one is NAMED ‘EVIL’  (subtle!) and literally the entire time she’s on screen she’s either killing herself, crying, being killed or trying to kill someone, and she kills herself because her weak female brain can’t handle an idea although his is fine with it, and everything she ever does revolves around DiCaprio up to and including coming back from the dead solely to fuck with him and get killed again and also this is not the first time I have noticed that a disproportionately large number of Nolan’s female characters either kill themselves because of a man or get killed, by a man, because of another man’ on my side of the table. But apparently I didn’t win that round. (Other people have also noticed and done a really good job of writing about it, though!)

So, yeah, back to the SHINY THING in question. I thought the first Tron had a pretty balanced, sensible approach to gender for a film that is older than I am and set mainly in a video game arcade, a software company and inside a computer. There are three major male protagonists (and their programs), a male antagonist, and one female programmer (Cindy Morgan as Dr. Laura Baines/Yori, pictured above), who is beautiful, sassy, and spirited. She does admittedly spend quite a bit of time hugging the male leads, and disappear for a good while and for no particular reason when Flynn first enters the mainframe and meets Tron and Ram, but she survives the film without her life or limbs being sacrificed, knows what time it is, and as the ex of Jeff Bridges’ character at the start she provides a likeable and realistic foil to his boyish, charismatic arrogance.

Let’s compare that with Tron: Legacy (while trying not to spoil what little plot there is too badly – I would definitely still recommend everyone who likes AWESOME THINGS to go see it, and don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment!). It opens with the revelation that Flynn (Bridges’ character) now has a child – it’s a son. This development must entail the involvement of a woman, right? Wrong. She’s dead, she doesn’t have a name, that’s dealt with in the first 5 or 10 minutes and never mentioned again. Apparently the tragically early death of a partner/mother doesn’t affect either of the central male protagonists much – once he’s all grown up, the son in question (Sam Flynn, played by Garrett Hedlund) even says something to Alan/Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) about how he no longer needs a ‘surrogate father’ to play catch with, after his real father disappeared, which was after the unexplained death of his mother. Unspoken: he never needed a surrogate mother, because female role models = lol no. (His paternal grandparents looked after him; you get to see them looking pretty sprightly briefly in the first scene but in The Future, you guessed it, they’ve joined Mum in the nameless’n’dead fridge.) We also get a glimpse of the board at Encom, now a huge multinational software company that may or may not rhyme with ‘bicrosoft’ and that Sam Flynn is rebelling against by not giving a shit about. The board are largely male (my sister has pointed out that I fail on this point, apparently there is a sassy black lady in this scene who I managed to instantly forget about because shortly afterwards my MIND WAS BLOWN BY AWESOME LIGHT BIKES BEING AWESOME).

So, that’s Tron: Legacy‘s version of the real world of 2010. How about the futuristic, super-shiny virtual world which Flynn Senior intended to be perfect and which Flynn Junior inevitably enters? Is it an egalitarian paradise, I wonder? Look, here are some women! Four of them in fact. They are all very pretty, wearing very tight shiny white outfits, and they literally emerge from tomb-like boxes in the walls to undress and redress the male lead and then go back in their boxes. Oh, and the black ones stay in the background of all the shots. Oh dear.

After some completely awesome fighting and Daft Punk, we finally get to meet the film’s real ‘leading’ woman in the pleasing shape of Olivia Wilde (Quorra). She saves the Flynnlet and drives a sweet vehicle like a total badass. So far, so good! I remember seeing this interview (let’s not talk about the bit in the preamble where it assumes everyone reading has a ‘girlfriend’…) where Wilde says she ‘didn’t want her to be this slinky, sexy thing who looks hot in the suit, and [who] the boys like but the girls feel alienated from, and they don’t understand. I wanted her to inspire young women to feel tough and embrace both their intelligence and sexiness.‘ Woot!
She’s… very pretty and wearing a very tight shiny outfit. Okay! She sits around looking pretty while The Menfolk Are Talking (and expositioning – as my heterosexual male partner commented, the lingering shots of her stretching out on a futuristic chaise apparently improve the ‘boring exposition scene’ no end. I have to admit that I was also enjoying the interior design). Hmm! Then we find out her actual story, such as it is. She’s a naive wee soul who’s learned everything she knows from Jeff Bridges and looks to him for direction on everything throughout the film. She’s super important and precious and special because of what she is, not what she does, and both Flynns must save and protect and ooh-and-ah over her so that Daddy Flynn can show-and-tell her IRL later. And she dies and gets brought back to life in order to inject a bit of angst (and awesome special effects) into a travelling scene. So in other words, she is a perfect Disney princess, in fact one with significantly less balls (fewer balls? smaller balls?) than Belle. FAIL.

Olivia Wilde in Tron: Legacy

I'm inspiring young women to feel tough and intelligent! Yay!

Gah. Oh, the shiniest and whitest of the shiny-white women pops out of her boob-lidded coffin again as well, just in time to flutter her eyelashes a bit more and then die by virtue of being in the same place as her far-more-interesting, far-more-talkative, ambitious male partner. Brilliant.

I guess I just find all this, Hollywood’s bizarre view of gender and gender roles… fucking baffling, to be honest. Am I right in thinking that in general terms, mainstream films are making no progress towards equality, in many cases actually seemingly more ‘backward’ and dated in their presentation of gender roles than they were decades ago when second-wave feminism was fresh and relevant – is a backlash happening, or is recuperation taking place as rights movements become equality movements? (To revisit some of the classic films I mentioned at the start: West Side Story is from 1961 and is an adaptation of Shakespeare, and it has a genderqueer character and doesn’t make a big deal of it (truth! They’re called Anybodys. Watch and learn!) as well as headstrong, sensitive women like Anita, kicking ass and looking awesome at the same time; as we’ve seen, Tron was doing pretty well in 1982; Weird Science (pictured below) is a 1985 film about teenage boys connecting a Barbie doll to a computer and it has more interesting gender politics than Tron: Legacy. Hell, Madonna (as quoted above) has on occasion had better gender politics than Tron: Legacy, and she’s Madonna, for fuck’s sake.) Is it okay? Should I just be accepting it, sitting back and enjoying the explosions? (Or worse, should I be leaving the boys to their explosions and watching rom-coms and Sex and the City instead? ERGH). Do stereotypes really affect people’s perception of real-life people – real-life women, gay people, people of other faiths? Or are they some kind of shorthand that everyone accepts as dated and unrealistic?

Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science

I mean, to take myself as an example, I consume a lot of mainstream entertainment, and it doesn’t seem to have screwed my understanding of gender (or sexuality or race, for that matter) up all that badly; I know that gender is fluid and complex and that it’s not, we’re not opposite or binary. I love shoes and make-up and fashion. I love football and comics and video games. I love art and music and philosophy. I refuse to be defined by any one of those characteristics. And I can recognise when things – films, games, musicians – have poor gender politics and call them on it and still enjoy them on a more aesthetic level. Should I just have more faith in everyone else to be equally unaffected by Hollywood bullshit?

Does it not matter any more? Should I be more ‘gender-blind’; should I trust the little girls who’re growing up watching stuff like this to understand that their role models don’t have to be female, to know that of course they can grow up to be computer programmers and pirates and robots and warriors and superheroes, even if women in films don’t, just like how I always wanted to be Panthro and not Cheetara in Thundercats when I was a kid? Are parents still making that clear to their female and male kids? What do y’all think?

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Dear friends,

Many of you wrote posts, linked to campaigns and wrote to your MPs and so on recently about the shoddy way the Digital Economy Bill, or what is now the Digital Economy Act 2010, was being handled. I read your thoughts, watched the video, had a look around on the ORG website, and was interested and impressed to see the depth of feeling and analysis that was going on about the various issues, and agree that it was a pretty bad example of what passes for a democratic process, and that it’s without exception creepy and disturbing for any state to assert or seek greater control over people’s means of communications (I do have reservations about certain things that arose on ‘our’ side of the debate as well, like the repetition of Brown’s claim that ‘the internet is as vital as water and gas’; I do know what he was saying in context but don’t really think that stands up to much scrutiny from a global standpoint, and – taken out of context, as it was when I first saw it – it strikes me as being in questionable taste given that one billion people worldwide are living without access to clean water).

But anyway, what I wanted to say here was, while you are all thinking about human rights (yeah yeah, so I meant to write this earlier, whatever) and also about politics and getting ready to vote and so on, I would like to draw your attention to immigration and the treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers in the UK. These are people, please bear in mind, who have come to Britain knowing that it’s a country wealthy enough, democratic enough, and with enough of a tradition of understanding and respect for upholding human rights, that when something like the DEBill is rushed through our parliament, there is an uproar and backlash such as we saw this month.

  • On February 4th 2010, a hunger strike (ongoing at the time of writing) began at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, with over 70 women protesting their poor conditions, separation from their children, poor health and legal provisions and long periods of detainment. They have also demanded better legal representation in their asylum cases, as a report conducted by Legal Action for Women in 2006 found that 57% of women detained at Yarl’s Wood had no one representing them. While officials have claimed that detention is only used as a short-term measure, one of the women on hunger strike has been held for over two years. The response of the Serco staff to the hunger strike has been extremely heavy-handed. Many injuries have been reported and some of the women involved have been transferred to police stations. The women, many of whom are survivors of rape and torture, have reported racist abuse and beatings at the hands of guards, as well as being locked in isolation in a windowless corridor for eight hours without access to water or toilet facilities. Many of the detainees need medication which they have been denied during the protest.
    Serco and the UK Border Agency refused to confirm the number, nationality and status of the hunger strikers.
  • In April 2009, the Children’s Commissioner for England published a report which stated that children held in the detention centre are denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm. The report detailed how children are transported in caged vans and watched by opposite sex staff as they dress.
  • In March 2010, the Chief Inspector of Prisons published a report which confirmed that a baby had been detained for 100 days at Yarl’s Wood, and that force had been used against children twice in the last year to separate them from their families: “What was particularly troubling was that decisions to detain, and to maintain detention of, children and families did not appear to be fully informed by considerations of the welfare of children, nor could their detention be said to be either exceptional or necessary.”
  • In 2009, Felista Peters, a trainee radiologist, was jailed for 19 months and will be deported on completion of this term. Felista had successfully completed her BSC in radiology at the University of the West of England in Bristol and was days away from graduating when she was arrested. Her ‘crime’ was gaining British citizenship by claiming to have been born in London.
  • In 2002-03, Yurdugal Ay and her four children aged 7 to 14 were held in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre for over a year, living like prisoners in a single room inside a razor wire surrounded compound, with the children allowed just 2 hours exercise each day. The Ay family eventually gained asylum in Germany. In March 2010, two five-year-old boys and their mother, who had fled from domestic violence in Nigeria in 2006, were taken to Dungavel. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland have “expressed their abhorrence at the practice of detaining young children and have asked the Scottish government to end this brutal and inhumane regime.”
  • Also in March 2010, a family of three people committed suicide at the Red Road flats in Glasgow.
    While Saeed, an Afghan asylum seeker, attended a candlelit vigil for the family, his belongings, including identity papers, were cleared out of his room in YMCA Glasgow and he was told without notice that he could not return to his flat. YMCA staff advised him that his belongings were ‘probably in the bin’.
    Meanwhile, the Home Office challenged a judge’s decision that a mourning couple should not have to exhume the body of their dead baby son and rebury him in Pakistan.
  • In February 2010 (thanks to my dearest dad for pointing this out to me), Gordon Brown issued an apology for Britain’s role in the Child Migrants Program, which shipped thousands of children to former colonies such as Australia and Canada.
    “We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.”… Mr Brown said the participants in the scheme were “robbed” of their childhood. “The pain of a lost childhood can last a lifetime.”

    The scheme began in 1869 and was ended in the 1960s.
    Gordon Brown was born in 1951, and is apparently fond of making meaningless, hollow gestures.

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I can’t go on, I will go on

This month saw Gordon Brown’s beleaguered government issue an official apology for the treatment of Alan Turing, the brilliant logician, cryptanalyst, and pioneering computer scientist who committed suicide in 1954 after enduring persecution and enforced chemical castration as ‘punishment’ for his sexual orientation. Brown, who was born in 1951, stated: “I am very proud to say: we’re sorry”.

There is something wrong and insulting in a society where the shameful mistreatment and needless death of a human being can be appropriated in this way by a failing politician who can never bear any meaningful responsibility for the events of his life; where Brown’s empty words can be weighed up against the suffering or death of any person. As time separates us from Turing and his persecutors, the 55 years between us allow Brown to regard his demise, the UK of the time and its attitudes coldly, as though through glass – as alien, over and done with; to use this horrible anniversary as a publicity stunt which is somehow supposed to illustrate his modern government’s commitment to equality and human rights; to speak, even, of ‘pride’.

Turing was undoubtedly a gifted scientist, and he is quite understandably remembered for his innovative work in cryptanalysis and artificial intelligence. But before all of this, he was a human. Can his life somehow be judged to be worth more than that of Jody Dobrowski, who was brutally battered and kicked to death aged 24, on Clapham Common in 2005? Than Robyn Brown, 23, a trans woman stabbed to death in her home in central London in 1997? Jaap Bornkamp, 52, knifed in New Cross, 2000? Geoffrey Windsor, 57, beaten to death in a Croydon park, 2002? How about the millions of LGB, trans and queer people who have suffered abuse including sexual assaults, violence, threats, intimidation, degradation and harassment every year in the UK, who might not be as ready or as ‘proud’ as Brown was to congratulate himself on all that progress we’ve made when he ‘celebrates’ Turing’s life while muttering a hollow apology for his death?

This is happening now. Research produced by the campaigning group Stonewall (2007, 2008) shows that two thirds of LGB young people at schools in the UK experience direct homophobic bullying, and 98% of them habitually hear derogatory homophobic language and insults. Within and outwith education, the reports prove that a majority of LGB people do not report homophobic abuse and hate crime, strongly believing that the authorities – whether teachers or police – cannot or will not take these cases seriously. We understand and recognise the institutionalised homophobia (as well as racism, sexism and xenophobia) of the police; we are constantly reminded by the mainstream media that queer and trans people must be constantly belittled and caricatured in order to be ‘tolerated’ and acceptable; that they are regarded, at best, as jokes.
Heterosexual privilege and a polite, insidious homophobia are constantly asserted and reinforced in the letters pages of the most popular newspapers. We hear it argued over and over again that these things (homophobia, heterosexual privilege) simply don’t exist. As laws have changed, the feeble refrain is that we ”don’t mind what people get up to in their bedrooms” (a statement which is unfailingly followed by “but…”), that we’re all ‘tolerant’ now, as though diversity, love and passion are fit only to be endured, wearily borne. Heterosexual privilege is blinding – these patient, ‘tolerant’ people could ask themselves: can you turn on a television, or walk past a school playground, without being fully prepared to see someone of your sexual orientation being mocked for this and this alone, or an aspect of your identity used as a slur? LGB, trans and queer people cannot faithfully answer yes.

The complaint always aired about the discussion of any sexual politics – the ‘don’t mind what people get up to in their bedrooms’ brigade – however pathetic, does reveal something about a disturbingly common British attitude – the horror and revulsion we feel towards both sex and love. It’s often argued that part of the problem is using ‘charged’ words and referring to ‘sexuality’, ‘sex changes’ and people as ‘homosexual’ because it’s not all about sex – and of course it’s not, but I’d argue that that’s not all, we have a serious problem with talking about meaningful relationships as well. About any kind of love, care or human emotion that’s not been pre-packaged and sapped of meaning by Hallmark cards and Richard Curtis films. It’s also worrying and wrong that sex itself, and the body, is still such a massive taboo – we need to be able to talk about this. We need to be able to make explicit statements about equality to the young, explaining what we mean by loose terms like ‘different’ and being unafraid to acknowledge issues of race, disability, sex – recent research by the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas has proven that it simply doesn’t work to try and make children ‘colourblind’ or protect them from such discussion, just reinforces the taboo and makes them think there’s something wrong with difference or talking about it.
A fear of sex – fear of one of the basic functions common to all animals throughout time – is why parents are too embarrassed and teachers too afraid to address it in schools. Faith schools exist in modern Britain and represent a massive failure to move or think forward – in 2009, teachers consulted for another piece of Stonewall research expressed their views that “homosexuality is wrong” and “a deviant behaviour”. Environments exist in which the very people who are supposed to guide and care for children view their charges as sinners and condemned. The rotten, ragged spectre of the church and a wish to cling to some mythical and meaningless ‘morality’ hangs over this country, and coupled with the divide and rule bigotry and fearmongering constantly reinforced by politicians and the media, it is retarding us.

As Jody’s mother, Sheri Dobrowski, says: ‘Jody was not the first man to be killed, or terrorised, or beaten or humiliated for being homosexual – or for being perceived to be homosexual. Tragically, he will not be the last man to suffer the consequences of homophobia, which is endemic in this society. This is unacceptable. We cannot accept this. No intelligent, healthy or reasonable society could.’

Of course, though, there’s nothing in all this that Gordon Brown feels the need to apologise for.

If those who would call themselves our leaders show no propensity for leadership, what right do they have to the name? Would we rather – will we be able to – make real progress under these old straight men who believe it is acceptable to issue a clinically worded apology for a half-forgotten tragedy, who can point to dusty law books as evidence of their commitment to ‘equality’, or can we build a better and more honest society, a better world, together as people – as diverse communities, with all our wealth of intelligence, understanding, experience, and with compassion that those who broadcast bland apologies from ivory towers can never have?

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not worth the earth – these streets are your streets, this turf is your turf.

There are so very many things that I could write about Climate Camp 2009, and other experiences I’ve had in the last couple of weeks. None of it would be very coherent or cohesive, though, I would find it difficult to get points across, I would argue with myself, I would struggle as I always do.  This statement addresses some of my concerns about it, and this article voices some of my hopes and happinesses.

And what about me? I am well and happy. My head is full of ideas, hopes, fears, half-formed analyses. A lot of things are wrong in the world. Some things are right and good. Some things are ugly. Some things are beautiful. I had some time to think and a lot to think about. I value opportunities to meet and spend time with interesting and kind people. My brother is one of the most interesting and kind people I know. I value time spent with him, above much else. I met several new interesting and interested and kind people, too. I like being heard and respected for who I am. I enjoy pubs, pretty girls, Thai food, sunshine, laughter, foxes, freedom and fire. All of the above were features of my week away. I missed my lover, and my bike. My sister is sixteen years old. I got to Newcastle to see her a few hours before her birthday began.

This weekend just gone was Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year – it started at sunset on Friday. I guess that means I started it by tipsily cycling home from the pub where my newish boss had treated me and a colleague to drinkies following an unexpected, but pleasant, ‘it’s 5pm on a Friday and this bottle of wine has been in the fridge for ages!’ one in the office. I had a ‘credit crunch date’ at home, as the boy and I need all the spare dolla we can muster for paying the deposit on, and buying stuff to go in, our new flat next week. We had a nice meal and watched The Proposition – I’d seen it before, in the cinema with K, but he hadn’t, and it is still as bleak yet brilliant as I remembered. Then we sat and talked about stuff and I ended up crying about EDL and/or UAF until I felt very very sick, and not sleeping well at all, wakefully Thinking about Things until after 4am.

I got up on Saturday morning with puffy eyes, had some tea, and baked some really nice cinnamon biscuits. Then had some more tea, then went out on my bike to meet my good buddy P, who I hadn’t seen in four weeks, due to our busy lives. We met at the start of the canal, rode down the Union canal path (nice and flat, and mostly wide with just a couple of slightly scary bits where you’re supposed to get off and walk, but of course we don’t), over aqueducts and under viaducts, talking about stuff – what we’d both been doing over the month, his 30th birthday being in a few days, bikes – to where it meets the Water of Leith path somewhere around Wester Hailes and so we switched on to that (pretty good, scenic, but a lot more bumpy – rather him than me on that roady bike he has borrowed from his brother while the latter is in New Zealand. Leon can handle all the rocks, sticks and mud just fine) and took it all the way to Balerno, where it somewhat abruptly ends. It had been pretty grey and drizzly all day and a proper downpour commenced just as we stood there wondering what to do, so we went to the shop and bought some milk to have with our biscuits, then went a little way back along the path looking for shelter. I always find it sort of awesome how much cover the trees can offer from even this torrential rain – we quickly found a really nice dry spot with a big rock to sit on.

Then P decided that if we scrambled down a horribly steep bit to the river’s edge, it would be a perfect place for a little fire, but upon investigating my handbag it turned out we had no means of making the fire (a mirror, yes, but not enough sunlight for that) so, as the rain wore off, he went back to the shop and bought a lighter, the cheapest newspaper he could find (Daily Express – ugh ugh ugh!), and a fruit loaf, while I ate an apple and collected firewood. We locked our bikes together just off the path. He leapt fearlessly down the slope to his proposed fireplace and I crept gingerly behind him, which took about twenty times as long, but didn’t fall. He crumpled up paper, mysteriously found a huge, comfortable plank and by means of balancing it across rocks, assembled it into a handy bench upwind so we’d be out of the way of any smoke. I built the sticks into the little pyramid over the crumpled paper, gathered some more wood, and lit the fire. He got a rock and bashed the protruding ends of some ‘deadly’ nails back into his lumber bench, convinced me it was now safe to sit on, and flapped the remaining paper at the base of the fire as a makeshift bellows, to get the flames going. Then we just sat and toasted pieces of fruit loaf on a stick and had them and the cookies with milk and talked and stared at the beautiful fire for a couple of hours. When it was time to go home, we let the fire burn itself out and then doused the embers using water from the river in the empty milk bottle. The sun had come out while we were sitting there and it was finally a really beautiful, crisply sunny late afternoon, and clearly the last day of summer, and the start of something new. The ride back was easy because it was all very slightly downhill, and we had a laugh, and talked about autumn and time and light, places, politics, plants and plans.
I went home and hung out with D without crying about UAF, and made some totally delicious vegetarian chilli. That was Rosh Hashanah. When I was younger I used to go to shul.

I talked to my dad on the phone. My mum’s got swine flu but he said she’s not feeling too bad. He’d been to the first day of his teacher training course at uni, so he hadn’t been to shul either, which is more ground-breaking – and had spent the week working in the school where he’s been volunteering part-time for a while now. He told me that it had been the most enjoyable working week of his life and I wasn’t surprised, but was very happy for him. I told him about my three-month review and how happy I was at work too, and about my plans for my career, and about K’s success in Catalunya, and about my bike ride. He told me about reading a story to the children (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) and how he was impressed and amused by some of their own creative writing, and described the way that he cycles to the school and to uni now – it has been a very long time since he hasn’t had to drive to work, as he used to work a long way out of town in Consett and Blyth. And he told me that my sister had been at a surprise party for her (belatedly) and one or two of her friends’ birthdays.
Obviously I’m gutted for my mum being ill, and I don’t really know what my brother did, but for the rest of us I kind of love that we each celebrated the New Year in our own, very meaningful ways. I think God would like it, if there was one.

In summary, then, same as almost always I suppose: small things good, big things… not so good. Or thereabouts. I am not mentioning the footy. My hopes and plans for 5770 are pretty shiny and exciting. They include

  • not filling in one single job application form
  • Barcelona
  • A garden
  • Saving up for this, yeeeah booooi!

Happy new year to you too.

The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.

I’ve been meaning to get around to writing something a bit less ‘oh mama, can this really be the end?’ around here, something rather more reflective of my usual generally pretty chipper life and times. Only, over the last few weeks, life hasn’t been the usual, not really. It’s been just stressful and angry, lonely and hard, missing persons, and pretty awful overall, with bright spots cast by the wonderful people I try to surround myself with and by climbing high enough to get above the fog (literally, but also a painfully obvious metaphor, no?).
Also the damn wind won’t stop blowing, which I hate. It makes cycling, and indeed walking in the ‘wrong’ direction, feel like a chore – it can’t have been like this last April when I first got Leon (yes, I have been a cyclist for one year and one day!), now it just feels awfully inexhaustible, and exhausting. Although I have just recently gone caffeine-neutral as an experiment, so that might also not be helping. It is not good!

Anyway – to write, you need some inspiration, and I’ll be honest, I am truly spoiled for it. It’s spring and I’m springin Edinburgh where so much of the city is bordered in fantastic vivid sap green, everything that was so sad just a few weeks ago, so bleak and dried-up, has come to life and it’s all bursting with newness and potential. I guess that this is almost the best time of the year for that. Bright sunlight streaming dappled through these many leaves feels like a real blessing, all the better for its having been away so long. I hope I never lose the delight of witnessing this annual return to life. I mean, it’s been 25 years and, just as Samir said the other week, it just seems to get more miraculous and joyful each time, not less.

Apart from leaves, there’s friends and art. The quietly wonderful James Robertson, who I’m lucky enough to know in a professional capacity, brought a breath of fresh air, and the word ‘bawheidedness’, into the quiet of the Scottish Poetry Library (which is in itself a very excellent thing) with a bubblingly brilliant reading from the two latest pamphlets from his press, Kettillonia. Again, that warm feeling, like springtime, of newness out of the old, surprises out of the familiar.  Gordon Dargie read powerfully and passionately, and often funnily, of youth and young manhood; James read reflectively and raptly, soft echoes resounding in his words of lives past, glowing, glints.

He was kind enough to insist on presenting me with a copy of his book which I’d expressed an interest in. It’s gorgeous. I probably should read rather more contemporary fiction. Off the top of my head, novels that I’ve read that were originally published in the past ten years: Everything is Illuminated, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, The Good Mayor, and now half of James’ novel The Testament of Gideon Mack. I’ve enjoyed them all, in different ways. I’m sure there must be some others I’m forgetting (oh, something by Will Self, but those are all the same really), but yeah, the point is, I don’t do it much. There’s always just so many books I want to read and most of them aren’t contemporary, not really, now that the twentieth century’s been and gone. I suppose in a way that puts García Márquez, Heller, Kundera into the ever-stretching bracket of [the past] with the classics and epics; what chance do I have against the weight of all the past and all that’s never done nor dusted?

But to get to what was supposed to be the point: now there’s something that’s kept me inspired, kept spinning in my head, filling up those dry old channels which are usually full of crust and crud like thinking about work, conversations I have had, I might have, I didn’t have, wondering what people are doing, thinking, wondering what I’m going to have for tea tonight. These mental arteries like drought-stricken, dusty riverbeds are now green and overgrown (like the fantastic, lush peace of the huge half-forgotten cemetery, full of bluebells and birdsong, that I climbed into on Monday with Sarah) with thoughts of essential music, rhythms and patterns, colours; thoughts of Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee is a downright incredible dude. For one thing, he’s amazing at communicating – getting across what he’s thinking and feeling to his audience, which is what makes him such a different prospect from an evening with most artists. I think it’s fair to say that the phrase ‘audience participation’ usually strikes a chilling chord of fear and horror in the hearts of all right-minded people (it was ruined at an early age by the multifaceted badness that was schools’ theatre), but somehow WK manages to make this feel like collaboration rather than participation, something much more natural and joyful, like connection. The bowling ball song and the birdsong, and ramsons (one of my favourite words and definitely one of my favourite smells, it’s a long story, but they’re the wonderful smell of the Hermitage in spring and summer, the cycle paths, the burn, the cemetery too, and I’ve long thought they’re the smell I will most miss if I ever go and live elsewhere. I’ve never been anywhere else where it’s so easy to surround yourself with that wonderful fresh greenness in the middle of a real, populated city). The sound, the fury, the sheer cathartic noise of a room full of young people really thinking about testicular cancer; screaming, a gong. Being more than the sum of our parts. The awareness, somewhere in the sidelines, of how odd it might look, if I could be outside looking in at myself, to be so rapt – wrapped – in the depth and sincerity and resonance of the unamplified songs of a man in purple underpants standing by a white wall.

The first time I saw Wounded Knee it was like falling down the rabbit-hole. It’s just like that, I guess, with the tangible texture and growth of his sound using loop pedals; the surprise of hearing something I never had heard —

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs.

but this time, at the second Downsizesound, there was no electricity and no loops, it was more level, all of our many feet remaining on the ground, but a feeling more like finding yourself in a secret green glade – a blossoming arbour or a mossy clearing in a vibrant old forest – with one you just realised you love. Tapping in to something bigger and older and darker and more alive than any of us. Sharing time and sounds and silence. And knowing what someone means, or getting the impression that you know, insofar as we ever can know what anyone means, is just unbeatable.

Alasdair Roberts did wonderful things with words. I’m no music critic (as you’ll have noticed) and don’t really know how much I can say about him other than to say it’s really not often I come away from a gig thinking ‘that must be a bit what it must be like if you could be in a very small intimate space with some of the Decemberists’, or ‘that must have been a bit what it was like to see a young Bob Dylan’, and definitely not both at once, but this is what I thought about him. He also seemed to reference Yeats, bringing back welcome echoes of the first poem my mother ever read to me – ‘because a fire was in my blood’, I recalled happily at his tale of the hazel wood, and given the fortnight that had gone before this night, was it ever. I’d been thinking, talking about hazel trees just the other day, I perhaps ascribe too much significance to coincidence sometimes, but if I were you I’d not be surprised to see the image of some lucky Corylus avellana leaf coming soon to a ribcage near you. Alasdair Roberts sang, heartfelt and convincing and light (in the way that insect wings are light and beautiful, not beer or entertainment) songs of dowsing, really quite considerable gore, the three ages of man, sociopathy and saturninity (gosh I love that word. Word of the week, I think), among other things, and that is some feat.

An incredibly vivifying evening was brought to a close by the spirited Issho Taiko drummers – four people, many different drums, accompanied by accordion, flute, guitars played with skewers, xylophone. To say they had impressive technical skills is really not the half of it, the red-blooded forceful drumming coming together with the otherworldly melodies to bring about a breathtaking, haunting happening in the room. A deep, vital,  feeling suffused me, deep in my belly, the same place as sex or somewhere very near it. Joyous and uplifting, it just physically got to me: made me stand up straight, made me feel taller and kind of better, grounded, self-aware. It also underlined, or was, the reason for seeing this sort of thing (and no, I have no idea what ‘this sort of thing’ is either) live because recorded it’s like losing a dimension or two or three. Sometimes gigs can just be adding vision to sound, seeing people play songs you’ve heard before; this couldn’t have been much more different. It was adding vision and touch and experience to sound; feeling and hearing and doing something totally new – it was collective, people joining and working wonderfully together – which I think is both necessary and inspiring; exaltant, and in truth, revolutionary.
(And for more on that note: Nowtopia, which I should write more about but don’t have time because the Edinburgh book launch is happening right now! Read and learn and be the change.)

Because the tide is high, and it’s rising still, and I don’t want to see it at my windowsill.

Really didn’t want this to be true.

Despite everything I’d heard first-hand from my brother*, who is one of the most kind, intelligent and brilliant people in the world, despite everything I’d seen and read and spent hours and hours worrying and arguing and weeping about last week, lacking sleep, lacking rest, lacking the ability to smile, I had just about managed to get myself to think that the person who told him that the pigs had pretty much killed an innocent man must have been somehow mistaken; just about managed to shake off the memories of Jean-Charles de Menezes and Blair Peach and make myself begin to suspect I could believe that it couldn’t be true, that it had all been so confused and unclear that we would never know what really happened and that it must have just been a tragedy and nobody was to blame. I didn’t want this to be true.

Look. Watch. Remember. And act.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

* Here, he explains part of what happened to him and his friends:

Someone arrives with a thick tarpaulin banner of the kind you can use to block truncheon blows (I think it’s the “C(A)PIT(A)LISM KILLS” one, but mostly see it from behind, so it’s impossible to be sure) and we assemble behind it and start pushing forward. By this point, we’ve already been pepper-sprayed, but I’m wearing sunglasses and have my mouth covered so I’m fine. As the two lines meet, our banner gets shoved back, and someone falls over. More people fall over. I fall over. Other people fall on me. The light gets completely blocked out.
Eventually, I manage to get back to my feet. I’m OK, but a cop’s smashed M over the head with a baton. If you remember my previous email where I mentioned a comrade being known for his extreme, saintly generosity and niceness, that’s him. A flashback: In one of those absurdly over-the-top juxtapositions that’re only meant to happen in crude agitprop and not in real life, the night before (when he was out of the room, obv) we’d been discussing how nice he is and how it’s difficult to describe how nice he is, because there are lots of people who can be described as “nice”, and most of them will sometimes put other people’s needs ahead of their own, and sometimes not, but with M it’s not even something that’s ever in doubt, he just seems to do it automatically, so anyone who spends much time with him ends up taking advantage, not intentionally or anything, just because it’s impossible to avoid doing so with someone who’s so consistently altruistic.
And now he has blood pouring down his face as a result of being hit over the head while he lay on the floor.

– my brother, 21, April 5 2009

It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.

I don’t do this often, but this is important:

Please, please, please go to the cinema and watch this film this weekend.

The Age of Stupid

If you’re in Edinburgh, it’s showing at the Filmhouse for a week from this Friday, with a bunch of events around the screenings in association with the lovely people of Take One: Action, and on this page you can find local screenings throughout the UK. I watched the premiere on Sunday night, and apart from anything else, it’s bloody brilliant – it really is the most thought-provoking, outlook-changing, unmissable, oddly life-affirming £6 you’ll spend in a good while.

There are terrifying, horrifying moments – as stomach-lurching and spine-shivering as anything from War of the Worlds or 28 Days Later – but this isn’t science fiction. Instead, you find yourself shuddering at things like the realisation that about 40% of natural gas is still being burned off at source across Nigeria‘s 1000 onshore oil wells. Yes, that’s the same natural gas that we use to cook and heat our homes: according to the World Bank, over 100 billion cubic metres of it – that’s the combined annual gas consumption of Germany and France – are ‘flared’, uselessly spewing filthy, toxic smoke into the air, every year, apparently because it’s not easy enough for oil companies to make a profit storing and exporting the fuel. In Nigeria, the practice continues despite the new law prohibiting it from 1 January 2009. Much like the High Court ruling that prohibited it from 2005, then.

It’s difficult not to feel appalled at moments like this – but that’s not the whole story. The Age of Stupid, like our world itself, is beautifully put together, inspiring and frightening by turns; part-disaster movie, part-cautionary tale. There’s no knight in shining armour, no fairy godmother, and no straightforward way to a happy ending, but for me, some of the most thought-provoking moments are genuinely uplifting. Watch the excellently named Alvin DuVernay III – the Shell employee who lost his home and everything he owned, but saved the lives of more than 100 of his neighbours in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina – sitting in a jazz bar and reflecting on what he’s learned from the experience about materialism and the way Americans use energy, the way we all live, and tell me you’ve seen a more – good GOD I hate this word and can’t believe I’m about to use it – heartwarming scene in a film this year.

Incidentally, from filmmaker Franny Armstrong’s fascinating backstage diary: [Alvin] is haunted by all the people he didn’t save. He said he “lost his humanity” that day – because he was so focused on getting as many people as possible that sometimes he snapped when people asked if they could bring lots of luggage or go back for something they forgot. Now he says he wants to find all those people and apologise for being short with them.

If that dude has lost his humanity, there’s a lot of us could really do with finding some of it.

Anyway, got distracted there, my point is: it’s pretty easy to feel tiny in the face of climate change. It’s easy to feel terrified, to feel there’s nothing you can do to help avert the forthcoming catastrophe – in short, to freak out. Easy, but certainly not logical – this is our world, our generation, and this is real change that’s happening now, to us. This is why Age of Stupid media producer, brilliant animator and all-round mensch Leo Murray wants you to

Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip

Very seriously, if you don’t see The Age of Stupid (which would be, well, stupid), if you don’t even read this whole post, then please, please DO take 10 minutes to watch Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip. It’s short, it’s easy, it’s free, it’s got some ace artwork, and it might just change your life. On peut le voir en français ici, and it’s also available in Deutsch, Español, Nederlands, Türkçe and English with subtitles.

Another of the most resonant moments in The Age of Stupid, for me, was a quiet reflection from an Englishman. Piers Guy, a windfarm developer who’s struggling to achieve positive change against the disturbingly blinkered ‘not in my back yard’-ism of a snobbish, Home Counties tweed-wearing set, stands in Airfield Farm, near Bedfordshire, and is reminded of the war and how the land got its name: “You only have to look at the terrible things in our history, which everyone regrets now”, he muses, “massacres, the Holocaust, and a lot of that was just going along with what was the predominant thinking at the time.”

And this is it, this is what I needed: the reminder that yes, massive social, economic and political changes for the better can happen. More than that, they do happen, must happen, and will happen, and relatively fast.24.358

A hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to vote, and it’d be massively unlikely for me to go to university – but as early as the 70s the UK had a female Prime Minister (granted, she was a shit one, but that’s beside the point here). Sixty years ago, black children in the USA were segregated into ‘Negro’ schools, and couldn’t ride buses or trains, use drinking fountains, or play sports with their white peers; today the President is black. These changes have happened within living memory, and there’s more – the film goes into the (rather exciting) possibilities for going forward into a cleaner, greener future and working to achieve a position of global energy equality, which will unsurprisingly involve the US and Europe seriously (though gradually) downsizing our fossil fuel consumption. (Al Gore: ‘They’re seeing the writing on every wall’).

My grandparents, probably some of your parents, remember life during wartime – living in fear through Blitzkrieg over London, and worse in Poland and the former USSR; losing brothers to the fighting, watching children die from treatable diseases. And they remember dealing with serious shortages – they remember the rationing of clothes, petrol, soap, sugar, meat, fat, then bread, then potatoes. Nobody’s asking our generation to give up our lives for our freedom and principles, and we’re not even talking about rationing bread, more like rationing the time we spend with big-screen TVs, XBoxes, cheap flights. Unquestionably we can face this fight. It’s started in the Maldives, it’s coming to Copenhagen this year.

We can do this, we can survive – and more than that, we can and we will live low impact.

Newsflash: Bikes are still amazing!

Who’s with me (pictured)?

Pete Postlethwaite is with me.

And finally, bonus fun, whimsical and actually rather beautiful link by way of a reward for having read this far: check out Leo and Bill’s creation of the universe with milk and a fishbowl.

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remember that day when we saw the kite caught in the big tree
the little ginger cat from your neighbour’s garden had followed us all the way to the shop
the red kite in the big tree and you with grass stains on the knees of your jeans
i think every boy in the park climbed into that tree to get the kite back down,
human pyramids, twelve boys up in the big tree and you and me laughing at the foot
playing catch with an old tennis ball

and in the end they got it and the pretty girl said thank you
and in the end none of them took her home
pollok dave said he got her number but elgin dave said he never did
either way, we didn’t see her again.
in the evening your neighbours had a barbecue and shouted over the wall for us to come round
we fed that little ginger cat on scraps of chicken until it fell contentedly asleep
the sky was all orangey fading into slate

There she goes, my beautiful world.

planeUp until I was about nine or so, I always thought these were called ‘plain trees’ – no special name, just your common-or-garden, standard variety tree. In London, where I lived, they’re all over the place, so it seemed a reasonable assumption. In fact it’s spelled ‘plane’ and they are London Planes, Platanus × hispanica (or × acerifolia).
The London Plane is a hybrid of two trees from either side of the world, Platanus orientalis and P. occidentalis. The Eurasian one, orientalis, is obviously the closer to home for me and is the one that interests me more. It (like the London plane) is huge, beautiful, sturdy, fast-growing and long-lived — they’re particularly revered in Greece, where at Kos, there’s one that’s supposed to be 2,400 years old under which Hippocrates taught medicine.
The leaves can be used to treat certain eye problems, and while (unlike me) the plane tree is super tough and hardy, (like me) it loves and needs sunlight — in fact, from one of the tree books I love so much at the national library I’ve made a note of the decisive sentence, ‘It cannot grow in the shade’.

Really though, for me, this one is about where I’m from and remembering how much good and beauty and strength I get from that. My other two leaves, for their own reasons, are to do with growth and newness, looking forward and finding my own way in the world, my place in Edinburgh, where I’m at or where I’m going more than where I’ve been. This leaf, which I picked up last time I was down there on my way to Camp for Climate Action 2008, is to balance that out a bit, is about recognising that the past is wonderful too and that, as I keep saying, I’m very lucky and blessed to have such fantastic people in my life who have always been there for me. To remind myself, perhaps, a little, that it’s not always all about what’s new: you need roots and wings.
Home and family are all mixed up together for me; memories of London are inevitably memories of my brother, my parents, and my sister’s birth. Memories of primary school and starting to know myself, learning to learn. The first pavements I ever walked were scattered with plane leaves, and so this seems only natural, simple and right.

London, of course, is the hometown of very many other people, many great and inspiring people. Not least among them is William Morris, the great Walthamstownian (that is clearly not a word, but should be). I’ve quoted him here before and will again (particularly if and when I add an elm leaf to my little gallery – see Previously on Alice’s torso), because he’s endlessly appropriate. All of these together, with my lily and shooting star, are symbolic of Morris’s and my shared understanding that there is so much beauty, so much deserving of awe and adoration in nature, and that it’s worth looking after. So, I think I shall leave you with him today, on pattern-designing:

You may be sure that any decoration is futile, and has fallen into at least the first stage of degradation, when it does not remind you of something beyond itself, of something of which it is but a visible symbol. […]
[T]hose natural forms which are at once most familiar and most delightful to us, as well from association as from beauty, are the best for our purpose. The rose, the lily, the tulip, the oak, the vine, and all the herbs and trees that even we cockneys know about, they will serve our turn better than queer, outlandish, upsidedown-looking growths. If we cannot be original with these simple things, we shan’t help ourselves out by the uncouth ones.

(lecture, 1881)

This is not the future my mother warned me about.

Important things:

  • Winter food
  • Terminator: Salvation

So, winter food is a super important part of making winter livable through, bearable. Adrian Chiles always says ‘have a bearable week’ in his sign off thing on MOTD2, and now every time I hear the word it reminds me of him, could be worse I suppose, but it’s still a bit odd, yo.

The main winter things I pride myself on doing well are soups (which often turn out more like stews, which are many cookiesamazing) and cookies (pictured). I did make some pretty fantastic chocolate chip gingerbread one time as well, mind. I’ll not bother writing out a recipe for stew because everyone knows how to make stew, it’s like ‘put tasty things in pot, stir, cook well’, but I will put this one for cookies here mainly because it took me a little time and effort to translate it from weird American measurements, improve it, think of the glaze and all that. Also because it is ace, being really really easy to do and yielding damn fine results which are highly praised by all who munch them (lots of people, I took the last two batches to a seasonal tea-party the other day, and previous ones have measured up to the exacting treat-eating standards of both Dollface and P).

Continue reading

To wish impossible things

the prophet
We are walking back toward the towering Koutobia mosque that we’re using as a handy landmark, when we realise it’s 4pm and the resonant solemn call of the muezzin rings out from it, amplified but pure, clear and bright as a summer stream but rich and deep like molasses, dewy, soft thick emerald Scottish moss, old longstanding trees. Heartwood. We are awestruck and silenced and it feels odd to think that the call is not for me, so pervasive and essential does it seem, and I don’t know what to do and sit down there to think and listen, listen and think.

Another day, as I look out of the window, the later prayer time must fall and a man in a red shirt stops where he is, unrolls his mat and kneels there, bowing toward Mecca, as this wonderful hot bright city seems to pause for breath in the purple twilight, dusky and dusty, breathing in deeply and calmly and just noticing, just taking stock, at this moment when day meets night. Again something takes hold of me, my heart – I’m humbled and shy; I feel perhaps I start to understand, being here, why one might believe and say and sing that God was great. I feel a part of something bigger, and at the same time I feel refreshed and affirmed to be one and unique and me; one of many.

And it’s the stars I think of, not the ones I know obscured by London smog and Edinburgh haar, but dreams, simulations or imaginations of journeys through space with them whooshing up huge and burning on every side; the stars up there in the thin atmosphere and the neat bounded glassy stars of the intricate repetitive tile work down here, radiating their own way, in painstakingly-mapped, bright, straight lines and angles; and the people, who glow like little stars, one and all.

And I think that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, and Stephen Dedalus and Dr Rieux and Billy Pilgrim and old Wandering Aengus, and maybe Winston Smith, Alex Portnoy, Candide and le Petit Prince and Titus Groan and certainly old Walt Whitman and his body electric, would have got it as well and nodded and swung to this same beat, I’d always thought it was all about searching for something inexpressible and elusive, something subtle, indefinable, untouchable, something that would never be found, but now I think perhaps at the same time it’s about knowing and realising, feeling it, that it’s all over us and under us, that it’s inescapably there, here, now.

I can’t forget.

From my notebook:

Marrakech is hot and red and dusty and everything I thought it would be and more. I wasn’t ready for the sleepy, hungry tough cats and kittens who stalk these streets like quiet implacable kings; napping in ruins, artfully evicting the last little particles of meat and marrow from scrap bones, almost skittishly watchful yet lazily proud. Tiny birds hop and flit picturesquely in the dust and the orange trees and teeter shyly forward to drink tiny sips from the fountains.

perfect speedI wasn’t ready for the omnipresent dirt bikes – ‘scramblers’, says the boy – which zoom unpredictably down every street and many pavements and even, haltingly, noisily, through the narrow walkways of the souks, penetrating into every possible twig and stem and vein of the red city and issuing big belches of heady petrol smell into the still air.

These seem to be ridden by every imaginable class of citizen – old men in djellabas, chic ladies in shades, people going to work, laughing young couples and skinny boys in football shirts and striped shirts and trainers, two to a bike, cruising with the bright, assured and wonderful air of the vivacious young of every land, looking confident full of the intent of grabbing Life soundly in both hands and squeezing the vital hot sweet juice out and drinking their fill, and starting with this here overheated and shining red motorised pedal cycle and this wide clear road that turns violet at nightfall when the big fat moon comes up; when the merchants pack up their multi-coloured, glittering, paintbox stalls and kneel to pray; when we pass a man washing his face, hands and feet from a big metal drum re-filled with water in the street and it looks such a vitally simple and refreshing prospect as this incredible baking day draws to a close; when I feel like perhaps my eyes will never be the same again, permanently just a little widened with the sheer effort of trying to take in all the amazing sights I’ve seen: all the sweet-shop, chalky colours, all the dazzling, endless, repeating, calming inlaid tile work of palaces and tombs, all the life and light and the multifacted breathing singing shining unity of the market, a time and a place, a small world.

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

So whoa, how ace was yesterday, as transfer deadline days go?! Man City, I don’t even know where to begin, Man City started the day with effectively no owner after absolute nutjob of a Thai ex-prime minister billionaire “human rights abuser of the worst kind” fly-by-night Thaksin ‘Frank’ Shinawatra had his £800m assets frozen. Not the most promising of starts, and then by lunchtime the boys in sky blue are apparently rolling in oil money, waving over £30m of it at Wor Dimi, pictured above, presumably at least half sincerely and the rest with the concerted aim of pissing all over the cornflakes of veteran veiny-nosed gobshite ‘Sir’ Alex, also pictured above? And buying Robinho.

Incidentally, I myself was praying for Kevin Keegan to sneakily nab this sulky bugger off our hands for 50p or something, having never forgotten the mildly entertaining chat when he first came over about his being a mental Magpie: “Dimitar told me it was his dream to play for Newcastle United one day and wear the same shirt as Alan Shearer, who is my son’s hero”, said his ma. His old schoolmate Mario Bekov, who has known Berbatov for 20 years, said his admiration for the former Toon ace bordered on obsession. “Dimitar never missed a Newcastle game when it was on television. And Shearer was up there with Pele as a God for him.” Alas, this one really was but a dream. Sure he would only have fallen victim to the curse of NUFC/Michael Owen syndrome and sustained a mysterious ‘training ground injury’ like all their other half decent players ever. Serious, what is it with that? Is it from foightin’? Well, now they have Joey ‘stubbed out a lit cigar in a youth player’s eye and also assaulted a 15-year-old’ Barton, so probably yes. And also the Messiah himself is heading off down the Gallowgate Jobcentre. Or not. Probably. Maybe.

So, the point is, yes I am going to miss Berbs. I’ll miss his weirdly early receding hairline, complete with girly Alice band, I’ll miss his deep-set eyes and his lovely accent, I’ll miss his great long runs and his flailing predation and I guess I’ll miss his teenage strops. And I’ll definitely miss the time he netted four against Reading. WHAT IS THAT EVEN CALLED? A four-trick? A fat trick? A hat-trick-and-then-some? A fourgasm? A Dimi? And what will become of him? I’m not too sure. I think, as we’ve seen, boy’s perhaps got too much of an ego on him and he wants to be a superstar, and I just am not sure whether he’ll look quite as good as he thinks he will lining up alongside Ronaldo and Tévez and even, on a good day, Giggsy… and there is just no sign of anyone EVER stopping wanking on about Ronaldo, so will there be enough wankery left over for wee Berbs? WE SHALL SEE. Also I just really really dislike Man U and always have and always will, I dunno. Even though I do love red.

What will become of Berbatov? What will become of Keegan and NUFC? What will become of Pavlyuchenko with no Arshavin? How cute was it when Corluka said he was really happy to come to Spurs because Luka Modric is his bestest friend? Is Daniel Levy a nob head and should I have given up on him years ago? Why do I get so worked up about this stuff, actually? Do you care about footy? You mostly don’t, do you? What about some of you? Club football? International football? Do you know what I mean if I say something about no matter how rational and logical and sensible you want to be about it, you just can’t help but feel disappointed with mornings like this one and ever so slightly angry at players who’re ‘disloyal’ to the club, even when they’re Bulgarian Toon fans and you hated the way the whole Jol thing was handled and it all really has very little to do at all with lovely old scummy old North London and the grimy smoggy streets you walked and ran and grazed your knees on as a little girl, and besides all that you actually lived very slightly closer to Upton Park anyway? No? I should go to bed, really, shouldn’t I?

With no transfer window to entertain me, I had to console myself with playing the old ‘Elvis Costello-lyrics-related-facebook-status-updates’ game with my brother instead, today. In case you were wondering. That’s awesome.

I went to Critical Mass! With M, who is wicked cool. I met a nice Australian(?) girl. My back wheel/mudguard situation was a little bit mashed up: boo. P fixed it, pumped my tyres and stopped the seat squeaking too: yay yay yay.

You know what is really really cool?


sri’s mehndi hands by darcitananda


the end. by misscaro

Islamic tile art

Image Plate from Owen Jones’ 1853 classic, “The Grammar of Ornament”, as scanned by cool origamist EricGjerde

Isfahan/ Imam(Shah) Mosque by HORIZON

And pretty much all intricately detailed fractalicious abstract things. AWESOME.