Thursday, June 26, 2008

An avenue of trees

A road through woodland - rather prettyProbably the best thing about living in this corner of the country is that whenever we go south of here we get to travel down roads like this. The woods are gorgeous all year round, so long as there's a little light. In fact, I think this is probably prettier in the autumn, but it is still jolly nice just now.

Have a very hectic few weeks coming up. In fact, with any luck, the rest of the summer is likely to be hectic by my standards. I say luck because I'm going to have to be on my very best behaviour, without any unexpected down-turns to cope with it all. I don't know why I'm telling you this. I suppose sharing the intention adds to the incentive to fulfill it.

It occurs to me that I should explain that our van is left-hand drive, and I took this photo in the passenger seat - in case it appeared that someone had taken the photo whilst driving...

Monday, June 23, 2008

On Privilege #3: Black Boys

Now, before I upset anyone I should be clear; individuals are always responsible for their actions, but trends in behaviour point to a more complex explanation.

The reason I want to write about black boys and young men is that they are a very small group with very big problems. This is therefore a good example of how privilege works. Only two percent of the UK's population is black and even in London where this population is concentrated, this only rises to ten percent. Meanwhile, we have a low murder rate and one of the lowest rates of gun deaths on the entire planet and yet ever few weeks there is another black lad smiling out beside the news headline, often too young to buy cigarettes, having been shot or stabbed to death by another black lad.

Murder isn't the only problem. Black men are massively over-represented in all the crime statistics in London, especially mugging, of which they are alleged to take the lion's share. Black men and women are more likely to be unemployed and experience all the health, housing and family issues that accompany poverty. Black men are much more likely that to be sectioned (detained under the Mental Health Act) than their white counterparts. And until this year, black boys consistently came out as the worst under-acheivers in UK schools. Black boys are three times as likely to get excluded from school (expelled) than their white peers.

Like I say, small group, big problems.

Now there was a time in history when we would have observed such trends and concluded that there was something in the nature of black boys and young men that made them misbehave. We now call such explanations racism.

So instead we conclude that there is something in their culture that's the problem, a problem tucked out of sight inside a pocket called the black community. In other words, nothing to do with anyone else. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair accepted this view. He spoke out against pretending that it wasn't black boys perpetrating gang violence in London, but insisted that;
"We need to stop thinking of this as a society that has gone wrong - it has not - but of specific groups that for specific reasons have gone outside of the proper lines of respect and good conduct towards others and need by specific measures to be brought back into the fold."
We are told that black fathers are disinterested in their offspring and in the absence of male role models these boys go bad. Meanwhile black children listen to rap music with lyrics that glamorise violence and celebrate conspicuous wealth. These black youths join drug-dealing gangs for the bling and belonging. It is their culture, we are told; it is their problem. The rest of us can tut and wash our lily-white hands of the matter. No innocent victims, after all, not truly innocent. And the parents might be upset, but they should have thought about that before they had children in such unstable circumstances.

This belief of the privileged, that black boys are basically rum 'uns, even went so far that when this year poor white boys overtook black boys as the worst under-achievers in UK schools, instead of discussing the issues of poverty, or the way we bring up boys, Michael Collins in the Sunday Times hit upon the general sentiment:
"If it’s true that urban white boys have long since come to emulate the style, attitude and language of their black contemporaries, this latest development takes the transformation to the nth degree."
Not only are black children the architects of their own failings, but it's catching.

Okay so, I'm not black, I've never been a boy and I've never lived in or near a big city. However, logic dictates all manner of flaws in this received wisdom.

First off, there is no one black culture in Britain separate from the rest of us; our black people are a mix of native Britons* and immigrants, predominantly from the Caribbean and our former colonies in Africa. We haven't had a sudden influx of young black people arriving from some parody of an American ghetto wearing oversized sportswear and chunky jewellery, hell bent on popping a cap in one another's ass. The culture of black British people is a part of British culture, having been intertwined with it for hundreds of years. Black people do not live apart from white people, and black children receive messages about identity and values are from the same sources as the rest of us. Maybe there's a problem with the people that black children are told they are bound to become?

Since we now understand that the old myths about black men being over-sexed as racist propaganda, it is unclear why black men would make for unreliable fathers - but of course it is unclear whether not they do compared to white men of a similar socio-economic status. We know that economic pressure and family break-down go together like a horse and a carriage, although we're told time and again that economics is not the problem.

In any case, loads of white kids grow up without a Dad and a smaller proportion wind up in this much trouble. To blame absent fathers is to suggest that there is something special about black boys that makes them more difficult to control.

But the idea may have some bearing on the problem. We have a good idea that in this particular culture, behaviours exhibited by women are far more likely to be attributed to mental ill health; men have far more license to behave aggressively and recklessly as an understandable response to stress without acquiring a diagnostic label. This is one contributing factor to the fact that women are far more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder than men.

So is it possible that misbehaviour by black boys is seen as more threatening that misbehaviour by white children? It is possible that we are more concerned about black boys fighting or shouting than their white counterparts? Are the ways in which black boys feel permitted to express their frustrations different to those of white boys. I don't know, I really don't, but I know that some white people are intimidated by black men and historically our culture has supported this kind of anxiety. Maybe a culture that attributes gang violence to Black Culture supports it still?

Then there's this music issue, which really makes me cross. Loads of children listen to music with dark, sexual or violent lyrics, whether it is the likes of Snoopy the Dog or Jay Zed, or some proper music with a decent tune. It is absolutely ludicrous that politicians can be talking about hip-hop in relation to the deaths of young people. It is like having a debate about whether it was listening to the Bee Gees that drove Blair to take us to war in Iraq (although actually, that's a theory; Brown likes them too you know...). If you want to look at violence in our culture, you really don't need to turn on your radio.

Point is, if we start from the premise that black people are much the same as white people in all important respects, then the position of black boys is a big social problem to do with racial inequality in our society, to do with prejudice and a significant imbalance of power. This is not to say that any killer can stand in court and claim diminished responsibility on account of social disadvantage. Nor is it to say that many black people haven't managed much better.

However, perfectly nice people, who may have nothing but sympathy for these young dead men, will clutch at these kinds of straws in order to defend their own privilege - in order to deny that social inequality exists.

The problem with black boys is undoubtedly about culture, and the gang culture is part of that (an equal opportunities culture, by all accounts). But there are also issues of the way that British culture treats black boys, the expectations and suspicions that we have of them which may originate from the times some of us were masters watching for signs of rebellion. There is the role of the Metropolitan Police, which is now trying very hard to heal the wounds caused by a history of racist abuse. And most of all, I would guess, is the issue of the economic inequality, poverty and deprivation in the inner-cities which leaves lots of children vulnerable, but particularly those children who have been let down in so many other ways. It is our culture and therefore our problem.

* Black people whose black and/ or white ascendants have been in the UK for many generations.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

One privilege #2: Personal Privilege

As soon as you talk about the privilege people have nowadays, people tend to get defensive.

This is partly because these conversations can be clumsily worded and made insulting. It ought to be possible to say that all white people experience social privilege within this particular society without implying that all white people are racist or that all white people have it easy themselves. Similarly with men and sexism, non-disabled people and disablism and so on.

And it's partly because there have been some very clumsy attempts to counteract the effects of privilege such as positive discrimination or affirmative action, as the Americans call it. This doesn't work because it is fundamentally unfair to discriminate on the grounds of any superficial attribute, whichever way you go.

But this defensiveness is also about a very awkward truth. You see, as a white person (for example), I benefit from racial inequality to some extent. As a statistical unit, my opportunities are greater and my outcomes will be better than those of a similar statistical unit in my society who happens to be a different colour.

Now, the first thing to say about this – which shouldn't need saying at all really – is that this doesn't make me a racist, nor does it make me personally responsible for racial inequality, present or historical. It doesn't even mean that I personally have taken jobs, housing and other opportunities where a person of colour was more deserving. And it certainly doesn't mean that I myself haven't been on the receiving end of prejudice and a victim of inequality. It just means that, from the off, being white was to my advantage. And that was an unfair advantage.

And whilst my labels may included disability, femaleness, queerness and relative poverty, I still have a tonne of privilege beyond my whiteness. The queer hardly counts at all, given that my life-partnership is heterosexual and I pass as straight. As a disabled person, well, I'm probably about two thirds up. My appearance is unremarkable; I either look normal, or I am normal on wheels; no spasticity or dribble, no facial difference. My communication difficulties are not so profound as to embarrass anyone and my condition is understood to be fundamentally physical. Illness, weakness, fluctuating symptoms and cognitive dysfunction mean that I'll never be your inspirational kind of cripple, but at least I am not an automatic source of humour or horror.

Then there's class. Despite my lack of formal qualifications and my relative poverty, I fell out half way through a very privileged education and did at least acquire this magic mixture of savvy, confidence and diction which persuades people to listen to you in circumstances where others would be ignored. This may sound vague, but it is not to be underestimated; without it, I may well have wound up homeless.

And it gets ever more complicated than that. Some of this stuff can change very quickly. For example, religiosity; currently, being a heathen is no problem in this country, but it is within my life time that non-church-goers have been allowed to adopt for the first time for example. These days, having strong religious beliefs can be a significant handicap in some contexts, where religiosity is treated with suspicion or contempt – Tony Blair's government famously didn't do God and he had to remain in the closet (or perhaps the vestry) about his own Catholicism whilst in office. Meanwhile, being a Muslim, which was no more problematic than being a Sikh or Hindu ten years ago, can now be a major social and political disadvantage.

As you can see, the nature of privilege is such that we all have a bit and there are very few people who don't have any social disadvantage whatsoever. This is sometimes forgotten in conversations about equality, where people talk about us and them like one group of society are innocent victims and the others are oppressors. And if this issue is ever raised, you get this awful competitive victimhood. I have heard straight white middle-class disabled men talk about feminism and anti-racism as if those struggles are in the ancient past and now disabled people are the only victims.

Even Gloria Steinem (blessings be upon her) appeared to fall into this trap in this article on the US presidential mud-wrestling tournament. It would have been an interesting and worthy exercise to discuss the ways that race and gender work differently in politics and the media, but her article strongly implies that race is now an issue of the past and gender is a much greater obstacle. Which is untrue on the first point and incalculable on the second.

In any given context, these different identities can matter more or less or not at all. The most important thing is to recognise the privilege we have, because privilege is power and power can be used to change things.

I am getting to a point with this, but I haven't arrived there quite yet.

Monday, June 16, 2008

On Privilege #1: A History Lesson

Social privilege is a real sticky subject to write about, because people would like to feel that inequality is all about prejudice. Yet prejudice is harmless in the absence of power and power can render harmful even the slightest prejudice.

But privilege tends to be extremely subtle and complex, so let's first of all travel back in time for a simple but illustrative example. Climb into my Glasgow Police Box, queue malfunctioning vacuum-cleaner noise and come with me back to 1957.

Now, we accept that 1957 was a far less equitable time and lots of things went on then which wouldn't go on today. But by this time, we had achieved universal suffrage. Everyone had access to free education and women had been getting proper degrees at university for a couple of decades (as opposed to titular degrees, so named presumably because having tits meant your work didn't count). We had our first Asian MP in back in 1892, and our first woman MP (an American!) in 1919*. Theoretically, there was nothing stopping any individual from joining political parties, running for parliament and being elected.

And yet it came to pass that when Harold MacMillan became Prime Minister, he was related by blood or marriage to thirty-five members of his government. These days, some folks complain that the Scots are running the place**, what if several Cabinet ministers were kin?

Now I don't know much about the MacMillan government, that's one of those bits of trivia that stick in my mind, and I have no reason to suspect anything sinister. In fact, it all seems unremarkable once you consider that in those days, at the very least, a political career was a path rarely traveled unless you were male, white, upper-class, non-disabled, Protestant, English, public school and Oxbridge educated. I miss out straight because male homosexuality was illegal (MacMillan himself is alleged to have been expelled from Eton for just that).

Since it was a very small minority of the population who met all or even most of these criteria, particularly in regards to class and education, it is little wonder that several MPs belonged to the same family. But what does this information tell us about the sort of people who did get into government at the time? Were they all bigots? Were they appalling statesmen who only got their jobs through no merit of their own? Well it's possible, but there's no evidence for any of that. Both the current Conservative leader and the Mayor of London appear to tick every one of those boxes and only one of them appears to be adversely effected by his privilege. Plus these days, it is remarked upon that they are about as socially privileged as it is possible to be.

Here we begin to see the problem with privilege. Privilege doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't mean that you weren't the best candidate for your job, or that your path through life has been made easy. It doesn't even mean that you haven't yourself experienced some form of discrimination at some point. But it does mean that as a statistical unit, your chances of success in education, employment, socio-economic mobility and political power are significantly greater than for certain other statistical units. And in order for that to be the case, someone else is losing out.

Unfortunately, society tends to be in denial about this – chiefly because those in charge are denial about any unfair advantage that might have put them there. Whilst there's little argument about how fair things were fifty years ago, people tend to insist that things are fair now.

So for example, about national politics, it is often said that women just aren't terribly interested. This is said to explain the fact that less than 20% of our representatives in parliament are women; after a handful of measures to give women a leg-up, this must represent the natural balance of things.

Only, several other European countries have a balance of more or less equal - including 40% and 50% women members in the Scottish and Welsh regional assemblies respectively. So there must be something about British society or British national politics which is causing this inequality. And there must be reasons why some minority groups remain fantastically underrepresented; we've never had an Asian woman Member of Parliament and there's only ever been three black women. One in twenty people in the UK are women of colour; something is amiss.

But whilst significant, the make-up of our six hundred and forty-six MPs is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effects of privilege on our lives.

* The first female MP to be elected was elected the previous year, but that lady was Sinn Féin, so didn't take her seat in the British Parliament.

** In fairness, the sort of people who say that the Scots are running the place tend to extend the criteria of being Scottish to include having a Scottish-sounding name, possessing a raincoat with a tartan lining or having eaten porridge for breakfast at some point in their life.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Writing bodies

One of the odd problems I've had with the B. F. Book is writing about bodies without impairments. The problem arises in unexpected places. For example, I have no problem writing about people running about, dancing or fighting. But I really struggle if two characters have a conversation standing up.

Of course, I don't need to describe what it is to stand up, what it looks like or what it feels like, but it makes me uncomfortable just writing scenes where this is going on; I'm inside the characters, you see, it doesn't matter what details of a scenario I actually need write about.

In real life, people have standing conversations all the time. I do that sometimes, like when I go to the door, someone's trying to sell me something and I'm too polite to interrupt. But my standing conversations are a bit like when Lara Croft is swimming underwater; as she steadily runs out of oxygen, so do my legs, and I can almost see the side bar filling with red (it's a very long time since I played Tombraider, so my memory may be wrong about what that gauge looked like). If I'm stood up when you're talking to me, I'm probably not listening.

And queuing. I find it distressing to even think about people standing in line and waiting for an indefinite period. Standing is generally a bad idea – when The Weakest Link first came on the telly I thought it a horrible quiz simply because everyone had to stand up – what a relief it must be if you were voted out.! Human beings evolved to walk on their hind legs, but I reckon we're simply not built for standing still. Personally, I wasn't even particularly good at standing still before I was ill; I could walk or swim, even run for miles (well, jog), but in the St. John's Ambulance Cadets we once had to stand to attention for about an hour for inspection and after about twenty-five minutes, I fainted (could have fainted in worse places; further injuries were sustained in the crush to put me into the recovery position).

As I've said, drawing attention to pain makes pain worse and on bad days, thus thinking about characters standing up for a long time makes things worse. But otherwise, I find that I make characters sit down sooner and for much longer than they really would. This isn't a big deal, but it has surprised me; I thought I was immune to this particular problem.

Authors don't do too badly writing about bodies that are different from their own, so long as they don't feel too different. The most recent example I came across was in a thriller where the hero had arthritis in his spine. From the acknowledgments, it became clear that the author's best friend had this condition (and was himself praised a hero of suffering so bravely) and the author had done a fair amount of research.

So, for example, there were worthy attempts at writing scenes of sexual tension whilst the hero has frozen vegetables stuffed down his trousers (inexplicably, this was the only relief the hero could obtain; nobody had suggested a cooling pack or gel; every night it was the frozen vegetables). And whilst I've known people with arthritis whose conditions vary significantly, well I've never know anyone who was curled up in pain one minute, then carrying a grown woman about in his arms, then writhing on the floor in agony, then having athletic sex with aforementioned damsel – the sort of sex which would be bad news for anyone's spine.

All this was happening from moment to moment and he spent a great deal of time in between moaning about how very miserable his life was – a mindless cycle of casual sex and frozen peas – with lots of statistics about arthritis that happened to come to the hero's mind:
The murdered man was said to have been worth twenty-one million dollars. Smith noticed that this number of dollars happened to coincide with the number of Americans living with osteoarthritis.
(I exaggerate somewhat but it was quite bad).

It was an American novel, and of course this chap had missed out on a great sporting career when he started getting twinges in his back. There are lots of American heros in books and films who tragically missed out on a great sporting career; I guess it must be character-forming.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Horses, horses, horses, horses

A horse is a horse, of course, of courseIt's been a very busy week by my standards, with not one but two adventures.

Yesterday, my Dad and I went to Snetterton, famous for its racetrack, but also home to World Horse Welfare, which is a place that looks after retired police horses as well as variously injured and abused horses. Dad, who had never sat on a horse until a few years ago, is now studying for an NVQ in Horse Management, so this was a bit of a field trip. I learnt the difference between a bay and a cob, which is a pony, where are the withers and all manner of horsey facts.

Two diminutive poniesI attempted to steer the conversation round to the sociological nuances of man's relationship with the horse, horses and socioeconomic class and the symbolism of the horse in psychoanalysis (e.g. the case of Little Hans, whose phobia of horses was used as evidence the Oedipus Complex).

However, the horses were very nice. Although clearly there is a whole world of horsiness which I shall never understand; for example, we saw a few horses in fancy dress, including one pony dressed as a Frenchmen with stripy sweater, a beret and onions round his neck. That can't be healthy, surely?

On Thursday, [...] and I went for a walk at a place called Lynford Arboretum. There were lots of weird and wonderful trees there, as you might expect at an arboretum, as well as some very pretty bits of water with geese, ducks and swans. But especially geese and their goslings; loads of them.

It was the second crowd of Canada Geese we'd seen that day. Canada Geese were introduced to St. James' Park in the 17th century apparently, and whilst they are rather common now, they are very beautiful birds – much nicer that ordinary geese.

A swanWe also saw a swan doing a sexy dance, a twite, two deer and a pair of Jays, which is a rare site indeed.

In other nature news, we were having tea at my folks' house when I spotted a pair of squirrels doing the dirty on my parents' fence. I've never seen squirrels mating before; I imagined they were private creatures who needed shelter and soft lighting. On a fence in full view of the dining table seems both precarious and exhibitionist. But I didn't have my camera with me and if I had, I'm not sure I would have liked to add to their illicit thrills by taking pictures.

A Canada Goose with GoslingsWe've also got a hedgehog in our garden. I've seen him or her in his or her nest during the day, but we're now keeping the look out for a night-time encounter.

All these pictures are a bit muddled up, I'm sorry, but as you can see, I've been getting out and about rather more than usual this last week and all the excitement has adled my noggin.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Granddad W. by meThis was by far the hardest portrait I've done so far. It is my maternal Granddad, who died ten years ago in February. On top of his shocking failure to visit me as a ghost, I only had very small photos to work from. And well, let's just say that Granddad had a compulsion to pull faces whenever he saw a camera, leaving very few photographs of anything like an ordinary smile.

Added to this, I really miss my Granddad and became rather emotional about the whole thing, afraid that I had forgotten what he looked like. Even now I don't think this is a brilliant likeness, but I hope I've finally got the gist of him.

Granddad W. was a very special person, who I always hoped I took after to some extent. He was an avid reader, the only blood relative who could beat me at Scrabble and the writer of the most appalling that you ever read. And he was always making things, building houses out of brick (which was his job) or making furniture or little curiosities out of wood. Our garden alone boasted a hutch and a run for our guinea-pigs, a bird-table and a bench that he'd made. He always smelt of sawdust and pipe tobacco. I don't, but I feel I share his inability to sit still. Metaphorically at least; I actually sit still a great deal of the time, but perhaps you know what I mean.

In the navy, you can sail the seven seasBut then when I was talking to my sister about this portrait, she sent me a photograph of Granddad when he was in the Navy, aged about seventeen or eighteen. And to my complete amazement, well, he looks like me. If I were ten years younger and less chubby. Oh and much more butch. I hadn't previously seen myself so vividly in anyone before and it came as quite a shock.

One the one hand, Granddad taught me that it was possible to love and respect a person without taking them altogether seriously. People are daft, and they can make you daft if you take every word to heart. Family feuds raged around him, but he managed to appear not to notice (our particular family feuds are especially petty).

On the other hand, Granddad always seemed to take me as seriously as he took anyone else; he always knew what was going on in my life, not just in a general way. He encouraged all my interests, and whilst I was a naïve and opinionated teenager, he would chastise my parents for interrupting me or telling me to shut up. He also took the p*ss out of my parents, which was an absolute joy for my teenaged self. And yes, this was the Grandad who insisted that I would be the next female prime-minister. I presume he took a similar interest in all ten of his grandchildren.

And I really do miss him. I'm sure he would have adored little Alexander (as well as all the other great-children that have come along since he died). If everyone lived forever, the world would be a terribly crowded place, life and love would be less precious, but a time-machine would be handy from time to time.