Friday, 31 December 2010

My year in Tweets

Twitter, it seems to me, is like an online diary, and when you look back at what you’ve tweeted it can serve as an aide memoire of the year that’s just gone. How else would I ever have remembered that at Easter I ate a slice of Simnel cake that confused my tongue, or that I started the year by making a ‘to do’ list, getting scared, and looking at Twitter instead? (Actually, I could’ve probably guessed that one). But you catch my drift: little, insignificant details of life, that would be lost forever, are preserved for posterity.

Naturally, the year up till May 6th (election day) was pretty much preoccupied with canvassing, leafleting and generally doing everything that might, just might, result in Green councillors getting onto Haringey Council for the first time ever. January saw me injure my back (I have never felt pain like it, and hope never to again). Consequently I spent two weeks lying on my back, making frantic ‘phone calls to fellow Haringey Greens, drugged up to the eyeballs on a potent mix of Tramadol and Valium. “Go on without me!” I wailed. “Canvass Inderwick Road! I need Woodstock Road done by next week!”

Soon I was back on my feet, albeit gingerly, getting soaked to the skin one night, complaining that I was entirely spherical the next due to excessive fleece wearing antics. The joys of canvassing alone in the dark, in the rain, with a torch in my mouth. Ah, sweet memories.

February saw me attend Green Party Conference in North Finchley, but a bus ride from my abode. I mused how nice that was – better than Blackpool. I spent my time at conference mainly talking tits, a subject I have become a bit of an expert on. (Translation: we passed the Breastfeeding Policy, and later in the year I would help run a ‘Keep Haringey Breastfeeding’ Campaign, which even saw me demand that Nick Ferrari of LBC look into his non-existent soul to see why boobfeeding so disturbed him).

I also had a bit of fun asking questions at Full Council Meetings. Will Haringey 'do a Kirklees'? No. Will Haringey do some good stuff for LGBT History month? No. Will Haringey follow the recommendations put forward by the London Assembly Environment Committee re: street trees? No, no, and thrice no. Now pack up your little bag and go home, wannabe councillor. I had much fun asking ‘supplementary questions’ which had little to do with the subject I was meant to be talking about and giving people a good laugh. Well, I mistook Haringey Civic Centre for the Comedy Club, what can I say? Fun times.

Every bizzare conversation and encounter that I had whilst canvassing is documented on Twitter, by the looks of it. I would have forgotten some of those gems if I hadn’t tweeted them. For example, on March 14th a voter galloped up to me, grabbed my arm and said “Excuse me, are you Lynne Featherstone?” Adopting my best helium-enhanced voice, I retorted “Indeed I am! And I think you should vote GREEN in Stroud Green!” (Actually, I didn’t say that at all. I think I just looked very confused, having been mistaken for a 60ish year old Lib Dem millionaire).

March saw me scrape rubbish from the cold earth with my bare hands at Granville Road Spinney, joyfully noting that the Lib Dems were out leafleting at the same time, but that ‘the pitchfork beats the leaflet, my yellow adversaries.’

As the elections fast approached, I decided to enlighten the Twitterati with ‘Cope’s Campaigning Tip of the Day.’ Starting with the priceless advice that one should always wear an interestingly-coloured nail varnish when leafleting, to make watching your hand do the posting more interesting, I continued to proffer utterly useless advice on a daily basis right up to polling day.

April dawned and I went canvassing with a cat, was asked out on a date on the doorstep by a woman called Syd (I declined, and lost a vote, no doubt), and took a rare trip out of Haringey, over the border into exotic, unknown Camden, where I was mightily impressed by Natalie Bennett’s performance at the Camden Square Neighbourhood Association hustings.

Late April, and our leaflet designer, Nadia, was talking about being ‘kissed by the creative muse’ as she was designing our ‘’We Can Do It! “ ‘eve of poll’ flyer. As election leaflets go, it was a corker and should probably be in an ‘Election Leaflets Museum’ if such a thing exists.

Voters continued to ask me difficult questions, such as the man who kissed my hand and demanded to know whether I was a ‘respectable woman’. I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t even have my breakfast in a cafĂ© in Crouch End without someone telling me that the first thing they’d seen that morning was “your face on my doormat.” I humbly apologised.

Election day dawned, and my tweets remind me just how bloody terrible I was feeling. Hardly any voice left, temperature soaring, aching all over and consequently off my face on cold remedies. Knocking-up was interesting, as I wasn’t sure what my name was by this point.

Off to the count we crawled, and sure enough, although we had more than doubled the vote in Strouders, we’d not done enough to get councillors. 16 months of hard slog came to an instant end, and I retreated under my duvet, coughing up phlegm the colour of Green Party day-glo posters, I record delightfully. What a truly luscious individual I am. Even more depressing than my snot was the news coming to me via twitter of the loss of all but two of our councillors across London. Like every other Green, I had to repeat to myself for, ooh, 6 months, “but we have our first MP. We have our first MP…”

Next up I was applying for jobs, and getting myself all hot and bothered about my unemployability. Then I decided to be less bothered, possibly because I couldn’t face any more rejection – sob!

Instead I devoted myself to being a Proper Mother and taking my daughter on an endless assortment of edifying day trips. Margate (depressing if characterful ), Broadstairs (ice cream parlour…), Hastings (Funiculaaaar!), Eastbourne (count the mobility scooters), Whitstable (oysters – mmm…), Sandwich (because I liked the name), Deal (because it was near Sandwich). In short, we had FUN, which is something that had been put on ice for far too long.

I visited Norfolk for a week , where I made it my mission to eat crab every day. I succeeded in this, so hurrah for some belated success. Back in London, I got involved with the fantastic Transition Crouch End, where I met a rather nice woman called Tilly. She and I enjoyed rolling tyres at each other in the sunshine (we grew veg, fruit and flowers in the tyres, so there was a point to this activity, I stress).

I did seem to write a lot of blog posts, particularly post-election (lots of posts slagging off the Lib Dems - they've make is so easy), and I even met some people who read my blog, so that was good. (This lengthy post should put paid to that, eh…?). I also had singing lessons this Autumn onwards, and it turns out I have quite a good voice. As I told my singing teacher, Margaret, earlier today, learning to sing has been one of my highlights of 2010.

Well, I think that’s enough about my year. I did some stuff, some of it fun, some of it tricky. I didn’t succeed at some things, other endeavours (crab eating, tyre-rolling, aria-singing) were more successful.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Demonstrating about Lynne Featherstone's Betrayal

Today, alongside other Green Party activists, I took part in a demo at Crouch End clock tower, after our local Lib Dem MP, Lynne Featherstone, betrayed constituents by going back on her pre-election pledge on tuition fees.

I spoke at the demo, where I said that having spent the 16 months running up to the elections knocking on doors in the area, I knew how well-regarded Ms. Featherstone used to be. "She replies to my letters," people would tell me, time and time again. Yes, I agreed, in that respect she is a good constituency MP.

However, this week, in ignoring her constituents and voting for reforms that will price poorer students out of a university education, she has committed political suicide.

The Lib Dems are hoping that we will have forgotten this huge betrayal by the time the next election comes around, but we won't have forgotten. My fear is not that the Lib Dems have damaged their party for good (which they have), but that voters will trust political parties even less than they did previously.

"What's the point of voting?" some residents have said to me, previously. "You're all the same. You say one thing, get into power, and go back on your word." And when it comes to the Lib Dems, they're spot on.

As I pointed out to the crowd today, though, the Green Party have consistently opposed tuition fees and are continuing to do so in the House of Commons, through our MP, Caroline Lucas, who of course voted against the rise in tuition fees this week.

We believe that if the money can be found to bail out the banks and fund an illegal war, it can damn well be found to pay for education.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Featherstone, the fairweather 'feminist'

On a day when there was, to quote Johann Hari, 'shameful massive vandalism in Westminster: the Tories and Lib Dems voted to smash up our universities & chance of poor kids getting on', there was at least one thing to have a bit of a laugh about, albeit a slightly bitter one.

Yesterday there was a women's protest about how tuition fee rises would affect women, outside Hornsey and Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone's surgery. Ms. Featherstone was asked to comment about this by the local paper. Claiming she hadn't decided what way she was going to vote (she voted for the increase today - surprise, surprise), she added that the women were 'demonstrating in the wrong place' and that 'there is no one more feminist than me.'

(I'll leave a little gap here whilst you compose yourselves...)

(Have you quite finished laughing? Good).

Now, there are lots of people with differing views who define themselves as a feminist. But taking a look at how the cuts will affect women, let's consider whether someone who is a 'feminist' would be happy to go along with these measures...

- CUTS TO JOBS - Two-thirds of public sector workers are women, with women accounting for 73% of the local government workforce and 77% of the NHS workforce. Women will be forced out of the labour market in larger numbers than men and expected to take on the care of loved ones – children, elderly relatives, partners. Part-time and hourly paid jobs in which women are over-represented are also likely to be the first to go. 40% of ethnic minority women live in poverty and this figure is likely to rise as unemployment increases.

- CUTS IN SOCIAL SERVICES AND BENEFITS - women rely on benefits twice as much as men do. For example, cuts in Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits, Child Benefit, Housing Benefit and linking pensions to the Consumer Price Index rather than the Retail Price Index will disproportionately affect women. The two most vulnerable groups have been identified as lone parents, 90% of whom are women, and women single pensioners.

So far, not quite fitting in with my notion of feminism - how about yours?

Let's look at Featherstone's latest work as Equalities Minister. Surely she's got to be earning some feministing points there? Last week she repealed Labour's plan to tackle the gender pay gap. The Equality Act required businesses with more than 250 employees to publish data on how much they pay women and men. Last week Featherstone announced that the system would be voluntary. Yet in 2008, Featherstone said "a voluntary audit system for private industry is hardly worth the paper it's written on." Quite!

I think, Ms. Featherstone, you need to do a little feminist bedtime reading. I live just down the road - I'll bring some books round. Just say the (f) word.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Fawcett's day in court

I'm just back from the extremely cold protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice, held whilst the hearinge to decide whether there will be a Judicial Review of the budget, called for by the Fawcett Society, took place inside. The Judicial Review was sought because it was clear that the Government hadn't carried out a gender impact assessment before implementing the budget. Women will bear the brunt of the cuts, especially lone mothers and pensioners, with over two thirds of the £8.5 bn cuts in the June budget coming from women. Fair? Hardly. Here's something worth shouting about, and angrily.

The assembled women, including my almost-four-year-old daughter (pictured above with her Green Party placard), made our objections known very loudly, in the hope that the men in wigs inside would hear us.

We await the result of Fawcett's actions, which will very much be a test case for the Gender Equality Duty, establishing whether it is an important new approach to gender equality, or whether it's simply a case of 'business as usual'.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Miliband's Monumental Boob

It must be hard being an MP these days, particularly if you’re a new parent. You can’t claim expenses in the way that you used to do, there’s a pressure to look like ‘we’re all in it together’, and you’ll be grappling with how expensive it is to get together all the baby equipment you need.

Pity then Ed Miliband, who this week was having a walkaround, with the BBC, in Dudley Tescos (you can’t say being a leader of a political party isn’t dead glamorous). Approaching a shelf of baby formula, Miliband commented ‘Yeah, this is the formula we use, Aptimil 0-3 month.’ The BBC camera then zoomed in to the product in question, showing the container very clearly. Aptimil bosses must’ve been punching the air (or maybe slapping the table is more their style, in the manner of the cabinet when they learned of the impending royal wedding…Ugh, what an image).

There’s enough difficulty trying to convince women that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your baby, and that formula can cause all manner of health problems. In 2006 it was reported that the Government were spending just 13 pence per baby on promoting formula, compared by £20 per baby being spent promoting formula by the formula industry.

But let’s look at the facts about formula. Bottle fed babies are twice as likely to die in the first six weeks of life than breastfed babies. Formula manufacturers are not required to log the contents of their product with any body, and there have been many documented cases of contaminated batches.

The last thing we need is a public endorsement of formula, which will only serve to heighten the perception that formula is best and that breastfeeding is something only ‘earth mothers’ would ever contemplate.

Do you know what I’d like to see instead? I’d like to see Miliband’s partner breastfeeding their baby in the audience of the next Labour Party Conference. I’d like no one to make a fuss about this, and for it to be as normal as her sitting there and breathing. Which of course it is. But of course this won’t happen.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see the female leader of a political party – actually, let’s go one further – a female Prime Minister – breastfeeding her baby in the chamber of the House of Commons. Women, as I’ve written before and will no doubt reiterate, are fantastic multi-taskers, and when I was breastfeeding I would regularly be on the ‘phone to the council or the local papers, or would attend meetings, whilst breastfeeding my daughter at the same time. It was a godsend because it kept her quiet and content, leaving me free to contribute as usual.

We’ve a long way to go before breastfeeding is normalised to that extent, but that’s what we must aim for. Miliband’s actions this week were a massive step backwards, and show just how out of touch he is – but I expect the Aptimil van will be rolling up outside his house soon, so at least he’ll have bagged himself a freebie.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Don't get sick in Haringey...

Today I attended the NHS Haringey executive board meeting, and presented a deputation on behalf of the Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign. Before the meeting, we unfurled our spectacular banner on an unsuspecting public - see above photo! Marvellous, isn't it?!

Here's what I said to the board (the most senior three members of which were men in suits, who I am sure are passionate about breastfeeding)...ahem...

"We welcome the review into breastfeeding support in the borough. We have read the report and last week had a meeting with Sheena Carr and Claire Wright to discuss our concerns and our recommended changes to the review.

We welcome the recommendation that NHS Haringey and the North Middlesex Hospital begin the process which will see them accredited as ‘Baby Friendly’, according to the UNICEF model. We would assume that beginning the process would result in actually achieving baby friendly as soon as is feasibly possible. We further welcome the recommendation of training for health professionals which is focussed on high quality outcomes not just attendance of training.

We are however surprised at the report's conclusion that ‘where there are specialists there is a tendency for people to over refer to the specialist service’, and that this leads to ‘staff in universal services’ becoming ‘deskilled’. Having read the draft review we have repeatedly asked for a reference to be included in the review on which evidence this assumption is based. As you will see from your copy of the review there is still no reference to any evidence. We would ask you to disregard this recommendation until sound evidence has been provided to back up this conclusion.

The review further highlights the absence of breastfeeding support skills of universal health professionals. Although 11 out of 15 staff who responded to the survey had received training within the last 5 years, and 8 out of 15 felt they were ‘very’ confident about giving advice, 9 of the 15 scored poorly on basic breastfeeding support questions.

We believe that the post of the specialist midwife needs to be re-instated until universal health professionals have been trained to a satisfactorily level and there is sound evidence available to prove that.

We also believe that you need to allocate a separate budget for breastfeeding support until breastfeeding rates in the east of the borough have improved significantly. The inequalities in health in the borough, which the review highlights begin at birth (with, for example, 64.3% of babies in Highgate ward being wholly breastfed at 6-8 weeks, compared to 26.7% in St Ann’s ward).

By not investing in specialist breastfeeding support now you are failing women and babies in the east of the borough.

By not investing in specialist breastfeeding support now the national health service will have to pay more money in future.

As the review points out a recent study in the United States found that if 90% of mothers followed the recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months then the country would save more than 13 billion dollars per year and prevent more than 900 deaths.

If one were to extrapolate the findings of the US study to the population of Haringey, then it would amount to a saving of more than 9.5 million dollars per year (6 million pounds). For each 1% increase in mothers breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months – which amounts to 42 women, seeing as there were just under 4,200 births in 2009 - the borough would save an incredible £78, 500 per year.

The study looked at only 10 childhood diseases so in fact the savings and deaths prevented would actually be higher. It did not include deaths prevented from breast cancer, for example. If women in the UK breastfed for an extra 6 months on average then 1000 cases of breast cancer, and hundreds of deaths, could be prevented each year.

In the light of all this we are asking you

• to set a separate for specialist breastfeeding support
• to budget enough money to pay for the entire process of achieving UNICEF baby friendly accreditation
• and to re-instate the post of breastfeeding specialist midwife until the borough is accredited with UNICEF ‘baby friendly’ status."


I stayed for the next three hours of the meeting, and here are my observations:

-The PCT will not exist after April. I was concerned in the meeting that there's a real feel of 'we don't know what will happen, and we don't know if we will have jobs, either', so it was as though they weren't sure what they could plan for.

-The breastfeeding campaign presented the case for investing in the borough, as above, explaining how, by investing in breastfeeding support, the borough could save £6m a year. The board didn't respond to this element of the deputation, despite the fact that the focus of almost the entire meeting was on how to save money!

- There was a new 'Interim Chief Exec' at the wheel, one Ian Wilson. He wasn't up to speed on a lot of what's going on (I know he's only been in the job for 5 weeks, so it's not surprising really). At one point, board chair Richard Sumray asked him to comment on something, and Wilson was stumped. Sumray commented "You ARE the executive lead on this..." and Wilson blushed a deep purple. I wonder if he is taking home the same salary as his predecessor Tracey Baldwin (who earned £190,000 pa!) and whether he thinks it is time to accept a pay cut? In the words of David Cameron, we are all in this together...(I am laughing hollowly as I type, dear reader).

- I was shocked to hear that Clinicenta, the medical arm of a construction company, who last year had their north London contracts suspended due to two 'unexplained deaths', are again active in Haringey. They talked about trying to get out of the contract early, but this was for budgetry reasons, not clinical standards reasons.

- The acute sector is where the overspend is, but Haringey, not having any actual hospitals (lest St Ann's, which is of course mostly mental health), has no control over this. I wonder whether there will ever be a day where our borough once again has a general hospital with an A&E. (There used to be 7 hospitals in the borough. Some of these are now luxury housing...).

- There were some concerns expressed about mental health services within the borough, particularly around the treatment of those with psychosis. I wonder what is being done to address this, particularly because the current financial climate means more and more people will be feeling the pinch, experiencing stress, unemployment, homelessness - all which lead to a decline in mental health.

- I sensed that the board were VERY removed from the health services 'on the ground'. For example, at one point, they mused amongst themselves about what it is that school nurses in the borough actually DO. None of the 18 board members knew. I wondered whether, post-April. the set-up we will have will see the people in charge being more in touch with the service they are running (here's hoping!), or yet more divorced from it?

- There was no sense of planning ahead for the long-term health of residents (as evidenced by the breastfeeding issue). It seemed more that they were in a crisis (financial) and were looking at the least painful ways to cut. Simple as that.

My recommendation, then, is clear: if you live in Haringey, don't get sick.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Community Garden awarded funding!

This morning I joined my fellow Transition Crouch Enders at Hornsey Vale Community Centre in Stroud Green for a spot of gardening. You may recall I helped set this garden up in July, when we had loads of fun rolling tyres and filling them with bin bags full of compost.

The area, which is along the front of the main hall, turned out to be a fantastic growing spot, both sheltered and sunny. We've grown various veg as well as flowers, most notably nasturtiums, which went wild!

Today we had a clear-up and also put in some blueberries, kiwi (that's what I am putting in in the above picture!), and lots of garlic.

We also enjoyed Tilly reading out the letter we received from Capital Growth yesterday, which told us that having being declared one of the 2,012 official Capital Growth site, we've been awarded £500 to use to develop the garden. So next year it will be raised beds and lots more growing potential!

It was good to have a visit from a couple of people from the plot on Tottenham Lane, which I helped start in summer 2009. They've also been declared a Capital Growth space, as has the 'Learning through Growing' project behind Stroud Green library.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Desperate times, desperate people

This morning I met up with fellow community campaigner Sue Hessel on Archway Bridge to assess what more could be done to prevent yet more suicides from occuring. Since I blogged a few days ago, it has been reported that a third man has jumped to his death in as many weeks. David Bennett, 33, Andrew Mactier, 31, and Ryan George, 29, have all died here since October 19th.

Sue and I are standing next to the old SOS phone which is now defunct. Two days ago the Samaritans put up some signs about their helpline (which is sadly not a freephone number). Already one of the signs has been made illegible due to vandalism.

The messages which have been written and left with the flowers on the bridge are almost too heartbreaking to read. There is no doubt that these men were let down by the woefully inadequate mental health provision in this country. With the slashing of budgets and the stresses of redundancy, unemployment and personal debt, our fear is that we will see yet more deaths like this.

The time to act to help desperate people is right now.

Postscript: After this photo was taken, I went down the Holloway Road to run an errand (actually, to buy industrial-strength staples to make up some placards ahead of the demo outside Monday's council meeting). There I found a man collapsed by a bus stop, blood coming from a cut on his head. A few of us called for an ambulance and then ensued a game of chase down the Holloway Road, where the man, confused, drunk, and I expect concussed, tried to walk away but kept falling over, sometimes precariously close to the busy road. We eventually united him with ambulance staff.

This encounter, so soon after I had been up on the Archway Bridge, just served to drive home the desperate state so many people are in, and how the present Government's slash and burn approach to the deficit will drive so many more into such a sorry state.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

My day at the London Assembly

Yesterday I shadowed Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones at City Hall.

The day started with Mayor’s Question Time, where the first question came from Darren Johnson, our other Green Party London Assembly member. Darren asked whether key parts of the work done by the London Assembly on Climate Change, such as the crucial Renew and Refit programme, would now fail to happen because of Government cuts.

Boris Johnson responded that he is sure that David Cameron knows the importance of Climate Change. Darren counteracted that whilst Cameron may indeed grasp the importance of the issue, that is not the same as ensuring the money is there for work to be carried out. Continuing, Darren asked the Mayor whether he would promise to lobby the boroughs to commit to the Renew and Refit programme. “I am acutely aware of the pressure the boroughs are under,” responded Boris Johnson. In other words, no.

Len Duvall, a Labour member of the Assembly, asked whether the mayor would use the same rhetoric the Tories are using in Government about ‘benefit cheats’ about tax evaders. Brian Coleman, Tory member of the Assembly shouted “Socialism is alive and well!” not realising that that is not actually an insult…

Indeed, watching the Mayor trying to keep the more unruly and right-wing Tory members in line was extremely amusing. Some of the gems they came out with included abolishing the Assembly, introducing prison ships (“because prison works”. Really? Have you seen the stats?!), and how ‘kettling’ should be used again as a way to police demos. Oh, and following a question by Jenny Jones on how the boroughs were going to be able to pay for improvements to cycling (“You’re making a lot of promises,” said Jenny “but I just don’t see the money there to deliver those promises”), Brian Coleman commented that it was “nonsense about cycling and walking”). Vote Blue, get Green, remember? Er…

Of course, it’s well-documented how much Boris Johnson will avoid answering any question that is put to him. Rather than answering, he will make “jokes” and play to the gallery, many of whom were indeed laughing (though I certainly wasn’t). However, there were also whispered comments, along the lines of “Answer the question!” I’d like to see the public, rather than laughing, simply chant “Answer the question! Answer the question!” over and over again. Boris has only one way of operating, and that is to employ “humour” to distract from the fact that he has no idea what he is talking about. He is both an oaf and clueless, but he is able to get away with it by turning those very failings into attributes, his “brand”, if you will.

I also noted that sexism is alive and well in the chamber at City Hall. James Cleverly (Con), said the mayor was “gallant” in the way he dealt with a question from Joanne McCartney (Lab). Boris Johnson, in response to a question by Caroline Pidgeon (Lib Dem – and she was excellent, I thought – I know, me praising a Lib Dem, what’s occurring?!), referred to her, patronisingly, as “dear Caroline”, shortly before being reprimanded by the chair.

If one of the roles of the London Assembly is to hold the Mayor to account, it seems that the Assembly members who do the best job of that are the ones that ask direct, simple questions and have the temerity to keep hammering home the points they wish to make. Detailed questions allow Johnson to take a side-road, and he is always delighted when an assembly member makes this faux pas.

I am delighted to report that our Green London Assembly Members gave some of the strongest performances of the session, despite being given the shortest time. It’s a real shame though that our politicians are having to play word games and concentrate all their efforts into outwitting and out-manoeuvring Boris Johnson, who for some reason the people of the capital decided to make Mayor of London.

Archway Bridge Death toll

I was pleased to see that the Hornsey Journal have given a whole page today to the rising death toll from the Archway Bridge (often dubbed 'Suicide Bridge'). I had written to the local papers this week about the issue, and it looks as though we're set to launch a campaign. Here's my letter explaining what needs to be done...

I was saddened to hear that the second person in less than three weeks had jumped to their death from the Archway Bridge. As high unemployment, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the lack of mental health provision takes its toll and is exacerbated by the deeply unfair cuts imposed by the ConDem government, I fear we will see more untimely deaths at this infamous suicide spot.

Can anyone explain to me why the SOS phone on the bridge, which used to connect to a helpline, has been removed? Up until few years ago, it was in working order. If a suicidal person was to go up onto the bridge and see that the last chance of help has been removed, it could be the last straw.

It’s my belief that in these difficult times the need for a working SOS phone on Archway Bridge, as the recent sad spate of suicides suggests, is more pressing than ever.

UPDATE: See our campaign website:

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Problems with Poppies

It's Poppy season and newsreaders everywhere can be seen sporting red paper flowers on their lapels. Every year, I have the same conversation running through my head about this particular issue. To poppy or not to poppy? Now, I'm not a massive fan of pre-emptive strikes or bombing civilians. But the money raised by selling poppies goes to a good cause (veterans and the families of the servicemen and women killed), so you kind of have to think, fair-dos.

I investigated the white 'poppies for peace' notion this year. The issue I was most concerned about was where the money goes. I came across a rather curious statement on their website about this, which I have to say didn't really reassure me any:

Every year there is always someone, often in the media, who implies that money raised is used for some suspect activity; others categorically insists that the white poppies are 'taking money from the valuable work the British Legion is doing' and we get a lot of intemperate emails.
If you happen to hold this view why not check with the British Legion whether this is true before complaining to us.

Ooooh, that's a bit pacifist aggressive isn't it - ho ho! Anyway, that put me off white poppies for good.

So a red poppy it is - though I've customised mine. I've written 'NO MORE WAR THOUGH, EH?' on one of the petals. What can I say? I'm conflicted. But I can't be the only one. I hope to start a trend.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Spot the Difference?

A father pushes his crying baby in a pushchair around the supermarket whilst struggling to control his two-year-old and balance the shopping basket on the edge of the pushchair.

Shoppers look on kindly, commenting on how ‘beautiful’ his children are, commiserating about how difficult it is to be out and about with kids (“you’ve got your hands full!”) and boosting him with well-meaning if patronising comments (“Aren’t you good?!”/”It’ll get easier, I promise!”).

Women look on and think what a good man he must be to help out with the kids. Older men look on and think perhaps he’s a bit of a sop but his heart’s in the right place. The checkout woman gives him extra help with packing because she can see he’s struggling.

‘I am good,’ thinks the father to himself.

Meanwhile, a mother pushes her crying baby in a pushchair around the supermarket whilst struggling to control her two-year-old and balance the shopping basket on the edge of the pushchair.

People avert their eyes and wish the noise of the baby would simply cease. Or at least not occur within their earshot. Men look on and notice the woman’s shoddy appearance. How long since she last brushed her hair? And what’s that on her shoulder – baby puke? Figures. Wow, she’s let herself go.

Someone else’ tuts’ as the woman veers across the fruit and veg aisle with the pushchair, and a comment is made in a loud whisper about women drivers…

Women look on and think ‘must remember to take my pill…’

The woman at the checkout eyes her with disapproval – she would never go out looking like that.

‘I am a disaster zone,’ muses the mother miserably to herself.

Spot the difference!

A piece that came out of a conversation over Sunday lunch with a mother and father of my acquaintance!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Dark Day provides light relief

With all the doom and gloom thanks to the impending cuts, plus the general hideousness of living under a ConDem government, it's worth doing something a little frivolous and fun now and again.

Today I helped out at Dark Day at Hornsey Vale Community Centre in Stroud Green, where I'm an active trustee. Dark Day is an event we hold every year instead of fireworks and it's always a massive hit with families. Children decorate glass jars with tissue paper and then drop a lit tea-light inside their creations. We all then parade through dark Stationer's Park, forming a circle at the top of the hill and singing songs. It's kind of magical and a wee bit other words, very Stroud Green! As for health and safety...see the poster above of the song that our chair, Lynne Brackley, was singing in dulcet if slightly anxious tones!

I helped out in the kitchen which is always fun if chaotic. Totting up the prices in my head for various tea, mulled wine and cake orders was quite a challenge, maths not being my strongpoint. It's great seeing all the familiar faces from the community coming along - many people commented to me today how great such events were. "I can't think of anything better to be doing on a Sunday afternoon," was how one woman put it. Quite!

I couldn't help thinking, though, of what would happen if the council cuts funding to the community centre. Would such events become a thing of the past? Would the community centre stand empty, all boarded up? What constitutes a 'front line service' - and will all such services really be protected in reality, anyway? A few dark thoughts, then, but for today let's just appreciate the light relief and revel in the community coming together to enjoy a bit of candle-lit fun.

Friday, 5 November 2010

What referendum?

Today is exactly six months until the referendum on voting reform. For that reason, the ‘Take Back Parliament’ campaign took to the streets across the UK, holding stalls and talking to voters, with the aim being to encourage a ‘yes’ vote next May. My daughter and I helped out on the stall in Muswell Hill, handing out leaflets and discussing First Past the Post and Additional Vote (AV) with passers’ by. It was very interesting seeing the various reactions and hearing the differing opinions.

If the good burghers of Muswell Hill (or ‘Muesli Hill’) are anything to go by, people will either not bother voting, or if they do, they’ll be voting for reform. Either way, they’re not all that excited about it yet (“what referendum?”). I can’t blame them, really. It is half a year away and not everyone is a political geek like me. (Never can seem to remember that…).

There’s another good reason why they might be right not to be too excited, of course. The fact is, we’re not going to have the option of voting for true Proportional Representation (PR). Although Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tabled an amendment to get the option of PR on the ballot paper next May, it wasn’t supported by…guess who? Well, naturally, the Tories, but also their little bedfellows in the yellow pyjamas, The Lib Dems, who of course have always had PR as a cornerstone of their manifesto. It was, for many people I’ve spoken to on the doorsteps over the years, the one redeeming feature of the Lib Dems. But of course that’s up the swanny now.

One of the other people helping out on the stall was a Lib Dem activist. “I’m a Lib Dem,” he whispered, “but PLEASE don’t tell anyone! We’re not exactly popular at the moment…” Poor chap.

He went on to say that he keeps getting emails from the Lib Dem spin machine about how well they’re doing in government, all the changes they’re bringing in, and what a load of tommy rot it is. “We’ve gone back on just about everything we promised!” he despaired. I gently suggested he might want to join the Greens instead…

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Tories attack abortion rights

So, the Tories are starting to mess around with abortion rights. Not content with screwing over women with spending cuts that impact worse on women and children, they now are fiddling with one of our most basic, essential rights: access to safe abortion.

Tory Nadine Dorries MP, who previously tried to get the time limit on abortion lowered from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, is on the anti-abortion warpath again. Sadly for us, her party are now in power.

The lowering of the time limit from 24 weeks to 20 would have meant trouble for the most vulnerable of women. Women, for example, who have had to come over from Ireland (often in secret), having saved up the money. Women who have gone for their 20 week scan, excited about seeing their baby on the ultra-sound screen, only to find there is something wrong with it. I’m not sure what would’ve happened to such women had the abortion limit been lowered to 20 weeks – would they have had to make a decision then and there about a termination, or miss their window? That is horrific to imagine – and surely would lead to many hurried decisions, and much psychological damage.

Which is ironic, really. Because the tack that Dorries is now tacking is that abortion ‘damages’ women psychologically and that we need to re-think the way we do terminations to counteract that. In other words, try to talk women out of it. To quote Dorries:

‘If girls and women were offered counselling and information regarding other options such as, wait for it, yes, adoption. As strange as it may seem, some find that an easier option than having to deal with the consequences of a medical procedure which, somewhere in their deepest thoughts, they regard as the ending of a life.’

If any argument makes me angry, it’s this one. The idea being that going through a pregnancy and childbirth, the biggest physical and emotional thing a lot of women will ever experience, is no big deal. So let’s see, that might well involve puking every day for months, back and pelvic pain, extreme tiredness, and your body changing beyond recognition. Oh yes, and possibly life-threatening conditions such as eclampsia. And then there’s childbirth, which as you might have heard is a bit on the painful side (made more so by the NHS being far from up to scratch when it comes to maternity services). But that’s okay, you can just hand the baby over (no breastfeeding, I guess…) and forget about it. NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN.

And that’s without even mentioning the affects being adopted will have on the child as it grows up. I’m sure that a lot of work goes into making the transition as easy as possible, but it’s never going to be trauma-free.

I remember when I was researching for my MA dissertation in Toronto. I was in the Thomas Fisher library, looking through a box of letters from Margaret Atwood to fellow writer Gwendolyn MacEwen. One of the letters was written in a much shakier hand than usual, and reading the content it transpired that Atwood was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Jess.

She wrote of how it was affecting her and signed off by saying that there was a word in the English language for being made to have sex against your will, but there was no word for being pregnant against your will. She said that there should be, because having been pregnant, she couldn’t begin to imagine how traumatic that would be.

I couldn’t agree more. Having been pregnant twice – once when I didn’t want to be, and once when I did, I know there’s a big difference. Women know. So please don’t patronise us, Dorries. For the women who need counselling, great, make it available, but please don’t let that ‘counselling’ take the form of pro-life bullying. We’re not stupid. We know what you’re up to, and it’s grim.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Stroud Green Community Cafe

Today a group of people started a 'Community Cafe' in the Mind Centre on Stapleton Hall Road, Stroud Green. The idea is that they make simple, healthy food from ingredients donated from local shops and supermarkets. Budgens in Crouch End are one of the shops contributing - as per usual - they're always generous when it comes to giving food to community events.

At the moment, the cafe is only open between 12 and 2 on a Friday, and the menu was today limited to one starter (carrot and parsnip soup: £1.00), one main (vegetable pasta bake: £2.50) and two puddings (apple pie or banana cake: £1.00). My daughter and I had a lovely lunch, and the other people there seemed to be enjoying theirs, too.

The kitchen is staffed by volunteers, and it's a non-profit making scheme. The idea, as one of the volunteers explained, was to offer people healthy and affordable food, and get people from the community involved with running the place. "It's an alternative to all of the fried chicken places!" she joked.

It was strange to see the hall usually used for Area Assemblies transformed into a little cafe, complete with wooden tables and flowers in jars. I hope it's an idea that takes off; knowing the number of people in Stroud Green who are community-minded, I'm pretty sure it will. I for one have promised a cake very soon!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Farewell, Child Benefit

When Child Benefit stops being paid to higher rate tax payers in 2013, my family, like 1.5m others, will lose out (my husband earns just over the threshold; I earn nothing).

We had been doing what a lot of people have probably been doing with their Child Benefit: putting it into our daughter's Child Trust Fund, with the hope that she will then have a lump sum to use when she's older - possibly for University.

With students today in debt to the tune of £20,000 or more by the time they graduate, goodness knows what state University education will be in by 2025, the year our daughter will be 18. The amount we may have been able to save up through Child Benefit probably wouldn't have touched the sides, but at least it would've been something.

Maybe she won't go to University. Already, the idea of a free University place, no tuition fees and readily-available grants - all of which was available just 11 years ago, when I graduated, seems like a thing of luxury in a time of plenty.

But it's not just the practical impact that the scrapping of Child Benefit for those 1.5m families will have; it's what receiving Child Benefit signifies. To me, it felt like a nod from the state that what we as parents are doing is somehow appreciated. Of course, raising a family is in many ways a joy, but a lot of the time it is bloody hard work - emotionally, physically, and yes, financially.

Much of that burden falls on women, many of whom, like me, will put their careers on hold (possibly damaging them for good) and devote several years to childcare. Child Benefit somehow seemed a sign that we were doing a job which was worth doing well - the most important job that there is: raising children in the hope that they will become well-adjusted, kind, engaged citizens. So today, not surprisingly, I'm feeling not a little angry.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Apple Day - popular again!

This year's Apple Day at Hornsey Vale Community Centre was again a fantastic event, attended by a couple of hundred local people. Organised by Transition Crouch End, a group with whom I'm involved, the idea is to celebrate the humble apple, and in so doing highlight the many varieties available in the UK. Locally grown, seasonal, and above all, delicious.

There was an apple press, which children enjoyed operating, and which produced the sharpest and tastiest apple juice any of us had ever tasted. Apple poetry, information about transition towns, apple cakes...all of these were featured, along with the now legendary Apple Peeling Contest, run by local raconteur, Dave Pepper.

Chris, my husband, of course won the contest last year. I seem to recall he concentrated on the task so hard that he developed a rash on his neck...His apple peel came in at 1m 73cm last year, and he was keen to beat that this year.

When we arrived, word was already spreading of his peeling prowess, with the world's media (i.e. the local papers) ready to photograph his efforts. This added not a little to stress levels, and his first two attempts were not up to standard.

Then a woman known only as 'New York Sara' peeled an impressive 2m 3cm. Not to be outdone, Chris had a 3rd attempt. His peel came in at 2m 3.5cm - phew! A new record, and another victory! He is pictured receiving his prize from Dave Pepper - which he shared with 'New York Sara', since there was only half a centremetre in it.

We had a great time and I think the event really embodied the spirit of the transition movement: the community coming together to have fun and celebrate the season, learning and enjoying ourselves at the same time.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Economics of Breastfeeding

This afternoon saw seven members of the Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign, me included, having a meeting with Sheena Carr, senior public health strategist, and Claire Wright, head of children’s strategy for Haringey. The borough are currently seeking views and doing research on breastfeeding rates and support, with a view to presenting this to NHS Haringey in November.

One of our concerns as breastfeeding mums is that there is NO budget in the borough for breastfeeding. It’s not a case of defending the budget from cuts – there isn’t one to cut.

This is something I questioned at the meeting. Ayala Ochert (who infamously dared to bare her bosom in St Ann’s library, creating somewhat of a media storm a couple of weeks back) has been crunching the figures, and worked out how much the borough could save by supporting breastfeeding.

A recent study[1] in the United States found that if 90% of mothers followed the recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months then the country would save more than $13 billion per year and prevent more than 900 deaths.

If one were to extrapolate to this to the population of Haringey[2], then it would amount to a saving of more than $9.5 million per year (£6 million).

The study looked at 10 childhood diseases so in fact the savings and deaths prevented would actually be higher. It did not include deaths prevented from breast cancer, for example. If women in the UK breastfed for an extra 6 months on average then 1000 cases of breast cancer, and hundreds of deaths, could be prevented each year[3].

The US survey found that 13.6% of mothers were exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. Extrapolating to Haringey amount, this would amount to £78,534 per one percent increase in exclusive breastfeeding rates.

As I put it at the meeting, the borough therefore cannot afford NOT to fund breastfeeding – and the first thing our group would like to see the money for would be a midwife who specialised in breastfeeding. (You will recall, this is what the borough had until the post was cut…during national breastfeeding week).

I got the sense that Sheena Carr and Claire Wright ‘got it’; they know how important breastfeeding is but that they feel that their hands are tied. Also, because the PCT will soon cease to exist, and because GPs will be put in charge of commissioning, there is a real sense of ‘wait and see – we’re all in the dark.’

As one of the mothers at the meeting pointed out, however, that just isn’t good enough. Since the specialist midwife was cut in June, hundreds of mothers and babies will have fallen though the net when it comes to breastfeeding. Fact.

Some of the mothers recounted horror stories of being publicly humiliated by midwifes who were anti-breastfeeding. One recalled how her son had been fed formula, against her wishes, and that the baby ended up with constipation so bad that he bled when he finally managed to excrete.

Another woman told of how she had needed surgery when her daughter was still young, but had been told by the Whittington hospital that they couldn’t allow her daughter, who she was still breastfeeding, to come into hospital with her, and so she would either have to quit breastfeeding or delay surgery. She chose to delay surgery, causing her much physical pain. “That’s a struggle no one should have to go though,” she commented.

We discussed the Unicef ‘Baby-Friendly Status’ which the borough is starting to move towards (it will take about five years, incredibly). I asked how it would work seeing as there are no hospitals in Haringey, and the borough’s babies are largely born in Islington, Barnet or Camden (unless they're born at home - and we know how rare home births still are). The answer was pretty vague, and we are concerned that some elements of gaining ‘Baby-Friendly Status’ are simply box-ticking exercises. For example, the Whittington has now got a certificate to say that it is committed to going ‘Baby-Friendly’…yet the above experience of the breastfeeding mum shows that the hospital having a certificate to wave about didn’t improve her experience in any way. Other anecdotes, many of them shocking, seemed to back this up.

What will happen when the council takes over much of the work of the PCT, or the GPs decide what the priorities should be for local healthcare? My guess is that we have even more of a battle on our hands, but that despite being sleep-deprived, our group will not be giving up easily.

1. The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis, Bartick and Reinhold, Paediatrics 2010
2. Based on US population of 307,006,550 and Haringey population of 226,200

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Milking It!

Since being interviewed last week on LBC on the subject of public breastfeeding (you can listen to the interview here: , I have been really trying to understand why a man would be ‘acutely embarrassed’ by being made to ‘endure’ the sight of a woman breastfeeding. Now, it’s hard for me to peer into the Nuts magazine reading branch of the male psyche, but I’ve tried – Lord, how I have tried. Here are my attempts to make sense of this – I’ve come up with two theories.

Theory Number 1: ‘Oh my God, that bird’s getting her tit out. TIT! TIT! I can see a TIT! And I didn’t even have to pay her or google ‘big tits’! But I’m not meant to be looking. But I can’t help but look. But there’s a baby. How can I be getting turned on when there’s a baby involved? Oh my God, I’m a paedo.’

Theory Number 2: ‘Oh my God, that bird’s – yep, she’s getting her tit out! Hurrah! But…hang on. Something’s wrong here. It’s just not sexy. I can see a tit but I’m not feeling sexy...what’s wrong with me? Oh my God, I’ve turned gay.’

There you go – that was my effort to understand. Maybe someone could enlighten me if they’ve got any other theories. I had another idea which was that maybe men feel excluded from breastfeeding, and this makes them feel angry and rejected, but frankly that wasn’t as funny as Theory 1 and Theory 2, so I let that one fall by the wayside.

To be serious for a second (sorry): breastfeeding is a hugely emotive, complicated issue, especially once you start to come across really negative reactions to it. I do think part of it is how we are used to seeing breasts as sexual parts of a woman’s body, and then suddenly here they are performing an altogether different role. If it’s complicated for the confused male onlooker, it’s also complicated for the woman. Overnight your breasts look and feel very different, and they are suddenly seem to be someone else’s property – that of your baby.

I’ve spoken to a lot of women who say they love breastfeeding and that they find it a very sensual experience (personally I wasn’t massively keen, having mastitis a couple of times which was awful – I even started to really pity dairy cows and thought about becoming a vegan for, ooh, 30 seconds). It’s interesting though that when a lactating woman is sexually aroused, it stimulates the ‘let down reflex’ – that’s breastfeeding lingo for milk flow. Not something you’d know unless you’d breastfed, I guess – quite strange!

Anyway, like I said in the radio interview, please don’t be embarrassed, folks. They’re just breasts doing their rather clever job, and we’ll try our best not to spray you – too much – with milk.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The youngest Green

This is my three year old daughter, Clementine, 'reading' her copy of the Young Greens newsletter. She joined the Young Greens when she was two, and as far as I know she's the youngest member of the Green Party.

Some people have been a little cynical about me joining her up when she's so young, but I had some good reasons. We're always swift to complain about the apathy of the general public when it comes to the democratic process, but I think if you get people interested in playing a part in politics from a young age, the better chance we have of having a generation of active, engaged citizens in years to come.

It will be vital that today's children become the informed, concerned citizens of tomorrow, because of course they will unfortunately be inheriting the runaway climate change caused by the generations before them.

I don't know how common it is for schools to run mock elections, but they are certainly a good way of engaging young people. I remember one taking place in my school at the time of the General Election in 1992. The headmistress was unfortunately a staunch Tory and put up posters of John Major all over the place. (I drew a moustache on one of them, as I recall).

Anyway, my hope is that when she's old enough, she'll use her vote (by the way, she doesn't yet return her internal elections ballot papers - she uses them as drawing paper). I know who I hope she will vote for in the future, but she's happily a rather independent-minded type, so time will tell! Just this week, at the breastfeeding campaign meeting, she was holding forth about the importance of breastfeeding ("it makes us grow big and strong") and, unprompted, brought up the issue of the Whittington hospital ("we need to keep it open in case people get sick.")

Anyway, watch out for Clementine at a Green Party conference in a year or two - you heard it here first!

(Please note: I apologise for the perhaps slightly nauseatingly proud tone of this post - I honestly can't help it).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Breastfeeding campaign update

Today I attended a meeting of the Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign. We held a demo outside St Ann’s hospital during the summer to protest against NHS Haringey cutting the borough’s one paid breastfeeding support worker…something they announced during national breastfeeding month!

It isn’t a case of cuts causing the lack of provision, namely because there’s no budget to cut. That’s right: NHS Haringey doesn’t have a budget for promoting and supporting breastfeeding. This despite the fact UK breastfeeding rates are low and have been for decades: 42% of babies are being breastfed at 6 weeks, 29% at 4 months and just 22% at 6 months of age. (It’s worth knowing that the World Health Authority recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with breastfeeding continuing for at least the first two years).

Research from 2004 showed that 9 out of 10 women who gave up breastfeeding in the first 6 weeks said they stopped before they wanted to because they didn’t feel they had access to adequate support.

Haringey has in fact just increased the ‘drop in’ sessions in the borough, but these are funded by Sure Start…and we anxiously wait to see how that will be slashed by the current government.

But there is much the borough can be doing to encourage breastfeeding, especially if is wants, as NHS Haringey boss Tracey Baldwin claimed recently, to be accredited as having ‘Baby Friendly status’ as established by Unicef.

Just yesterday a friend of mine was breastfeeding her 2 month old daughter in St Ann’s Library (whilst reading her 3 year old son a book…what was that about women and multi-tasking?!). A male librarian asked her if, in the future, she would please ‘face the wall’ because they’d had complaints in the past. He also said that there would be some children coming in soon, so she better not get her tits out again. God forbid kids should see a woman breastfeeding! They might think it’s normal and think about feeding their own future babies that way! Just say no, kids…

In short, we’ve got a long way to go. The group of strong, opinionated and informed women I met up with today – who threw around ideas, facts and figures and brandished letters from our MP, often whilst breastfeeding a baby at the same time – left me in no doubt that this will be a successful campaign.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Prison - an expensive failure?

I’ll be heading to Birmingham this Friday for Green Party Autumn Conference, which, judging from the timetable, looks like it’s going to be a good one. I thought I’d blog about the panel on UK Prison Reform which I’ve been busy organising for quite a while!

The panel will take place on Friday 10th Sept at 6pm in the main hall. It will be chaired by Jean Lambert MEP and I am very excited about the panel I’ve lined up…

- Juliet Lyon CBE, Director of the Prison Reform Trust (and Commissioner for the Women’s National Commission (WNC)).

- Denise Marshall, coordinator of Birth Companions (an organisation who help pregnant prisoners and prisoners with babies).

- Joy Doal, coordinator of the Anawim Project in Birmingham (an organisation that supports sex workers and former women offenders).

- Rebecca Cunningham, a user of the Anawim Project.

Conference will also be considering a motion to adapt and augment our existing prison policy. I hope the policy is passed as it will add some important details to what is already a good, solid approach.

Particularly, I am keen to see points about women prisoners added to Green Party policy. Some facts on prisons I came across during the research for the motion and the panel discussion include:

- 17,000 children are deprived of their mothers annual when they are sent to jail (2004).

- Between 2005 and 2008, 283 babies were born in UK prisons. 8 mother and baby units in UK prisons – one is in Holloway.

- 12,000 women pass through the prison system every year. One third have a young child. (2010). 68% are in for non-violent offences, 56% have used drugs daily. Costs £27,000 per woman per year to keep them in prison (2004).

- A quarter have been in care as children, half have been beaten by their partners, 70% have been diagnosed with two or more mental disorders. (2004).

Little wonder, then, that there is an epidemic of suicide and self-harm in prisons – with the most likely time for a prisoner to attempt suicide being their first night in jail. Shockingly, six women on average have to be cut down from nooses every night in Holloway prison (2004). Women prisoners are more likely to self-harm than men (The Corston Report).

And of course there are less ‘dangerous criminal’ women than there are men - in 2007, it was reported that 1000 heroin-addicted women are jailed each year for selling sex. This begs the question, what is prison actually for? Protecting the law abiding? Enforcing normative moral codes? Or further damaging the life chances of the already seriously vulnerable and disadvantaged?

People ‘on remand’ are being imprisoned for long periods, and are not necessarily guilty of any crime. 12,000+ people in UK this applies to every year (2005). This raises some important civil liberties questions. ‘Remand’ is used incorrectly – e.g. to imprison people who actually need sectioning (according to The Howard League for Penal Reform). Two-thirds of the women who go to prison do so on remand and more than half of them do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, with one in five acquitted. (The Corston Report).

There are several steps that can be taken to improve the lot of those sentenced to a term in prison. Placing new prisoners in a separate wing, and talking them through the routine of prison life has been shown to be effective. ‘Buddy schemes’, where prisoners help each other, guided by The Samaritans, has also worked well (more so than help from professionals, apparently).

The problem we read about time and time again is overcrowding – we cannot rehabilitate prisoners if prisons are overcrowded. In 1993, our prisons contained 40,000: 47% ‘went straight’ upon release. Now the prison population us double (2008) – and only 25% ‘go straight’.

Something which also has a detrimental affect on prisoners’ chances of ‘going straight’ is the fact that a third of prisoners are homeless when they are released from jail, making it very likely that they will re-offend. In Liverpool Prison, prisoners were taught construction skills and then used them to do up an abandoned council house once they were released.

Another way to make sure that prisoners remain a part of society, rather than cut off and angered, is to allow them to retain the right to vote. Because they do not currently have that right, MPs do not have to listen to their concerns or raise issues about their welfare. It further disenfranchises them from society, and there is no incentive to make prisons better.

Lastly, it is worth bearing in mind, particularly in this era of ‘savage cuts’, that prisons cost £2.2bn a year. With re-offending rates after release still at about 60% (and over 75% for young offenders) prison is an expensive failure, which has no impact on crime levels or the fear of crime.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Free Wheel - not so fabulous

I’m not much of a cyclist (though, inexplicably, I own two bikes), but yesterday I attended the Free Wheel event in central London. It’s sponsored by Sky (that’s the main thing that’s wrong with it) and I generally had mixed feelings about it.

First off, the positives. It encourages people to get on their bikes and not have to worry about traffic. There are lots of different events to get involved with, stalls to visit etc – my three year old daughter loved the little kids fun section, where she tore around the track on a ‘like-a-bike’.

There were some spectacles to be enjoyed: a punt on wheels and a piano and a bicycle morphed into one melodic, travelling contraption.

Cycling helmets off also to the stewards and the lead riders, who lead big convoys of riders from the start points to the ‘traffic-less’ sections. It was a tricky job and the ones I saw in action were doing great work.

The less positive points now…Although one didn’t have to worry about traffic (as in cars etc), there were so many bikes, wheel to wheel, that you really did have to be on red alert every second so as not to have a collision. Indeed, I saw some people having bumps and falls because of this very problem.

It was great that it was so well-attended, but the feeling I had was that cycling, a solitary pursuit (unless you’re on a tandem, but let’s not quibble here, folks), didn’t really suit this massive, crowded event.

There was also a feeling of ‘organised fun’ – ooh, we’re in the loud zone, everyone ring your bells, wooo! No thanks. Maybe I am just a curmudgeonly misanthrope (actually, there’s no ‘maybe’ about it!) but organised fun makes me want to crawl into a burrow and not come out for a long time…

One more gripe: if the event is about encouraging people out onto the streets to cycle, isn’t this a rather unrealistic introduction? No cars, go-go dancers cavorting in tunnels, penny-farthings sailing past. Actually, that description makes it sound much more fun than it actually was!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Hague's ill-advised comments

I am not sure why William Hague is making such a big deal out of his sexuality. Who cares if he is or isn’t gay? It’s not really all that interesting. From the way he’s been reacting, you’d think he’d been accused of paedophilia or murder. Maybe, to the Tories, being gay is a sin akin to those crimes, who knows? I wouldn’t like to assume how a Tory brain works.

About 11 years ago I was at a party in south London (I don’t get out much these days, but long ago, oh yes). A Tory-faced man told me that he knew Hague and filled me in on gossip much along the lines of what the papers are reporting this week. Again, so what? Not all that interesting. Apart from the fact that, if true, why the hell does it have to be such a secret? What year is it again, 1952?

What struck me as particularly odd was Hague’s comments about his wife’s miscarriages. Despite how commonplace they are, no one really talks about miscarriages – especially men. One sensed it was Hague’s trump card, and the message was ‘so that means we have SEX and so I am HETEROSEXUAL! Hurrah!’ A little bit on the tawdry side, I thought, using his wife’s unpleasant experiences in such a public and insensitive fashion.

In short – Hague, if you’re gay, get over it, it couldn’t be less interesting. If you’re not, then do shut up – being accused of being gay in 2010 is no big deal – it’s (whisper it) not actually an insult, or haven’t you heard? Whichever is the case, leave your wife’s womb out of it. Ta ever so.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Children and domestic violence

We often hear the shocking statistics about domestic violence – that on average over two women are killed by an ex or current partner every week in the uk, and that one in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. But it is perhaps not until we have direct or indirect experience of the issue in our own lives that the true horror of those statistics really dawn on us.

When I was at primary school, my mother looked after a girl who was in the year below me. She came to our house for lunch and after school, until her mother picked her up. I got on well with this girl, A, and I think we enjoyed playing together because we were both ‘only’ children. We found we had a lot in common, not least of all that we were in what were often unhappy marriages. Not our own, of course – that of our parents.

A and I would hold regular ‘meetings’ to discuss the state of our parents’ marriages. These would take place in top-secret locations (I recall one under the dining table and one behind the garden shed). We would report on recent explosive arguments, recent scoldings we had received (verbal, physical) and whether we thought our parents would divorce - I always rather hoped mine would, though they never did! It really helped to have someone to discuss these issues with, I realise now.

Then, aged 8, I was sent to a different school, and I never saw A again.

I never knew what had happened to her, until in recent months when she has been featuring in the press for a terrible reason. It turns out that her parents never divorced either, and that in February this year her father had killed her mother in a savage attack. He has escaped being given a life sentence because of mental health problems and has instead being charged with culpable homicide.

A never told me about any physical violence that took place towards her mother in her household, but I wonder now what horrors she, as a child, was a witness to. Not much is said about the children who survive these situations, and how it affects them in later life.

So today I am thinking of children in that situation – there must be thousands, millions – and hoping that they are not irrecoverably damaged by their far from ideal upbringings. Much is made of ‘staying together for the sake of the children’. Perhaps ‘splitting up for the sake of the children’ would be more appropriate for many warring couples.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Women and the media

On Sunday I attended Day 2 of the UK Feminista Summer School. It says a lot about how big the resurgence of feminism has become when an event such as this becomes fully booked.

The first event of the day was a panel on ‘women and the media’, with freelance Hannah Pool, Kira Cochrane, the Guardian’s women editor and Jess McCabe from the F Word as Chair.

Both Cochrane and Pool agreed that there is still very much a culture of machismo within the newspaper industry, “even at the Guardian”, with a belittling of 'women’s issues'. They both observed that they get very misogynistic comments written under their articles when they appear online. As an experiment, Pool wrote a feminist article under the alias ‘Harry Pond’, and wasn’t surprised to see that this time she received no negative comments. Both writers agreed that it was important for women readers to make comments about articles, as difficult as it is to do so when you know you will then be attacked.

The issue of female journalists writing misogynistic articles was raised – Liz Jones and Melanie Phillips being two examples of this unfortunate species. Pool commented that this is a common trick that male commissioning editors now use – they know that men cannot say certain things about women these days, so they get a female journalist to do so instead. “It’s a pressure to be worse than men in a pressured environment, which is almost all-male,” she explained. Kira Cochrane concurred, saying it was also a way for female journalists to make a lot of money.

An audience member asked about whether writing in the Guardian is very much ‘preaching to the converted’, and what would their advice be on writing, for example, for the Daily Mail? Cochrane described it as “like walking into a really, really, really dark forest.” She said that if you wrote copy for such a paper, you had to be prepared for them editing what you had written substantially, and that it might also appear under a really awful headline. Pool said that she had written for the Evening Standard, and that she had ‘got away with’ writing feminist articles without much censure. She also noted wryly that her bag of hate mail was only as big as the one she received at the Guardian.

We all know the importance of the media in influencing society, and so this session, which also allowed women to ask about becoming journalists, pitching stories, and getting coverage for their campaigns, was extremely useful. Much was also made of the democratic nature of the internet – anyone can blog, and anyone can submit articles to sites such as The F Word.

As one older feminist in the audience commented, “the battles we fought so many years ago – they need to be fought again.” And the more visible and high-profile that fight is, the more successful it will be.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Haringey Council cuts luxuries – including being green!

Last night I attended a meeting at Haringey Council between the officers who are coordinating the Green door knocking scheme and members of the Sustainable Haringey Network.

The council have been given some Government money through the ‘Future Jobs fund’ to do some ‘environmental door-knocking’, talking to people about green issues such as sustainable transport, energy reduction, water conservation, sustainable food and of course recycling.

It’s a good idea in principle – taking the message to the doorsteps, giving people practical tips on how to reduce their carbon footprint.

There’s one big problem, though. The Future Jobs fund has been scrapped, and Haringey’s scheme, which started just last week, will be come to an abrupt end in February. That is if it isn’t extended by the use of volunteers. “The Big Society”, I quipped, and we all grimly chortled.

We raised the issue of Free Mass Insulation – that if it can happen in Kirklees, it can happen here. Creating local jobs, lifting the borough’s poorest out of fuel poverty, drastically lowering the borough’s CO2 emissions. “I can’t think of anything more worthwhile to spend any remaining money on – it’s win, win, win,” I told the officers.

Like most local authorities, Haringey have always come up with excuses rather than take what are seen as radical steps – the Free Mass Insulation scheme being a case in point. They’re big on proclamations “We’re going to reduce emissions by 40%!” – but less good on the detail of how that’s actually going to actually happen.

Now, though, they have the seemingly cast iron excuse to do very little – “there’s no money.” Sorry, I don’t buy it – pun intended. They can afford to publish a glossy magazine and send it to every household in the borough. They can afford to spend a fortune on consultants. They clearly have more money than they know what to do with – why else would they heat council offices to tropical temperatures and leave all the lights on at night?!

It’s time Haringey Council realised that tackling climate change isn’t just some trendy thing – a box that they can be seen to tick without taking real action. I do not blame the council officers – speaking to them individually, I sense that many of them would love to be more radical. Instead I blame the lack of political will. Oh, for some Green councillors, punching well above their weight, and not taking no for an answer!

Instead, for now at least, we’ll have to shout from the sidelines. My megaphone is at the ready.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Lynne Featherstone and the 'ideal' body shape

Lynne Featherstone MP’s recent proclamation that actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan Harris in Mad Men, has the perfect figure, the one that all women ‘should’ be aiming for, was bizarre to say the least.

Featherstone described Hendricks’s figure as ‘absolutely fabulous’ and held up a silhouette of her figure.

Now, I know Featherstone meant well with these comments. I know that she is concerned about the pressure on young women to conform to beauty industry standards and also about the airbrushing that goes on in the magazine and advertising industry.

But saying that this is the outline that we should all be aiming for is crazy. I’m sure flat-chested women everywhere will be delighted to be told that it is ‘absolutely fabulous’ to have big breasts.

And as a fan of ‘Mad Men’, I can’t help but recall the treatment Hendricks’s character, Joan, receives, due largely to her appearance. Men talking to her tits, not her face. Raped on the office floor by her fiancĂ© – who she still goes on to marry. And the subtle little shot (what other sort of shot is there in this excellent drama?) of Joan rubbing the raw marks on her shoulders where her bra straps have been cutting into her skin all day…

Not so ‘absolutely fabulous’ after all…

Friday, 30 July 2010

Demanding Justice - holding the police to account

Today I attended a protest outside the Office of Department of Public
Prosecution HQ. This was in response to the CPS decision to charge no one over the
death of Ian Tomlinson, despite a mountain of evidence showing him being
attacked by PC Simon Harwood at the G20 protests on 1 April last year.

The demo also served to highlight the deaths in police custody which have occurred over the years, for which, again, no one has been held to account. There was a real feeling of anger and injustice today - and rightly so.

This will be a long battle, but one that needs to be fought. If the police are not held to account for attacking and killing - depsite, in Ian Tomlinson's case, there being video evidence of what happened - we do not truly live in a democracy.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Support Breastfeeding - don't be a boob!

This morning my daughter and I attended a good-sized demo outside Haringey's St Ann's Hopital, ahead of a meeting of NHS Haringey board members. The demo was part of a campaign to reinstate the post of a midwife specialising in helping new mums to breastfeed after NHS Haringey scrapped it during National Breastfeeding Week.

There were breast-shaped placards and cakes which I can best describe as titillating.

Although the World Health Authority recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with breastfeeding continuing for at least the first two years, UK breastfeeding rates are low and have been for decades: 42% of babies are being breastfed at 6 weeks, 29% at 4 months and just 22% at 6 months of age. Haringey should be doing everything it can to support breastfeeding in the borough – cutting breastfeeding support is exactly the wrong way to go.

It’s support as well as information that is essential – research from 2004 showed that 9 out of 10 women who gave up breastfeeding in the first 6 weeks said they stopped before they wanted to because they didn’t feel they had access to adequate support.
If NHS Haringey can afford to pay its Chief Executive, Tracey Baldwin, £190,000 a year, Haringey can afford to support breastfeeding mothers.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

They're my woods and I'll walk if I want to!

When I first moved to Summersby Road in Highgate, one of my work colleagues looked up my flat on Google Earth. "You lucky thing!" she said. "You are literally going to live in the woods!"

It's true. The block in which I live is surrounded on two sides by the edges of Queen's Wood, one of the four ancients woodlands in Haringey. I can get into the woods via an entrance a few steps from my front door, and it's fair to say I have totally fallen in love with the place. It is splendid in every season, and its unkempt, natural state (much less manicured than neighbouring Highgate Woods - though I love that too), means that I have spent a lot of time there over the last 4 years. Indeed, I'm a 'Friend of Queen's Wood' - the organisation recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary.

It's strange, however, when I tell people this. I often get a very negative reaction, especially from women. "Is that safe?" they ask. "Should you go there alone?" Someone even said recently "Wasn't someone murdered there once?" (I don't know, I'm not one for subscribing to 'Grisly Murders Monthly' - first edition comes with a miniature Peter Sutcliffe).

The fact is, I've always felt very safe there. I walk with my daughter, or by myself, and think thoughts. And those thoughts are not 'Hmmm...I wonder if I am going to be raped and murdered today?'

That said, my female neighbour was flashed at in the woods last week when walking with her son. I have advised her to tell the local safer neighbourhoods' team (the police, to you). I await to see what reaction she will get from them, and whether they will advise her not to walk in the woods without a big strong man to protect her...

I say this because I was recently working as a backmarker on Walk London, and we were traversing the beautiful Parkland walk (we're not short of scenic places to stroll around these parts!). A woman was walking with me and she said "It's great being back on the Parkland walk. I used to come here all the time, but a local policeman told me never to come here alone again, it was too dangerous."

This made me very angry. It would make the job of the police a lot easier, I suppose, if women all deigned to stay at home, because surely by stepping out of our front doors we are asking for it, massively. How incredibly stupid. Maybe the police should concentrate on catching criminals, and the justice system should be improved so that we get a higher conviction rate for rape, rather than imprisoning women with fear serving as bars.

Screw that - I'm off for a walk in the woods. Alone.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

A post-election project...

When I was out canvassing in Stroud Green, I’d often walk past a little unloved flowerbed which runs along the front of the Hornsey Vale Community Centre. I am a trustee there, and had many a ‘pang’ about how the space should be made use of for growing things both beautiful and edible. After the election, I told myself, after the election…

It turned out that I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. Members of Transition Crouch End were also planning and plotting, and today we started to make our shared vision a reality.

After weeding and de-littering the area, we stacked up big old tyres as planters (kindly donated by a local garage), and then filled them with compost. Plants such as herbs, geraniums and sunflowers have been put in and we’re setting up a watering rota – essential, of course, in this weather.

I returned home covered in soil and engine oil (from the tyres – the rolling of which was a joy. I definitely recommend rolling tyres).

The plan is to apply for funding for ‘Stage 2’, which will be to build a raised bed and replace the tyres with a more permanent garden.

This summer should be pretty blooming though, and it only took a small group of us a few hours work. The hope is that local people will get involved and it can really have a feeling a shared ownership. That’s the idea with transition towns, after all – building community, sharing skills, and moving away from multi-nationals and an oil-based economy, and towards growing food locally.

I had loads of fun today. Physical labour is to be recommended, I feel, though if I ache like a billy goat tomorrow, I may revise my opinion…

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Toronto and Civil Liberties

News of heavy-handed police tactics in Toronto, following protests around the G20 summit, reminded me of the force's dubious track record when it comes to civil liberties.

This is something I researched a few years ago as part of my MA dissertation, which was on depictions of Toronto in Canadian literature. Concentrating a great deal on the history of minorities in the city, a troubling picture emerged of Toronto's police force, particularly in their attitude towards the city's gay residents.

I managed to secure an interview with Margaret Atwood, and her incisive comments on the situation are contained within the article.


Toronto’s gay district is situated to the east of the downtown area, and centres around the streets of Church and Wellesley, where most of the city’s gay clubs, bars and shops are located. Interestingly, the lower part of Church Street is also a red-light district, which mirrors the nature of the Bowery area of New York, where the gay area and a red-light district co-exist.

This would suggest that sexualities which are viewed as deviant are relegated to one area. The vibrancy of Toronto’s gay area is testimony to the strong presence that the gay community has in the city; with the annual ‘Pride’ march and several free newspapers and magazines widely available, the gay presence is hard to ignore.

Despite this feeling of a strong community identity, however, and indeed of an outward acceptance of gay people, the city has a history of intolerance and homophobia. This intolerance is also evident in Canadian law’s attitude to homosexuality. Canada took on many of Britain’s antiquated laws concerning homosexuality, and then added some even more stringent ones of its own. For example, there are laws concerning lesbianism, something that has never been criminalized in the UK. Although the Canadian Criminal Code has been amended over the last three decades, a clause remains about the illegality of homosexual acts in ‘public’ places. This definition of ‘public’ is unclear, and has led many of the country’s gay bathhouses, including several establishments in Toronto, to be raided.

The beginning of the 1980s was a particularly conservative time in the city, when, as Gary Kinsman explains, ‘[t]he elections witnessed an emergence of a vocal anti-gay right-wing, which had the tacit backing of the police department.’ 5 February 1981 was the lowest point in the relationship between the gay community and the Toronto Police Department, when bathhouses across the city were raided, premises were damaged, and gay men were mocked, threatened and arrested. The Toronto Star, in an article entitled ‘Homosexuals fear suicides and broken marriages in wake of raids’ reported that,

Rev. Brent Hawkes, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, said one police officer taking part in the raids had told a group of men, found in a shower room: “It’s too bad the showers weren’t hooked up for gas instead of water.”

Richard Brown, president of the Lambda Business Council, a group representing gay businessmen, charged the police with a “wanton rampage of destruction.”
“Look at history and see what the blackshirts did in the ‘20s and ‘30s. We’re the new Jews.”

This comparison between the fate of the Jews and the gays is interesting; Brown was of course making a reference to Nazi Germany, not the formerly anti-Semitic Toronto. There are, however, many similarities between the sudden attacks in the city on the Jewish community in 1933, and the sudden attacks on the gay community in 1981. A major difference is in evidence, however, in the reaction to those attacks; whereas the anti-Semitism of the city’s past has been largely forgotten by Torontonians, the gay community’s response to the victimization they experienced at the hands of the police has been strong and enduring. The night after the raids, for example, a massive demonstration marched through Toronto, bringing the city to a standstill. The raids served to politicise, radicalise and organise a community which before had perhaps been a little too reticent in its actions against prejudice.

The events of 1981 have been the subject of some of the city’s gay literature, such as John Grube’s short story ‘Raid’, published in 1997. Grube’s story highlights the way in which the city’s police attempted to demonise the gay community at a time when the public were perhaps beginning to tentatively accept the existence of homosexuality. The handling of the factual material is perhaps somewhat laboured on Grube’s part, although this does not detract a great deal from the power of the story. For example, the Police Chief’s dialogue is slightly improbable when he says, “By the way, here’s our press release...what do you think? This bathhouse bust is really about breaking a boy prostitution ring, how does that sound?” Despite the overtly polemical nature of the story, it is nevertheless factually accurate. Toronto’s police, along with the city’s media, had a history of attempting to link crime and homosexuality, and claimed that ‘much crime [could] be traced to homosexuality.’ In 1977, for example, a twelve year old boy called Emanuel Jaques was found murdered and sexually assaulted on Yonge Street, near the city’s gay district. Gary Kinsman has claimed that ‘by constantly referring to [it as] a “homosexual” murder, the media suggested a relationship between homosexual behaviour, pedophilia and murderous acts that cemented in the public mind.’

As already outlined, however, Toronto in the twenty-first century does seem, outwardly at least, to be very tolerant of its strong gay community; a community which has been forged and strengthened by adversity. The phrase ‘gay community’, however, could be seen as somewhat misleading, suggesting as it does that the gays and lesbians of the city exist as one homogeneous group who concur on all issues. Furthermore, the city has been keen to encourage enclaves, such as China Town, GreekTown and Little Italy, to name but a few. To what extent, then, is Toronto’s gay district, or ‘village’ as it is often known, a similar enclave or ghetto?

On visiting the city, one does get the impression that the facilities set up to serve the gay contingent are very much ‘squeezed’ into the Church Street area, with very little evidence of gay activity elsewhere. Julia Gonsalves, herself a lesbian living in Toronto, wrote in August of this year:

I spend a lot of time complaining about the absence of a visible queer presence outside of the Church-Wellesley village. I bitch about being the only one holding hands in Scarborough, in Little Italy, in Bloor West Village.

Gonsalves concludes however, after visiting the Dominican Republic and meeting a gay man who has to hide his sexuality because of extreme homophobia, that ‘I am not alone in Toronto and never will be.’ Her original point, though, is a valid one; why, if the city is so tolerant, is the gay community squeezed into such a small area of the city?

This lack of tolerance outside of the gay village, as well as the lack of tolerance outside of Toronto, is one of the themes of the city’s plethora of gay literature. In Peter McGehee’s Sweetheart (1992), Zero and his lover Jeff experience homophobia whilst onboard an aeroplane. The ‘rules’ of political correctness are seemingly abandoned in this no-man’s land in the air, as are the ‘rules’ of how one responds to homophobia. Jeff challenges the bigot and asks every gay passenger to raise their hand, which they duly do. Their inability to evade the issue means that an honest exchange is possible; honest in its unfortunate prejudice, and honest in its reaction to that prejudice.

Similarly, in Andy Quan’s short story, ‘The Polish Titanic’, the narrator finds himself amongst strangers on ship that has been temporarily marooned due to storms. His reticence in expressing his gay identity to the strangers is because he fears their rejection:

In the back of my mind, I wonder if we would be sitting here together if they knew I would rather flirt with Piotr than with either of the women here. All the camaraderie and laughter, the french fries and jokes, what would be left?

The narrator, then, realises that his acceptance in the group is perhaps based on a false premise. He eventually tells one person onboard the ship, who spreads the news, and, on disembarking, the narrator finds that he has been abandoned by his new ‘friends’. This device clearly shows that outside of the gay enclave in Toronto, its gay citizens often face the same prejudice which was the norm in previous years.

Quan’s collection of short stories reads in many ways like a disjointed novel. The protagonists, with only one exception, are young gay Chinese males, who, throughout the collection, gain in confidence regarding their sexuality. This gain in confidence is despite the fact that the protagonists often face discrimination at the hands of other members of the gay ‘community’. This, we learn, is because of their Chinese origin. One protagonist, for example, bemoans the fact that as an Asian male he is viewed as asexual:

Anyway, what I really hate are gay Asian clubs. [...].
Why do we have a separate club night anyways? Does this put us into the category of leather nights, rubbermen, underwear parties? Are we a fetish or a themed party? [...].
But I’m being facetious. I know why there are separate club nights. [...].
The fact that we can’t get sex at other clubs, and don’t know whether some white-black-latino-whoever is going to just look right through us, or that guy we’re interested in is going to turn his back, but before doing so, snarl, as if to say, how dare you? Since we’re not sexual, not masculine, since they don’t go for Asians.

Here we see evidence of fractures and bigotry inside the so-called gay ‘community’. Asian gays have their own club nights because they are thought only to appeal sexually to each other, and to no one outside of this category. Such is the discrimination, in fact, that Asians are sometimes barred from non-Asian gay clubs, according to the Quan short story ‘Immigration’. This confirms Margaret Atwood’s assertion that “you assume that bigotry is Anglo-Saxon people being bigots about other people. It’s not true. It’s also people amongst those groups being bigots towards other people.”

Evidence of this phenomenon can be seen in Barbara Gowdy’s depiction of 1960s Toronto in her novel Mister Sandman (1995). Bisexual American Al Yothers, eating what he terms “Chink chow” with his lover Gordon Canary, opines loudly about his views on Chinese people, as well as mocking the Chinese waiter:

“Famry man,” Al mimics, before the waiter is out of earshot.
Al holds the floor, the theme being “Chinks”, their eating habits (slurping, shovelling it in), the food they themselves eat (Labrador retrievers and stray cats), their feelings (none).
(MS, pp.33-4)

Here we see that despite being in a sexual minority, Al Yothers has no qualms about discriminating against ethnic minorities. Thirty years later, Quan depicts Chinese gays in 1990s Toronto as still suffering from discrimination, even inside the gay ‘community’.
Indeed, Quan’s protagonists remain largely invisible on the streets of Toronto’s gay enclave, until, that is, they learn to assimilate and conform to a stereotypical gay image. In the story ‘Hair’, the protagonist explains that because he grew his hair very long he was repeatedly mistaken for a woman. He asks,

Where have these people been? I thought. Have they never seen a Chinese face? [...].
Or do people not look? Do they see only a flash of black hair? A flash of something strange and foreign and unlikeable, so they turn their heads? [...].
At the same time, I enjoyed hiding behind that hair. [...].
With long hair I could be almost anything.

He ‘could be almost anything’, we are told, and yet he cannot be what he really wishes to be, which is a visibly gay man on the streets of Toronto. Only when he shaves off his hair, having heard that the closely-cropped look is the one currently in vogue with the city’s gay men, does he give – and receive – the ‘backwards glances’ that Mark W. Turner has argued are an established part of gay urban life. Quan’s newly shorn protagonist notes that

Most importantly, I walked along sunny Church Street and felt the weather on the very top of my body, and, amazingly, like a miracle predicted but not believed, heads swivelled, other eyes caught mine. [...]. I had never known what it was like to be recognizably gay, and to walk in a gay street on a hot summer day. With all that mess of hair, the denizens of my gay world only saw an exotic creature with foreign roots. [...]. For with my skin already a different colour, they needed another signal to call me their own. Shaving my head, I had learned to play the game I wanted to play.

The need to give a ‘signal’ to the gay community that he is one of them is significant, and this can be related to Judith Butler’s assertion that ‘gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original [...].’ [her italics]. The protagonist’s conformity to, or ‘imitation’ of the stereotypical gay image allows him to be accepted at last into the gay community. Similarly, in the Quan short story ‘On The Paris Metro’, the gay narrator, whilst staring at an attractive man on the Parisian underground, considers how he became visibly gay. Unaware that he was supposed to ‘act’ in any specific way, two friends decided to ‘teach’ him how to be gay:

They both approached me, one on either side. To my bewilderment, each rolled up one of my shirt sleeves, exposing a thin, round bicep. “Now walk!”
And so I did, giggling, thinking it was a joke.
“No, pretend you have something really big between your legs. Stick your chest out. Walk slowly.”
Much to my surprise, horror and amusement, that evening, I got the most attention I’d ever had at a club.

The fact that this pretence is what necessary in order for the protagonist to be visible, and, therefore, for him to get sexual attention, confirms that gender behaviour often amounts to a performance. That a certain code of behaviour, and a certain conformity to stereotype is essential in order to be accepted shows that identity categories are somewhat limited, and indeed, limiting.

Edmund White, writing of the attitude of the French gay community, has claimed that the French do not like to be labelled with their sexualities. For example, gay French writers do not like to be termed ‘gay writers’. Judith Butler, who claims to be ‘permanently troubled by identity categories, [and] consider[s] them to be invariable stumbling-blocks’, would presumably agree with the French stance on this issue. However, as White has argued, this lack of a clear gay French identity has led to an ignorance about many gay issues, and therefore, to the high levels of HIV amongst gay Frenchmen.

This issue of the response to HIV is an interesting one when we compare France’s response to Canada’s, or, more specifically, Toronto’s. In recent years, the city has become very proactive about preventing HIV and in giving help to AIDS sufferers. Indeed, there is currently a high-profile campaign in the city, in order to encourage the use of condoms. The campaign posters are quite explicit and can be seen across Toronto, on the side of recycling bins and streetcar shelters. If the gay community did not have such a loud voice, these posters would not perhaps have been possible. This would therefore seem to support the notion that ‘identity categories’ can serve their purpose, even if they do, to a certain extent, limit the behaviour that is possible for a gay man who wants to be recognizably gay on the streets of Toronto.

As I have argued, the gay population is not always deserving of the word ‘community’, which would suggest an all-encompassing group who welcome gay people into their enclave without prejudice. As Quan’s stories illustrate, this isn’t always the case. However, if we compare the depiction of Gowdy’s husband and wife (and closet gay and lesbian) characters Gordon and Doris Canary, in the 1960s Toronto of Mister Sandman, we can see just how much the existence of a gay community, unprejudiced or otherwise, has meant for Toronto’s homosexuals.

Gordon, in a desperate attempt to understand the feelings he has for other men, takes to looking in medical textbooks in the library:

Back then, these books were catalogued under “Mental Disorders” and “Sexual Deviance” and were not on the open shelves. [...]. Bland passages would explode into such graphically clinical description that he would be driven to the washroom to masturbate.
Which was not at all why he was there that August. He was there for information. And for a kind of punishing reassurance that it was true. He was sick. [...]. The premise of Curing The Male Homosexual was that you should enter into a study of ‘real’ men. [...]. In this book there were diagrams showing you how to walk and sit in a masculine manner, how to cross your legs [...].
(MS, pp.71-2)

This passage, of course, makes for interesting comparison with the Quan short story, where a man is ‘taught’ how to walk in a way that is perceived to be gay. Gowdy notes that ‘[i]t was the strangest time’ (MS, p.72), and although her depiction of Gordon, and indeed of his wife Doris, who seduces the Avon lady on the living room sofa (MS, pp.64-66) are written with much humour, what they clearly show is that before there was an established, strong gay community there was a lot of confusion, denial and loneliness.

In conclusion, therefore, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Toronto’s gay contingent established themselves as a vocal minority. They have memorialised their past and dealt with discrimination, rather than sweeping away that history. This is perhaps in contrast to what has happened with the histories of some of the other minority groups in the city. The existence of a gay literature which problematizes the very notion of ‘community’ and uses the past as a site of exploration, ensures that the strength f the population is something the city is well-known for, as detailed in most of Toronto’s guide books.

The depictions I have chosen to centre on in this chapter have been those of gay writers Andy Quan, John Grube and Peter McGehee, as well as the heterosexual writer Barbara Gowdy. Lesbian writers were not included, simply because I was unable to find any who dealt with lesbianism in a way which was ‘Torontocentric’ enough for my purposes. Indeed, the gay scene in Toronto, as is often the case in urban gay enclaves across the world, is largely dominated by gay men rather than lesbians. This, however, will surely change, as lesbians become increasingly politicised. Just as the bathhouse raids of the early 1980s radicalised the gay men of the city, perhaps the recent police raids of the first lesbian bathhouse events will shift the balance between the sexes.

For although the public show increasing acceptance of the gay populace within the city, as Ceta Ramkhalawansingh has pointed out, “the police are a whole other issue. [...]. There have been difficulties in getting the police to fall into line.”

Margaret Atwood concurs with this appraisal of the situation, concluding that Toronto is “reasonably tolerant except for some police problems we may have had.” Atwood also notes that, when it comes to the annual ‘Pride’ Parade in the city, “[t]he Mayor now goes as a matter of course. It’s no longer a minus for a mayor to appear at such an event, it’s a plus – in fact it’s a necessity.” This turnaround in opinion – that the attendance of the mayor at a gay pride event would be a vote-winner rather than the opposite – shows the extent to which the gay community in Toronto has made the larger community accept their presence, and even learn to celebrate it. This must be due, in no small part, to the rich and diverse gay literature that is stocked by the city’s many gay – and mainstream – bookshops, which serves to problematize, celebrate, and moreover to historicise gay Toronto.