Monday, 16 December 2013

Angry Birds: What Essex Girls Can Give To Feminism

From working-class Basildon and Southend on the river, to the homogenised nouveau riche vulgarity of Brentwood and the manicured affluence of Colchester, the women of Essex are arbiters of bad taste and barometers of the county's shifting fortunes - like Christmas trees, wealth is dangled from them in the form of glitzy baubles. The dedication to conspicuous consumption is tangible; first Lakeside, then Bluewater, and finally Westfield have sprung up within driving distance of Basildon.

Each High Street is a seemingly endless procession of beauty salons, nail bars, and estate agents; particularly important towns benefit from the addition of a big Primark. The stereotype has become an archetype, but that's not to say it hasn't evolved - the crunchy perm of the '90s, fossilised by hairspray and wet-look mousse, resembling nothing more than uncooked Ramen noodles, has all but vanished, replaced by the ubiquitous sock bun. But the area's defining feature - the insurmountable, indisputable Shibboleth of the Estuary - is the reputation.

Even at the furthest reaches of the UK and beyond, the reputation is hard to escape; in pubs in the Highlands and clubs in the States, new acquaintances will ask where the white stilettos are. There's no denying it; the second we speak, the game's up. Even an accent that sounds comparatively refined in Essex is instantly recognisable outside the Home Counties, and the dialect fares no better. The first glimpse of an 'innit?' or an excitable 'oh my God!' are proof conclusive, as if any were needed, that this particular specimen is a dyed-in-the-wool Essex original.

Last month, seemingly in response to UsVsTh3m's 'North-o-meter’, Facebook has been colonised by an Estuary variation: 'How Essex Are You?' Inevitably, I scored 100% - far higher than anyone else I know, and a source of enormous hilarity for those who scored less. Much of this article was composed in the stylist's chair at Toni & Guy Basildon; the resulting cut was a layered bob, not ratty extensions, but the very fact that I feel the need to defend myself indicates how much judgement I anticipate. And if it had been extensions, should I be ashamed? There's no need to give up your roots totally, is there?

Unlike personal politics or subcultural affiliation, our county of origin is manifestly not a conscious choice. If Yorkshire and Lancashire can inspire civic pride even in their southbound émigrés, why should other counties be a source of shame and embarrassment? Until last year, I hadn't heard an Essex Girl joke used in earnest for 20 years - now, possibly thanks to the inexplicable recent popularity of a reality TV programme set in the county, it seems they're back in style.

Against all expectation, though, Essex has had a pivotal role to play in women's rights. The striking women of the Ford plant in Dagenham, demanding equal pay for machining car upholstery compared to what the men on the production line earned, were instrumental in shepherding in debate and subsequent legislation protecting equal rights in the workplace. When the cry went up - 'everybody out!' - the women of Essex did not falter. Earning the vote might have been the domain of genteel middle-class ladies of means, but the opening salvo in the battle for equal pay was fired by resolutely proletarian foot soldiers - the rank-and-file, not the officer class.

But what of the stereotype? Maybe it does hold some power after all. Perhaps in our hurry to defy the limitations of fashion and beauty, we've made the mistake of assuming that the trappings of traditional femininity hold no value. Perhaps the archetypal Essex girl is due a critical reassessment. Perhaps our intellectual posturing doesn't entitle us to look down our noses at those who choose differently. Perhaps the hair, the heels, the makeup, are 'glamour' in the occult sense - a spell cast to obscure reality, carrying its own special power.

'Innit' is a useful filler word - if female speech is traditionally characterised by approval-seeking phatics and tag questions, why should this low-rent elision be any less acceptable? It may make the speaker sound as if they lack class, but not nearly as much as sneering at someone's unalterable background and origins does. If an Essex girl - or, more often, whole groups of them - are having a good time getting dressed up and drinking pitchers of sticky-sweet cocktails at Bas Vegas, do you want to be the one that tells them they mustn't?

Despite the efforts of the feminist intelligentsia to forcefully introduce sophisticated notions of liberation to the county's oppressed sisterhood, even a fleeting visit will reveal a homegrown brand of tried-and-true female resilience. Wronged women - and there are many - will tolerate so much and then no more; past a certain point, they're not being funny, but they're not having it. He ain't worth it. You can do better, babes. Ultimately we can all do better.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Guest Post: The False Scourge of the False Widow

Unless you’ve been hiding inoffensively in a dark corner (much like our chosen subject) you cannot have failed to notice the recent mounting hysteria surrounding a certain type of spider. Pictures of horrific injuries and tales of ‘vicious’ attacks by False Widow spiders have been dominating the local tabloids with every Tom, Dick, and Harry apparently having a brush with death at the hands of these largely harmless arachnids. Now this may come as some surprise to you, but very little of this hyperbole is based upon truth. The media are fuelling and feeding off the public’s fear, which in turn is based upon ignorance. So, I am going to set the record straight in an attempt to support the beleaguered False Widow. 

The Invasion
Firstly, the False Widow is nothing new. These spiders have been in the UK longer than you, regardless of how old you are. Believed to have come into the country on goods imported from the Canary Islands, the first documented sightings date from around 1879 and they have been slowly spreading throughout the south of England, living in fairly close proximity to us since then. It is hypothesized that recent changes in climate have prompted the False Widow’s accelerated expansion into most areas of the UK, although it is still confined mainly to the south. 

The Spider
The reports of the False Widow that have been circulating have been focussing upon Steatoda nobilis or the Noble Widow. However, this is only one of an entire family of spiders, many of which are present in the UK.  The genus Steatoda is a relative of Latrodectus, which contains L.mactans or the Black Widow. What many people don’t realise is that the Black Widow has also made its way over to the UK, albeit in vastly reduced numbers. And it’s the FALSE Widow that people are concerned about! Steatoda has a few species that are present in the UK and all of them are capable of inflicting a bite. But then a Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) is also capable of biting and that bite is extremely benign. (I should know, I have been bitten by one as a child – and yes it was totally my fault, I picked the spider up) 

The Bite
Now the bite itself. Steatoda, and Latrodectus (and indeed most arachnids) have neurotoxic venom, which can cause pain, swelling, nausea and, in rare cases, even cramps and a fever. It doesn’t cause the skin to rot and fall off, nor does it result in significant muscle loss. What CAN cause that is secondary staph infection - even MRSA - or potentially a very severe allergic reaction to the venom. However this reaction would only occur in an EXTREMELY small percentage of people. 

The most you should expect from a False Widow bite would be some swelling, some pain and possibly generally feeling unwell, and much of that may be psychosomatic  - no worse than a nasty bee or wasp sting. If bitten, clean and dress the bite. If you start feeling ill go to A&E for treatment; it’s unlikely to amount to any more than administering pain medication and antihistamines. This said, the effect is likely to be more profound for those in poor health, the very old, or the very young so caution should still be exercised in those cases.

The Coverage
So that’s the spider’s history and the bite itself covered, let’s talk about the reports and the errors within. Aside from the fact that the spider actually pictured varies from Tegenaria gigantea (the large Common House spider you often see crawling about – usually a male in search of a mate) to the Laceweb spider Amaurobius similis (both utterly harmless), in these articles the spiders are described as killers, deadly, poisonous, vicious, and flesh eating.  Let’s handle these one at a time. 

  • Killers: these spiders have killed NO-ONE. Peanuts and wasps have caused more deaths than S.nobilis. Then again, so have elephants and stepladders.
  • Deadly: admittedly most papers do normally specify that a bite can be lethal only in the case of the most extreme allergic reaction.  This being the case, why keep spouting about how ‘deadly’ they are? Unless ,of course, you’re in Ireland, where deadly has entirely different connotations, it is a grossly unfair adjective to use - unless you are also going to start referring to peanuts, wasps, bees, ants, strawberries, coffee, or anything else to which you might suffer an allergic reaction to in the same manner.
  • Poisonous: poison refers to a toxin ingested or absorbed through the skin; venom is injected by an animal by a bite or sting. A small distinction, but an important one - how can you trust a report if they don’t even get the basics right? A False Widow probably wouldn’t taste nice but it won’t harm you by eating it, so they are not poisonous.
  • Vicious: Steadota, and for that matter most spiders, are NOT vicious. They are shy, retiring creatures that want to be left alone and undisturbed and will only react if they are provoked or threatened. Most False Widow bites occur because the spider has ended up in clothing and was disturbed as the ‘victim’ dressed. That said, shirts and trousers are not the chosen habitat of the false widow; they prefer dark corners and will often be found in a shed or garage. It is only with the arrival of the colder weather that these arachnids start to encroach upon our homes. So they aren’t vicious or malicious unlike some of the pieces of journalistic fiction that have been written about them.
  • Flesh Eating: despite the sensationalist headlines like ‘Spider Tried To Eat My Leg!’ and ‘Millions Of Flesh Eating Spiders Invade Britain!’ the lower limb of the average human is FAR too large for even the largest spider in the world to consume. S.nobilis would much prefer to feed upon flies or other small insects. These spiders are only around 2cm in size! Hardly the terror they have been portrayed as.

And you’re SCARED of this?! Look at the way it viciously attacks anything in its path!
Image copyright: Richard @

So hopefully this has gone someway to defuse the hysteria surrounding these unfairly maligned creatures. The truth is that these spiders are not out to get you, they have been around for over 100 years and just want to be left alone. They have no desire to attack ‘like out of a horror film’ and will not eat your flesh. They can bite and it can be a painful one but apart from very, very rare occurrences it will be no worse than a severe bee sting. Spiders perform a vital role in ecology; they control the populations of the small disease-carrying bugs that otherwise would plague us in the summer months and should be seen as useful creatures rather than something to be feared. 

The upshot of these horrendous articles is that people are killing every spider they come across, regardless of species and, although our eight-legged friends are probably numerous enough to not be wiped out by our misguided indiscriminate slaughter, ecosystems can be a fragile thing and a natural equilibrium can easily be disrupted. Don’t kill them; if you are concerned then remove them with a jar and a piece of card - they won’t spring at you with fangs bared - and put them outside.

Not every spider you see is a False Widow. They are small with noticeably longer front legs (a trait of Steatoda/Latrodectus) and round bulbous dark abdomens which in the case of Nobilis have a dull cream pattern on them. The press are feeding off people’s fears and the information they are spouting is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Treat any animal with respect and it will have no reason to react in a negative manner. Hopefully the ridiculous furore surrounding False Widows will die down soon and we can return to the pedestrian levels of spider hatred and intolerance these misunderstood yet wonderful creatures have to endure.

Allen Ward is an experienced keeper and breeder of arachnids, sharing his home with more than 300 spiders and tarantulas from all over the world - many of which have medically significant venom. He also has a large collection of various invertebrates and reptiles. The only times he has ever been bitten by spiders was when he was a child and was in the habit of just picking them up in the wild for a better look. He is still in possession of all of his limbs. He is available to advise on all relevant stories until the False Widow drama has died down – please contact the Elwell Press for details.

Friday, 27 September 2013

They Fuck You Up, Your Mum And Dad

They might not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you. The Elwell Press investigates the legacy of poor parenting and asks, are we compelled to forgive a parent that hurts us?

In the past, politicians railed against single mothers, blaming them for the decline of modern society. But which was worse – for one parent to be entirely absent, or for them to be present, permanently or periodically, casting a pall of intimidation and control over the household? You were a child, you reacted based on the developing emotional intelligence you had at your disposal. Maybe you hated them. Then hate turns to contempt, contempt to scorn, and scorn to pity. From there, pity may turn into a total absence of feeling, or it may become forgiveness.

Each had their own reasons for acting the way they did. Whether through mental illness, the scars of their own bad childhood, or countless other reasons, their behaviour was both damaging and incomprehensible to the people around them – maybe not through their own malice, but by the nature of their psychology. Because you’re a decent person, you tried to help as best you could. But you were never going to be able to fix their problems. Only they could do that.

This isn’t an excuse to insult or dismiss people with mental illnesses. Many mentally ill people make wonderful parents in spite of their conditions. But some parents, not deliberately but as a consequence of their illness and their circumstances, unwittingly provided home lives that were unstable, stressful, or frightening for their children. This article isn’t about them. Many people without mental health problems provide harmful environments for their children. This article is about those parents.

This article is about the parents that behaved disgracefully for no apparent reason; violent, controlling, abusive, uninterested, manipulative, neglectful, selfish, or fucked up in their turn, their behaviour was as incomprehensible as it was hurtful. Like many children in this situation, Laura felt she was responsible for her father’s erratic and spiteful behaviour, and felt like adapting her own actions would help heal the deep wounds.

“My father was never really around and when he was it wasn't a pleasant experience. I spent years as a child trying to fix the situation, trying to forgive him for leaving me and treating me so badly. I gave him far too many chances to change, but he never did. I’ll never forgive him for the way he treated my brother and I. I have severed all ties; I couldn’t stand the constant promises of change and the disappointment.”

The absent parent, whether dead or living separately, represents potential. They may be a saint, they may have loved us dearly, every moment could have wounded them like a knife to the heart. The present parent was no such benevolent unknown quantity. Their behaviour, even if erratic, was usually reasonably predictable. Perhaps there was a point when you decided your life was better without them in it. Perhaps they just disappeared one day, and you moved on. Either way, you haven’t seen them in years.

When you explain this to people, they ask you stupid questions. Who do you take your boyfriends to for approval? They’ll come to your graduation though, surely? Who will give you away when you get married? What will happen when you have your first baby? As if you need, or would even want, their presence at the high points of your life. When people say that cessation of contact is their loss, not yours, it’s these days that they’re talking about.

Natasha* hasn’t seen her mother in over fifteen years. “She tries to get in touch every now and then, but I don't ever want that woman in my life. I just can't bring myself to forgive her for how she treated me whilst I was growing up. I've had friends who understand and some who don't; even family pressure to forgive and forget. They tell me that she's changed. Whether she has or not, I can't forgive her - as far as I'm concerned there is no excuse for what she put me through.”

Young women in particular feel unusually pressurised to rebuild the familial bond, to forgive and make peace. Perhaps it’s the idea that women should be family-orientated, or the notion that weddings and births will bring the family together, or the desire of outsiders to see their idea of a happy ending made manifest in your life, even if you tell them that’s not what’s right for you. 
Whatever causes it, even people who know you well can still sometimes wish that you could make peace with the parent that hurt you, for your sake if not the parent’s.

Well, here’s a revolutionary piece of advice that therapists and self-help books won’t necessarily give you: you don’t have to. It’s okay; you don’t have to forgive them, to welcome them back into your life with open arms like nothing ever happened. Maybe you’re not even still angry, although no-one would blame you if you were. You just want nothing to do with them. It’s fair enough that you don’t want them in your life. That’s the really critical point; it’s your life. If you don’t like your job, you leave it. If you don’t like someone new you meet, you don’t see them again. And if someone you happen to be related to treats you like shit, why would you want to be around them?

The only person you really owe any loyalty to is yourself; sometimes, that’s the person we treat worst of all. You don’t have to forgive the person that hurt you, even if they’re your dad. You can walk away, start again, pretend they don’t exist. You can move on, refuse to follow their bad example, and define yourself. You can do better. You can do so much better.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

“It is a crime to be born a woman in India”

For - link to follow

In Hindi and Punjabi, the word for shame is “sharam.” Shame is a powerful concept, used to control and modify behaviour the world over. It’s the root of guilt, both religious and social, and some commentators suggest that it’s a weapon wielded against women particularly. Now the broadcast journalist Anita Anand is turning the shame on Indian society, saying “the Sharam is yours, unless you address the roots of these attitudes. The Sharam is yours, unless you treat women better from the womb to the grave. The Sharam is yours, if you hide away your daughters until the day they are married in response to these awful crimes.”

She speaks with reference to the rape and murder of an unnamed 23-year-old student in Delhi last December. The student was travelling home from the cinema with a male friend when she was set upon, gang-raped, mutilated with an iron bar, and thrown from the bus. Five men and one juvenile male were arrested. Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Thakur and Pawan Gupta were found guilty of both rape and murder and will be sentenced on Friday 13th September.  

Ram Singh, the ringleader who told police that the murder was necessary so their crimes would “not come to light”, was found hanged in his cell in March. The 17-year-old juvenile was sentenced to three years in prison; there was an international outcry over the perceived brevity of the term, but this case is exceptional; in India, it takes between six and eight years on average for a rape case to come to court, and the conviction rate is four per cent. It’s estimated that there are currently 90,000 rape cases pending trial in the Indian court system.

The student’s father condemned the existing culture with the words “It is a crime to be born a woman in India,” and Anita Anand illustrates just how accurate this is: “They are the same words uttered by a woman police officer who was dragged from her car just over two weeks ago, while making her way to her sister's funeral. She was gang raped by men wielding axes in Jharkhand state in eastern India. They are also the words used last week by social activists, after a six-year-old girl, who was locked in a room and repeatedly raped by a 40-year-old man, was forced by a council of elders in Rajasthan to marry the eight-year-old son of her attacker.”

It’s understandable, then, that so many victims grow impatient or mistrustful of the legal system. Shortly before the student’s case came to trial, the Times Of India reported the case of a rapist, Raju Vishvakarma, burned to death by his victim after visiting her home to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. His victim had invited Vishvakarma there after he was released on bail, but when he arrived she and her brothers doused him in kerosene and set him alight. The unnamed rape victim is being charged with his murder, although her actions met with widespread support and approval on Twitter. A series of gang rapes in a disused mill in an affluent area of Mumbai have also provoked public condemnation and anger.

Rape in India is, beyond a doubt, a sensitive and vital subject. It’s also a difficult subject for white, Western feminists to discuss without accusations of privilege and racism. All the good intentions in the world can’t replace dialogue and the voice of experience, and history has shown – and is showing us still – that inflicting one worldview onto another country will never be easy or wise. It’s possible, and it is to be hoped, that this case marks a sea change in women’s rights in India and beyond. Women everywhere deserve better treatment than this, and Western feminists must support Indian feminists in any way they can.

In February 2009, the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women launched the Pink Chaddi campaign – mailing pink underwear in protest to a religious leader who threatened to marry any young couples found together on Valentine’s Day. The Blank Noise project targets street harassment – known as Eve Teasing – in the same way that Every Day Harassment and Reclaim The Night do, and introduced the Safe City Pledge in response to the December 2012 rape case. And most strikingly, Save The Children India has launched Save Our Sisters, an anti-violence campaign featuring images of the goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga bearing cuts and bruises.

Indian feminists know what needs to happen, even though the cultural obstacles may seem almost insurmountable. Women’s rights are changing globally, making huge leaps forward, even in countries where cultural relativism seemed to excuse such inequalities. Saudi Arabian feminists such as Wajeha al-Huwaider called for domestic violence laws, and this August saw the introduction of the nation’s first DV legislation. Change is possible, change is achievable, and change is inevitable. As feminists, it’s our job to lend our support to projects worldwide that endeavour to improve lives of women everywhere.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Twitter Rape Threats: A Glimpse Of A Crumbling World

Since the Bank of England announced the presence of Jane Austen on the new £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez, who spearheaded the campaign to put more women on UK money, has been subjected to a well-documented and much-discussed barrage of abuse via Twitter and her personal email. It’s been described as trolling, but the difference between trolls and Caroline’s aggressors is palpable. Trolling is the act of being deliberately provocative to elicit an angry response; a threat of rape is a criminal act. There exists a gulf of meaning between trolling and threatening violence against someone whose opinions you disagree with. It’s the difference between playing devil’s advocate and leading a targeted campaign of aggression and hate.

In addition to this, Caroline, her supporters, and other prominent feminists including two female MPs have been subject to bomb threats and racist abuse on the site. Twitter’s response to the tweets has grown sterner and faster over the week, but still the threats keep coming. The senders are quick to reiterate their numbers and resilience against banning, but Caroline and the others continue to pass each new tweet onto the police.

At the time of writing, two men have been arrested; the first aged 25, the second just 21. Their youth is striking – born well after the advent of the feminist movement, these young men won’t even remember a time before the UK’s female Prime Minister, much less a time when women weren’t welcome in workplaces or universities. For a generation who take women’s rights almost for granted, for those who have never had to afford it much thought, it’s a startling deviation from the party line.

For these men, the threat of violence is a means of control. Like the cases of ‘corrective’ rape seen in South Africa, the threats are a way to assert dominance over a woman who challenges their fragile, crumbling masculinity. Regardless of whether they would actually act on their threats or not, their weak self-concept and chauvinistic protection of outmoded gender relations reveals a complicated and defensive psychology.

They system they know how to operate in has failed, and the world has changed around them. Like a small child denied their own way, the aggressors respond by lashing out – in short, they throw a tantrum. Unlike a small child, though, they have sufficient knowledge of social convention to channel their rage into the most effective form and target it at the most vulnerable area. While they deny that they would actually commit rape, the threat of sexual violence is still powerfully intimidating; fortunately, the women in question refuse to be intimidated.

In response to the story, print and broadcast journalist Emma Barnett gave the aggressors the right to reply on her radio show. Her callers provided a telling insight into their mindset: they insist “she was asking for it... if you put your head above the parapet, like she has, then you deserve this type of abuse. It’s what you get when you are a woman shouting about something,” that “feminists like Caroline are undermining what it is to be a man” and subsequently require “sorting out”. They justify their actions by claiming “men are predators... and this is what we do... these men wouldn’t actually come and rape her. They don’t mean it. Rape is a metaphor.”  

Rape isn’t a metaphor. Rape is a tool of domination, of control, of power. Rape is a taboo that these individuals have exploited to intimidate a woman who, in their eyes, has developed ideas beyond her station and must be brought back into line. As journalists, as activists, as feminists, we must resist the fear forced upon us. These threats are an attempt to control a woman who, in their eyes, has too much to say and too big a platform from which to say it. They insist feminism will change nothing, has changed nothing, but their fear is visible behind their anger and spite; in time the mask of anonymity will slip and Caroline’s opponents will stand exposed for all to see.

Behind the explicit threats and creeping menace lies another wave of attempts to discredit; the commentators, both journalists and private citizens, who insist that retweeting threats is ‘attention-seeking’ and that ignoring the problem will make it go away. Chiming in with these are the men who write long articles and aggressive tweets claiming that feminism is no threat - if this were the case, there would be no need to confront it or publicly mock it. Ignore it and it’ll go away, right?

Those with a vested interest in maintaining the patriarchal status quo have been ignoring feminism since its first faltering steps. It’s 100 years since Emily Wilding Davison fell under the King’s horse, 95 years since women were given the vote, 48 years since the UK gained its first female MP, 38 years since the Sex Discrimination Act, 19 years since rape within marriage became a crime, two years since changes to the law of succession allowed a Princess to take the British throne. Campaigners have achieved all this with tenacity, patient effort, and a refusal to remain silent. We did not submit to ignorance then, and we must not submit to it now.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

What Nigella Can Teach Us About Violence Against Women

To outward appearances, Nigella Lawson has things all figured out: she runs her own media business, has a successful publishing career, and makes frequent public appearances looking impossibly glamorous. She’s everything that an ambitious woman is meant to aspire to be. And, it emerged on Sunday, she also appears to be a victim of domestic violence.

At first, the images published by the People were shocking, as you’d expect of any depiction of violence against women. But then we started to think about what happened, started to ask questions, and a more insidious suspicion took root: the casual and callous way in which Charles Saatchi laid hands on his wife in public led some commentators to suggest that this wasn’t his first attack on her.

For him to so brazenly attack Nigella in full view of both passers-by and fellow Scott’s patrons, without trying to conceal or disguise his actions, implied much about the dynamic of their relationship.  Witnesses told the newspaper that Nigella had attempted to placate her husband by speaking reassuringly and kissing him on the cheek; many readers will be able to identify this as the classic response of a woman threatened by her spouse.

But Nigella doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a victim of domestic abuse: she has economic independence, makes regular trips overseas on business, and presumably does not lack the resources to move away from her abuser. So, we wonder, why does she stay? A 1998 study[1] reported by Psychology Today may provide some answers: “Emotional abuse plays a vital role in battering, undermining a woman's confidence.”

While it seems that Nigella and women like her have sufficient self-esteem and personal agency to succeed in business and personal endeavours, their intimate relationships are far less clear-cut. What the events of this weekend demonstrate beyond anything else is that even independent, capable women can be bullied and manipulated into accepting physical and verbal attacks that, for whatever reason, they won’t or can’t walk away from.

The emotional manipulation used by abusers is well-documented and wholly discomforting; their victims are isolated from friends and family, deprived of the resources that would help them escape, and worn down to such a low ebb that they accept violence they would never have tolerated previously. In the case of successful or high-profile women, their visibility might discourage them from seeking help; the gap between their private and public personas might seem so great that to report being abused feels like admitting a weakness.

At the time of writing, the UK press is reporting that the police are investigating Charles Saatchi following the publication of these images. Saatchi may later face charges; in spite of his wealth, it seems unwise for him to pursue a libel case when the evidence is so damning. It’s inappropriate to conjecture on the future of Charles and Nigella’s marriage – perhaps she will remain with him in spite of public condemnation of his actions.

If nothing else, we can hope that the story – so shocking when presented against a backdrop of middle-class media comfort – inspires other women to seek advice and assistance if they find themselves in similar situations. This week, like every week, two women in the UK will die at the hands of their violent partners. This week, like every week, all women deserve better.


Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Of Bread And Circuses

Juvenal referred to it as ‘bread and circuses’, George Orwell characterised its worst excesses as prolefeed, and Victorians despaired of the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls. It’s plain to see, then, that our love affair with escapism through entertainment is almost as old as society itself.

Marxists, echoing Juvenal’s and Orwell’s sentiments, fear that focusing on the narratives of fiction – be it classic literature, blockbuster films, or soap operas – would distract the proletariat from their struggle towards revolution. In many ways they’re correct; even now, the politically aware cringe as the country invests more attention in TV talent shows than in the comings and goings of our politicians. But perhaps we overlook a significant point – perhaps these distractions are important precisely because they allow us to escape from our reality.

Times are hard, and they’re hard for almost everyone. Perhaps what we really need is to escape into someone else’s life for a while; to try out a different set of burdens like a different suit of clothes, to look out on the world from behind another pair of eyes, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The shoes may take us across Dartmoor pursuing a gigantic hound, or to Stonehenge with our doomed love, or to the shores of Innsmouth fleeing unthinkable horrors. They may stand on the green grass of the Shire, the cobbles of Edinburgh, the grey earth of Winterfell or the dusty concrete of London Below. But they bear us away from our own lives, our own problems, and permit us to lose ourselves in impossible and fantastic worlds.

We submit to almighty terrors, to wrenching losses, to every twist and machination of vindictive fate, because we know we can close the book and walk away. We can explore our own strength and character without having to experience what Shakespeare called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. Here we test our emotional fortitude, pitching ourselves against blow after blow to examine how well we weather the storm.

We solve mysteries, protect the innocent, play the hero or the villain. Often we don’t decide which we are until the end. We meet soldiers, lovers, wizards, murderers, queens, poets, tyrants, heroes, angels, vampires, monks, prostitutes, revolutionaries, scholars, searchers and seekers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children. And in time, inexorably, we begin to care.

We dedicate precious time and space in our minds to these characters. We despair that the word ‘character’ makes them sound so flat, so trivial; to us, they are people. We give them sequels, films, TV shows. We make them real in our heads and then we try to make them real in the world. We share them with our friends, discuss incarnations and iterations – are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and John Rebus really so different? Whose face does each of those names conjure up?

We need stories. Like dreams, we use them to explore and make sense of the world. They speak to us about human nature, the subtle dance of interaction and disclosure that takes a lifetime to master. Stories are how we investigate and memorialise our humanity. Stories are what make us human.