Sunday, 28 October 2012

Standard deviation

There's this adorable kid I know, three years old, with the world's sweetest accent. His mum's Welsh, his dad's Italian, so he speaks with a lovely lilting mishmash of the two, with a hint of old Southampton drawl round the edges. Basically, once you've seen a chubby toddler clambering determinedly up the stairs shouting "Il gatto! IL GATTO!" in a Valleys accent, it will take a lot more than a cute sneezing panda video to tug your heartstrings.

But I realised that a lot of the reason I found this affecting - the reason it qualifies as an anecdote at all - is basically because I see myself (as we all do) as the measure of all things. A Welsh/English kid with an accent hovering somewhere over the Powys border: not much of a story. Because English = neutral, an English accent = a non-accent, a lack of accent.

No one thinks they have an accent. Because we all, subconsciously, assume that we are the Default Human Being, with all others a deviation from that rule. But some of us - like, say, white middle class girls from Hampshire (hi!), or London, or the Home Counties - have that belief backed up, reinforced daily, by a world which places Cockney or Geordie or Scouse or patois as Other; a world which still gets shocked - shocked, I tell you! - when Radio 4 daringly hires an announcer who doesn't speak in Received Pronunciation.

But some of us - those who learn to talk one way at home, but to polish their speech for job interviews; who get used to blank incomprehension when they relax for a moment into their mother tongue - are reminded every day that, however they might see themselves, their very voices are defined as a deviation.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The worst book I have ever read: a conundrum

Pottering around my favourite charity shop one day, in the classic 'curious owl' head-tilting pose of book-browsers everywhere, I came across The Worst Book In The World.

Now, I have read many books in my time. I have battled through dreary Classics and pretentious nouveau wanque. I have read the entire Fifty Shades trilogy. I have read the first three pages of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood at least six times. I know from whence I speak where bad books are concerned.

But this book. Oh my. I can't remember the title, or the author - I wish I could so I'd know to avoid it like an embarrassed one-night-stand in future. But even if I could, I wouldn't share it with you, because I don't want this idiot's tiny fame growing any greater, his google rankings going any higher, or to increase the chances that someone, somewhere, might have to suffer as I suffered.

The blurb promised a Hard-Hitting and Incisive Interrogation of the social, political and sexual life of a football hooligan. I like hard-hitting! I like incisive interrogation! Nosing into the fictional lives of the kinds of people I have never met and may never know is my idea of a fun Saturday night!

But no: it was, still, The Worst Book In The World. Quite apart from the astonishingly clunky writing, the utterly, amateurishly, flat characterisation and the hilariously awful sex scenes, it was the most blatantly sexist, racist, homophobic piece of shit that has ever slid past my eyeballs. Fiction can portray bigotry without perpetuating it - The Sopranos springs to mind - but honestly, this barely even qualified as fiction, and most certainly didn't have even the slightest shred of the deftness, self-awareness or intelligence to be able to tread that fine line. Seriously. It was awful.

Two chapters in, I admitted defeat. I hate not finishing a book, but I didn't want even another sentence of this tripe in my head. But this left me in quite the quandry: what do you do with a book that bad?

Obviously I couldn't give it to someone else: that is a torture I wouldn't inflict on anyone.

I couldn't give it to a charity shop: while raising more money for a good cause may in some way offset the evil I was very sure this book was perpetuating, I didn't think the former would outweigh the latter.

I'll be honest, I was tempted to destroy it in some way, but couldn't set fire to it: for the rest of my life, I'd know that I was the kind of person who had one day burnt a book.

So I searched my middle class soul and came up with the only possible solution: I put it in the recycling.


I'm not sure what effect it will have on this story if I tell you that I am now - enthusiastically and voluntarily - reading the Twilight saga. Yeah, I know.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Depression and Do-Gooding: Activism as therapy

I don't volunteer because I'm a good person. I don't do it out of sheer altruism or so I can feel smug about all the awesome things I do to make the world a more awesome place.

I volunteer because it's the bare minimum I can do and not hate myself.

This is a judgement I would never make of anyone else: any money you give to charity, any volunteering you do, any activism to make stuff better for the next generation - that's amazing. Anything is better than nothing. And if you do nothing - that's your choice. I haven't a clue what else you've got on or what your reasons are for your level of involvement and it's absolutely none of my business.

It's a depression thing, I think: applying incredibly harsh judgements to your own behaviour that you'd never dream of applying to anyone else. So if I did any less - gave less money, spent less time volunteering, made any less effort to spread awareness and change minds - I'd hate myself. I'd berate myself for being lazy and tight-fisted and caring too much about myself and not enough about everybody else in the world. (Which is a great way to head straight for burnout, by the way - I don't recommend it.)

This is in no small part a very gendered neurosis: I am only worthy if I am helping others.

And since I've been doing all this, I don't really think that much about how rubbish I am. I mean, I still get the acute pangs of embarrassment over something idiotic I said in 2002 and give an involuntary embarrassed groan while I'm paying for my vegetables - it's not like there aren't still days when it feels like 30,000 people are chanting YOU'RE SHIT AND YOU KNOW YOU ARE in perfect harmony inside my skull. But it's been a long time since I've been crippled by the certain knowledge that I am a terrible person with no morals who has no right to speak or opine or even exist.

Which is partly because I'm just better: my depression is nowhere near as severe as it was.

But I'm certain that I'm better in no small part because I'm active. Donating and volunteering and activising are proofs I can throw in the face of my depression: solid evidence that I'm not absolutely the worst person who has ever lived. Activism as therapy.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Patriarchy: also to blame for Mondays

It was one of those days. One of those days when you walk into work and immediately have two people thrusting phones at you, both insisting that "you HAVE to take this call, RIGHT NOW". When your to-do list grows longer than your arm before you've even had a chance to put the kettle on. When you're on the phone taking a booking for the upcoming disability conference while tweeting about the highs and very low lows of abortion funding while surreptitiously slipping tiny slivers of breakfast into your mouth and hoping the person you're calling won't notice... when the other phone rings. The BatPhone.

And it's a woman who needs your help because she can't afford to pay for the abortion she should, by any moral or logical standard, be entitled to gratis on the NHS. You're lucky, this time - and so is she - it's the start of the month so the bank account's looking relatively healthy. You take her details and arrange to call her back when you get home.

The rest of the day carries on in the same vein - work work work, work while eating, work while tweeting, work while checking the abortion fund email account - and you think, brilliant, I have achieved many things today. Not too much to get done tonight - depilate your entire body (prior to the boyfriend's return), clean the flat (ditto), call a couple of women back about funding their trips to England to access safe and legal abortion, maybe have a nice hot bath.

"Ha ha," says the universe. "Haha. It's a nice quiet evening you want, is it? That sounds like a challenge..."

Just as you get in, your Straight Best Friend calls inviting you out for dinner. Hurrah, you say! What a lovely way to relax. ("Relax," says the universe. "Haha.") In the 45 minutes between him calling and him turning up at your door, you've heard from four more women, two of whom have been through the most horrifying experiences you've ever had related to you. (Obviously I'm not going to violate their privacy by relating their stories here, but let's just say it would take an exceptionally cruel and heartless anti-choicer not to shed a tear for these women.) So when SBF arrives, all "hey hey it's best-pizza-in-north-London time!", you let out a strange high-pitched groan and collapse, hyperventilating slightly, in his arms.

It gets better. You call a couple of women back, and catch up on the admin - logging their details, liaising with clinics - while he cooks you dinner. You decompress, ranting, sobbing, letting out an odd banshee wail or two, and you're feeling much better by the time he leaves. You've now got an hour to wax, shave and pluck virtually all hair south of your eyelashes from your long-suffering skin (let's be honest, the bath looks like a wombat's murder scene), disguise the worst of the mess that comes from living alone for 10 days, make tomorrow's sandwiches and get to bed.

Good luck sleeping, though! The universe has other plans!


Basically the next time someone raises a sceptical eyebrow at me and says, "But has 'the patriarchy' really affected your life at all?", I am going to tell them about this day. But first I will probably scream.

NB Having to clean the flat is not actually the result of the patriarchy. It's a result of me being an untrammelled slob.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Jaw, meet floor: someone has admitted to being wrong on the internet

So I assume you've heard the story of the Reddit user who surreptitiously took a photo of a Sikh woman with facial hair, posted it on the internet for lolz, received the most unimaginably polite and dignified response from her, and then - contravening all known laws of internet physics - apologised?

The other night the ASN Facebook page got thoroughly trolled. The usual stuff - "you're going to burn in hell", "you are all murderers", "baby killer", whatever. It was very religious, very vitriolic, and very graphic: descriptions of "how you'll feel when you watch your baby get sucked out of you on the monitor", that kinda thing. (The poster has since deleted it, so I'm paraphrasing from memory.)

(It's odd how trolls always seem to think we're actually Abortionists: doctors, or clinic workers. Surely, given that we provide money for women seeking abortions, according to their logic, the doctors would be hit men and we'd be... a benevolent fund for people of limited means wanting to bump off their pre-born relatives? Anyway. I digress.)

So some people argued with her, some defended her; I stayed out of the fray - partly because ASN has a strict "Don't feed the trolls" policy and partly because I don't have the fucking energy to argue with people who think I'm a murderer. I mean: if that's where the discussion is starting, I can't imagine it's going to end up anywhere profitable. You're going to call me a murderer, I'm going to claim that you support a viciously inhumane policy of forcing people to give birth, everyone goes home grumpy.

So imagine my surprise when the original poster left us the following message:

This annoying, mouthy, American woman would like to apologize to all of you. Not because I feel as though y'all put me in my place but because I was out of control and saying very hateful things I had absolutely no business saying anything about. I do not believe in abortion but who am I to throw stones? My actions weighed on me and I deeply do apologize for them. I do not know y'all and I don't know y'all's situations either. So once again, I am very sorry for all that crazy shit I was spewing yesterday.
Jaw. Floor. Interface scenario.

She went on to give examples of situations where she'd see abortion as acceptable (excepting women "who use abortion as contraception" - who are these women? Has anyone ever met one? "Yeah, I could ask him to put a condom on, but it seems a lot less hassle to live in fear for a month, travel miles to a clinic, swallow several pills and have an induced miscarriage in a room full of strangers. Woohoo, let's have unprotected sex!"), which doesn't exactly meet my Official Pro-Choice Acceptable Policy Checklist, but - fuck it! Someone apologised! On the internet! About abortion, of all things!

It is, and has always been, an incontrovertible truth that there is no topic on which people are less likely to change their minds than that of abortion. (Not counting anti-choice folks who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy, but that's another story.) Just as set in stone is the fact that no one will concede defeat in an online argument. But this woman went from being so rabidly anti-choice that she took it upon herself to abuse some tiny little charity in another country for being big bad baby-killin' murderers - to conceding that (a) her words were hurtful and unnecessary, and (b) that there are some situations where abortion is okay.

I still can't quite believe it happened. So a massive great bravo to this woman who was brave enough to admit that she was wrong on the internet.

You guys, I think the internet might be evolving.