Walking Home, Late at Night

Did you read the title and think “Don’t do that”? Would you have thought that if I was a guy?

I just read this story about sexual abuse. And I wasn’t going to comment, because nothing too bad has ever happened to me.

I mean obviously, there were all the times in senior school, when I was eleven or twelve, that men tried to chat me up at bus stops. Too many to remember, although one in particular stands out for asking me to guess all the things he wanted to do to me. I wanted to get away, but it was the bus stop I got off at and my mum was meeting me there. I ran to the car when she arrived.

I’ve had men rub up against me or grab my butt more times than I can remember on the Tube, coming home late at night. Sometimes I had been out with friends and was dressed up, sometimes I’d been at work and was in a suit. Sometimes it wasn’t late at night, just crowded enough for someone to get away with it. Christmas shopping crowds are a pain in the butt, literally.

It was a bit scary the time I went out with a group of female friends in London for New Year’s Eve. About ten of us in a line, trying to weave through the crowds to where we were going, holding hands so that we didn’t get separated. I was last in the line, because no one else wanted to be. One guy grabbed me by the crotch and literally lifted me off the ground, trying to drag me away from my friend. He was with a group of about five or six men, so I was clinging on to my friend’s hand trying not to be dragged away, and she was clinging on to me and the person in front of her, trying to get the line to stop and come help me. That was quite scary.

But the scariest bit is that this is all routine. So many women I know have the same sort of stories. It hasn’t happened to them once – it happens regularly. We just don’t go out at night, or don’t go out alone, we self-censor our lives. Being in a pub or bar alone – dangerous. Being in a crowd alone – dangerous. Travelling at night alone – dangerous. Going to a club alone – wouldn’t even think of it.

Men sometimes make fun of this. Women – always hang about in groups at a club. Women, always going to the toilet together. Women, walking each other to a taxi rank. Aren’t they supportive? Aren’t they gossipy? Aren’t they silly?

No, we’re not silly. We’re afraid. And all the harassment and abuse is just there to remind us that we do need to be. If we venture out alone, if we’re over-confident, bad things happen. I don’t think men, even really supportive feminist guys, really have a clue how deeply ingrained in our behaviour this stuff is. And it all starts with these accounts of abuse that you’re reading, happening when we’re still children, that show us that we’re not safe alone.


The Labour leadership contest’s elephant in the room is trust

Social media is an echo chamber, and I know a lot of Labour supporters. So I have read a lot of articles on the Labour leadership recently. Just this morning, I read this Fabians article by Andrew Harrop, this article by Owen Jones, and this by Neal Lawson.

And then it occurred to me that despite the differences of opinion, one thing that they all have in common is a lack of trust. Andrew Harrop doesn’t trust Corbyn supporters to think about the voters who need Labour or to want to win elections. Neal Lawson doesn’t trust any of the candidates supported by the PLP not to try moving Labour back towards the right again.

Owen Jones poses some very important questions – to which I haven’t seen satisfactory answers by either side – but the candidates answering the questions would still be pointless if we can’t believe what they say. And to believe them requires a trust that is missing in Labour at the moment.

Owen Smith talks a good left-wing policy, but he also talks about immigration being a problem, and it’s not so long since he joined in Labour’s shameful abstention on the welfare bill. The Labour PLP say that they want to win elections, but have spent the last twelve months undermining their leader, before taking the first chance to try and oust him. And Momentum say that they want to be inclusive, but then turn a blind eye to intimidation and abuse of anyone who disagrees with them.

I probably won’t be voting in the Labour leadership elections, having left the party in February 2015. I haven’t rejoined because I don’t trust that the party has changed in any permanent way from the party that I left. I would very much like to be part of a Labour party that I trust to represent me, and to represent that people that desperately need its help.

But trust seems to be the thing that we’re short of.

Not a Corbynista

I’m getting quite fed up of being called a Corbynista. Not, I should add, because it’s an offensive term for someone who supports Corbyn; not because it’s reductionist, deliberately trying to imply that anyone who supports Corbyn is a left-wing revolutionary extremist; not because I dislike the dichotomy of splitting the whole of the Labour Party into two camps, Blairite and Corbynista.

I mean, I agree with all of those points. They’re just not the main reason that I hate being called a Corbynista. The main reason it really winds me up is that I don’t particularly support Jeremy Corbyn.

I don’t hate Corbyn. I like some of his ideas. And I strongly believe that the Labour Party needed to move back towards the left, having followed the Tories too far to the right and conceded too many arguments without a fight. But I can definitely see that Corbyn seems to be struggling with the “leader” part of being the party leader. He would be better, I suspect, in some kind of policy think tank where he can work through the various arguments and produce ideas for the party to consider.

Nevertheless, any expression of approval for anything that Corbyn does gets me branded as a Corbynista, and any disapproval gets me branded as a Blairite. I have already been called both. Not yet by the same person – but it feels like it’s only a matter of time.

Also, I’m not even currently a member of the Labour Party!

What I would really like is for Labour to find a leader who is willing to stand up to the Tories and fight their ideas, to develop a strong platform of moderately left-wing ideas, and to communicate those well to the public. That would be great. If they could form an electoral alliance with the SNP and/or Greens against the Tories, that would be even better.

Until then, I will carry on watching with interest, and hoping that things improve enough that I no longer feel unwelcome in the party that I have been a member of for much of my adult life.

“Lean In” in the Time of GamerGate

I made a connection just recently. I joined the dots between some different, apparently unrelated things that I’d read, and had an “Aha!” moment. And I need to get it down in a blog post because it’s bugging me.

Here’s your starter question: what’s the connection between Paul Elam, Adam Baldwin, and Sheryl Sandberg? (Answer at the end).

A while ago, at the suggestion of a colleague at work, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. It’s an okay book, a bit meh. It has a few good pieces of advice, and it’s obviously well-meaning. If you haven’t read it, the gist is this: women sabotage their own careers by not being assertive enough. They “lean back”, when they should “lean in”. Try harder, girls!

The trouble is that just didn’t ring true for me. It’s not that I don’t agree that you need to be assertive to succeed in business, nor do I think that women should be allowed to succeed more easily than men – so Sandberg’s advice seemed reasonable. I couldn’t even disagree that I had stopped “leaning in”. But at the times in my career when I had been trying hard, leaning in, being assertive – it hadn’t helped. I’d had more problems, not fewer, and some of my worst career problems came about when I was being assertive.

Still, maybe I was being too assertive. Maybe I was too aggressive, too angry, too scary, not a team player. It’s possible, certainly. I’d come to that conclusion in the past, and read anger management books, and self esteem books, and tried to fix my problems. I’d learned how to give coaching and feedback, and how to grow people. It definitely made me a better manager, and better at relating to people.

It made my career worse. I tried not being assertive, and it caused problems. I tried being assertive, and it caused problems. I tried being assertive in a less confrontational way, and … well, you get the idea. That was when I stopped “leaning in”. That was when I gave up. So I guess that the reason I’m not succeeding is that it’s my fault. I gave up, when I should have “leaned in”. Thanks, Sheryl. At least now I know.

And then, just recently, I put two and two together. I woke up in the middle of the night, and thought: yes, but what about GamerGate?

GamerGate, in case you haven’t been following it, is many things. But mainly, it’s a particularly nasty group of mostly-male trolls attacking women who dare to have opinions, especially feminist opinions, online. This is not “attacking” in the sense of disagreeing with them. Yes, it’s absolutely fine to disagree with a woman online. This is not even just “attacking” in the sense of posting nasty, repulsive messages to them online – although I think that being told multiple times per day that you should be raped or killed is beyond what anyone could deal with. But GamerGate is posting women’s home addresses online, lurking outside their offices, phoning in bomb threats to the police if they try to give a talk. You can read a summary here or here or here.

Then there’s this article on Paul Elam, founder of a men’s rights movement. Or you could look what Richard Herring tackles every year on International Women’s Day. Now, maybe I’m just paranoid, but I’m starting to understand why women are reluctant to be assertive and push their opinions.

Of course, this could just be a few people. It could be just in the US, for instance. In the UK, we’re far more modern. Oh, except that UKIP have some fairly worrying ideas about a woman’s place – “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” almost.But the really bad stuff wouldn’t happen in the UK, would it? It’s not like you could get in trouble for something as simple as asking for a woman’s picture to be on at least one banknote. Or that an MP could receive rape and death threats just for agreeing with her? Goodness me, the way we women complain, you’d think you could get threats just for being the subject of a joke by someone else about hosting a TV programme, even after you’ve firmly denied that you would ever do that job. No, I’m sure than Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and Sue Perkins were just making a fuss. It’s perfectly safe to offer an opinion if you’re a woman. Be assertive. Lean in.

Besides, it’s not like online abuse translates into real abuse. No correlation – oh wait. Yes there is. It’s still relatively early days for Twitter in terms of academic studies, but there is plenty of evidence that verbal abuse in relationships is an early warning sign for physical abuse.

Still, these are all rare cases. It’s not like there’s sexism everywhere, every day.

Never mind, women, just lean in. Push your case. Offer up your opinions. Fight your corner. You’ll most likely live through it. Most women don’t get killed by someone they annoyed. (Just a few. A small number. Tiny. Only two women per week are killed in domestic violence). Most women might encounter anger at worst.

At this point, if you’re still reading this, you probably fall into one of three camps. Camp #1 are furious that I am still trying to argue for women’s equality, because that stuff is bullshit. If this is you, you may leave now. This blog post isn’t addressed to you, and I’m aware that you disagree with me. No point hanging around. Bye now.

Or you may be in camp #2. You may be convinced that there is a real problem, and that we should tackle it. (Yes, I’m aware – and grateful – that many men are in this camp too. Richard Herring and Graham Linehan are two of the more public men doing sterling work calling out this sort of shit on Twitter).

Or, you may be in camp #3. You agree that there is sexism, but you still think a lot of women sabotage themselves. After all, you’ve encountered difficult people in your career, many times, it’s not only women who face these problems. It’s not personal.

That’s a fair point. Lets address it. Let’s try a quick thought experiment.

Think of someone difficult that you’ve encountered at work, and dealt with. Someone confrontational, irrational and argumentative.

Remember how you dealt with them. Maybe sidestepped them? Maybe minimized contact with them? Maybe got them distracted with another issue? Maybe got to know them and formed a rapport so that the encounters became more productive? 

Now imagine this. Suppose that their behaviour towards you WAS personal. Suppose that you argued with them one time, and that they won’t go away. They’re not just irrational in general, but they’re specifically determined to win arguments against you, because they don’t think you are entitled to disagree with them.

They go out of their way to start arguments with you whenever you talk to them. They won’t admit they’ve lost even if the evidence is clearly against them. They’re fixated on specifically destroying you, as often and as many times as possible.

Your job gets untenable. You’re trying to deal with this, but it’s a drain on your time. You have trouble juggling the other stuff you’re trying to get done. Let’s assume that it doesn’t affect your mood (although, let’s be honest, it probably would) – you are still losing valuable time out of your day. So you bring this up with other people for advice.

No-one else, it turns out, has the same sort of problem. They all agree that this person is difficult, but everyone else manages to deal with it. Maybe you’re just handling it wrong? Be less aggressive. Be less confrontational. Be less shrill.

You don’t just get this advice informally. It’s on your performance review, too. This is your problem. Someone else has taken personal offence to you arguing with them once, is seeking you out in order to obstruct you, but it’s your fault. You did something wrong. You’re not doing your job properly. You are to blame.

That won’t stop you offering your opinions in future, right? Next time you’re about to argue with someone, you won’t subconsciously remember this and keep quiet, will you? Not the first time. Not the second. How many times would you need that to happen before you just started shutting up and keeping your head down? How many times do you have to be personally targeted for expressing an opinion before you stop?

Never mind, don’t answer. You get the point. Let’s wrap this up.

At the beginning, I asked what the connection was between Paul Elam, Adam Baldwin and Sheryl Sandberg. And the answer is NOT that they all hate women, because Sheryl Sandberg is a feminist, and she’s trying to help. The answer is that they all think that the problem is caused by women, and that it will be fixed if women change. Elam and Baldwin want women to shut the fuck up and do as they’re told. Sandberg admits that there is sexism, but she thinks that we can overcome it if women just try harder.

I used to believe that.

I Was Going To

I was going to write a post about how loss is so much sharper than joy. I have cried so many times in the past 24 hours, and yet never run out of tears. I couldn’t remember a time that I’d felt as acutely happy as this sadness hurt. I was going to back it up with facts and statistics about how humans are more keen to avoid loss than to achieve a gain. I was going to say that when you feel loss, it’s overwhelming, and joy can’t ever be as strong as that.

I thought back to a time I’d felt joyful and, in my memory, I saw a flash of sunlight. I remembered the feeling on the first day of the year that feels like summer, when the sun is out and it feels warm rather than cold. I remembered feeling suddenly that my whole body was warm, rather than cold, as if I’d come back to life. And I remembered feeling as though I could soar up into the atmosphere, fly away, rolling and swooping in the sunlight. The memory brought back that joy, and loss faded away, and I felt happy.

So then I was going to write a post about how much joy is stronger than loss, and that thinking of something joyful can help you through the worst of times. But that was this morning, and since then I’ve still felt sad so many times. I still feel loss. The pain hasn’t gone away, I haven’t beaten it.

I thought, for a second, about writing a post about how joy and loss are equal, that life must include both. That joy can help us through the dark times, and that even the most joyful moments must end. But honestly, it’s trite. We all know it, but we don’t want to read it, and it doesn’t help. It just doesn’t help.

Then I remembered, this morning, waking up without my cat on the pillow beside me. And knowing that he wasn’t just downstairs waiting for breakfast, but that he wasn’t coming. He wasn’t in the house anywhere. And I thought about all the things I wanted to do – to cuddle him, and hear him purr, and give him a spot on the bed. I was going to do all those things, but I couldn’t, because he wasn’t there. I was going to… but I can’t. Not any more. I was going to.

And I realised that’s what loss means. All the ‘I was going to’. All the things that should have been, would have been, could have been, now taken away.

He’s not gone forever yet, thank goodness. He’s been at the vets overnight, having oxygen, and the vet hopes he’ll be able to come home today. We may have a few more days together, but not many. I’ll get to curl up with him, and stroke him a few more times, and all those things that I was going to do. With a little luck, I’ll still have the chance. But one day soon, they’ll be gone.

And I know that even in these last few days, even forewarned, I won’t get to spend as much time with him as I’d like to. Life will intervene. I’ll have to cook dinner for my son, do the dishes and laundry, buy groceries. Or I’ll get distracted, reading a book or watching TV, and forget to enjoy every moment of him purring on my lap. Even knowing that I have only a few days left at best, I’ll waste some of them. And I’ll have regrets.

But that time isn’t here yet, and I will do the best I can. I am going to.

Goodbye, Sir Terry

I was heartbroken to see the news that Sir Terry Pratchett had died. I grew up reading his books, and my career aspiration is still to become Granny Weatherwax.

In two years, we’ve lost Iain Banks and Sir Terry. I’m in the mood to demand a 24-hour armed guard and medical team to follow Neil Gaiman, just because I couldn’t stand to lose him too.

I heard the news just before I had to go out, and shortly afterwards I ran into a friend who is very religious. She asked how I was, and I was briefly tempted to tell her the news. But I worried that she’d tell me that he had gone to a better place, and I didn’t want to hear that.

And then I imagined what he would have said about that, and for just a moment I actually managed to be glad that he had lived, rather than sad that he had died.

Rest in peace, Sir Terry.

“That’s Just How It Is”

In the last week alone, I’ve come across a lot of variants of this phrase.
* That’s just how it is.
* That’s how it works.
* I’m just stating the obvious.
* I’m just being honest.
* Just stating the facts.
I’m sure you can come up with plenty of variants of your own. You’re talking about a problem and trying to come up with solutions, and someone – kindly or otherwise – points out that you’re not being realistic because “that’s just the way things are”. Accept the problem. Stop daydreaming and wishing things were different. Face facts.

Heck, I’ve even used the phrase myself. Sometimes you have to be realistic, right?

Well, no.

I DO have to face facts. I have to accept what life is like, here and now. I do not have to accept that this is how things will always be.

Look at it this way. Let’s take a fact. People can’t walk through walls. Question: is there a physical, chemical or biological reason that it must be true? Yes, there is a physical reason – walls are solid. Okay, then it’s a fact. People can’t walk through walls. I accept that.

Most of the times you hear the phrase, it will not be referring to that sort of fact. It will be talking about the current situation, based on our current behaviour. And unlike the laws of physics, our behaviour can change – and does, all the time.

So next time you hear someone say “that’s just how it is”, make sure you ask yourself the follow-up: “Is that just how it HAS to be?”. And if not, go right ahead and try to change things.

My Top Ten Books – The Longlist

So there’s a thing going round Facebook to name your Top 10 Books. Which is nearly impossible. Top 10 that you’ve loved for ever? Top 10 recent favourites? Comfy reads or thought-provoking ones?

So here’s the longlist I came up with after looking through my bookshelves. I’ll post the final Top 10 tomorrow.

The Complete Father Brown – G.K. Chesterton
Delusion’s Master – Tanith Lee
The Complete Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson
The Gun Seller – Hugh Laurie
The Sandman – Neil Gaiman (OK, cheating a but, but I can’t pick just one!)
Elise ou la vraie vie – Claire Etcherelli
Candide – Voltaire
Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett
Venetia – Georgette Heyer
Rivals – Jilly Cooper
The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy
Dissolution – C.J. Sansom
Madam Will You Talk – Mary Stewart
Long Dark Teatime of the Soul – Douglas Adams
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell
The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
Growing Rich – Fay Weldon
Blandings Castle – P.G. Wodehouse
Dune – Frank Herbert
Use of Weapons – Iain Banks
Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
Asimov’s Guide to Science – Isaac Asimov
Whit – Iain Banks
The King’s General – Daphne du Maurier
Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaardner
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls – Robert Heinlein

Why I Support Gay Marriage

This is going to be a difficult post to write, partly because I know that the person I’m writing about would have hated this to be made public. Really hated it. That’s why it needs to be said.

This is the story of what happens when you tell a gay child that being gay is wrong.

This is the story of what happens when you tell someone they don’t deserve a real relationship, and can’t have one.

This is the story of my uncle.

It’s not going to end well.

My uncle Peter was born in 1954. He was brought up Roman Catholic, and went to a Roman Catholic school. He realised that he was gay when he was quite young – he said around 12 or so. At that time, in that school, it was going to be a problem for him. He was taught that being gay was a sin, and disgusting, and that it would send him to hell. As much as our world moved on during the course of his life, I don’t think he ever really stopped believing that, or ever stopped being ashamed.

When he was older, as a result of that and other issues in his life, he became a heroin addict. To him, being gay meant he had to put himself completely outside mainstream society, and he ran into all the risks that go with that – drugs being one. He experimented with different ways of living his life – I remember fondly my mum dying his hair in multi-coloured punk stripes when I was young. He never really settled to a life that suited him.

Equally, he never really had a settled relationship, and he certainly didn’t have a chance at having a family. He adored kids, and was great playing with them. No-one who saw him playing with his friends’ kids could doubt the joy that they brought him, and he brought them. If he could have settled with someone and had kids, I think it would have made a huge difference to his life.

When my parents split up, he stepped in as “replacement dad” and during my teens he provided the taxi service that a dad usually would. When I was at uni, it was he who mostly dropped me off and picked me up each term. I think I was probably the nearest he got to having a kid, and I’m proud of that. I hope he’d be proud of me.

He died at the age of 42. If you feel like I’ve missed out a huge chunk of his life: well, not really. He missed out a huge chunk of his life. He spent his life trying to come to terms with who he was, and in the end he failed.

Peter was a wonderful influence in my life, and the lives of others. (He had his problems too). But in many ways, his life was wasted. He could have been, and done, so much more. He had huge potential – he was an avid reader despite being severely dyslexic, he learned to program computers, he was always ready to help out friends and family, he was an amazingly quick learner.

I still miss him, and wish he was around to meet my son, who would have adored him and been adored back. I’m angry that they didn’t get that chance to meet. I’m angry that Peter didn’t get a chance to have a relationship and maybe children of his own. And I’m angry that he spent his whole life feeling like a disappointment, and wrong, when he meant so much in my life and the lives of others.

But he never stopped being uncomfortable with who he was. When he died, I know there were several things about his life that he was bitter and disappointed about.

We have a chance to stop this – times have changed, but there’s still a long way to go. I want us to make sure that no-one else ever goes through what Peter did. I want everyone to have a chance at a life with love in it, and a family. I think it would make the world a much better place.