Saturday, 29 October 2011

Reading between the lines

A few weeks ago I attended a ‘curriculum meeting’ at my daughter’s school, to find out what she will be doing during her year in Reception. One of the things we learned about was the ‘Phonics’ system of learning to read. This, as the name suggests, is all about concentrating on sounds, and from the way the teachers described it, I thought it was a sensible approach, as well as a fun way for kids to learn.

However, at a conference last week, ‘Reading Stories: Does it Make Sense?’, the approach was questioned. Michael Rosen, the former children’s laureate, pointed out that nowhere in an Ofsted report is reading, or a school’s possession of books, mentioned.

Furthermore, it has to be highlighted that Ruth Miskin, government advisor on education, and the keenest promoter of the phonics system around, is herself the author of a very popular phonics scheme.

I got the impression from the parents’ curriculum meeting, which only a handful of parents attended (it was held during working hours so obviously would’ve been impossible for working parents to attend),that with class sizes of almost 30, there is only so much reading the teachers can do with the kids individually. The teachers invited us parents to come in and sit with the children in the reading corner and help out when we can.

All of this points to the fact that switched-on parents are going to give their kids a head start, and that children from less privileged backgrounds will, from the outset, lag behind. The incredible levels of inequality are brought home by the fact that children from homes with 500 books or more receive, on average, three times as much ‘teaching’ at home. Another telling statistic: children from language-rich backgrounds have heard 32 million more words by the age of five than those from deprived backgrounds.

It is well known that by the age of eighteen months the kids from a nurturing home have leapt ahead of the children from deprived backgrounds, so by the time we get them into school the gap has already opened up, the danger being that it will never close, only widen. I’d like to see parenting classes as standard, rather than the education system trying to bridge the gap almost five years too late, with over-stretched teachers taking on a parenting role. I’d also recommend getting older people into our classrooms to give individual reading assistance. This would give possibly isolated seniors who want to keep their minds active a chance to use their knowledge and help instil the youngest members of society with a life-long love of books and learning.

I’d also like to see the government re-commit to Book Start, the scheme run in conjunction with Booktrust. This is a scheme which gives all babies and toddlers free books, regardless of their background. The coalition government have halved the funding they give to the scheme, though at present it is limping onwards. It would be a tragedy if this scheme fell by the wayside altogether, because, coupled with library closures – which writer Alan Bennett deemed ‘child abuse’, and rightly so – the end of this scheme would mean pre-schoolers from book-free households wouldn't get near a book until they go to school.

Just one of the delightful ways, then, that our present government are condemning more children to a life of underachievement and frustration, whilst also ensuring that social divisions and gaping inequality worsens by the year.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Apple Day 2011: a bumper crop

Another year, another crop of apples...and that can only mean one thing in Stroud Green: Apple Day! This annual fixture has fast become one of my highlights of the year, and Transition Crouch End should be congratulated - alongside the other groups who organise the event - for putting on a great range of stalls each year.

Chris has won the apple peeling competition for the last two years, and so the pressure was on for a hat trick. This year he managed 1 metre, 89 cm. "Disappointing," he mused, "though still enough for me to remain the champion." Indeed, he was crowned champ once again. Next year we really must get the people from the Guinness Book of Records along...

There was apple pressing (the juice was incredible), apple tasting (an apple called Opal was my favourite by far), plus lots of craft activities for the children.

In short, a glorious afternoon, and a great opportunity to catch up with some of my favourite Stroud Greenites. And many thanks to Haringey Green Party member Pamela Harling, who made me laugh when, standing behind a table of around 100 British apple varieties, she declared, "I don't even LIKE apples!" Oh the irony.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A mine of midwifery misinformation...

On a day when it has been reported that standards of care in many hospitals are woefully inadequate, I had a midwife appointment at University College Hospital. I have so far thankfully found little to complain about in terms of the standard of care at the hospital, a far cry from my experiences at the Royal Free back in 2007. However, the midwife I saw today was an exception to the rule.

I heard staff talking about how short-staffed they were today due to midwives having called in sick, and saw one midwife trying to deal with a long line of patients. When the time came for me to see the midwife (and by this point it was twenty minutes or so after the scheduled appointment time) she apologised for the delay.

I was feeling both anxious and somewhat unwell, and was interested to see what my blood pressure would be today. Surprise, surprise, it was low (70/44). The following exchange then ensued:

Me: It’s quite low, isn’t it?

Midwife: That’s good.

Me: Well…yes, I know it’s safer that it’s low rather than high-

Midwife: That’s right.

Me: - but actually it’s not all that good feeling faint a lot of the time…

Midwife: You’re very anxious, aren’t you?(Laughs)

Me: Yes, I am. I’ve been seeing the psychiatrist here because of the traumatic time I had last time I gave birth. I am feeling very anxious at the moment...not sleeping...

Midwife: Are you taking anything for it?

Me: No…I haven’t been offered anything.

Midwife: Then you must have a very supportive partner. Did you get post-natal depression last time?

Me: No.

Midwife: Well then. And was your baby alright?

Me: She had some trouble breathing…she had a suspected GBS infection and was taken to the Special Care Baby Unit…

Midwife: No. I mean now. Is she okay now?

Me: Yes, oh yes.

Midwife: So you’re booked for a C-section on 31st October. Is your partner planning to stay?

Me: Stay? When?

Midwife: Overnight.

Me: Can you do that?

Midwife: Yes, in a side room with you and the baby.

Me: But I was told I can’t have a side room because I’m having a Caesarean and they have to keep an eye on me…

Midwife: For the first 24 hours, but after that you can.

Me: Oh! I will book one then.

Midwife: You can’t book them.

Me: There’s a sign out there (pointing to the waiting room) about how to book one, though…

Midwife: How would you book one? Think about it!

Me: So why does it say you can on the sign?

Midwife: Well you can, but only once you’re on the post-natal ward. And if you book you have to pay for it.

Me: I am willing to pay for it!

Midwife: I know you are but you can’t book in advance.

WHAAAAT? You get the picture. You know that feeling you get when you’re talking to someone who doesn't know what they’re on about, and so just bullshit you and change the story with every statement they make? Well, that was one of those situations – not at all reassuring in a clinical setting, especially when you’re already feeling anxious!

After palpating my abdomen and declaring the baby’s head is down, I retorted “Are you sure?” I went on to explain that I was told this last time, but after 48 hours in labour, a scanner was wheeled in and the suspicion I had held for weeks was confirmed: the baby was breeched and suddenly it was all systems go for an emergency c-section. The midwife today was most put-out that I doubted her word and uttered the classic “I have been a midwife for a long time, I do know what I’m talking about!”

In short, I left today’s appointment feeling more insecure about my care and how I’ll be treated once I am admitted on 31st October. Yes, the midwife was under pressure due to the short-staffing, but her adversarial, defensive and patronising manner made the exchange unpleasant for the pair of us.

Oh, and the nonsense about the side room? I telephoned the hospital once I got home, and once I had navigated the dodgy 'phone system (this involved being cut off twice...), I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed one if I’d had a c-section, just as I had been told before. I explained that a midwife told me that wasn’t the case after the first 24 hours, and so I was then allowed to book a room. Who knows who has it right and what will happen? As for partners being allowed to stay overnight, it was the first the woman I spoke to on the ‘phone had heard of it.

One last confused note: the midwife bluntly told me that I was 'lucky' to be granted a c-section as I live ‘out of the area’, and it is now policy to only let women have c-sections at their ‘local’ hospitals (in my case that would be the Whittington). If this is correct (and remember, it came from that mine of midwifery misinformation!) then that’s appalling; so much for patient choice.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Advice to heed...and advice to ignore!

It’s incredible how some advice to pregnant women and new mothers changes with the wind whilst some remains constant for decades. I have here a copy of ‘Babylove: A Practical Guide to a Loving Pregnancy and Parenthood’ by Judy Wade and Val Hudson, published in 1977. (I was born in 1978, so I’ll let you guess whose shelf I plucked this from!).

Some of the advice and the observations remain extremely up to date. For example, on breastfeeding in public, Wade and Hudson write:

‘If anyone sees you breast feeding and objects it’s their attitude that’s wrong, not yours. It’s a pity that the sight of a naked breast in some newspapers and magazines is acceptably naughty but a breast feeding mother is obscene. We think the real obscenity is in the minds of the onlooker who turns a beautiful, natural act into something shameful.’ (p.168)

Bravo! How little times have changed, with women still having to justify and defend their right to breastfeed in public.

The book is focused upon the need for a couple (taken here to be a heterosexual couple, of course!) to keep their ‘romance’ (yuck!) alive throughout pregnancy and afterwards. Here Wade and Hudson had me literally weeping with laughter (thanks, Wade and Hudson!). For example, in the section entitled, ‘Tips for a Sexier Pregnancy’ (which comes with line drawings of sexual positions to try during pregnancy, including the curiously-titled ‘Ride-a-Cock-Horse’ – no, really), we also read:

‘Surprise him – by whispering something very private in a very public place. By dropping a pile of cushions on the floor (preferably in front of a glowing fireplace) as an irresistible invitation. Or make his favourite fantasy come true by going to bed wearing just a black velvet ribbon around your throat like Goya’s Maya nude – or just a pair of silky black stockings.’ (p.75).

Phoaarr! A black velvet ribbon, eh? Hot to trot. (Notice there’s no mention of the bloke bothering to fulfil his partner’s ‘favourite fantasy’…). Wade and Hudson even suggest ‘sensual music’ to play during all this ribbon-wearing and cushion-dropping. ‘You could try Donna Summer’s classic arouser Love to Love you Baby’ apparently. (Anyone else getting an image here of Alison Steadman as suburban housewife Beverley in the Mike Leigh film ‘Abigail’s Party’, wearing her black velvet chocker, dancing to aforesaid track? Uncanny!).

But the best advice the book has to offer concerns childbirth itself. Women are advised to make an effort with their appearance, such as by wearing false eyelashes during labour (it helps with the pain if you look sexy). This is in a chapter entitled ‘How to be Hip in Hospital’. In this chapter there is also the staggering advice to befriend the hospital staff in order to ensure better treatment. One way of doing this is to remember that ‘many nurses and doctors come from abroad. In the first stage of labour when contractions are light you could ask a few friendly questions about their homelands…’ (p.120).

I will end with what is, in my opinion, the most incredible paragraph in the whole bizarre book:

‘A nutty beauty we know decided that the most vital part of producing a baby was getting some superb needlework in her vagina when the doctor stitched her episiotomy after birth. Unfortunately it was 3am when her baby arrived and a woman doctor had to be called from a sound sleep to sew her up. Although our friend wasn’t feeling very chatty she switched on all the high-powered charm she could muster. The result was after a long, careful sewing job the doctor looked up and said: “I’m really proud of my work. I have repaired you so beautifully your husband will come back and thank me in a few week’s time.’ (p.120).

Wow. There are SO many things wrong with the above story that it’s difficult to know where to start! I’ll leave it to you to puzzle over instead.

Now excuse me whilst I go buy some false eyelashes and book myself into a charm school, all whilst trying not to strangulate myself with a black velvet ribbon…

Monday, 26 September 2011

Pass the Ear Plugs...

Now at the ‘unmistakably pregnant’ stage of pregnancy (though a woman did ask me if I had irritable bowel syndrome a couple of weeks ago…), my shape is causing near-constant comment from both acquaintances and strangers alike. As someone who generally likes to go about my everyday business without entering into conversations with strangers about my intimate medical history, this is rather irksome.

I know people are just being friendly (in the main), but the range of comments I have been on the receiving end of in the last couple of weeks has sometimes been both intrusive and upsetting, leaving me to ponder whether a lot of people are somehow disturbed by pregnancy, and therefore have a tendency to make a load of unwise comments.

With this in mind I have come up with a handy list of comments to say – and comments decidedly not to say – to pregnant women. All of the comments below are things that have actually been said to me.

Do Say…

“When’s it due?”

“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Is it your first?”

“How are you feeling?”

In other words, keep it simple, safe and unoriginal. Yes, I am sick to death of answering these questions on an almost hourly basis from delivery men, taxi drivers, newsagents, fellow travellers on the bus (the list goes on…and on), but these are inoffensive and neutral. You’re on safe ground: stay there.

Don’t Say

“Are you OK? Your face looks a bit swollen.”

“Wow. You’re HUGE. Are you having twins?”

“If you don’t know if you’re having a boy or a girl, how do you know what colour baby clothes to wear? OMG! Nightmare!”

Oh, and if I reveal that I am having a planned caesarean, please DON’T say:

“My sister almost bled to death on the operating table when she had a caesarean.”

“If they deliver the baby before the due date, do you know the baby could die?”

“Why are you having a caesarean? You don’t HAVE to have one, you know. I had two home births. They were amazing!”

One last thing: don’t touch the bump unless we are actually friends. (In fact, this doesn’t happen too much to me, probably because of what I like to term my distinct ‘fuck off vibes’. Good).

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A (colourful) update on my 'guerrilla gardening' exploits

Back in May I blogged about the fact that I'd planted a packet of sunflower seeds in an abandoned flowerbed on the corner of Baker's Lane and Archway Road, just by the North Circular. It's a litter-strewn spot and the flowerbed there was completely empty.

It took me about 5 minutes to plant the seeds, and that was the total sum of my efforts.

A local resident last week emailed me to say that the sunflowers were now blooming and looked ‘wonderful’.

When I went to visit the flowers yesterday (see picture) I couldn’t quite believe how big they have grown. Most of them are yet to bloom and so we haven’t seen the best of them yet.

The sunflowers can be seen by drivers as they enter Haringey from the North Circular, so I'd like to think that they provide a bright and cheery welcome to our borough – and all for 99p!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Some reflections on the unrest

Rarely has the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ occurred to me more frequently than over the last few days. Like many people I have been regularly checking the news to find out the latest on the riots and the looting, which of course started here in Haringey following the shooting of an armed man.

If it hadn’t been for the events that unfolded after the shooting, the focus would now be on the circumstances of the man’s death. Have the Met once again lied to us about a death at their hands, seeing as the earlier reports that they had been shot at have now been proved untrue? Though I believe that if you go about armed with a gun you have to factor in the possibility that you might be shot by the police, it is disturbing to find out once again that the police may have falsified information.

Yesterday however we saw the Met applauded by some people who were helping to clear up the mess left by rioters. Usually suspicious of the police force here in London, partly due to my own experience of them when attending peaceful demos, I have for the last few days felt a sympathy for them. It really is a case of damned if they do and damned if they don’t, with forces being accused of not taking enough tough action against the lawless.

Indeed, David Cameron’s rhetoric (once he’d seen fit to return from Tuscany) is becoming more macho by the day, knowing as he does that ‘the people’ (certainly the ones who might vote for his party) want to see a tough approach and punishment metered out to the guilty parties. Not for him a reasoned analysis of what may have provoked this behaviour.

Now we’re seeing vigilantes on the streets in some parts of the country, supposedly ‘protecting’ their communities but actually just getting wrapped up in the same mob mentality and thirst for violence as the rioters themselves.

I am not for a moment going to suggest that the rioters and looters have any sort of ideology behind their actions. Most of them are angry people who feel they have been handed a shitty deal in life, and see this as a perfect opportunity to vent their spleen, and maybe get some free trainers at the same time. Has it got anything to do with the police shooting, the cuts, a mandate-less Government of millionaires who are driving more into poverty? Not on the surface of things; not in any thought-out or easily articulated way.

What perhaps saddened me the most was the comments of some girls who had taken part in the looting. They said that they were showing the rich that they could do this, and striking out against those who had businesses. But in attacking local businesses they are of course lessening the amount of local jobs, damaging the local economy and punishing – and possibly ruining - what may already be struggling shop owners. Clearly though, when you’re caught up in the excitement of vandalising and looting, you’re not going to be sitting back and thinking about the pros and cons, the long-term consequences of your actions either for your local area and your own future.

Indeed, just ask Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who, in the Bullingdon Club back in their Oxford days, went on vandalising sprees, sometimes peppering it with a bit of arson. Doesn’t seem to have damaged their prospects, when you come to think of it…

I’m not sure what the answers are, nor can I fully explain the reasons behind the violence we’ve been seeing. I was struck to see the events last night at Salford Shopping precinct, a spot I know well since I lived in the area during my first two years of university (1996-1998). Back then, the Langworthy estate where I lived was known locally as ‘Beirut’. Packs of kids, some as young as 5, would rampage through the streets. Wherever we students went we would have abuse hurled at us, mostly driven by envy – and who could blame them? The time around bonfire night was particularly frightening, as fireworks (which seemed to be in endless supply, even to the youngest kids) would be thrown and used as weapons (I remember one going off right next to my then girlfriend’s face).

Other students we knew had lit fireworks lobbed into their living room, whilst others had to face a terrifying evening of aggravated burglary. Old people lived in fear and abandoned terraces were often set ablaze. Anyone who co-operated with – or was rumoured to have co-operated with – the police would have their houses daubed with graffiti, declaring them a ‘grass’. I also recall homophobic and racist graffiti on particular houses too. What I don’t recall is much of a police presence, strangely. Indeed, at one car boot sale I remember seeing boxed trainers with labels on them boasting ‘stolen last night’ and ‘nicked yesterday’. Here were people who had either nothing to lose or who knew the police would not act.

In short, it seems incredible that it has taken so long for violence like this to break out in Salford, or in other equally deprived, poorly-educated places. It will be a miracle if this is the end of the violence. If it got us to look at our incredibly unequal, consumerism-crazy society and really change things from the bottom up we could say something good had come of this. However, what we are more likely to see is reactionary responses, more social divisions, more hatred, and more of a mandate for the police to use an increasingly heavy hand. I am already worried about the impact this outbreak will have on the right to peacefully protest in the future, a right we will have to defend to the death.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Greens hold packed meeting on Pinkham Way as campaigners vow to fight on

Although the proposal to build an MBT waste plant the size of two football pitches at Pinkham Way have been ‘put on ice’ for 9 months, over one hundred local residents and campaigners turned up for a packed meeting on the subject. Speakers at the meeting, which was organised by Haringey, Enfield and Barnet Green Parties, were Darren Johnson, Green Party London Assembly Member, Quentin Given, Co-ordinator of Tottenham and Wood Green Friends of the Earth and Colin Parish, founder of the Pinkham Way Alliance.

Quentin Given spoke first, stating that “the reason we’re all here tonight is because we produce too much waste.” He went on to talk about the need for goods to be wrapped in less packaging so that there was less to either recycle or send to landfill in the first place. Friends of the Earth believe that London should be dealing with its own waste and that we should be moving away from incineration.

Colin Parish began by explaining how his involvement in the Pinkham Way Alliance has changed his outlook on environmental issues, particularly the issue of waste. “I’m not a green,” he stated. “I’ve never been overly concerned about recycling but now I’ve come to realise that I need to mend my ways. I’m greener and greener by the day because I realise we need to address this.”

Addressing the accusation that the campaign is nimbyist, Mr. Parish commented, “It’s not that we don’t want it in our backyard; it’s so big we will be in its backyard.” He commented on the ‘dirty dishcloth’ smell that permeated from other MBTs around the country that were already in operation. Flies and litter are often big problems too, leading him to comment that the nearby McDonalds would have to ask customers, if the MBT does go ahead, “do you want flies with that?”

The Pinkham Way Alliance have welcomed the 9 month “stay of execution” and believe that it is essential that the North London Waste Plan (NLWP) is agreed before a decision is made on the proposed Pinkham Way development. On the issue of the NLWP, Mr Parish commented “It’s full of holes. The way in which they have used their own criteria [in relation to Pinkham Way] is incredibly bogus.”

Darren Johnson, Green Party London Assembly Member, was the final speaker. He began by stating that “we will need new types of waste plants to deal with our waste, but I do object to this plan as it is completely the wrong plant in the wrong place.”

Highlighting the fact that the last Mayor of London had planned to have lots of small waste and recycling plants across the capital, but that Boris Johnson, in his new London Plan, changed this to fewer, larger plants, Mr Johnson commented, “I wouldn’t object to MBT if we’re talking about a very small amount of waste in each borough. We are going to have to have waste plants in London, but they need to be in the right location, the right technology and the right size. They need to serve the local community rather than being imposed upon it.”

Mr. Johnson urged campaigners to make the issue of the Pinkham Way plans and, more widely, the issue of London’s waste, into a key Mayoral election issue.

The audience made many contributions, and it became clear that the site where the MBT is planned to be built is a much-loved local wood. People remembered playing there as children and it was noted that it has only been fenced off for the last 18 months, since being bought by the North London Waste Authority for £12 million.

Several audience members talked about the necessity to increase recycling and to improve recycling methods. This would mean less non-recyclable waste to process and less need for huge MBTs or landfill. The issue of businesses being charged for recycling was raised, and the problems this causes in terms of making small businesses less willing to recycle their waste.

Colin Parish was asked at what point would residents be able to be confident the battle had been won? Mr. Parish answered, “We will have succeeded in this campaign when my grandchildren are playing in Pinkham Wood.” He explained that his son is currently 13, so he feels that there’s a very long battle ahead.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

London's first Sex Worker Film Festival

"Hard to believe it's the first, isn't it? We've been having sex for years." (The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence).

London’s first Sex Worker Film Festival took place last Sunday at the Rio Cinema in Dalston. The audience were a strange mix of male and female sex workers (some in wigs and masks to avoid identification), activist, allies and the incurably curious.

The event was held as a fundraiser for the Sex Worker Open University which will take place in September. Before the short films were shown, the audience were treated to such delights as a man dressed as a nun (one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) fellating a dildo before ‘educating’ the audience on how best to put a condom on using only one’s mouth. Personally, I felt his technique lacked finesse and concluded the boy needed more practise.

The first film in the programme was ’69 Things I Love About Sex Work’ (Canada, 2006). This was a clever film to open with as it was the only piece that was sexually explicit. Over footage of various sex workers with their clients, a list of 69 quite light-hearted reasons why sex work is enjoyable were printed. They ranged from ‘toys’ to ‘referrals’, from ‘room service’ to ‘bi-curious wives’ (this last one raised a laugh). At this point I feared that the festival might simply be a collective ‘cheerleading for sex work’ event, and one which didn’t grapple with any difficult issues. Thankfully I was to be proved wrong.

Onto the second film, ‘Hands Off! (UK, 2011), and already we were into more complex territory. This film deals with the ‘nil policy’ introduced by Hackney Council, allowing no ‘sex encounter’ establishments in the borough, meaning striptease clubs like the long-established Browns were faced with closure. The film includes interviews with strippers at the aforesaid club, as well as the two women who run it. They were keen to stress that this is work they enjoy, and that they feel safe and protected whilst working.

The most interesting contribution though was from Reverend Paul Turp of the Shoreditch Church, who approves of the clubs as they are well-regulated and largely well-run. His comment that “the people who say they want no sex establishments, they’re good moral people, but it’s not going to work” struck me as both enlightened and a good summing up of the argument for decriminalising sex work generally.

Another film, however, problematised the issue of decriminalisation. ‘Ni Coupables, Ni Victimes’ (Not Guilty, Not Victims (Europe, 2006)). Filmed at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration in Brussels in 2005, it was composed of interviews with sex workers (male, female, transgender) from around the world. (One of them, a French transgender sex worker, also proudly announced that she is an elected French Green Party representative, which of course impressed me!). It was particularly interesting to hear what the legal situation is in each country, and whether or not it worked.

In Denmark, for example, sex workers are supposed to register and pay tax, which gives them legitimacy but also, inevitably, no privacy. This means that people often do not register themselves. In this country, and others where sex work is regulated, workers often resent the tight laws and constant health testing that is required in order to work legally, and so often choose to work outside the law. So laws which are put in place in order to protect sex workers are, by some at least, neatly circumnavigated, rendering them useless.

Clearly, there is no one system which is perfect, and which would make sex work completely safe nor, because of societal conditioning around sex and morality, uncontroversial work. However, I remain convinced that the Green Party approach of decriminalisation, despite its problems (another one of which might be that the most vulnerable women, i.e. those selling sex on the streets, often to finance drug habits, wouldn’t be deemed ‘suitable’ for working in clean, well-regulated brothels) is the best – or perhaps the ‘least worst’ - solution to an issue that isn’t ever going to go away.

‘Sex Worker Open University’ (UK, 2009) was filmed at the first event of its kind in London, where over two hundred sex workers and allies from the UK and abroad took part in workshops, discussions and actions. An interesting point was made in this film about trafficked workers, and the fact that the textiles and agricultural industry make a lot of use of such labour, but it is the sex industry where there is an outcry about the issue. Why is this? Clearly, it’s because sex work is seen as more exploitative – and I agree that there may be a point there – though harvesting spring onions in a blizzard twelve hours a day on a slave wage/no wage doesn’t sound like a picnic either. And of course we’re all culpable in this as most of us shop at supermarkets and enjoy price reductions that this sort of labour makes possible.

I found it refreshing when, in a discussion which took place at the event between sex workers, one woman asserted that they had to be honest that some clients were “misogynist murderers” but there was a pressure on workers not to admit this, as it would be used by people who were against decriminalisation. Instead, there is an emphasis on saying how empowering and enjoyable sex work is, when of course, like any job, it isn’t fun 100% of the time. Indeed, much of the time it can be frightening and dangerous, a situation greatly exacerbated by the current legal situation in this country.

There were other films I haven’t discussed here, and the festival also included a panel discussion. The directors of several of the films, the coordinator of the festival (Dr Heidi Hoefinger), plus a sex worker and a stripteases artist attempted to answer some very tough questions from the audience. The first two questions were about trafficking, a subject that really seems to dominate the issue of sex work, and for good reason. The problem was that the panel had very little knowledge of and no experience of trafficking, and so were slightly at a loss when it came to answering these questions in any depth.

What became increasingly clear to me was that sex workers who have gone into the sex industry of their own volition cannot speak for trafficked sex workers/slaves. Similarly, anti-decriminalisation campaigners who purport to speak for trafficked sex workers/slaves cannot also speak for sex workers who are doing this work of their own free will. To categorise both sets of workers as in the same position is both erroneous and harmful, and results in either trafficked workers being dismissed as not existing/being a tiny minority of sex workers, or all sex workers being viewed as victims.

The festival was definitely a stimulating and alternative way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and it was good to see the event was completely sold out. What’s for certain is that for me at least it raised far more questions than it answered, though that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Body 'watchfulness': a pregnant pause

Pregnancy can be an alarming process. At perhaps no other time does your body change so swiftly and so radically. As women, we are conditioned to be ‘watchful’ of our bodies, forever checking that we haven’t put on weight/sprouted unacceptable hair/our clothes are well-fitting, age-appropriate, flattering and fashionable/our hair and make-up hasn’t utterly disgraced us in some unimaginable way.

With pregnancy, a woman has to accept that there is no way she can control her body in the way she has been used to doing. Hormonal changes alone will mean weight gain and a complete change of shape. This shouldn’t be distressing, but so often is. Plus, there is always another woman who seems to be doing pregnancy ‘better’ than oneself; she will remain immaculate and her neat little bump will be the only outward bodily change visible.

Pregnancy magazines, which are primarily designed to sell STUFF, don’t help the self-conscious expectant mother either. They’re full of ‘sexy maternity underwear’ (is there any time in the lives of women where they are ‘allowed’ to be unsexy?), and also healthy diet tips, ostensibly there to promote healthy ante-natal nutrition, but clearly with a nod to the weight-conscious woman. Articles ‘warning’ women about hidden calories, with tips about healthier snacking, only serve to guilt-trip women who may be reaching for sugary snacks because of low blood pressure or terrible pregnancy sickness. We all know, surely, that an apple is healthier than a donut – we don’t need it ramming down our throats (I don’t mean literally!).

I recall seeing a full-page piece about a post-natal corset (all black satin and red ribbons). The theory was that if you didn’t strap your ribs down after birth, fat would build up behind your rib cage. Hmm, I’d like to see the science behind that…are we talking about fat lungs here?! Yeah, that definitely sounds like something to worry about. Honestly, what garbage!

As an overweight teenager, and then later a self-conscious woman, I too find the prospect of piling on a few stone a difficult one to tolerate. As much as one tells oneself ‘I’m pregnant, this is what happens’, ‘This shouldn’t be a concern right now – having a healthy baby is more important’, it is difficult to shift a lifetime of conditioning, and it would take a stronger mind than mine to be completely free of this nonsense.

One thing I have learnt is this: after having my daughter in 2007 (and at the height of that pregnancy weighing, as I recall, 14 stone 4 lbs – of which my daughter made up 10 lbs 9 oz!), my self-consciousness and weight-obsessiveness diminished (though sadly didn't disappear entirely) a huge amount. Why? Well, I think I was kind of happy to just let my body ‘be’; it had done something pretty amazing, and I wasn’t going to give it such a hard time anymore. This didn’t mean I didn’t diet and go to the gym to lose the baby weight – I did, but I wasn’t going to go down the ‘I hate my body’ route any longer. I simply couldn’t hate something that had produced someone I love so much.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Horse Riding in Haringey

Here's a curious - and brilliant - idea: horse riding in Haringey. Resident Lydia Rivlin has long encouraged horse riding in the borough, providing ponies for kids to ride, at, for example, the Lordship Lane Festival. Lydia believes that all children should have the opportunity to ride, not just those with rich parents.

Her latest idea is an excellent one - I'll let Lydia explain:

'For those of you contemplating long drives out to Enfield to satisfy your kids' ambitions to ride, think how much more carbon and time efficient it would be to have riding right here in this borough. We have cricket pitches, football fields, gymnasia, tennis courts and golf clubs all catering for sports dominated by men and boys. Riding is a sport which appeals very strongly to girls and gives them a chance to shine. It is also an opportunity to give the disabled some good exercise and psychological therapy. Why are the Council not making the most of their parkland resources to help it along?

'As some of you may know, I have been lobbying the council to lease part of Alexandra Park to any company which is prepared to make a go of it as an equestrian centre. The interest from the councillors on the AP Trust has left something to be desired but interest from us ordinary folks has been phenomenal. We are holding a meeting in the Salisbury in Harringay (corner of Green Lanes & St. Ann's Road) on the evening of Wednesday 15th June and would welcome anyone who has ideas for furthering this project or who wants to show some support. All are invited, especially Trust members but also Councillors who have an interest in diversifying Haringey's programmes for fitness, youth welfare and sports for the disabled.'

I completely agree that Ally Pally would be a good place for this facility. Indeed, it has a 'horsey history', housing as it did a race course until 1970. I can also attest to the popularity of horse riding amongst girls; as a decidedly unsporty youth, I nevertheless enjoyed going riding every weekend for years. My daughter (pictured above, enjoying some pony time last summer in Norfolk) is also keen on the sport, and I'd like to be able to encourage her without having to trek out of London or pay a fortune for the privilege.

Here's to a good turnout for the meeting, and to the council daring to 'think outside the box' for a change!

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Veolia: dirty dealings in Haringey

On Wednesday night I attended a packed ‘Friends of Stationers Park’ emergency meeting, which had been called because of the swiftly deteriorating state of the park. Reg, the park warden who had been stationed in a hut at the bottom end of the Green flag park, retired in April, and in that short space of time the litter has mushroomed, much altering the attractiveness of this essential ‘green lung’ of Stroud Green.

Two representatives from Haringey Council were present, one of whom candidly stated that “the standard of the parks we’ve had in the borough over the last few years can’t be maintained.” This is of course because of the budget cuts, which mean that parks will now be under-resourced and much will depend on local people (“Don’t even SAY ‘Big Society’!” warned one attendee) when it comes to ongoing maintenance. There was no lack of enthusiasm for taking control of the park, and local children are to be drafted in to help pick up litter.

There was a curious moment when it was suggested that people doing Community Payback could be made use of to help with the tasks. The consensus was that it ‘wasn’t right’ for Stationers Park, as the park was ‘too small’ (“It would work for Finsbury Park”), and that the school children would see the criminals and this would lead to ‘awkward questions’. Having been pleased to see people doing Community Payback painting the playground on the estate where I live, I was surprised by this attitude.

The most heated discussion of the evening, however, concerned Veolia, the waste company who have recently taken over the Haringey waste contract. This controversial company, who have been targeted by activists due to their dubious involvement in Palestine and the Occupied Territories, have taken up residence in nine parks across the borough.

They have taken over Reg’s old hut in Stationers Park, although, incredibly, they aren’t contracted to pick up the litter in the park! Indeed, they have been ‘dumping’ bags of litter behind the hut, causing an eyesore. (A waste company dumping rubbish – oh the terrible irony!).

But it gets worse. They have erected an ugly-as-sin corrugated metal fence (without, we suspect, planning permission). In so doing, they have damaged the roots of a beautiful silver birch tree.

There have been similar complaints about Veolia’s behaviour in nearby Priory Park.

My own experience of their service so far is that they have failed to collect the rubbish from the estate in a timely manner, leading to rubbish overflowing from the bins (see above picture) and blowing all over the estate. As one of my neighbours commented to me last week (as we stood conversing next to a pile of dog poo and a used surgical dressing), “This place gets worse and worse.” Indeed, we have rats running around behind the bin chamber and in the back gardens now, which is no surprise.

Daily calls to Veolia, Haringey Council and Homes for Haringey (how nice it would be just to have to make ONE phone call!) have resulted in our Estate Manager admitting that Veolia are causing huge problems all over the borough.

It is worth bearing in mind that Veolia are one of the three waste companies bidding to run the misguided MBT plant in Pinkham Way. Surely Haringey Council will look at their record so far and turn down their bid? We can only hope for once that common sense prevails.

Monday, 23 May 2011

"This is pure environmental vandalism" says Stroud Green resident.

Stan Knapik of Stroud Green contacted me a couple of weeks ago. He'd seen that Haringey Green Party had previously campaigned against the felling and pollarding practices of Haringey Council after the borough felled 1229 street trees between 2004 and 2007. Inderwick Road resident Mr Knapik had photographed the blossom tree just days before it was felled (see above), and was appalled to see it missing when he returned home on Tuesday.

“There was nothing wrong with this tree,” commented Mr Knapik. “On the contrary, it was beautiful and really contributed to the attractiveness of this street. Nobody was consulted, and now we’re told that the trees on nearby Granville Road are set to be heavily pollarded.”

Despite the fact that I have challenged the council about these issues repeatedly, we are still seeing the borough’s street trees decimated. Trees are felled for the most spurious of reasons, and replacement trees are often planted in different locations and end up vandalised or ailing due to inadequate aftercare. Spring is exactly the wrong time to be pollarding the trees – one reason alone is the issue of nesting birds.

Mr Knapik concluded, “I’m seeing street trees all over the borough being felled, despite the fact that they have been happy growing where they are for, in some cases, over one hundred years. The local Green Party have been active about this issue and take it seriously, but when will Haringey Council change their ways? This is pure environmental vandalism.”


Stroud Green Neighbourhood Day - a success again!

On Saturday I went along to Stroud Green Neighbourhood Day, which is always a yearly highlight. Residents take to the streets, set up stalls, perform music and generally have a great day.

This year was another great success, with the action taking place around the library. When I arrived with my cake (of course), I was told to get cutting. I have honestly never seen a cake disappear so quickly; two minutes (possibly less) and it was gone. Wow. Those Stroud Greenites love a bit of home made carrot and banana cake, that much is certain.

It's a lovely event and I'm glad the residents make the effort to hold it each year. It reinforces community spirit, bringing people out of their homes and onto the street to meet their neighbours. I wish more areas did the same; it takes a bit of teamwork and effort, but the benefits are manifold.

Next year I'm hoping to help organise, along with the Friends of Stationers Park, a 'Big Lunch' for the residents in the streets surrounding the park. A street party minus the royal wedding - that can't be a bad thing!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A spot of guerrilla gardening!

It's a great feeling when you manage to get something done that you've been meaning to get around to for a while, isn't it? For a long time I've been meaning to go and sort out a rather neglected flower bed (pictured above) which is located on the corner of Archway Road and Bakers Lane in Highgate. It's a particularly unlovely spot with traffic roaring past, and litter strewn about the place.

On the way to pick my daughter up from nursery today I planted some giant sunflower seeds in the flower bed, and we'll see whether they're a success or not. I was surprised at how weed-free the soil was, and the reason for that became clear very quickly. No sooner had I started planting the seeds than a man came along and told me that he had weeded the bed that very morning (he lives just next to the spot on Archway Road). He was delighted that I was planting the seeds - I just hope they grow!

If they thrive, people coming into the borough from Barnet or coming off the North Circular will be greeted by a flower bed of nodding giant sunflowers. I'll be sure to post a picture here if all goes well!

Friday, 13 May 2011

An Unsure Footing (bring your own glue).

I had often heard that there are huge waiting lists for podiatry and foot health appointments in Haringey. People waiting for their treatment were reportedly hugely inconvenienced – as well as experiencing unnecessary pain – by being made to wait so long.

I wear orthotics in my shoes because of my bad back, Achilles tendon problems and the fact that one leg is a bit longer than the other (to quote one plain-speaking expert, I am ‘far from mechanically perfect’).

I’ve always had the orthotics made up on the NHS, formerly at St Ann’s Hospital and then, when the service moved, at Lordship Lane Polyclinic (which is a mere THREE bus rides from my flat, four year old in tow…). I’ve never waited that long for an appointment in the past, and wondered how true it was that the waiting lists were incredibly long.

However, having broken an orthotic at the end of last year, I asked for a referral in December, and then I waited. And waited (my back pain become worse as a result). I chased up my appointment several times and eventually found out I’d be seen in early April. The morning of the appointment, a call came through that the member of staff whom I was to see was ill, and I’d have to wait for another month.

At my delayed appointment, I was told that the woman was the only person dealing with orthotics for the whole borough as the other member of staff, who I had previously seen, left their role and their post was closed. The woman told me she couldn’t make my orthotics that day as the appointment was just ten minutes long, and that I’d have to come back in a few weeks for a full assessment.

That appointment took place today. Mentioning to the woman that I am pregnant and suffering from additional pain due to Symphis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD), I was hurriedly told “you can’t wear orthotics when pregnant!” (news to me) and that “I should ask if people are pregnant – I always forget!”

It was agreed that I would have some temporary, softer contraptions made up – but get this – THEY HAD RUN OUT OF GLUE! – and so they would have to post them to me. It was either that or they make them up with double sided tape! (No, really, I am not making this up – if only!).

Now, I knew I had to take my broken orthotics and some shorts along to the assessment, but I didn’t know I had to take my own glue. If it had said so on the letter I’d have popped into Rymans on the arduous journey to the clinic!
Seriously though, what a mess. I’m lucky: although ‘far from mechanically perfect’ I can get about okay, albeit with varying levels of discomfort. Others aren’t so lucky and will be seriously incapacitated by this unbelievably shoddy service. Now that the local PCT has been dissolved, I am not even sure who is ‘at the wheel ‘of the local health service. Clearly whoever it is is fast asleep. And it is alarming that after just one year of this government, the NHS has already noticeably worsened.


Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Keep 'em ignorant...

You have to give Nadine Dorries MP points for trying. What a shame she’s a deluded pro-lifer who is putting her efforts into restricting girls’ and women’s freedoms and reproductive choices.

This is the MP, you will recall, who tried to get the abortion limit brought down from 24 weeks, and preached about ‘counselling’ (i.e. pro-life bullying) being the best option. This is the woman who believes it is no big deal to go through an unwanted pregnancy, because there’s the option of putting the baby up for adoption at the end. Writing as a 13 weeks pregnant woman, now on my ninth week of puking and fainting, I can tell you that pregnancy is no picnic. Indeed, over the last two months I have repeatedly thought, with abject horror, of how traumatising it must be to go through this experience against one’s will. It is hard enough when you really want the baby, believe me.

Now the delightful Tory MP is celebrating because she’s just got a 10 minute rule bill through the House of Commons which is all about teaching 13 to 16 year old girls abstinence. Notice it’s about teaching the girls not to have sex, not the boys. This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my husband’s relatives a few weeks ago. A woman in her seventies, she had told her granddaughter at the age of 13 “to remain a virgin for as long as possible.” I asked if she was going to be giving the same advice to her now 13 year old grandson? “No!” she exclaimed. “He’s a boy!” I’ll let you imagine my retort!.

Dorries is concerned that girls are being taught about sex too young, and this is making them want to do it, instantly. My four year old daughter already knows the very basic facts about how babies are made (“a seed bashes into an egg”, to quote her directly!), and I think an on-going dialogue about sex and relationships is the way forward, with the degree of detail depending on the age and maturity of the child and the questions they ask.

I don’t think that knowing about sex means that you feel the need to go off and try out for real what you’ve learnt. I always felt that I was one of the most informed of my school friends when it came to sex, thanks to the fact that I read ‘Just Seventeen’ every week (I always turned to the problem pages first!). However, when 14 year old girls in my class, with little clue about sex, were already sexually active, I was in no hurry to join their ranks. Doing it for the sake of doing it held zero appeal, partly due, I expect, to the fact that I was clued-up and so not going to be easily led or misinformed. Knowledge is most definitely power.

What also annoys me deeply about Dorries’ latest mission to protect the virtue of the nation’s girls is how heterosexual the whole thing is. She talks of ‘girls making boys wait’. I wonder if sex education is still as heterosexual-centric as it was in the early nineties, when the fifteen year old me was given extremely short shrift by a visiting sex education woman when I asked – rather daringly, I reckon -about safe lesbian sex. (I ended up getting my information from a programme on Channel 4 – thanks, Channel 4!).

Here’s an idea for Dorries’ next mission: she should bring in a ten minute rule bill suggesting that school kids should be taught about gay sex, because you can’t get pregnant from that, and all of this malarkey is about lowering the abortion rate (I think that’s what she’s aiming for, though frankly, who knows?!). Somehow though I am not sure Dorries will go for my suggestion…!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Pop goes the Primary School

A few weeks down the line from when the primary school places allocation was announced here in London, and I am hearing terrible stories about the children who failed to get into their preferred schools. In some cases, here in Haringey, children have been given places outside of the borough, which most probably means children being driven to school, which isn’t great news in terms of air quality, the environmental impact or the health of the child.

One Stroud Green couple found that, despite living just two streets away from their preferred school, their twins have been given their fifth and sixth choices. They are of course appealing, which in itself is a very stressful process, in order to at least get both children into the same school.

Some boroughs have already announced plans to build ‘flat-pack’ classrooms (neighbouring Barnet plans 16, for example), whilst Haringey is apparently in talks with a ‘business mogul’ (it says here), who is thinking of setting up a so-called ‘free school’.

I am not sure what the answer is (though I don’t think it’s free schools, and there are only so many extra classrooms a school can build), but the problem is set to get worse. The number of pupils in state primary schools is projected to increase about 14% from 3.96 million last year to 4.5 million by 2018. Statistics from the Department for Education show that the rise is steepest in London. Between 2009 and 2014, the capital's population aged between five and 10 will rise by about 16%. In the rest of the country, it will grow by about 12%.

I am reminded of a quotation from Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’: ‘ we are too many.’ Yes, I know it’s rich for me to say that when I’m currently concentrating on my own ‘population expansion project’ (though I absolutely guarantee I’m stopping at two!) but I can’t help but think that London, where the problem of school place shortages (not to mention housing shortages!) is at its worst, is simply ‘full up’. To an extent the capital is a victim of its own success. I’m certainly not suggesting any solutions, but instead highlighting a problem that we ignore at our peril.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter fun in Stationers Park

No, this isn't an advert for Cream Eggs (I'm more a Mini Eggs fan myself), but it's me helping to run the annual Easter Egg hunt at Stationers Park, Stroud Green, earlier today.

I had the onerous task of hiding the patterned mdf eggs around the park. Too easy to spot and nobody's challenged; too tricky and I devastate the youngsters. I'm told I pitched it perfectly, though the one hidden in the fork of the willow tree outfoxed many.

Kids were rewarded for their toils with a Cream Egg, kindly donated by the local Waitrose. We took monetary donations, which will be put towards the replacement for the playfort, which is due to be demolished starting on 3rd May.

As a Friends of Stationers Park committee member (I was recently co-opted), I have been researching possible funding avenues for the new play equipment. We're still in need of £150,000, and so there's a lot of work to do to make sure we secure the money for a worthy replacement to the much loved but now structurally unsound fort.

I'm not sure we raised a lot of money today, but it was more about giving the families a bit of Easter fun. I think we definitely ticked that box, and the sun even deigned to shine for us, which was nice.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Breastfeeding promotion: leapardskin bras, groping hands...

I saw some interesting NHS posters promoting breastfeeding today. They were displayed inside University College Hospital, and came in three designs, and so were pinned up as a triptych.

The first one featured a rather nice pair of breasts, one of which was in a rather daring leopardskin brassiere, the other of which was exposed and feeding a baby. ‘Designer Mum. Designer Milk’ read the slogan (see above!).

The second poster featured same nice bosoms (the bra had disappeared by this point), one of which was being mauled by a baby’s hand, the other of which was being groped by a fella’s hand. I can’t quite recall the slogan but the gist was ‘keep your baby AND your man happy’. The small print is that your baby can enjoy your breasts and hey, guess what, so can (and I quote), ‘your man’.

The third poster was the same woman, this time holding the baby with one arm and lifting a small dumbbell with the other. (I should mention that as well as lovely tits the model pictured has the teeniest, most toned stomach in the history of stomachs…i.e. it is not exactly in the shape of most post-natal mothers. Oh, and no stretch marks in sight, of course). Message: breastfeeding helps you get slim.

Now, I’m all for a bit of pro-boobfeeding propaganda. But I was a bit alarmed about the message these posters are putting out. Namely, breastfeeding will make you trendy, sexy and skinny – the holy trinity, no less!

Is it really true? There are loads of benefits to breastfeeding, but they’re more along the lines of long term health benefits to mother and baby. As for breastfeeding making you sexy, I’m not sure I’d welcome having my left bosom fondled whilst breastfeeding with the right. I know I always brag that women are excellent multi-taskers, but come on. The small print went on to reassure women that breastfeeding wouldn’t ‘ruin’ your tits. Perhaps not, though I recall how one female friend laughingly told me that her breasts were like ‘two sad little empty envelopes’ after she’d finished breastfeeding. Also, with all the ‘your man’ messaging, what of single mothers or lesbian couples? Not something the poster designers took into account, clearly!

And what about breastfeeding being a route to weight loss? Hmm…not in my experience! But then, if you’ve just been through the biggest event in your life and you’re struggling to cope with a newborn and establish breastfeeding, should your weight be an issue at the forefront of your mind? Er, no, despite what celebrity culture might tell us, it should not. There’s plenty of time for that malarkey down the line if a woman is concerned about her weight, but I have to tell you that boobfeeding isn’t some sort of guaranteed weight loss miracle!

So I was a little perturbed by the tone of these promotions. I know they were aiming for being controversial and eye catching, but I have an idea which is even more controversial. A poster campaign that exposes the dubious nature of the formula industry, the poor health outcomes for bottle-fed babies compared to breastfed ones.

But that would never happen, because the formula industry would sue. So for now, it’s leopardskin-clad breasts and hairy male hands groping lactating breasts. Um, not much would put me off breastfeeding, but….!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The NHS: a patient's view

Last week I spent a couple of days and nights in the Whittington hospital. Don’t worry though, this post isn’t going to be about my ailments, but rather the current state of the NHS as I saw it during my thankfully brief stay.

Having been taken to hospital in an ambulance (no flashing lights, it wasn’t that serious), I was kept in Accident and Emergency on a trolley from about 1.30am till 10.30am, due to the fact that a bed couldn’t be found for me in the ward I needed to be on.

I couldn’t fault the staff who dealt with me during this time, though clearly being kept waiting whilst ill and in pain was far from ideal.

When I finally made it to the ward, I felt so grateful to get into my bed, albeit gingerly because of the double canula in my hand. The first thing I noticed though, on lying down, was that there were three big blobs of chewing gum stuck to the underside of the rail that runs around the middle of the wall, and that they were placed right next to my head. Hardly reassuring when we all already worry about ‘hospital superbugs’.

I am not the best of patients, being squeamish to an almost phobic degree, but the staff were reassuring, kind and funny. I saw one nurse repeatedly sit and talk with patients, getting to know them, and taking a real interest in their lives. She would pluck anything from the air and start a conversation about it – in my case, she asked me about my tattoos. She is the sort of person I would probably find a mite irritating in ‘real’ life, but ill in hospital, where even the most confident person feels somewhat child-like and diminished, I found her presence a great reassurance. When she went off shift at the end of the day, she told us what time she would be back the next morning, and I actively looked forward to her reappearance.

Because night time was a different story. Two nurses were in sole charge of the ward, and they made it no secret that they were struggling, complaining non-stop, angrily, that they couldn’t cope with their workload. I can’t blame them for their attitude, but it didn’t feel at all reassuring for us patients.

As the night shift started, an elderly woman from the Congo, who spoke no English, was wheeled from theatre into the bay next to mine. Confused and afraid, naked but for an undone surgical gown, she launched herself out of her bed, despite the fact that she was both attached to a drip and had an epidural in her spine. I remonstrated that she stay where she was, and called for the nurse. The nurse shouted at her and wrestled the woman back into her bed, whilst the woman talked urgently in her native language, of which of course no one understood a word.

She kept saying one word again and again; I forget what it was now, but let’s, for argument’s sake, say it was ‘lette’. “Lette?” said the nurse gruffly. ”Whatever lette means!” She marched off, and I was reminded of the bullying midwives I had endured at the Royal Free Hospital in January 2007, who I still have very real nightmares about today.

The milk of human kindness was again in evidence when I needed help in the night. After going to the toilet, I started to feel very faint. A nurse had her back to me, and was doing some admin. “I feel faint,” I said, bending forwards and placing my drip back on a chair that was handy. The nurse didn’t turn around and simply muttered “in a minute.”

Clearly these two nurses were in a difficult situation, short-staffed and run off their feet. But if you cannot summon up the ability to be kind in a job like nursing, it’s time to leave.

I also wondered if their anti-social hours were badly affecting their behaviour and judgement. Taking my blood pressure and pulse, one of them proceeded to wheel away the machine without undoing the cuff and the clip from my arm and finger respectively, leading me to cry out “I’m still attached!” (I was most alarmed because it was the same arm as the double canula was in, and it was pulling on the vein as a consequence). “I’m sorry, darling!” said the nurse, coming back to rectify her mistake. Sleep deprived, I wondered?

I myself was sleep-deprived after that night, which was marked by the harrowing cries of pain from my fellow patients. One woman was held down as she has a catheter inserted, the nurses repeatedly shouting at her to “relax!” Another woman cried out with severe abdominal pains, her waters having broken after a pregnancy of just 17 weeks. There is no privacy or dignity with only a thin curtain separating you from other people’s traumas and tragedies.

Despite the negative experience of the night shift, I was left with a feeling of intense respect for the medical staff I came into contact with. Who on earth would take on a low paid job with anti-social hours, which involved heavy lifting, emotional upheaval and endless gore? Where you might be torn between twenty needy, demanding patients, have to complete endless, seemingly needless paperwork, and spend a lot of your time cleaning up piss, shit and vomit? How much less worthwhile will this work seem when the NHS is carved up, sold off to the highest bidder, and profit rather than care becomes king?

I hope I never have to look back on this hospital visit and think: that’s when we had an NHS. That’s when we didn’t have to worry about how much treatment cost, because we used to believe that the right to good healthcare was intrinsic to a democratic society. When healthcare professionals, rather than being motivated by money simply had an innate desire to help people.

We have a wonderful thing in the NHS. We’ve seen it run down and left to rot many times over the past few decades, with many people who can afford it abandoning ship and going private. I think we have to shout from the rooftops that most of us aren’t willing to do that – we want an NHS that’s fit for purpose that allows those nurses and other medical staff the chance to do the work they need and want to do; to treat people with dignity, as individuals, and nurse them back to better health.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

All aboard the sleeper train!

I've been meaning to write about sleeper trains for a while, because having been on them a few times now, and having mentioned them to lots of people, I've been really surprised by how many people just don't know they exist in the UK.

They do exist! Two of them, to be exact. There's the Caledonian Sleeper, which goes to the Scottish Highlands, and there's the Night Riviera, which goes to Cornwall.

Sleeper cabins are either single or double (the latter come with bunk beds). A family can get adjoining cabins, which means you can open the inter-connecting door, thus giving you much more space. They are actually a great way to transport children - ! - because they of course get very excited by the adventure of it all (as do I, to be honest), and yet you can contain them in the cabin, rather than have them run up and down the train, annoying people.

Also, the rhythm of the train will soon send them off to sleep (that's not just my optimistic theory, it genuinely is the case, with my daughter at least). Whether the same can be said for adults is another matter, though the beds are comfortable and there are actual duvets. Yes, duvets on a train. (Note: in the above picture, I am merely pretending to be asleep - drat. Clementine, however, isn't pretending at all!)

As someone with a bad back, I love to lie down (nothing to do with being a lazy so-and-so, oh, no...), and just the thought of sitting all the way to Scotland and back has me reaching for the Tramadol. Another point I hardly need to mention is that the carbon emissions are going to be vastly lower than if you chose to fly. They just need to make taking the sleeper a more economically viable option (though you can get some good-priced tickets) and it would be the obvious choice for most of us.

In short, nothing beats getting on the train in London and, upon waking, pulling up the blind to see snow-topped mountains rolling past. 'Where are we?' is the of course the obligatory first question of the day!

Monday, 7 March 2011

No to AV's spectacular own goal

In Leeds yesterday I saw a huge 'No to AV' campaign billboard. It featured a newborn baby in possibly a doctor's hands. The slogan read something along the lines of 'She needs a new maternity ward. She doesn't need an Alternative Vote system'.

Whilst I am delighted that the No campaign are doing some important campaigning to improve maternity services in the UK (I am being a little sarcastic here, in case you're wondering), I'm a little confused by what the state of maternity care has to do with AV.

Oh, I get it! If we had a fairer (not fair, but fairer) voting system, MPs would have to actually work hard to keep the support of the majority of their constituents. Rather than sweeping away the long-term problems (such as the crisis in maternity services), they would have to address them, not just with fine words ('maternity matters'!), but with concrete deeds.

So that means a 'Yes' vote in May is the way forward. 'No' Campaign, I think that's what you call an own goal...

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Eigg: Big Green Footsteps for us to follow

I doubt many people have heard of the Isle of Eigg (pronounced 'egg’), which is one of the ‘Small Isles’ situated off the western coast of the Scottish Highlands. It is only five and a half miles long, with 95 inhabitants, and it has a distinctive appearance, making it easy to spot from the ferry, because of ‘An Sgurr’, a great stump of columnar pitchstone lava. I spent just a couple of wet and windswept hours there last week, but it made a deep impression on me for several reasons.

Eigg has a troubled history. A lengthy feud between the McLeod and the McDonald clans led to a massacre of 395 inhabitants in a cave in the 16th Century. Fast forward to more recent times, and the island was sold by one negligent owner to the next. Keith Schellenberg, for example, the Olympic bobsleigher and gelatine heir (now there’s a C.V!), let properties run to rack and ruin during his time as ‘laird’, and drove many people from the island. His vintage Bentley was set on fire for retribution: not happy times.

Indeed, there are still signs of the dilapidation that the succession of ‘negligent landlords’ left in their wake; neglect, it seems, is hard – and costly – to rectify. Stumbling across a house where windows and doors, and even at one side, a floor were missing, but which still contained furniture, books, a cooker and a kettle, I couldn’t help but wonder at the tiny island’s sad, embattled past. (The photo of the staircase, above, is taken inside this eerie abandoned house).

In 1997, though, things started to change for the better. The islanders managed to raise the money to buy the island for themselves, and since then they have started to take, in their own words, ‘big Green footsteps.’

Houses on the island used to get their electricity from diesel generators, but now, with 3 hydroelectric generators (pictured above), 4 wind turbines and photovoltaic cells (also pictured above) on some buildings, Eigg is self-sufficient. Eigg homes only produce a third of the waste of other UK households, and are working at sending less skips of rubbish to the mainland. They plan to produce their own food in the future, meaning they do not have to have food ferried over as much.

No surprise, then, with such a small group of people working towards the same goals, there is a great sense of community here. The community noticeboard, which I perused on my all-too-brief visit, was a truly heart-warming sight. There were colourful notices for a singing group, community meetings, art projects and plenty of socials.

I am keen to go back to Eigg, possibly in the summer, when the community runs courses in sustainability (although the website about these courses is not up to date, and I wonder whether this project has got off the ground). Not content on just creating their own little Green utopia, the islanders also hope that their message and way of life will catch on elsewhere. In a leaflet I picked up there, they write ‘we hope what we have done will inspire you to do something, too. (…). Any community can be a green island.’

I quite agree – and I can’t recommend a trip to this little-known island highly enough!

Monday, 28 February 2011

My 1-2-3-4 picks for the London Assembly List

I returned from a half-term break in the Scottish Highlands (posts to follow!) to find the ballot papers for the Green Party’s Mayoral and London Assembly selections waiting for my attention. I’d already decided who my London Assembly 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th preferences would be going to, and here is my decision, plus the reasons behind it:

1st preference: Natalie Bennett

Natalie has been a member of the Green Party since January 1st 2006, when she joined as a New Years' Resolution. Whilst most New Years’ Resolutions are forgotten by the second week in January, Natalie couldn’t really have thrown herself into Green Party activism with more gusto. She served as Internal Communications Coordinator on GPEx for four years – that really is beyond the call of duty! – and has founded the group ‘Green Party Women’ within the party, making links with women’s campaigns and NGOs, promoting women within the party and forming excellent new policies.

In short, she never really stops, and with such an incredible drive, coupled with the fact that she is extraordinarily articulate, she would no doubt be the very best Green Party London Assembly member imaginable.

Indeed, Jean Lambert MEP’s comment that ‘Natalie can take the pressure’ really struck a chord with me. She can, and that is of course essential for any high profile, elected Green. So for all of the above reasons, plus many more too numerous to list here, Natalie is my first choice for the London list.

2nd and 3rd preferences: Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson

Jenny and Darren have done fantastic work over the last ten years as our hard-working, articulate and dedicated team on the London Assembly. From campaigning on issues as diverse as the London Living Wage, to improving cycling provision, their work in planning and housing and their efforts to highlight the problems with London’s air quality, we couldn’t have asked for two more eloquent ambassadors. Both fully deserve to be re-elected to carry on their important work.

4th preference: Caroline Russell

Although relatively new to the party, Caroline has massively impressed both me and others with her community campaigning work and her engagement in Green politics.

The story goes that Caroline was approached by no less than three parties: Islington Labour Party, the Lib Dems and us Greens. All had been impressed by her dedication to the issue of pedestrians: she is the Chair of Islington Living Streets, and is absolutely passionate, not to mention incredibly knowledgeable, about the issue.

Caroline went home and read all three parties’ manifestos, and – of course! – she found that she agreed with the Green Party’s philosophy and aims. It is always good when we can turn a community activist into a Green Party member and a candidate; it’s something we, as a party, are particularly good at. (Contrast that with the Lib Dems, to whom a ‘community activist’ is someone who can hold a petition aloft whilst looking a bit perturbed, or, alternatively, squat down and point at a pot hole, looking simply devastated).

I’m sure Caroline – who follows in a rich tradition of excellent Green Party Carolines, let’s not forget! – would make an excellent Assembly Member, carrying on her dedication to campaigning about important issues that affect the lives of all Londoners.

So that’s my 1-2-3-4, and yet there are so many excellent candidates still left to choose from!

I would really encourage all London Green Party members to take a look at the candidates’ leaflets, attend the hustings if they can do this coming Saturday, and then have their say – deadline for ballot papers is 12 noon on March 17th. It’s both important for internal democracy that we have a good turnout, plus we’ll be campaigning for these folks so let’s make sure we have the very best candidates at the top of the list!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Feminist 'Big Bank Bail In'

On Saturday morning, NatWest in Camden Town became a crèche, as part of nation-wide protests organised by campaign group UK Uncut. Parents and children swooped on the branches of the bank across the UK, and Camden Town saw a large gathering of parents, armed with craft materials and musical instruments.

I was there with Clementine, my 4 year old. In Camden, nursery provision will be cut from 25 hours a week to just 15 hours a week as a result of Government cuts. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the UK loses over £25 billion a year in tax avoidance. If even a quarter of that could be clawed back we would be able to avoid these huge, devastating cuts which will impact on every single child in the UK.

Bank staff and customers looked on as the children indulged in homemade cakes, sang songs (accompanied by a guitarist, as pictured above) and enjoyed craft activities (glitter featured heavily) - oh, as well as causing much pandemonium (at one point some boys decided to see what would happen if they poured a pot of glue into a toy trumpet...).

Parents handed out leaflets to explain that there was a serious reason behind the fun event.

We cannot underestimate the loss of these services for local families. Universal, affordable childcare is a lifeline for low and middle-income families. People are justifiably angry that whilst the Government cuts are impacting on normal people, the banks are seemingly getting away scot free.

Take, for example, the CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, who will be awarded an £8 million bonus this year. That would be enough to cover both Camden and Haringey’s childcare costs!

After a rousing final number we left peacefully, point made. The press were there in force (I was interviewed by Sky News, for example), so the message we were there to promote was hopefully spread far and wide. And NatWest will be vacuuming glitter out of their carpet for some time yet (I speak from bitter (glitter!) experience...).

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Featherstone votes 'Yes' to Forest Sell-Off

In yet another epic betrayal, Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone last week to voted to sell off Britain’s forests.

The government is planning a massive sell off of the UK’s forests. They could be auctioned and fenced off, run down, logged or turned into golf courses and holiday villages.

Three Conservative and four Lib Dem MPs rebelled and voted with Labour on Wednesday night in a Commons forestry debate. A further seven coalition MPs abstained and many others spoke but did not vote, suggesting they were unhappy with the proposals. However, Hornsey and Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone instead voted to sell off the nation’s forests.

We can't let that happen. We need to stop these plans. National treasures like the Forest of Dean, Sherwood Forest and The New Forest could be sold off. Once they are gone, they will be lost forever, which will both alter the landscape of this country and irrecoverably damage the environment.

A national campaign to stop the sell-off has already gathered almost 500,000 signatures - if you haven't signed it yet, please click on the below link.

The public bodies bill, which would give the government the authority to sell all English state-owned woodland, goes before the Lords next week and the Commons later this month.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Featherstone: Beyond Hypocritical

I was staggered to read Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone’s assertion last week in the Ham and High that ‘we should protect our most vulnerable’ and that, locally, ‘the drastic cut to service for older people is a very poor decision’.

Why was I staggered? Because Ms. Featherstone, as a Government minister, is in part responsible for the drastic and unfair cuts to public spending, the impact of which we are only beginning to see. The cuts will dismantle the welfare state, send inequality sky-rocketing and hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. A cabinet of millionaires (and that includes my own MP) have decided that libraries, healthcare, education funding, voluntary services, sports, the environment, the disabled, the poor and the elderly must pay the price for the recklessness of the rich.

The National Pensioners’ Convention reported on the ways in which the Comprehensive Spending Review would impact on pensioners. Amongst other findings, it highlighted that:

- The Winter Fuel Allowance is to be reduced in 2011 from £250 to £200 for households under 80, and from £400 to £300 for the over 80s.
- Funding for the £280m Warm Front programme will be cut over the next 2 years to £110m in 2011-12 to £100m to 2012-13.
- The money for adult social care will not be ring-fenced, leading to concerns that cash-strapped councils will use it for other services.
- Local councils will have their funding cut by 27% over the next 4 years. This is likely to affect all non-statutory services, some of which, such as day care centres and meals on wheels are vital to many older people.

This, of course, is exactly what is happening in Haringey, with Abyssinia Court in Stroud Green being threatened. I visited the centre in 2008 in my role of Green Party candidate for the area, and was impressed by the staff, the atmosphere and the facilities.

That Ms. Featherstone would criticise the council for cutting services when they have had their budget slashed by the Government in which she is a minister smacks not only of a shameless hypocrisy, but it is also deeply patronising to the voters of her constituency. She herself will know that the constituents of Hornsey and Wood Green are diverse, informed and engaged, and unlikely to be fooled by such hypocritical statements.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Maytree: a lifeline for those in despair

Yesterday morning I found myself knocking on a very ordinary-looking door on a terrace house in Finsbury Park. But I soon discovered that since 2002, some extraordinary work has been going on behind that door. Lives which had fallen apart and which were deemed unliveable and unbearable were pieced back together, and people were set back on the path to stability and contentment.

Sue Hessel and I have been campaigning on the issue of the Archway Bridge for a few months now, and we have been surprised and delighted by the response we have been continuing to get from the community. A residents’ group is re-forming to help campaign alongside us. A woman, who had previously jumped from a bridge and survived, contacted me to say that she wanted to get involved with our campaign. And just this week, we were contacted by Paddy Bazeley (pictured above with Sue and I), who is the founder of Finsbury Park’s ‘Maytree’, a ‘sanctuary for the suicidal’.

I have to admit to having some slight trepidations about our visit – what would a ‘sanctuary for the suicidal’ be like, exactly? As it turned out my fears were entirely unfounded. A more homely, welcoming and warm place I couldn’t imagine; a place where guests (not ‘patients’, nor indeed ‘clients’ or ‘service users’) can stay for five days and take things at their own speed. There’s no set programme, no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and no money is paid by guests because the centre is funded by donations and relies largely on volunteers. It has been shortlisted for a Guardian Charity Award for the last two years.

When guests leave, they are given a goodbye letter, which many people have said is something they take out and re-read at ‘wobbly’ moments. They will also be ‘linked in’ with services that will benefit them: Paddy told us that around 75% of people who kill themselves have had no help from or contact with mental health services.

Paddy excitedly told us that they are planning to open another centre in South London, and yet another in Bristol, thus spreading the good work of the team to yet more people in need. The people they help come from all backgrounds, and I asked Paddy what she thought the reason was for the three people who jumped to their deaths in as many weeks at the end of last year were all men, in their late 20s or early 30s? Paddy made an interesting assertion that the female suicide rate may be higher than national statistics would suggest because coroners are more likely to record an ‘open verdict’ with women, possibly because men are usually seen as the more likely gender to commit suicide.

“We have space for four people at any one time,” commented Paddy. “At the moment we have two empty beds. We are just down the road from the Archway Bridge. People need to know we are here.”

By a strange coincidence, the aforementioned woman who had contacted us about using her own experience of attempting suicide to lend weight to our campaign was herself helped by Maytree. I will keep her anonymous, but these are her words:

“I have experienced suicidal feelings numerous times since I was a teenager and often ended up in hospital following attempts on my life. Desperate to avoid a repeat of such occurrences I sought out a different kind of crisis help. In the past I had been locked up on psychiatric wards with no psychological help during the darkest of times.

I came across Maytree and after an assessment was allowed to stay for four nights. I have never experienced such a hopeful, loving and compassionate place. The staff - paid therapists and a wonderful diverse and excellently trained set of dedicated volunteers - listened to what I had to say, helped me to explore my distress and gave me a gentle space in which to figure out what I needed to do next in order to pull myself back towards life.

I shall never again underestimate the profound effect kindness, empathy, and straight forward human connection can have on the soul at the most desperate of times. Maytree was more than a sanctuary for me, it fed enough life back to me that I left with a renewed appetite for it.

I really appreciate the work you're doing towards this cause.”

Sue Hessel, my fellow campaigner, and also a counsellor, was hugely impressed by the set-up at Maytree. Sue said “What’s wonderful about Maytree is that it’s about meeting need. It isn’t run as a business with layers of bureaucracy, or with making money as the object. This is how things used to be before the NHS began to be taken apart, and it’s how things should be now: organic and with solid founding principles.”

We continue to demand that TfL, the police, Haringey Council, English Heritage, the Samaritans, NHS Haringey and the engineers with the net solution sit down around a table and make 2011 the year when these tragic and unnecessary deaths finally come to an end.

As well as a net to catch anyone who jumped, we are campaigning for the free ‘SOS’ phone through to the Samaritans be reinstalled. As Sue memorably put it yesterday “All we are asking for is a ‘phone like you get every few hundred yard on the motorway. It seems we can deal with vehicle breakdowns but not people breakdowns.”

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Food, fat and feminism

I'm just back from the Progressive Women Resolution Party, where guest speaker Susie Orbach, author of 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' kicked off by saying that she didn't believe in 'resolutions' She pointed out that most women's new year's resolution is to diet and lose weight, something she herself decided not to do any more when she was in her twenties. (Please note: she is a very slim woman, or 'waif-like' as the only man in the audience commented).

Orbach argued that one of the West's biggest exports is body hatred, and she cited examples such as the rhinoplasty carried out in Singapore, where women undergo surgery to have 'western' noses.

Research has shown that women and girls 'check in with themselves' in a negative way about their bodies ever fifteen minutes. Orbach blames the diet industry, an industry, she says, which relies on failure. She said "we need to be exposing industries who are making money out of making us feel shit. And we need to challenge each other's complicity."

I asked her whether women are not, in many ways, their own worst enemies. Do we not 'police' each other's eating, appearance and weight? There was agreement that this is the case, but that we should always challenge this and make it clear that it is not an acceptable way to treat one another.

One thing Orbach said really stuck with me. It was about how girls learn to mimic their mother's eating habits, and how it is obvious that a daughter who sees her Mum has a fucked-up relationship with food will learn to have issues around eating, too. I think this is certainly the case for me, and something I have been very much aware of trying not to pass on to my own daughter. Whether I have succeeded or not remains to be seen.

A couple of audience members challenged Orbach, pointing out that there is an obesity crisis, and shouldn't we be advocating healthy eating? Orbach rejects the notions of Body Mass Index, saying that some of the people involved with coming up with it were from the diet industry. She said that when the school her kids went to 'banned' biscuits and so on in packed lunches, she went in to complain, saying that kids need foods with quickly-releasing energy, and that the school shouldn't be labelling foods as 'bad' as that actually makes them taboo, and as a result, alluring.

One idea she had which made a lot of sense to me was to train health visitors, midwives and teachers about how parents can pass on a healthy, balanced approach to food, rather than their own issues. She pointed out this would cost very little to do but would have huge benefits in terms of self-esteem and cutting down on the number of people with eating disorders.

As part of her campaign 'Endangered Species' (the endangered species being women who are completely comfortable in and happy with their own bodies) she is challenging the advertising industry to stop filling women's - and, increasingly, men's heads with messages saying that they must lose weight, adapt their appearances - increasingly through surgery - and spend a lot of money before they can be allowed to be happy with themselves.

I would completely agree. Just a couple of days ago, I was speaking with a female friend about the hideous messages we get from advertising. My friend cited the example of a Special K ad a few years ago, which had a song in it which said "Don't let your life go to waste!" In other words, if you are not skinny, your life is wasted. Nice.

I also recalled an ad I'd seen when I was about 5 years old - possibly younger. Again, it was for Special K (hmm...might be time to boycott Kelloggs...), which said that "if you can pinch more than an inch, it's time to eat 'Special K'."

"Mummy, what's an inch?" I asked. She showed me. I lifted my t-shirt and pinched my skin. I was fat. I need to diet. The TV had told me so - it must be true. I can honestly pin-point that moment as being the one where I became aware that my body was something to worry about, rather than just to live in, at ease. I'm hoping to delay my daughter's own 'Special K' moment for a good few years yet - though in an ideal world she would remain oblivious to such malign pressures, and be confident in her body for life.