Fluidity of Lines

You know how something comes along to take your mind out of its grey haze into a place of stillness – where the next breath is your life, recharged? No, I’m not talking about A&E, but those sharp moments of clarity when the kaleidoscope twists, and your sense of Self makes sense again.

Walking in the door tonight, I found my landlady sorting out her kids’ books. She was weary and apologetic, having a need for the whisky I keep to offset the blue edge of a mood. We borrow from one another all the time, it’s an interchangeable relationship not unlike mother and daughter, sometimes friend to friend, sometimes boss to employee. A slow surge of emotions (from various pressure points) had left her reeling; her losses have created a diamond, but still, the diamond is multifaceted and stands alone. I do what I can, and it’s never enough, but she is one of the few women in my life that I understand.

We share an enthusiasm for nurturing the physical form. As an osteopath, it comes with the territory, but I get the sense that her upbringing and shadow-rimmed life experiences, have had a profound effect upon her appreciation of what true health means, inside and out. She cooks for her children in the way a painter adds texture and layers to a canvas; their activities take them beyond screen-absorption (TV and computer use are carefully monitored) and their bedroom carpet resembles that of my childhood home, in a jungle of animal toys and books. The little lad is defining himself with a wick-slip humour, and has already mastered the art of getting under his sister’s skin; she in her turn, knows how to draw him out from the dark little place he sometimes goes to, curling inward like a leaf in frost.
Night and Day.

Not so long ago, she introduced them to dance – specifically, ballet. Gender stereotypes have little place in this household, and the boy is as entranced as the girl (though he’s more prone to break-dancing on the lounge floor than attempting to heft up on tippy-toes.) Watching their faces shine in the light of the screen, I was taken back to the first time I saw Swan Lake, at Christmas in 1993. A slight snobbishness has prevailed since; no amount of patriotism can bring me back around from regarding the Royal Russian Ballet company as the axis upon which the world of dance spins. There’s a ghostly elegance in every performance I watch, which riddles up my skin – yesteryear and tomorrow, silence and fine faded curtains, solemnity and real fervour crystallized in posture.

Seeing the tired lines ease in my landlady’s face as she described a video she had watched earlier, I had the sense that she’d found something within herself to feel calm again. To feel alive. We all need an emotional adrenalin-shot like that, now and then.
She left me alone in the kitchen to watch it on her laptop, with only a snippet of information – “He was the youngest dancer to go principal [lead] in the Royal Ballet company, then quit out of the blue.”

That was enough. I knew exactly who she meant, and to get some perspective on his talent, there’s this from the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Ballet, Igor Zelensky: ‘Talent is very rare. Margot Fonteyn is a talent. Maya Plisetskaya is a talent. Baryshnikov is. I don’t want to go on too much about Sergei. But it is inside him. He is unusual. Unbelievable.’ Which is one way to sum up Sergei Polunin, born of Kherkov in Ukraine, whose career has taken him through significant highs and lows that have nothing to do with his talent, and everything to do with his sense of Self. In an 2013 interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton, he described the personal troubles that beset his experience of the company: “I was not able to put things together. Dancing-wise I didn’t feel I was in charge of anything… It had been an amazing place, and I had worked with amazing people but you pay a price of not being in charge… I moved up quite quickly so I didn’t make many friends. You are on your own in that sort of place.” After his abrupt departure from the company, with the following months spent adrift and out of sorts, Sergei was taken under the wing of Zelensky, who settled him into the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow. From here, he had the opportunity to explore guest performances around the world with Zelensky’s mentoring: ‘You can call me anything you want: director, father, brother, friend… But I really worry about him, what he eats, where he goes, what he is doing. Because he needs a shoulder.’

The video, directed by David LaChapelle, is clean-cut and filled with white and gold lines, like embroidered silk. Skilful editing makes full use of the interior of a beautiful structure filled with life and light, unmistakable in its resemblance to religious architecture, and standing in contrast to the darkness of Hozier’s “Take me to Church”. The central themes of denied love and oppression are reinterpreted through Polunin’s facial expressions and sometimes agonized contortions (which still retain the supple grace that defies gravity and defines dance); there are those rare moments of synergy when sound and sight form a seamless atmosphere that social media sites like Youtube are made for.

I simply cannot stop watching this young Ukrainian throw, loop, leap, bound, tear himself through a dance that is less choreographed routine than a fluidity of lines. The look on his face goes beyond the process – he’s somewhere else, translating and sketching the lyrics over the air for us to see. Try to comprehend how a human body can send itself down to its knees on a stone floor; how bones can arc in seams of gold through careful camera angles and sunlight (if we want to ground ourselves and get prosaic about this. But what the hell, it’s as stunning an image as you’ll see this week.) Assess the worn and blackened soles.

It might not be for everyone, and that’s fine. But, coming from a background of dance, I can only say that “effortless pain” just took on a whole new meaning.

Anyway. Enough of my waffling – watch it, and decide for yourselves.

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Thoughts and memories of Dunstable: Between five years

When it comes to Dunstable, in Bedfordshire, my thoughts and memories are of pubs and hikes, aching legs and red kites, and rain. Oh and the dole. A year or so spent wandering (yes, with the clouds) over hills and through sopping woodland, trudging through muddy fields. It’s easy to forget the harder times when life is good; and I’ve had it relatively easy-good for the past four or so years, having relocated to St Albans in Hertfordshire in 2010, when a job finally came up at the local police station. Here, I’ve found the sort of security that was craved back when I lived with my former partner, Jimmi, and his parents in a small village called Eaton Bray, on the outskirts of Dunstable. The whole point of being there was to set up home.
One song that always comes to mind to frame that time, is the National’s “Heavenfaced”:
“Hit the ceiling, then you fall
Things are tougher than we are.”

And they were. Not all the time, for there were those long golden-soaked afternoons, spent strolling between pubs and down sepia’d alleyways. For two nature-lovers, there was plenty to do in terms of what comes for free (You make the best of what you Have)… and still.

We were younger then, and rough around the edges, and still a bit raw at the prospect of suddenly living under the same roof. I had taken the leap from East Sussex to Bedfordshire, after eighteen months of online interaction and weekends spent barrelling up and down the countryside, through the capital; we’d decided the to-and-fro visits were a bit ridiculous, in light of our strengthening bond. The trouble lay in my timing. It was October 2009, and the country was floundering in recession. Not that I was really aware of it at the time. My blinkers were still firmly in place, while focusing on recovery from anorexia nervosa. How dire our situation would become only sank in when Jimmi left his job to find hours better suited to our relationship, and instead found the market almost empty.

When he signed on the dole in late 2008, neither of us expected him to still be heading into the Job Centre until January 2010, when a reprieve came. There were a few glimmers of light along the way, all of which were extinguished by the ineptitude of would-be employers and agency staff (one of the latter forgot to mention that a job happened to be on a building site, and would therefore require the necessary protective clothing and shoes. J had driven out at 6am over black ice, and – unable to enter the site – had to turn back. I can’t describe to you the relief and fear I felt, waking to find him home so soon.)

For my part, I spent hours, days, months, wandering those old streets and over the windswept Downs, dotting in and out of the local gym, while waiting on calls from potential employers. Interviews were few and far between. My morale slipped with the weather; 2009 into 2010 saw the worst snowfall for years, layering up over black ice, so it seemed that the long slog up Lancott Hill out of Eaton Bray would break my soul as well as my spine. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Dead Flag Blues” became sewn into that time, with the ice-claw grass and brassy sky, wreathes of mist, when the air itself froze heavy and still.

Aylesbury vale

Cracked-tooth paintwork. Dark alleys. Splintered wood beams in pubs that smelled of smoke and pine, with horse brasses shining on the walls. Mud and chalk caked my hiking boots and waterproof trousers – a uniform I wore to keep warm and dry (almost) against the weather fronts that circled on the push-pull of air currents between Dunstable Downs and Ivinghoe Beacon, the latter rising magnificent against the sky in the distance. And further still, to form the great bowl of the Aylesbury Vale, there were the blue slopes of Woburn…

…and back to the breath-fogged windows of the Job Centre. The sagging chairs and boards with print-outs of work details; the briefest of conversations. The diversity of age and class, the faces with their oh-so-similar expressions: anger, frustration, wariness, fear. Downcast eyes, with the deep ashes of despair. Jimmi’s observations at the time betrayed a greater understanding of the system and our situation. I was completely out of my depth, ready to nod along with anything pushed at me so long as it got me off the damn chair, and back out for a walk or into the gym. With an eating/exercise disorder, nothing matters more than the next hit of compulsions. It was all I could do not to pace the floor while waiting to be seen.

On the dole, all the little things you take for granted – buying an extra packet of sweets, catching the bus or train to nowhere in particular for a few hours of exploring, downloading a new album from iTunes, buying birthday and Christmas presents – become so many coins counted out and measured like sand. My stamped Job Centre booklet went everywhere with me. I was terrified of losing it, in case they stopped my payments. I was treated with the same indifference as everyone else – I didn’t dare raise mental health issues, in case they prevented me from finding work. Given the use of sanctions in the welfare state today, I wouldn’t have stood a chance, as has been the case for too many people already.

Enough time has passed to sand away those sharp edges. The bitter sting of rain pelting my skin, the wind tearing at my hair and echoing that same empty song of No Employment. There was the subsequent guilt of dependency on Jimmi’s parents for financial support, with the emotional kind from the fella, firing up my spirits. But he had his own internal struggles to deal with. The only way I can describe our range of feelings at the time, is through a single word.
Nabokov put it best:

Toska – noun /tō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

2009-10 saw a forest fire of unemployment and bankruptcy run across the UK. Economic forecasts and GDP meant less to me (and most people, I imagine) than the fact Woolworths had disappeared from the high street, and queues were forming out of the Job Centre. I’d had a job set up in Luton to walk into, so I wasn’t jumping blind from Sussex. When this didn’t work out, all I could do was spruce up my CV in creative ways that weren’t complete lies. I’ve had precious little experience in anything other than cleaning and fitness training, since my state of mental health has left me unable to work in jobs that (to put it frankly) oblige me to keep still. It’s an ongoing problem, one I chip away at each year. It’s set me back financially, sometimes emotionally. But in light of the recession – when I lived in a town with rickety trade and the dulled eyes of a cat left in the rain – I’m in a stronger position. It would take that random hop over to St Albans, for a rather obscure interview, to get my life in motion again.

The rest is almost four and a half years’ history, as part of a noisy, messy and wonderful family unit.

But I haven’t forgotten Dunstable. It plays on my thoughts often, particularly when a red kite angles past, free on the chasing winds, burnished bronze under the sun. They became symbolic of hope, of a freedom we longed for while faced with the grey Everyday of a town that seemed (at the time) to be bent on draining us of our youth. Which of course, it wasn’t. In simple terms, Dunstable has been through a series of internal mistakes, combined with wider issues which have undermined its ability to sustain itself. From a well-established market town, Dunstable has gone downhill into poor trade and high unemployment, as was highlighted in a recent Daily Mail article tweeted by an old friend – a former Dunstablian – a few weeks ago.

Dunny high street
Image: www.dailymail.co.uk

Those pictures splintered behind my eyes, more painfully at odds than ever with the country’s (slow) economic recovery. But Dunstable’s problems run deeper than the most recent recession, and they won’t be eased with a quick-fix, either.

On the weave of human travel and commerce, Dunstable grew up from where the Icknield Way (a Neolithic route running along the chalk spine of England, from Norfolk to Wiltshire) met the Roman-made Watling Street, a significant economic route to London. While traces of Neolithic activity (such as the Round Barrow cemetery on the Downs) pin a far greater age of settlement to the area, it was the Romans who gave it the name “Durocobrivis”, setting up a posting station where travellers could change horses. When they left, and the area had become thick with woodland and undergrowth (adding to the dangers of the road for travellers) it was through royal intervention, at the behest of Henry I that Dunstable began to reform.

In 1109, the tangles of nature were cut back and royal favour was granted to those who would settle, and encourage growth of a different kind. Dunstable became a focal point for communication and trade, while playing host to a series of royal figures passing through; they left their own marks on the developing town, as further testament to its origins. King Henry I had a royal residence constructed in 1123, as a base to hunt on the surrounding countryside – this is now the site of the Old Palace Lodge hotel on Church Street.
The Eleanor Cross precinct was named for the last journey of Queen Eleanor of Castile, when her coffin was brought to Dunstable on its way to Westminster Abbey for internment. The beloved wife of King Edward I was kept in the Priory Monastery overnight, and a cross was built close to the entrance of Church Street, as part of the set of twelve created by order of the king to mark her passage. Only three of these crosses have survived; the one at Dunstable was destroyed in 1643. It’s a startlingly poignant tribute to the “Queen of Good Memory”, and a message of grief set in stones across the landscape.

Cross3
Image: www.timetravel-britain.com

There were plenty of occasions when I’d walk past something in and around town, completely unaware of its historical context until Jimmi pointed out the details. The local library held a wealth of information in its archives, and I soon learned what to look out for – all those odd lumps and bumps in the ground on our numerous hikes, turned out to be more than nature’s designs. I’d never heard of barrows before, let alone seen any. One memorable hike took us up to the small copse atop the Downs, overlooking the Aylesbury vale; beneath that lowlight shade, we stood in a sunken bowl, surrounded by what appeared to be grassy sand dunes. He told me that these were where ancient VIPs had been buried, long before the Romans came.
I always get a slight shiver walking around them – never over, because they’re already scored hard with the tyre-tracks of bikes, the tread of countless feet.

Benches speckle the Downs, set with plaques to commemorate those who once took pleasure in the undulating view. Visitors use the rip-curl of cross-winds to send their plastic kites up against the sky (much to the chagrin of J who, out cycling to fend off dole boredom and to keep up a fitness routine, was once saved from a broken nose by his helmet when a kite came plunging down like a knife.) The London Gliding Club, located at the foot of the Downs among fields that shine pewter-gold in the summer, send up their white gliders to hover vast silent shadows over the landscape. They are ubiquitous to the area, and can sometimes – on a day with strong winds – be sighted as far away as Houghton Regis. Towing them up from the ground are the TigerMoth planes, little beauties with a pleasantly familiar burring-buzz.

glider

Dunstable holds a wealth of ancient treasures, both above and beneath its soil. Many of these have been relocated over the years, with the local museum (holding Iron and Bronze Age relics recovered from archaeological excavations) switching between buildings, from the town hall in 1925 to the Kingsbury Stables in 1927 to Priory House. Jimmi told me of how the museum was once kept in the “adult section” of the library, with staff training hawk-eyes on the kids who came to see the full-size skeleton of an Iron Age man, held frozen in time behind a glass cabinet, among books on erotic photography.

The town emblem – a livery badge known as the Dunstable Swan jewel and crafted from opaque white enamel fused over gold – was sold to the British Museum in 1966, following excavations at the friary. Those who discovered it had no real idea of its significance, as a declaration of allegiance to a noble family or a king – a pity then, that it can’t be restored to its township.

Dunstable swan
Image: www.britishmuseum.org

While out wandering through the Quadrant shopping precinct, I couldn’t help but notice the archaeological-dig exhibitions that had been set up in empty shop windows. The Manshead Archaeological Society is a credit to South Bedfordshire for calling attention to the region’s abundance of (pre)historical sites and artefacts, with details of each excavation logged onto their system at Winfield Street for analytical reports to be written and drawn up. It’s priceless, both for the preservation of Dunstable’s roots and as a symbolic reminder of what the town still stands for. It would benefit from making more of its past, in the way that York city has grounded much of its trade in its history. As Jimmi put it, “As a town that had many English kings and queens stay, a town that saw major historical events happen (the beginning of the end of Catholicism started in Dunstable with the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon – in Priory Church) … Dunstable needs more than a tiny visitors’ centre tucked away.”

*

You don’t have to travel up the country to find urban decay, though it’s acknowledged that the smaller towns and cities have fared poorly in comparison to their larger neighbours. Cuts to council budgets and a lack of follow-through on regeneration projects have seen local infrastructure become frail, while unemployment reflects the shuttered-down high streets and closed businesses. With a population of approximately 36,000 people and situated 30 miles north of London, Dunstable bears similar marks of a town that has gradually lost its industrial and cultural identity, even as its larger neighbours have flourished around it.

When the late Michael Partington took a wander through town in 1966 for the short Anglia Television documentary, “Focus On: Dunstable”, he found it thriving on the back of its growing motor industry. This came as a result of overspill from Luton – Bedford Vehicles, a division of Vauxhall owned by General Motors, had become a major supplier to the British Army in WWII, progressing from its bus and truck productions to the Churchill Tank. With the help of government funds, in 1942 the company was able to open a new site on Boscombe road in Dunstable, sprawling its plant over 98 acres; by the 1950’s, all bus and truck productions had gone over to Dunstable, with recruitment rates reaching almost 6,000 people. By 1953, the average wage was £10 a week, while 1958 saw the millionth Bedford commercial vehicle roll off a Dunstable line. This lively company’s production merged with that of A C Sphinx Sparking Plug Co’s Works, which had moved from Birmingham in 1934 and was later renamed A C Delco (where Jimmi’s mother and members of her family worked); together with Renault Trucks and Commer Cars, the motoring industry formed a springboard for Dunstable’s burgeoning economy.

The future seemed set – as Partington pointed out, the sleepy market town was now “wide awake.”

“Focus On: Dunstable” left an ache in my throat. There was the bustling high street, with even these levels of activity seeming healthier than the roaring rivers of exhaust fumes and tyres that channel through Dunstable today. People filled the pavements, going in and out of shops that were bright as the eyes of children. There was a sense of hope and well-being, as “big orders mean higher wages, and a sense of security.” More shops and homes were going up, to accommodate the influx of workers from surrounding areas, as well as local residents. Dunstable was set on outstripping Luton (which had been made a country borough) to hold the title of South Bedfordshire’s hub for culture and commerce.

california ballroom_jpg
(Inside the California Ballroom, Dunstable, for a performance by The Searchers, “Needles and Pins”.)
Image: www.dunstablehistory.co.uk

But the race to the future stalled out, with one factory closure after another, brought on by a chain-reaction of events in the UK’s automotive industry. Depending on who you’d prefer to listen to, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was either a saint or a sinner for her intervention on behalf of British Leyland, once the country’s largest car company. According to Garel Rhys, the retired director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School, Thatcher saw British Leyland as “too big to fail”, bailing it out to the tune of 2.9 billion pounds of taxpayer money from 1979 to 1988. Though the company would ultimately collapse, Rhys stated that the UK’s automotive industry was saved by Thatcher’s support. “Jaguar Land Rover came out of the rescue. Mini was saved, along with Leyland Daf trucks and component firms such as Unipart.”

Those same Leyland Daf trucks were a division of British Leyland, formed in 1987 after the company was granted the British Army service contract to produce the 4 Tonne GS (general service) truck. This struck a terrible blow to General Motors, whose main market was by then in military vehicle production – pulling out of Bedford Trucks, they left it to be bought by AWD Ltd, a company owned by David John Bowes Brown, which in its turn went into receivership in 1992 and was sold to Marshall SPV in Cambridge. This came in spite of a poignant plea to the House of Commons in 1992 by Mr. David Madel, the MP for South West Bedfordshire at the time, for the company to be allowed to sell “a large order for civilian – I stress the word ‘civilian’ – lorries for Libya.” The emphasis came because Libya was at the time under UN sanctions, one of the key elements of which for the UK was an arms embargo. This, according to Minister for Trade Mr. Richard Needham in response to Mr. Madel, included “the provision of arms and related material of all types, including the sale or transfer of weapons and ammunitions, military vehicles and equipment.” While the AWD trucks were specified as civilian, there were concerns over whether some, if not all were likely to be used by the country’s military.
Of the 850 Dunstable workers at AWD prior to receivership, only about half of the 150 workers left, after redundancies, were offered jobs in Cambridge.

Bedford Trucks
Image: www.lutontoday.co.uk

Mr. Madel stood again in 1993 for the support of Renault Trucks (which by that point had also run into difficulties) as well as Dunstable council’s need for extra governmental funding, in light of the sudden increase in unemployment:
“The Bedfordshire training and enterprise council is effective, but, given the difficulties of the Dunstable area, it needs an extra boost. What is needed is Government help to attract new industry into the area.”
What caught my eye, too, were his cautionary comments regarding the delicate balance between housing and employment, which Jimmi had often remarked upon while we lived in Dunstable. This seems more prevalent than ever:
“Before the employment base in the Dunstable area has been sorted out and re-established, we must take another look at the numbers and types of houses that we are required to build under Bedfordshire’s structure plan and at the time scale for that building programme. A big imbalance between housing development and employment opportunities is arising in the south of the county. Now is the time for a fresh and urgent look at that balance.”

With the nosedive in industry, the cultural aspects of Dunstable began to lose their shine too. The beautifully futuristic Civic Hall, which opened in 1964 and was later renamed the Queensway Hall, was once able to seat up to 900 people for concerts and plays, while serving 500 people for banquets; its situation on the touring circuit saw the likes of Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols and David Bowie pass through its doors, to give performances that leave once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Pulled down in 2000, the Hall now lies beneath an ASDA supermarket, while its entertainment predecessor, the California Ballroom, suffered a similar fate in the early 80’s – it now lies beneath a housing estate. Though both venues had their fair share of inherent problems, their loss has been seen as a downswing in the presence of professional live acts. Dunstable seems to have fallen off the tour circuit.

These pieces fit with others to form an image of a town now riddled with deep-running problems. The loss of free parking in the town centre further discourages shoppers from travelling in; they can just as easily head to the outskirts of town for the large retail stores and supermarkets that have set up. These offer many of the products sold by the independents and mainstream stores on the high street, under one roof. Those people who do decide to come into the centre must then battle the heavy flux-flow of traffic. It’s a stop/start process, from one set of lights to the next, and an unpleasant experience for pedestrians and drivers alike. I didn’t even dare to consider buying a bike.

Dunstable is, by an unhappy quirk of fate, also one of the largest towns in SE England without a rail connection (only adding to the congestion through and around town.) The Great Northern Railway’s branch line from Welwyn, had served Dunstable from 1858 to 1965 – it fell to the Beeching cuts, like many others, due to its decline in freight exchange and passenger numbers. This was something of a sore point for me, coming up from East Sussex, where I’d been accustomed to having a station on my doorstep. I’d arrive in Luton on a Friday evening (sweaty and bothered) to be picked up by Jimmi and taken back through the slow surge of Dunstable, then on to Eaton Bray. It took about 3 hours on a good day; travelling home on a Sunday-skeleton-service, was even more “fun.”

Rising business rates – the bane of high streets across Britain – have hit those retailers already struggling to compete with the evolving supermarkets, and internet giants like Amazon. The Book Castle, a beautiful shop on Church Street with an elegant greystone front, closed its doors in 2011 citing a reduction in sales. Its founder, Paul Bowes, who opened the shop in 1980 and sold it to the Independent Retail Group in 2008 (while maintaining the separate business of Book Castle Publishing) said that “A lot of book shops are closing because of the demand in supermarkets and online. People are therefore not visiting their high street shops… the town is going to be the poorer for losing its specialist book shop.”

I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing to compare with that feeling of Presence when you step into a book shop – particularly one has old and fine as the Book Castle, situated in a building dated 1872, and formerly used as a drill hall by volunteer soldiers – to go sifting through titles that are tangible beneath the fingers, with unique covers and jackets. It’s the literary equivalent of choosing vinyl over downloads – yes, the latter will have the drag ‘n drop convenience, taking up a smidgen of space; but it won’t have the solidity, the textures and inimitable *crackle-pop* of the former.

Then there’s the actual experience of making a purchase – when shopping feels like an adventure. The Book Castle had a smell of nostalgia ingrained in its deep walls: dust, cold stone and warm wooden beams, and that indescribable scent of many types of paper and binding, hanging in the air like the woodsmoke of pubs. Descending the staircase to reach the bottom level where my favourite genres were kept – science fiction and fantasy – I felt like an explorer. If a title wasn’t on the shelves or had gone out of print, the staff would order it in for you with the professional charm of people who know what they’re doing, and take pride in their societal place as distributors. If a particular author had your attention, the staff recommendations would put you onto someone of their style, in a way that Amazon / iTunes algorithms still don’t quite seem to have mastered. You can’t beat a human approach to taste.
It was a wonderful place to visit, even when I was on the dole and had little spare to spend. It was somewhere to hide from the rain, and to feel more like myself. Sadly, such sentiments don’t keep shops open.

dunstable at war
Image: www.theoldchapelivinghoe.com

The Quadrant shopping precinct now sits desolate even on Saturday afternoons, when trade should be at its peak. A third of its stores are shuttered-down, collecting rust and sprouting weeds through their walls, despite council attempts to spruce up the shop fronts and maintain appearances. The campaigners at Long Live Dunstable: Don’t Let Dunstable Die, keep a directory website open for visitors, and maintain a Facebook page with regular updates and dedications, memories of days-past and thoughts on the future, from a community that still cares about the fate of its town.

What Dunstable needs is real industry, for all of its residents to feel that sense of pride and security again. The most recent profile of Dunstable (April 2013, Central Bedfordshire Council) showed that residents aged 16 and over who work, are more likely to be in unskilled positions: process, plant and/or machine operatives (18.6% compared to 15.8% in Central Bedfordshire) with employment mainly in wholesale and retail, education, and manufacturing.
This certainly paints the town’s past, if not also its progressive future. Dunstable’s unemployment rate – though similar to the national average – currently sits above that of Central Bedfordshire; 780 people claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance in February 2013. With the Job Centre’s closure in 2012 those seeking work must now travel to Luton to sign on, and if their experiences are anything like those of freelance journalist Harriet Williamson, they won’t be reimbursed for travel costs.

Central Bedfordshire college – formerly known as Dunstable college – was set up in 1961. Mr Madel referred to it as “a highly successful college of further education”, which had helped to provide for Dunstable’s “great bank of industrial skills.” Today, the college reflects a need for diversity in the town’s employment sectors, offering full and part-time courses that range from engineering to arts, IT & computing to sports therapy, construction to health and social care. Apprenticeship schemes are available, along with “an army of experienced trades people and professionals” drawn from small and medium-sized companies, who as lecturers enhance the education of potential future employees. It’s a synergistic approach aimed at boosting the regional economy – on his “Meet the Principal” page, Ali Hadawi CBE acknowledges that “unemployment is high”, but that the difference lies in skills provided with education: “Businesses have to be careful about how many people they employ… They also have to make sure those people they do take on can work well and be productive.”

To this end, the college works in tandem with the Incuba Innovation Centre, which was developed in partnership with Central Bedfordshire Council and the European Regional Development Fund. Full of light, spacious, and with a glittering roof of solar panels, it has the appearance of an updated Civic Hall – though the focus here is upon introducing a new industry of renewable energies to Dunstable, with support given to fledgling businesses “that champion a greener economy.” They are provided with classrooms, hot desk facilities and meeting rooms to, as Principal Hadawi put it, “offer business development… for those working on developing ideas in the renewable energies field.” In the short film “Dunstable: The Next Chapter”, shot in late 2014 as part of Dunstable Town Council’s corporate plan for the next three years, he added that “the greener renewable technology arena promises to be one of the largest growth industries worldwide.” With the drive to cut harmful emissions and reduce dependency on fossil fuels (not to mention the global market volatility often accompanying them), alternative/renewable energies form a progressive industry that’s not likely to peter out any time soon. Writing for the Economist, senior editor Edward Lucas said that “The International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organisation often criticised for its focus on fossil fuels, says the world will need to stump up about $23 trillion over the next 20 years to finance continued fossil-fuel extraction, but the prospect of much cheaper solar power and storage capability may put investors off. The story may be not so much what falling oil prices mean for clean energy than what the prospect of clean energy will mean for the oil price.”

More locally, Dunstable could see real benefits from this versatile mix of on-site training and business accommodation. Bringing students into an environment where they can explore a fast-developing industry, there’s the potential for expansion and putting Dunstable’s name back on the map, as a destination for those with an eye on the future.

Incuba
Image: www.atkinsglobal.com

But still, those high street shops must be open for new arrivals, as well as established residents. The town centre needs to become attractive again.
Working with Central Bedfordshire Council and business partners, Dunstable Town Council’s masterplan was drawn up for the regeneration of the town covering 2014-2016. Particular focus was given to improving connections between different parts of the town, easing congestion, and bringing retail, leisure, community, residential and office facilities up to scratch. An example of this redevelopment is the three-pronged work on transport infrastructure. The Dunstable-Luton busway opened in September 2013, and carries passengers on a straightforward route serving the town centres of Dunstable, Houghton Regis and Luton, bypassing their congestion while providing a fast route to major transport links like Luton airport and train station. What was once a 40-60 minute one-way journey has been cut to approximately 15 minutes. It’s ideal for commuters and shoppers. Add to this the other two major transport developments – the A5-M1 link road and the Woodside link road – and you have an area that’s attractive to businesses wishing to set up in the nearby retail parks. With deliveries conveyed on alternate routes, the clutter of lorries often found snarling up the town centres will be taken away, improving the sound and air quality for retailers and customers. Cafes and restaurants overlooking the centre will benefit from more peaceful views. Dunstable’s streets won’t feel quite so charged and chaotic. A bigger step would be to bring back free parking throughout the week, thus encouraging local residents and those passing through to give the shopping precincts a chance. If employment levels pick up and feed down into wage packets, Dunstable could see another resurgence in trade. Going on my own experience, a bit of financial security does wonders for confidence and the spirit.

Running parallel with the need to support businesses, there’s the need to preserve Dunstable’s historical identity. As part of the council’s corporate priorities, these restoration projects take on specific points across town, with the current focus being on the Priory and its gardens. Sadly, the same relief hasn’t been extended to the Norman King pub, a once-proud and elegant structure dating back to the time of King Henry I.

I was only a resident of the town for a year or so, and while I didn’t have the privilege to drink my first (legal) pints in there, Jimmi’s anecdotes left their mark on my mind. It’s difficult to imagine him playing darts with old school friends now; or indeed, to remember how it felt when he first took me inside and I saw the beautiful sweep of the ceiling, felt the thick walls under my hands. Those white walls are now blackened, the roof gone, after the pub was burnt out in a senseless arson attack on the 10th August 2011. The structural damage was enough for the Grade II listed building to be stripped of its conservation status, and for a long time the poor cigarette-stub of what remained stared out over the street until it was boarded up. I can’t bring myself to look at pictures of what remains.

The council has decided to push ahead with plans for the pub’s demolition, to make way for an extension to the neighbouring Old Palace Hotel. An online petition, with over 2,500 signatures, appears to have gone unheeded, despite the obvious influence the building’s heritage has upon Dunstable’s identity.

TV presenter Kevin McCloud MBE, raised in Dunstable, put it best:
“Dunstable is short on great historic buildings and so the removal of any ancient scrap of architecture from the town is an appalling idea. We need to conserve the old to help us understand the present (and, for that matter, the future) and heritage is not a burden but an amenity and a great blessing for our society. It gives us a sense of place and connection. The loss of the ancient fabric of The Norman King will be a crying shame and a further erosion of that connection. It’s appalling that there has been no collective will among the authorities to keep as much as possible that remains of this fine old building and to insist on a sensitive programme of repair and even reinstatement of the structure and roof lost to the fire. Apart from anything else, I used to drink there and will miss it.”

the norman king 2

The norman king
Images: gallery.nen.gov.uk

Special thanks to Jimmi Campkin (@jimmicampkin) for letting me pick his brain for memories and facts; and for proof-reading the whole thing.

We mark our own roads

I revisited an old place last night, a thought and a memory from long ago, when I was a person… on the ebb-tide of Europe. Five years old, and recently returned to the UK to start again. I already missed the crisp mountain air and the silence around snow; the lean-dark nights and echoing silence beneath the pines.

Austria. Germany. Norway (sleeping with the blinds drawn against the pale light, with eye masks soft over our noses.)

When Dad left the RAF, we had settled in a small English town at the end of a railway line, an hour or so from the capital, a mile and many from the places I had once known as Home. I took to wandering off down the twisting paths, with their sun-cracked tarmac and aching sepia shadows.

I already missed that wider world.

It revisits me in dreams, which were once memories. They bleed into one another until I can’t tell what is false and what is real, as with everyday life. Some things I know for sure, with photographs in faded albums to back up their facts in a glossy sheen of my father’s deft camerawork. He carried that heavy thing slung about his neck on a strap, took it wherever we went on our holiday-travels in the car, which was all we could afford. I still, to this day, don’t know how much of those travels were to do with his work.

But we were a family of four. Climbing hills and camping beneath mountains made of dark glass and rock, under skies you could shatter with a pinprick. My mother wore her champagne hair in long curls, and carried me on her back. My sister’s hair was attempting to grow out from the rugged crop she’d got around age three; those straight pale locks were never the same again. We trudged up and down the white Austrian slopes with our steel-shod wooden sledges, which would never get past Health and Safety tests now; I wore a Michelin-Man suit of red and blue, with pink mittens and snow boots with white kid lining. I was so proud of these – they had been my sister’s, until she outgrew them. I got most of her hand-me-downs, unless we were “gifted” with identikit outfits by our grandparents. They loved to see little girls dressed in gingham and plaid.

I beg to differ.
But those dresses did stop me being mistaken for a boy all the time, with my short-cropped hair and skinny frame.

We’d race each other through plumes of silver breath, rolling and skidding, while our parents slid gracefully past on their skis. It was another world, another time, full of very straight roads with sharp right-angle corners, elegant steel ‘n stone infrastructure, mixed up with beloved architecture that told their own quiet tales of tradition. Soft gingerbread rooftops and quaint gables, gothic spikes and dark-eye windows. A world of Germanic and Slavic fairytales, forests and fate (lots of death) and magic.

Last night, I watched an old favourite film, firmly bound up in childhood but vague in terms of my full appreciation of it. I hadn’t seen An American Tail since I was eight, though it was often played at my Nanna’s house when we went to visit. The historical and political themes had gone quite over my head (as I’m fairly sure they would for most kids.) I had to blink and look again when it came to the stinging truth of the dangers and difficulties facing Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, bound for America. Stuck among the singing and dancing, it all seemed a bit …
Well, you can fill in with your own words. I did laugh to recognize where “The Giant Mouse of Minsk” had got its name. But my skin riddled up to finally understand the opening scenes of violence that drove the Mousekewitzes and their human counterparts from Shoskta, as part of the anti-Jewish pogroms. I hadn’t known because no one had told me, no one in my family thought to mention it, though they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the connections. Likewise, on the one occasion the film was shown in my old primary school, there was no mention of the protagonists being Jewish, or of the persecution they had faced.
It would have made a difference to know.

The film aside, this appears to be a recurring theme in adulthood. So much is missing in mind and memory – whether through daydreaming in class (likely) or the subjects being entirely omitted from each year’s history curriculum. Important dates have come up, I’ve been well enough to acknowledge them, but have found myself with empty holes where details should have been.

It’s true, we never stop learning. It’s only in recent years that I’ve managed to piece together more complete and complex pictures and timelines: of the First and Second World Wars, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the Cold War and the Soviet Union … among many other things, across the world.
I could have told you about spits and spots: about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Stone Henge, about the Victorians, how to use old teabags to brown-up paper to make “papyrus scrolls.” I could have told you about the war poets.
But I didn’t know about the significance of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Yalta, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I learned about the Holocaust mostly through my own research (with a lot of help from Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and about Weimar Germany and hyperinflation from A Level Film Studies – where it was necessary to have a grounding in the historical context of the Expressionist films we were studying.

But is it possible that I fucked around so much in classes that I missed some rather crucial points in human history? Were they even taught then – should they have been? Are these subjects the preserve of further and higher education? (I lasted nine weeks in University before dropping out. Health reasons, as ever.) I wonder, because they seem to be more relevant than ever. And, I’m getting well enough to look backwards as well as around, and forwards; at other people’s lives, rather than my own.

I study, taking time away from faces and noise, to read; to absorb what I can, to make more sense of Today. It’s also possible that whatever I might have learned in school has been burnt out of my brain by years of anorexia and malnutrition. I still find it difficult to retain key facts above the constant white noise, though there’s been a definite improvement in the past couple of years. Never underestimate the links between physical and mental health.

The past few weeks have shown as much. I’ve lost about a kilo, despite a serious increase in food and fluids (it only came home to me how much when I saw a friend’s tweet about his calorie intake for a marathon – it near enough matched my own. But I’m not training for a marathon. I just work, and work out.) I’m reduced to an insomniac with a constant low-grade burning appetite, a short fuse, lowered mental cognition and weaker muscles. My emotional state is a trip-hazard. This is another reason I’ve taken time away, so I don’t inadvertently start WWIII.

I’m going for blood tests next week, to rule out anything other than a long-running aversion to change (we’re slowly starting to pack up at the Nick, with some departments closing to move on), and stress.

The haunting strains of the violin call to a past that leaves an ache at the back of my throat. I once walked barefoot in snow without pain. Even then, there was the tingle of Bigger Things in my spine, and they came most often in dreams.

Once, I climbed hand-over-foot on hot stones the colour of sand, under a blazing blue sky; though I never reached the top, there was sight and sound, the burring whine of many insects, the pulsing heat from the overhead sun. Across the years, that element of wandering-away from familiar places to unexpectedly stumble upon a great looming presence – a monument, a temple, a building – has never died. But I didn’t link them all together until last week, when the latest rendition of the dream came with a lowering night sky, pale smudges at its horizon, as of storm clouds obscuring the dusky rose. The monolith rose up in glittering darkness like a fallen spaceship, with panels and a size to silence anyone. Silence all around, and no way in. I wandered about its hulk, feeling the ping from its cooling metal, seeing the faint swirl of beetle-back colours; that toxic beauty.

It was the jungle temple, all right. The same location, accidentally found, as ever, but changed. No way inside to find the cool darkness and the echoes – now, they lie without.
I am always leaving home. I always return, empty-handed, with bare feet and an aching heart.

Marching for our future

Two themes mingled on the streets of Paris today. In the photographs and reports pouring in, I saw hope and hypocrisy: both will shape the future of this world. Crowds marched in defiance of the terror waged against them in the past week. Leaders went arm-in-arm in supposed solidarity for freedom of expression, after the recent attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket … while back in their home countries, those who stand for freedom of speech and democracy face persecution and imprisonment.

I don’t suppose any of this was far from the minds of more liberal leaders but then, within the context of the march – honouring the fallen – it’d be difficult to speak of other things. I must admit, I found myself hesitating before calling attention to the brilliant research by Daniel Wickham (@DanielWickham93) on the unique abuse of human rights / freedom of expression by many of the world leaders in attendance, if only because I didn’t want to dampen the moment. But then, there are so many moments in time, and they all add up to Change – or not. I thought of Tracy Chapman’s song, “If not Now…”
Then when? One voice among many.

With responsibility comes the shocker of having to give up a lot of what you might believe in. For the greater good, etc. Belarus, for example, is allowed a lot of leeway when it comes to human rights, just so the Lukashenka regime doesn’t kick up a shit-storm between the EU and the loudly-snarling bear, Russia. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“The Lukashenko administration gives the EU chills from time to time. Belarusian officials make claims about Belarus’s exit from the Eastern Partnership. Belarus threatens to redirect its cargo transit routes from Lithuanian and Latvian ports to Russian ports. Belarus also promises to deploy Russian Tactical Ballistic Missile Systems against Poland. The message is clear: The West must turn a blind eye on the human rights violations in Belarus in order to cooperate with Lukashenka.” – Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus, Andrei Liakhovich.

The world’s internet freedom is falling, with Turkey and Russia leading the descent. In Azerbaijan recently, the US-funded Radio Azadliq was ransacked by the Azerbaijani authorities, with twelve employees arrested and others threatened with the same if they chose not to comply with questioning.
The reason?

“The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
Siyavoush Novruzov, a high-ranking member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, defended the raid as a national security issue.

Speaking to local media, he said it was necessary to close the bureau to prevent espionage, adding, “Every place that works for foreign intelligence and the Armenian lobby should be raided.”

And still.

I found the scenes in France heartening for a number of reasons – most of them pointed out by other people, tweeting as they watched with me, or attended the march themselves. Jamie Barlett (@JamieJBartlett) of think-tank Demos, put it most aptly:
“In 20 years, there will be a new wave of fearless journalists, cartoonists, writers – who as children were moved by the events of last week.”

We can only hope, for this is what and who will stand against the hypocrisy seen today. We all of us have a common enemy, exemplified by the extremists who would like to stir up trouble between Muslims and the countries they call home, or those who would have online dissent (AKA freedom of expression) flogged into silence, or those who would brainwash a populace with disinformation about external persecution, while quietly raiding the home piggybank.

If we’re marching for something – in our minds on social media, with our bodies in the multicultural cities – then let it be for change. Real change. Not words produced today, in the pathos of the moment, but for all of our tomorrows, because we still have to live among each other, every day, and our lives are as intertwined as they have ever been. What comes next, will count the most.

Reflections on responsibility: Charlie Hebdo

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the horrific and tragic events of Paris. You’ve probably read enough, and formed your own conclusions about those dark moments, when freedom of speech and humour took the blows of extremism. The satirists’ pens of Charlie Hebdo were deemed by the perpetrators as too deadly to be allowed to continue sending up their version of religion.

But then, the employees of Charlie Hebdo had a habit of sending up other religious and political figures too – as well as your average, everyday Brit. That’s what they do.

A cartoon is a bloodless weapon. Its barbs lie in ideas, in putting pressure on inflated opinions, on stereotypes – on the fanatical oppressors who would like to silence those that stand for liberalism, for the freedom to interact across cultures.

The weapons that these murderers used, do not stand for Islam. They are not held up by every Muslim alive, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise. Right now, Muslims across the world are condemning the atrocities that took place – though, as Alex Massie rightly pointed out, they have no need to do so. But somehow, silence has become synonymous with complicity. I’ve seen and heard enough gross generalizations and mudslinging in the hours that have passed since yesterday’s events, to know that once again the names of 1.6 billion people will have become tangled up with those who, in fact, actively seek their destruction more than anyone else.

There are days when social media is a gift, a weapon of information-dissemination for the greater good. When flight MH17 was brought down last summer, only minutes had passed before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were flooded with screen-grabs of text and pictures taken from the profiles of Ukrainian separatists, to be used as evidence of what had taken place. The original posts were (as expected) subsequently deleted, but by then, there were already too many holes to plug. One tweet can become hundreds, thousands, within an hour.

But then there are what I’ve come to know as the spin-cycle events – when something kicks off, and events are carried forward through the arteries of social networking by the instantaneous decisions of those handling information thrust under their thumbs.
I’ve been there. I know how it feels, to react to something – pressing down on a tweet or retweet – before the little voice of conscious reasoning has had time to pipe up, to ask – “Reconsider?”

Given that yesterday’s horror took place as a direct blow against freedom of speech, I know this talk of self-censorship isn’t going to win me any favours. But it’s my opinion, based upon about 18 months’ worth of experience.

Last year was a shitter, on that I think we can all agree. One tragedy after another, with the summer in particular seeing some of the bloodiest and most mind-numbing events possible, spread out across the world, and thus onto social media. If these taught me anything about myself, it was that my reactions to breaking news – and the reactions of those around me – matter as much as the news itself. There are consequences, because there are lives behind every screen.

Yesterday, I picked up on the ongoing scenes in Paris via tweets from journalists, who in their turn had caught eye-witness accounts from the scene, or from various channels. It’s easy enough to get sucked into something when scrolling through a list or timeline. I felt that familiar chill in my fingertips, the tight nausea in my throat, and a desperate pressure behind the eyes. It was utterly essential that I get out what I could to my followers, to share what I was seeing –

– pressing down –
– until an image of a bullet-riddled police car landed on my timeline, and I pressed Retweet. And stopped.

I work with the police, in a civilian staff role. My colleagues are friends, people I sit beside to eat, drink with in bars. I know their families through Facebook.
I also follow, and am followed by, police officers on Twitter, albeit with less personal relations – but the fact is, they live through events such as this. Sometimes they die by them – as did Ahmed Merabet, the officer tasked with protecting the people who poked fun at his religion. Not that this meant a thing to the cowards who, brandishing Kalashnikovs, put him to death while he lay on the ground, unprotected.
I wonder if it will mean anything to the likes of Nigel Farage, with his “fifth column” theory on how extremism somehow equates with multiculturalism.

Looking around at my Twitter feed, at the lists I keep, I saw yet more and more disturbing images arrive, as reports filtered in. Most tweets were kept within the character limitations, and the words alone were enough to strike my mind silent, cold.
Experience. It’s taught me that at times like this, it’s best to back away, to keep still for a bit – to process, to mourn, to rage, alone. To allow others to do the same, or to follow and pass on as they wish … but to give them that freedom, too. Not everyone wants to have a graphic image arrive in their timeline, out of context.

In truth, it’s taken me this long to write about it because I had to wait to calm down. Yesterday, I was trembling with anger. The hypocrisy was astonishing – we managed a media blackout when it was the Islamic State beheadings, so how on Earth was the slaughter going on in Paris any different? The propaganda machine was in full swing, and we were throwing our weight behind it. I saw the clip of officer Merabet’s cold-blooded killing, turned into a Vine. Retweeted.
How is this humane?

The sad fact, social media has given us a double-edged blade. We’re as able to keep in touch with each other, with the world, with information that might otherwise be prohibited or inaccessible, as we are able to darken each other’s minds, and diminish the last moments of helpless people, by turning ongoing events into a cultivated drama for our feeds.

Graphic content. It has its uses: to imprint an image or scenario on the audience’s collective mind and memory. To shock us out of everyday  complacency. To leave an undeniable mark. But with its use comes the responsibility of acknowledging how singularly inhumane it is to reduce a person’s death to a blurred and bloodied frame. Their last moments caught, held, then spread out across a vast network of tweets and retweets, news channels – all for the gratification of…what? Who?
Only the bastards that began the atrocities. The ones who want to see us in fear, panic, discord. I saw plenty of people fall out on Twitter yesterday, over this and that detail. Meanwhile, people died. And their deaths were shared and witnessed countless times.

As we saw again with the print papers. Many front pages were dedicated to the cartoon satire that upheld freedom of speech, the right to josh anyone and everyone on this planet. Some went for an improvised version of this, in muted tones, to channel the aching sorrow, the outrage. And still others have chosen that final, barbarous image – the photograph of Merabet lying prone, defenceless, with his last moments slipping away.

Held on a front page, to then line a bin. A street. A cage.

I’m sorry. I know this probably an old argument, or it’ll seem out of place, among all the other more nuanced writings on this subject. But that man was somebody’s child, loved one, friend, colleague. Above all, he was human. The fact that he was a Muslim shouldn’t matter, really, but it has to be taken into account, because vacuous idiots want to drive the same nail through all those who follow the Islamic faith, nailing them to the same wall.

My beloved friend Nillu is a Muslim. This isn’t exactly the first thing to cross my mind whenever we talk. I know her for the person she is, the unique individual and writer. I’m sickened to say that I’m reminded of her faith more often when in defence of it, at times like this, when I fear for her right to exist as a human among others, rather than be talked about as a collective murderous whole. Which is what I keep seeing at the moment. Names, faces, lives, are being blurred out, just as surely as the satirical cartoons made at Charlie Hebdo were blurred out by certain news agencies yesterday, in tweeted pictures. Already appeasing.

We’ve got our wires crossed, here. Are we fighting the extremists, or doing their work for them, by turning on the people they claim to stand for – who want nothing to do with them – while giving idiots like Farage and Marine Le Pen access to our doubts and fears about being killed, to use for their own twisted ends? Printing stark images of murder, while stepping back from publishing the brave images of Charlie Hebdo?

Can we take a moment to breathe, and remember that there are real lives at stake here – real people, with families? They are our colleagues and friends, their children go to school with ours. No, we don’t have to support or even try to understand anyone’s religion that is not our own – goodness knows, there’s enough death and persecution and blaming to go around, in the name of any faith, just as surely as there is among those without any faith at all.

But we do have a responsibility to appreciate and support their rights as individuals with connections, voices. Pressure points. Hopes and dreams and secrets.

They are us. We’re taking care of each other, on and offline.
These are the things that extremists fear, more than anything.
That’s what I believe, anyway.

Tawny horizon

Trigger warning: Weight loss / anorexia.

It’s 19.31pm, and I’ve just climbed into bed. I haven’t yet found that balance between the cyber and real-time worlds, between interaction and concentration.

Or perhaps the problem is a bit more internal.

Standing in front of the full-length mirror yesterday, I took in the curve of each rib, my flatter chest, and knew myself to be diminished. Walking home tonight, I had to plunk down on a low brick wall (and resist the temptation to fall backwards into someone’s flowerbed – we’re not in Hipster territory any more, Toto) because my legs were trembling.

Trouble is, when the world and life and errors and wanting and worries, all go flaring past with comet tails to catch a-hold of… health can become a distant star. A lonely moon. I never mean to lose weight, honest. But certain comments of this year have stuck behind my ears, about how I’d “bulked up” (around my arms and shoulders, from weight-training) and was “filling out” my tops. So. I guess old habits sneak back in, when everything else seems more interesting than standing still. Eating more is sort of tricky, too, on a frozen wage.

I know these things shouldn’t get under my skin, not after all these years; and as C.S Lewis said of it, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

And still. And still.

I know it’s perhaps early for New Years’ Resolutions, but mine are simple enough:
To create more time, with prioritising.
To pay attention to what really matters.

And that’s it. The rest, you don’t need to know, since I’ll inadvertently hurt someone or another along the way. But I’ve neglected enough Things this year, and have burnt a lot of ambitions and expectations on the pyre of Disappointment. My fault. I know better now, and where my weaknesses are. The strengths … haven’t shown their faces yet, but I guess that’s part of the learning curve, too.

What better time to rest and regain weight, than Christmas? That’s probably the wrong thing to say, hence the trigger-warning; but honestly, I’ve had enough of censoring myself. That isn’t a jab at anyone in particular, only this Thing in my head, which has slowly crept back up and wound tight claws through my mind. I find myself thinking about food/eating in that old invasive way, with the attention/fear of the constant hungering. I’m not in a relapse. But the very fact that I have to focus on this again, and find myself struggling to lift weights that were only months ago getting easier, says as much as the tapering-off of writing. Now, I get in from work and scrabble out perhaps 500 words if I’m lucky. If I haven’t spent too much time reading, talking, flicking aimlessly –
(White noise)
Researching this and that. All necessary. But life looks like a Dali clock at the moment.

(A trick I use now, is to let both phone batteries go flat by the end of the day. Then I have to walk home in silence, to re-order my thoughts.)

I don’t want to lose contact with the people I know and care about, or fall behind on the topics that interest me, engage my focus in ways that anorexia never could. I want to be more than a walking eating disorder (which was my identity for a long time.) Even in hospital, I spent the long lowlight days doing crosswords, writing snippets of poetry, reading reviews in Empire magazine… anything to keep in touch with things outside of my head, away from symptoms.

I’ve let things slip, working longer hours to keep up with rising food bills… and perhaps as an excuse to keep moving. This is a sneaky illness, it plays by its own rules, and most often below the surface.

*

Still no word about whether I’ll keep my job next year; though when I mentioned this to the new PA, she only laughed with that unhappy sound of someone used to this sort of system. To be honest, the guys will probably know about the official moving date when I do.

I can’t begin to tell you how hollow my chest feels, to think about it; and to know that this will likely be our last Christmas all together in that building. Standing on the top floor this afternoon, as is my wont when in need of a breather, I watched the western horizon turn tawny, flecked over in blue – a Joni Mitchell song of the sky. Those pigeons went skirling past, as ever, leaving their shadows like blackened leaves on the parking bays.

I wonder about a lot of things – how the guys will fit all their kit into the smaller space; where they will go for a quiet talk, or a cry; how they will cope with the integration of offices, in an open-plan idea of a police station. Who will end up where. If I will go with them.

The £2bn being ploughed into the NHS feels like a sticking-plaster, with fresh cuts to other services kept beneath. And that’s before we get onto the fact that 1 in 6 police officers will be cut from the service by next year. But I can only speak from a limited experience on the ground, and then, from the perspective of a cleaner.
I am small. And tall, in my own way.

A bit like Metpol’s (new) New Scotland Yard.

“It is quite extraordinary that in the rush to sell the police estate, the Mayor’s office don’t appear to have planned space for their police officers and staff.
Yet more money looks set to be spent to sort out this mistake, at a time when the police face ever greater financial pressures.” – Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member.

Our old girl will rock back gently on her heels, and take a deep sigh for winter. She’ll leak green-black tears down the windows, to pool over the floors; and she’ll whistle through her teeth with the rising winds. She is more than Work to me. I still give her walls a pat, when trudging up the worn stairs at the end of a shift.
I hope she won’t be knocked down. But as Stephen King said, Everything’s Eventual.

*

Outside the art shop in town, a man sat busking beneath a sullen sky, in lilac shadows. His stickered-up guitar sang a song of lonely hearts and wild roads, of sweeping streets and times since gone, never lost in the heart. He raises money for Leukaemia sufferers, and is well known in town. The glitter-shine of a red and gold Christmas tree speckled his face; the wind sent his hair flying beneath a fluffy Santa’s hat. The shop awnings kept him sheltered from occasional spatters of rain.
This evening, I couldn’t help but notice another pastel sky behind him, softening the edges of Westminster. The buildings glowed on the canvas, caught behind the glass, as he played on.

Gender Stereotypes: Harming our children

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently slammed No Gender December – an awareness campaign backed by Greens senator Larissa Waters, to highlight the consequences of gender-marketing toys to children. The PM insists that he doesn’t support “that kind of political correctness” and asks that we all “let boys be boys and girls be girls.”

Well, fair enough, Mr Abbott. I mean, where’s the harm in promoting stereotypes? Let traditions speak for themselves, right? Quit the meddling?

Well, no. As Senator Waters put it, “This isn’t about some toys being off-limits. It’s about children being free to play with whatever interests them without fear of being judged or bullied.”

There are the key words – “judged” and “bullied.” They come with very real consequences for children, for societies.
As an authority figure, someone people (might) look to as an example, it would’ve been nice if Mr Abbott had taken a more responsible line when broadcasting his views: but then again, these are clearly his beliefs, too. Which is a shame. It’s worth noting that his approval ratings have taken a good kicking from women voters in particular, with only 37% believing him fit to be their chosen leader.

The sad truth is that his views are in no way singular. They’re just another facet of the “outdated stereotypes about boys and girls” that feed into “very serious problems such as domestic violences and the gender pay gap.”
In response to Senator Waters, the Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi was a little more direct:

“Frankly, I think [Waters has] consumed too much Christmas eggnog to come up with an idea like this… To say you’re giving a boy a truck or a hammer is somehow leading to domestic violence and gender pay gaps is simply bizarre.”

Well, all things move towards their end, and one thread ties to another to form a smothering whole. Were I Mr Abbott, I’d be a bit cagey about having my views backed by someone whose idea of equality is suggesting that a man could have put his partner in a headlock to restrain her if she was being aggressive, or that this could be used as a restraining technique by police officers.

But then again, toys are only a few symptoms of a much wider problem involving sociocultural beliefs and attitudes about gender roles. The denial of certain types of behaviour and thinking – basic rights – for both girls and boys, create fissures between the sexes that become filled with beliefs that cause grief and pain, even when we’re not wholly aware of it happening. Doubt and frustration about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Repression of individuality.

Favouring boys and men, whether through the son-preference and gendercide seen in China – where one out of every six girls is eliminated through sex-selective abortion, abandonment, or infanticide – or with the global gender pay gap, feeds into the historical context of male privilege and patriarchal societies. When it comes to girls and women, their bodies and minds, male sexual entitlement plays host to a terrifying range of oppressive measures and actions. The kind we saw in horrifying detail with the Isla Vista murders.

Awareness is about picking apart the knots that help to perpetuate gender stereotypes and segregation, many of which begin at birth.

Take gender colour-coding. Walk into your average nursery and you’ll know from a cursory glance about the room what the baby’s sex is. From the moment we’re born, our identities are pinned to us with the associations “pretty in pink” for a girl, and boisterously blue for a boy. These perceptions have apparently become so ingrained in the public mind, that a backlash occurs when the perfectly rational argument for equality is proposed. As though by offering girls positive alternative role models – “women who do amazing things. Scientists and sportswomen and musicians and businesswomen and activists” – their progression through life is somehow inhibited by “politically correct” meddling.

In email responses to the PinkStinks campaign, set up by twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore, one little girl wrote: “I am nine years old, and I think PinkStinks is my voice. Girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?”

And on the flipside, recrimination: “Do you sell campaign T-shirts in pink? And do you have any with ‘I am a leftwing communist loony trying to brainwash girls’?”

Abi called it “a wholesale pinkification of girls” that “sells children a lie – that there’s only one way to be a ‘proper girl’ – and it sets them on a journey, at a very, very early age. It’s a signpost, telling them that beauty is more valued than brains; it limits horizons, and it restricts ambitions.” Emma, referring to the vitriol directed at she and her sister for the campaign, said “We’ve tapped into something that’s clearly very deep and very powerful. Some people plainly feel attacked.”

This colour-coding is far more modern than many would like to believe. In June 1918, the American Ladies’ Home Journal told new mothers that pink was more suitable for a boy, being “a more decided and stronger colour”, while blue was seen to be “delicate and dainty”, and therefore “prettier for the girl.” Same old clichés, different colour-coordination. The switch-around didn’t occur until post-WWII; in 1948, it was noted in the Chicago Reader that “royal watchers” were apparently alerted to the fact Princess Elizabeth “was obviously expecting a boy, because a temporary nursery in Buckingham Palace was gaily decked out with blue satin bows.” Interestingly, it was also common practise until WWI for male babies and small boys to wear dresses until breeching, when they were put into trousers. The average age of this rite of passage was between two and seven. So no, boys haven’t always been prepared for rougher play in their clothing, and were once almost indistinguishable from girls, particularly with the fashions for longer hair. I have photographs of my great-grandfather as a toddler, dressed in a flowing gown and with beautiful curls, standing next to his mother.

But colours and connotations have come to define our perceptions and feelings, our reactions to one another. A study on the psychological effects of pink by Alexander Schauss in the 70’s, showed that “of 153 male prisoners put in cells painted pink, 98.7 per cent were weaker after being in the pink cells for only 15 minutes – presumably because of associations with the colour pink and femininity.” Which sort of flies in the face of the afore-mentioned evidence that, once upon a time, pink was the accepted-conventional colour for boys and men. It’s funny what a cultural placebo effect can do.

More troubling, is the light this shines on yet another facet of that belief that girls and women are vulnerable, the weaker sex; that femininity is something to be ashamed of, especially if you’re male. My landlady recently told me of an acquaintance who refused to let her son wear a “slightly effeminate” shirt in the two-minute drive from her house to his own; he’d got caught in a rain shower. Said acquaintance was convinced that he would contract feminine attributes and/or homosexuality if he wore the borrowed shirt, rather than a cold if he didn’t.

If you believe that kids don’t notice these gender stereotypes, that it’s an issue only adults care about, think again. From as early as five months old, children notice their surroundings in relation to familiarity (that safety-blanket feeling of “Me”) and build upon what they retain, in their preferences:

“Researchers have shown that male and female infants as young as 5 months of age become familiar with vastly different surroundings: while female infants were often dressed in pink, had pink pacifiers, and yellow bedding, boys were more likely to have blue bedding and curtains in their rooms (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990). Since parents surround girls with objects that are pink and boys with objects that are blue, infants may develop a preference for these colours based on familiarity. Another possibility is that once children identify with a certain gender, they seek out gender-related information and choose toys and colours that are commonly associated
with that gender
… Kohlberg’s (1966) early work on gender development suggests that children seek out gender-related information and look for ways to conform to these gender norms.” – Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences

So the next time you choose an item of clothing, or plan out the style of your bedroom, or daydream about the colour of your new car, ask yourself how many of your preferences are born of personal appeal, and how much are based upon the image you feel you “should” present to the world.

Then there are the toys.

“At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to choose to what to buy without colour coded gender labelling… As every successful marketeer knows, differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives you a bigger market overall.

So with three-year-old girls only being able to ‘choose’ pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girlie shade with a premium ‘Princess’ saddle. And of course that trike can’t be handed on to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.
But what may be driving profit margins is limiting children’s’ choice – and experiences. And ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential.” – Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central: “Gendered Marketing Perpetuates Stereotypes, Constrains Minds and Limits Our Children’s Potential.”

gender toys
Image: Huffingtonpost.co.uk/Chi Onwurah

The toys marketed to boys today can be taken apart and redesigned, made to race and to fly. They do innovative and exciting things; they go places. Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, believes that these toys send messages to boys that they should be making things and problem solving, while girls should be caring and nurturing.

“Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills.”

But what if a boy would prefer to play with toys marketed to girls? Thea Hughes, who started the Play Unlimited campaign which has got under Tony Abbott’s skin, found that her son Harper was being subjected to prejudice based on his preferences for pink and wearing dresses.
“I could see him starting to become aware that he’s being judged, and that he’s unable to make the choices he’d like to make, because of the social pressure. At such a young age, it’s just so sad.”

And on the flipside, Tricia Lowther of Durham in the UK, knew of her six-year-old daughter Marianne’s love for the Pixar film Cars. But when buying juice cartons in the supermarket, Lowther found that “it was a choice between cars and princesses, and I got her the Cars ones, sure she’d like them”; Marianne hid the cartons, telling her mother that “it’s boyish” and that she didn’t want anyone to know of her preference for this.

It hasn’t always been like this. I can remember, in the mid-80’s as a child, a limited Tinkerbell range of make-up and accessories; a few Barbie dolls. For the most part, toys on the shelves were gender-neutral, thanks to the second-wave feminists who had focused on driving out the typically accepted gender roles and stereotyping. This included non-sexist parenting, built on the belief that children should be able to choose whatever and whoever they wish to play with. So toys really were just toys – no Boys aisles and Girls aisles.

Lego

Fast forward to today, and feminism has moved more women into professions once held strictly by men, while men themselves have accepted – willingly – a great share of the domestic side of things. But when it comes to the markets aimed at children – toys, clothes, film tie-in merchandise etc – “stereotypes have never been so defined, or rigidly enforced. Pink and blue have triumphed in the toy market, and there are often serious social penalties for children who breach the divide. The rise of highly gendered toys is a result of capitalism, but it also suggests a deep, subconscious unease with the advances of the past few decades.”

In many films, books and video games aimed at both genders, it’s the boy-hero who saves the day, while the helpless princess (or whoever, she generally isn’t given enough characteristics for an audience member to care) waits breathlessly in a castle/haunted mansion/on a rail line, to be rescued.
He is typically portrayed as strong, fearless, unbeatable. Unbreakable. Unable to break down.
Especially if no one is prepared to believe he is actually capable of feeling so wretched, of being unable to express himself or to shoulder the burdens of the world as well as his own.

A boy’s life is geared towards activity, towards being the winner in his own small world, before tackling the bigger one –

– without consideration for the fact that he might just want to curl up with a book, or in front of a computer. He might want to sit alone, quiet and still, to write in the same way as the poets he admires. He might want to vanish into a world of his own making, where he can feel and express emotions without being called a ‘wuss’ or a ‘gayboy.’

If a boy wants to prioritize deep thinking and emotions over actions, to wear the clothes and make-up and hair-styles that he’s seen his female peers wear, he faces bullying and assault, with negative commentary about his sexuality. Anything associated with “feminine” – whether it’s crying in public or dancing ballet, wearing pink or admitting to a shy and reticent nature – equates with “wrong” and “weak”. Boys are taught to stay separate from girls by their toys, their early interactions, and through the reactions of those around them.

“Nine-year-old Grayson Bruce had been told not to bring his My Little Pony bag to school in North Carolina because it was a trigger for the bullying he was experiencing, which has included punching, pushing and name-calling…
11-year-old Michael Morones, also of North Carolina, spoke about his recent suicide attempt, which has left him in a persistent vegetative state. The reasons for self-harm are always complicated, but Morones had experienced problems with bullying. He tried to kill himself the evening he told his mother: “‘I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony.'”

For girls who want to become engineers, mathematicians and scientists, the void starts with what is issued to them. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, believes that by limiting children with gender stereotypes, we’re setting ourselves up for “big economic problems.” At the start of her own engineering degree, 12% of her peers were women – 30 years later, that proportion is down to 8%.
“There are thousands of jobs going unfilled, and in addition a lot of our engineers are in their 50s and retiring in the next five years. At the same time we have the lowest proportion in Europe of women who are professional engineers.”

Play and child development psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says that when it comes to careers, genuine interaction between the genders, and a wide range of skills-based play available for all, are the crucial elements.
“Nobody plays with Lego and learns how to build houses, but they might learn how to overlap bricks to create a stable structure. It’s more about confidence and familiarity than an actual skill set.”

But what about when our bodies begin to change – when hormones kick in, and it can feel like the world is going to end?
(My personal experience of puberty.)

In July this year, an Always sanitary hygiene advert sought to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl.” When the women and boys participating were asked by film-maker Lauren Greenfield to run ‘like a girl’, silliness ensued – flailing arms and legs, in a display that reminded me of what we knew in school as ‘running like a Polly Pocket’: that tiny little model of a girl, all stiff hinged joints and awkward movements, used as an example of feminine aptitude for sports. It’s funny what comes back when faced with your own past, and someone else’s future.

The same question put to prepubescent girls showed the reality of their strength and determination.. They gave it everything they had. It’s a powerful and disturbing message. I had to watch it several times for the truth to sink in: that somewhere in adolescence, girls becoming women form perceptions about their bodies that are wholly negative, and based upon what society tells them is meant by ‘feminine’.

As the ever-quotable Tony Porter said – “If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”

And what happens to the girl-princess who remains tied up and tied down by a sense of her own vulnerability, waiting for someone to come to her rescue?

“Internalized sexism is defined as the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society ARE TRUE. Girls and women, boys and men hear the sexist messages (lies and stereotypes) about women over their entire lifetimes. They hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership.

There are two logical, predictable consequences of a lifetime of such messages. First, boys / men will grow to believe many of the messages, and treat women accordingly. They will be thoroughly indoctrinated into their role in sexism, protecting their male privilege by colluding with the perpetuation of sexism.

But there is a second logical consequence – the same messages also stick to girls and women, resulting in internalized sexism / internalized misogyny. Women and girls are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females (sometimes called “horizontal hostility.”) This is the way women collude with the perpetuation of sexism.

For the sexist system to be maintained and passed on to the next generation, we all must believe the messages (lies and stereotypes) to some degree, and collude with sexism by performing our assigned roles.” – Cultural Bridges to Justice, “Internalized Sexism / Internalized Misogyny.

Campaigns like #YesAllWomen focus on giving girls and women across the world a voice. In the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, this tapped a narrative both complex and wholly depressing.

“The reason women mobilized so quickly after the shooting is because we recognized immediately the language and ideaology in Rodger’s videos and manifesto; the over-the-top sexual entitlement; the rage against women who ‘dared’ to reject him; the antiquated, but nonetheless terrifying, belief that women should not be in control of their own sexual choices.”

Inequality of pay, gender-discrimination in the workplace and the legal systems, inappropriate touching, abusive relatives, manipulative and domineering partners coercing victims into signing over bank details, gaslighting (where an abusive partner breaks down the victim’s emotional and mental reserves so they’re unable to trust their own perceptions and are thus more likely to stay in the relationship.) Rape culture and sexual entitlement – yes, even in the “nice guys”, the ones who “aren’t like the others”, and so feel that if they offer support to a girl, their natural payback is the right to Get Some.

“We live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it…

We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.

It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species is ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.” – Arthur Chu, “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.

So yes, Mr Abbott – people who believe in “politically correct” gender equality, will continue to push for this in as many ways as possible. Those innocuous little threads can become big knots. From economics to mental health, the risks are there for future generations – we have to supply children with the skills and free will to achieve whatever they can, and the emotional support to think and feel whatever comes to them, without fear of peer pressure or recriminations.
Above all, we need to teach girls and boys to look out for each other.

If you’ve made it this far down – kudos.
For further reading:
Ten Practical Tips for raising an emotionally healthy boy
That’s for girls and that’s for boys
Negative stereotypes about boys hinder their academic achievement
How male sexual entitlement hurts everyone