Thursday, 31 January 2013

Hidden Lives: The Untold Story of Urban Refugees


We left our house [in Syria] three months ago because there was a lot of shooting and bombing in our area. ... I am seven months pregnant, but I wasn't worried about my baby. ... I have been in Jordan for three days and I feel safe and calm, there are no sounds of bullets or bombs.
Ihsan, a Syrian refugee now living in Jordan.

Ihsan's story is one of the many stories that make up Hidden Lives: The Untold Story of Urban Refugees, the International Rescue Committee's new multimedia project raising awareness of the plight of 'urban refugees' across the globe. The exhibition of Andrew McConnell's images at St Pancras International station in London is about to finish. Don't miss it, and be sure to see all the photos and videos online on the Hidden Lives website.

The challenges faced by the six million refugees now living in towns and cities across the world are captured in this new multimedia photo exhibition and film project, staged in collaboration with World Press Photo award winning photographer Andrew McConnell of Panos Pictures and funded by the European Commission's Department for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

Hidden Lives includes a series of photo-portraits and interviews with urban refugees living in eight countries, including victims of the current Syria crisis.

In January 2013 the IRC released the report Syria: A Regional Crisis, calling aid levels for the Syria crisis insufficient and highlighting forsaken urban refugees and ongong sexual violence as issues that need urgent attention.

The IRC is supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, providing much needed health care and prescriptions, distributing essential items such as warm blankets, bedding and kitchen utensils, giving special assistance to children who have been separated from their families and providing counselling and support services to women who have been raped.

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world's worst crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. At work in over 40 countries restoring safety, dignity and hope, the IRC leads the way from harm to home.

Text@IRC

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow for the International Reporting Project. She is reporting on issues of global health and development. 

Birds Eye View: new live music commissions by British Arab artists

A very exciting update to my last announcement about the Birds Eye View film festival 2013 - read the second half of this piece - which chimes with my interest in Middle Eastern reportagerevolution and protest, international patronage/diplomacy and Middle Eastern visual art such as the stunning contemporary photography exhibition Realism in Rawiya which is on now at the New Art Exchange, with a symposium in mid-February as part of the Ishraqah festival of Middle Eastern arts and culture.

A still from The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, dir. Lotte Reiniger

BEV have announced two new cross-cultural live music commissions by leading female British-Arab artists:

Multi award winning composer Bushra El-Turk and East African-influenced jazz musician Amira Kheir will create new live silent film scores for BEV’s 2013 Film Festival: Celebrating Arab Women Filmmakers, showcasing the most exciting female filmmaking talent from the Arab world from 3 – 10 April at BFI Southbank, Barbican and other London venues.


Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemble combining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. ‘Prince Achmed’ is an enchanting, sharply humorous and visually dazzling classic based on The Arabian Nights by pioneering director Lotte Reiniger. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra's Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta. The score premieres at Southbank Centre on Thu 7 March, with a second performance on Fri 5 April at London’s Barbican.

Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Sumurun is s ‘brilliant’ (NY Times) fantasy-drama of forbidden love based on the Arabian Nights. This landmark silent film was a collaboration by director Ernst Lubitsch and early Hollywood superstar Pola Negri. Amira Kheir is critically acclaimed for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album View From Somewhere and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts. Premiering at BFI Southbank on Thu 4 April ahead of Bristol’s Watershed on Sun 14 April.

A still from Sumurun: One Arabian Night, starring Pola Negri


NOTES:
  • Contact Will Young at will@birds-eye-view.co.uk
  • Bushra El-Turk's live score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed will premiere on Thurs 7 March, 7.30pm, Southbank Centre, Tickets £15 / £7.50 concs., box office: 0844 875 0073 or visit southbankcentre.co.uk . 
    • The second performance is on Fri 5 April, 7pm at the Barbican. Tickets TBC. Box Office: 020 7638 8891 / barbican.org.uk 
  • Amira Kheir's live score for Sumurun (One Arabian Night) will premiere on Thurs 4 April, time TBC, BFI Southbank, box office: 020 7928 3232 / bfi.org.uk
    • The second performance will be on Sun 14 April, 6pm at the Watershed in Bristol. Box Office: 0117 927 5100 / watershed.co.uk

From female genital mutilation to media sexism: a UK gender and activism snapshot


This just in from the End Violence Against Women coalition.
  • 2013 – the year we make Schools Safe 4 Girls?
  • Ofsted to inspect schools on work to tackle Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
  • EVAW at the UN!
  • What is men’s role in stopping violence against women and girls?
  • Sexual offences statistics and Met’s Jimmy Savile report – joining the dots
  • Leveson Inquiry & media sexism
  • Troubled Families




2013 – the year we make Schools Safe 4 Girls?

With further arrests relating to the Savile investigation and disturbing cases in the news about sexual abuse of vulnerable girls by groups of older men, EVAW’s timely Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign is gaining momentum.

Our work was mentioned in a recent Parliamentary debate on the long-awaited Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education review. Our call for all children to have access to proper Sex and Relationships (SRE) Education - which teaches young people about sexual consent, and respectful and non-abusive relationships - will be debated in a backbenchers’ debate on 14 February as part of the global #One Billion Rising day of dancing against violence against women (will there be dancing in Parliament?!). Make sure YOUR MP takes part in this important debate.



The importance of compulsory SRE was a key part of a recent speechon tackling the sexualisation of women and girls by Diane Abbott MP. Watch Abbott and the PM’s new advisor on sexualisation Claire Perry MP debate the issue on Channel 4 News. Read EVAW’s response to the Department for Education’s consultation on internet porn filters.

Ofsted to inspect schools on work to tackle Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) 

With 24,000 girls in England and Wales at risk of FGM each year, and primary school girls most at risk, we welcome Ofsted’s announcementthat it will include this in school inspections. Congratulations to our members who have campaigned for this. We believe Ofsted should also specifically include forced marriage, ‘honour’ based violence and all other forms of abuse that are targeted at girls in its inspections.

EVAW at the UN!
EVAW Co-Chair Marai Larasi is speaking about our Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting (4-15 March) in New York which is focused on preventing violence against women and girls this year. We are also delighted to be participating in a live Wikigender online discussion about ‘Transforming social norms to prevent violence against women and girls’ which will then be presented at the event.

There will also be discussion about the proposal from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on VAWG, Rashida Manjoo, for a new UN treaty on ending VAWG . Watch this space for our expert members’ assessment of government action here to prevent abuse.

What is men’s role in stopping violence against women and girls?
EVAW Co-Chair Professor Liz Kelly will be discussing this critical issue on a panel alongside Jon Cruddas MP, Yvette Cooper MP, Colin Fitzgerald and Thangam Debbonaire at a Labour Policy Review event, supported by EVAW and Labour Women’s Network. Monday 4th March (4.30-6.00pm), Houses of Parliament, Committee Room 6. Emailonenationregister@gmail.com to attend.

Sexual offences statistics and Met’s Jimmy Savile report – joining the dots
Earlier this month the ONS published statistics on sexual offences from across the criminal justice system in one place for the first time, making for a compelling, if disturbing read. The very next day the Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC published their report on Jimmy Savile, revealing what they have found to date about the scale and nature of his abuse. EVAW responded to both of these observing that many abusers know there is virtual impunity for rape, and that until we start to tackle this comprehensively with young people in our schools, as well as adequatelysupporting survivors (including adult survivors of sexual abuse as a child), we will fail to address this problem. Our comments were reported in The Times and in Metro, Holly Dustin was interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour alongside former solicitor general Vera Baird QC, and we were also featured in The Guardian.

Leveson Inquiry & media sexism
EVAW and our partners Eaves, Equality Now and Object are continuing to get our report on media sexism to all those involved in the debate on media reform and recently met with Jo Swinson to discuss tackling media sexism. We are also making a submission to a consultation newspaper editors are running on what revisions should be made to the Editors Code. Our recommendation that the new regime include a clear duty on the press to hear third party complaints is making headway and has even managed to cause annoyance in some quarters!



Troubled Families
EVAW co-Chair Liz Kelly met recently with Louise Casey, head of theTroubled Families Unit at the Department for Communities and Local Government, following a head to head debate on Woman’s Hour last year. Liz raised our concerns that the programme overlooked the fact that many women in ‘troubled families’ are survivors of abuse, and many men are abusers. She said that women’s and girls’ safety should be a key outcome when the work is evaluated.

NOTES:
  • If you would like to support EVAW's campaigning for a safer world for women and girls so that we can put pressure on government to take action you can make a donation
  • EVAW are very grateful for the support of all donors and funders, including Comic Relief, Trust for London and Amnesty International UK. 
  • Follow  @EVAWhd
  • For more information about EVAW see www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk


Sunday, 27 January 2013

I was looking for a good film and I found Perfection

Am writing this in the same week that there has been great news from the Underwire film festival and the Birds Eye View film festival, a couple of months after the London Feminist Film Festival, around the time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were brilliant hosts of the Golden Globes, just after strong women led comedies like Pitch Perfect and Bridesmaids, after The Hunger Games struck and impressed me, in the same broader period that there have been stunning films directed by UK and US women including Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Floria Sigismondi, Lynne Ramsay, Lone Scherfig, Debra Granik, Phyllida Lloyd, Sarah Gavron, Madonna (yes, I loved WE and it was one million times more chic, more historically accurate, more sexy, woman-positive and less sexist than The King's Speech - 2 hours of speech therapy! I ask you), Lisa Cholodenko, Andrea Arnold, Joanna Hogg, Diane Biers, Kathryn Bigelow, Samantha Morton and Sam Taylor-Wood....

Now I've found Perfection:


Perfection, directed by Christina Beck - latest one on my long long list of coolest women in the world, and her web site will lead you to many more - is a multi award winning film which has been a hit at festivals worldwide. It is now receiving its UK premiere on Saturday February 9 at the Rio Cinema, 107 Kingsland High St., London, E82PB at 2.30pm. You can buy tickets here and, no, Christina Beck is not a personal friend of mine although hey here's hoping.

Perfection is a smart, contemporary take on LA life, freshening up the old myth of the city of angels and its anxious, constantly-striving inhabitants. As well as the sexy love story it also tackles grittier matter: ageing, pain, self-harm, self-obsession and self-criticism. Says Beck,
Perfection is an eye-opening portrayal of the city rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood movies. The film tells the story of Kristabelle, a 30 something who still lives with her mother and cuts herself to feel alive. Her mother is addicted to plastic surgery, trying to regain her youth. Through the help of a pot smoking young lover and a newly sober British stand up comic, they all find that love can be more than skin deep.
And....behind the scenes there are some amazing women and cool guys. Here are the personnel details. Enjoy.
  • Title: Perfection, 2012, USA, 85 min
  • Director/writer: Christina Beck
  • Producers: Tatiana Kelly, Annette Murphy
  • Co Producers: Beth Dewey, Robert Poswall
  • Director of Photography: Robert Poswall
  • Editor: Katy Skjering
  • Composer: Marika Tjelios
  • Starring: Robyn Peterson, David Melville, Jeff Kober, Jackson Davis, Jamela Biggs and Christina Beck

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Nothing's fair in love and war and Granta knows it

Granta magazine is the sleekest, most chunkily holdable, intelligent, varied and well-edited established literary magazine out there. It's recently announced a new issue and a series of London events on war reporting and betrayal. Go along and be thrilled by the insight and wisdom of writers including Janine di Giovanni (whose memoir Ghosts by Daylight I loved as much for its personal humour as its broader political tragedy), Frances Harrison (author of Still Counting the Dead, a stunning and revelatory account of hidden war in Sri Lanka), Samantha Harvey (whose beautiful and moving novel The Wilderness we shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009) and John Burnside (something in brackets).


Made-Up Words: win a week at Arvon


Despite the proliferation of arts retreats, writing courses, workshops and literary events in the UK, Arvon's programme of residential courses remains the best for keen writers of all levels, in all disciplines. Arvon are peerless in their course design, the diversity of the teachers and students, their ability to move with the times and the special combination of rigour, peacefulness, camaraderie and privacy (apart from the obligatory nutter in each group, but that's life) during the week-long courses. I've taught for Arvon alongside some of the UK's most gifted writers, including Hugh Thompson, Susan Elderkin, Hephzibah Anderson and Travis Elborough. I can say - as all teachers do - that I learn much more from the students, who are from all walks of life and are both richly talented as writers and richly experienced as people, than they possibly could from me. Surely every writer, whether they are new or established, published or just starting out, writing for the page or stage or screen, wishes for a week in a beautiful country retreat with books and walks on hand, time and fresh air, a break from the Internet and other distractions, guidance when needed and privacy when wanted.


Now English PEN and Arvon have joined together to offer a chance to win a place on an Arvon creative writing week. The competition's called Made-Up Words and the prize is a full place on an Arvon course at one of the three English Arvon centres, plus travel to the Arvon house (the equivalent of a 2nd train ticket within the UK - lovely!)


  • All you need to do is write a poem (maximum 14 lines) or a piece of flash fiction (maximum 100 words) with a title that is a made-up word. 
  • Submit your entry in the body of an email (no attachments) to competition@englishpen.org by midnight 29th March 2013. Any entries that come in at any time on 30th March 2013 onwards will not be submitted.
  • You may only submit one entry and you may not alter or amend the entry once it’s been sent. 
  • Writer Femi Martin is the judge of the competition. Femi is a writer and performer who is best known for her flash fiction. She was appointed the Dickens 2012 Young Writer in Residence and has written some inspiring words for you to help you come up with your entry.
  • Made-Up Words is part of Europolyglot, an English PEN festival of events, workshops, night classes and roundtables that celebrates multilingualism and active ageing in the UK, in partnership with the European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom.
  • See right here for further terms and conditions.

In an additional note which I strongly suspect was written by a very gifted poet, PEN friend and colleague of mine, there is some guidance on your made up words:
All words, in a way, are made up, and we want you to feel as free as possible, but you might also be interested in exploring words that people make up and use in their families and friendships (think of Paul Muldoon’s poem Quoof, his family’s strange word for a hot water bottle) or nonsense words (think of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky) or perhaps combinations from words of other languages, or onomatopoeic words, or words that are somewhere between sound and sense, or… 
I love those final three dots.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Brilliant women, brilliant films

2013 can start! The Underwire Film Festival and the Birds Eye View Film Festival have big new news, events, screenings, talks and talent. 

Two of the UK most original, positive, distinctive and exciting film festivals have made exciting announcements this week, opening 2013 in proper style.

Underwire was set up to celebrate the art and craft of the short film and the many women making exceptional, original new work at all levels of the industry from production and technicals to writing, composing and acting. I was involved a little with Underwire 2011 and was thrilled to encounter so much inspiring new work and meet so many inspiring, talented women - and I include the dynamic, brilliant producers of the festival itself in that.

Incidentally, submissions are open for Underwire 2013. The producers are looking for the best work from female directors, producers, writers, editors, cinematographers, composers, actors, sound designers, interesting representations of women on screen and outstanding work from a female practitioner under 25. If you've got a short film under 20 mins, in any genre from music videos to documentaries, dramas to animations. Click here for more information and the submission form. And it all proves, as I have written a thousand times in a thousand articles, that when They try to justify Their extreme under-representation of women at arts events, film festivals, panel events, press tours, TV and radio programmes etc etc by saying that women are scarce, or shy, or not 'out there', they are lying.

Underwire is now branching out and will be partnering with the London Comedy Film Festival from January 24th - 27th January. The cute logo is below.

The event they've curated, Working Women, is a day-long celebration of smart, funny women on screen. It will be held at the BFI on Saturday 26th January from 9am until 6pm and will be followed by drinks hosted by Funny Women. Tickets are £65 and can be bought here. Underwire/LOCO/BFI will be previewing new work from some of Britain's best women writers, discussing how to write better female roles across the board, debating the opportunities - or lack of them - for women in the industry and hosting discussions with some very special guests including writer and actress Julia Davis; actress, comedian and writer Katy Brand; writer and Inbetweeners star Jessica Knappett; comedian, actress, writer and musician Isy Suttie; actress Caroline Quentin; writer and Twenty Twelve star Sara Pascoe and performance artist Bobby Baker.

And there are many more, equally inspiring events:
  • A Herstory of Comedy on Screen: Being funny and a woman isn't anything new. This celebratory romp through the history of funny women on screen picks out a new unforgettable comedy gems that continue to inspire and entertain.
  • In Conversation with Julia Davis and Lucy Lumsden: Join writer and actress Julia Davis and Sky's Head of Comedy Lucy Lumsden as they discuss their collaborative relationship over the years and recount the journey of their work together on Human Remains, Nighty Night, Lizzie and Sarah, Julia Davis's Little Cracker and most recently the award-winning Hunderby.
  • Rachel Mars: Extract from The Way You Tell Them: Rachel Mars is a performer maker; working in theatre, live art and comedy. Her new piece - The Way You Tell Them - is an interrogation of the compulsion and desire to be funny. It's about going beyond the gag, plan ol' laughing and families that use jokes in places that aren't necessarily normal. The Way You Tell Them is a funny, thought-provoking performance that uses real life material, classic oral sex jokes and a wold suit to see what happens when you don't always go for the easy laugh....
  • Rachel will also be joining a panel of comedy talent - Caroline Quentin, Sara Pascoe, Bobby Baker - whose work draws upon some of the issues raised in the performance. The panel, hosted by Lynne Parker from Funny Women, will be asked to ponder on the idea of comedy at home, comedy within families, as well as questioning whether confessional humour is something that is particularly popular with women and the possibilities and problems this can bring. 
  • Working Women with Natalie Haynes: Writer and broadcaster Natalie Haynes hosts a panel of writer/performers Katy Brand, Jessica Knappett and Isy Suttie as they talk about the challenges and excitements of working in comedy, how they've built their career and what advice they would give to aspiring creatives wanting to follow in their footsteps.
  • The UK Premiere of Julie Delpy's Le Skylab 

And I've saved the biggest and best news for last....



An image from Wadjda, directed by Haifaa Al Mansour,
screening at BEV 2013

There's a lot of great news on this front, a lot of it close to my heart (and my work) because of this year's focus on excellent film-makers in the Middle East. But first there's some wonderful behind-the-scenes news:

Birds Eye View have a new creative direction, Kate Gerova, whose previous position was as Head of Distribution at Soda Pictures. Kate's appointment comes alongside a pledge to increase BEV's impact through a greater offer for filmmakers, a fresh focus on talent development and deeper collaboration with the wider film industry. This follows a phase of strategic planning to reaffirm and re-invigorate BEV's core mission to celebrate and support women filmmakers in the UK and across the world. Kate has ten years' experience and expertise in film distribution and at Soda Pictures she had been both Head of Distribution and formerly Head of Publicity.

BEV's founding director and total inspiration Rachel Millward, who stays on as Chief Executive, says: 
We are thrilled to welcome someone so respected in the film industry at this crucial time in Birds Eye View's development. Kate brings an understanding of the economics of film, creative excellence and a strong appreciation of the marketplace and audiences. This will enable BEV to build on our significant cultural successes, and to continue supporting and celebrating international women filmmakers with ever-increasing impact.
Kate Gerova says:
I'm delighted to join Birds Eye View at a time with huge potential for international growth, with the creative vision of female talent gaining increased prominence at leading international festivals and on our screens. I will be building on BEV's track record of fantastic and innovative programming and events, while also developing year round activities to inspire, educate and broker more opportunities for women filmmakers.
Founded in 2002, BEV has since become internationally renowned as a driving force in celebrating, supporting and empowering women in the world’s most powerful medium, film. BEV works year-round to promote new releases by women filmmakers, support new female talent through development labs, and act as an advocate for women in the industry. 

Bird's Eye View's full International Film Festival will be relaunched in 2014 as a biennial event as the organisers believe that the alternate years will allow greater space for talent development and to focus on specific regions and themes. 

BEV attracted over 11,000 people in 2011, when highlights included the London premieres of Susanne Bier’s Oscar & Golden Globe winner In A Better World and Lena Dunham’s SXSW & NY Critics Award winner Tiny Furniture, plus new silent film scores by musicians including Grammy winner Imogen Heap, Seaming and Micachu. It has been invaluable in showing everyone who loves film and likes and respects women just how much excellence, activity, inspiration and creative brilliance is out there, not just in the UK but all over the world and not just in feature films but also in documentaries and many other art forms. Nobody can now deny just how many active, ambitious and talent women are creating vital work, which deserves not just to be acknowledged but also seen, celebrated, discussed and nurtured. BEV has also brought women of brilliance from many arts and cultural disciplines together to rediscover forgotten directors from all eras of film, create original music through their highly innovative Sounds and Silents project (which I have written about here), conduct Q&As with contemporary directors of both established influence and exciting new work and participate in debates, talks, discussions and symposia which resurrect women of the past, celebrate women of the present and reach out to the cool girls who will become the great women of the future. 

I can't wait to see what the coming years hold.

But first! BEV has announced the first events for its 2013 Film Festival. The full line-up will be announced soon - watch this space - but I'm really excited to notice this year's focus on celebrating Arab Women Filmmakers. Details below:

  • Beginning in International Women's Week, BEV 2013 includes its returning International Women's Day Gala with a pre-release screening of Venice award-winner Wadjda on Friday 8th March (tickets £13.80/£10.30 concs) at BFI Southbank, plus an exclusive Q&A with director Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first woman feature film director.  Hailed as "Boundary-pushing cinema in all the best ways" by the Telegraph, Wadjda won multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival for its inspiring, sharply humorous and gently subversive look at a life in modern-day Riyadh. Rebellious schoolgirl Wadjda wants a bicycle. When her parents refuse, she determines to raise the money herself. And with her mother distracted by her husband’s plans to take a second wife, Wadjda may just have a chance...
  • The world premiere of a new live silent film score on Thursday 7th March at Southbank Centre (tickets £15/£7.50 concs) by rising star composer and current LSO Panufnik Scheme resident Bushra El-Turk, fusing classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern musical styles (full event listings below). Bushra El-Turk's music will be accompanying a screening of the world’s first animated feature film, Prince Achmed, an enchanting, sharply humorous and visually dazzling classic based on The Arabian Nights. 
  • The main 2013 Film Festival will run from 3-10 April with a programme of feature, documentary and short films from Arab women directors at BFI Southbank and Barbican, plus specially commissioned live silent scores from British Arab musicians. 
  • For more details contact Will Young, BEV Producer, on will@birds-eye-view.co.uk

What can I say? Go, enjoy, be thrilled.



Text (c) Underwire and (c) Birds Eye View

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Screening of films selected by artist Helen Marten, this Saturday

Images (c) Chisenhale Gallery
At the ever-original and exciting Chisenhale Gallery in East London this Saturday at 4pm there'll be a screening of films selected by artist Helen Marten, whose Chisenhale exhibition, Plank Salad, is on until 27th of the month. The screening includes films by Gabriel Abrantes, Trisha Baga, Phyllis Baldino, Sarah Morris (one of my favourite contemporary artists - click here for more about her), Seth Price, Stuart Sherman and Michael Smith.

This event is free but booking is advised. Please contact mail@chisenhale.org.uk to reserve a place.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

New reading fund launched to help disadvantaged children

Supporters including The Duchess of Cornwall, James Patterson, Joanna Trollope and Gaby Roslin are backing a new initiative called the Children’s Reading Fund, which aims to ‘change the story’ [all puns (c) the Children's Reading Fund] for the UK’s most vulnerable and disengaged children through the power of stories and reading.

Launching on Thursday 17th January, the Children’s Reading Fund is being created by Booktrust, the independent reading and writing charity. Booktrust is already responsible for a number of successful national reading promotions, sponsored book prizes and creative reading projects aimed at encouraging readers to discover and enjoy books. These include the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the Children’s Laureate, and Bookstart, the national programme that works through locally based organisations to give a free pack of books to babies and toddlers, with guidance materials for parents and carers.

Specifically targeting children aged between 4 and 11, the Children's Reading Fund will use books and e-books, CDs, games and performance to inspire children to engage more with reading and writing and thus to change their own story.

Founding partners James Patterson (in association with Random House) and Waterstones, along with author Joanna Trollope, TV presenters Cerrie Burnell, Dan Snow and Gaby Roslin are all backing the Children’s Reading Fund, which hopes to raise £2 million over three years to support disadvantaged children in the UK. The campaign is also being supported by Booktrust Patron the Duchess of Cornwall and The View from the Shard. The much-loved children’s literary characters Matilda, Zog and Tracy Beaker are fronting the campaign.

This project will extend the reach of the already successful Booktrust programmes which have helped thousands of children in the UK aged under 4. It will aim to support a further 12,000 children over the next three years aged between 4 and 11. Helping disadvantaged children is a key focus for the charity at a time when the number of children in care is rising and the average deaf child leaves school with a reading age of just nine. The project will support children in three key target groups: children in care, children with additional needs, such as those who are blind, deaf or partially-sighted, and children whose parents can’t afford to provide access to books.
Viv Bird, Booktrust Chief Executive, said: 
Booktrust already supports some 5,000 children in care through The Letterbox Club and this has been incredibly successful. With this new Fund, we plan to extend our reach to include more children – those who are most disadvantaged in society: children in care, children who are blind or deaf, and those whose families simply can’t get access to books in these harsh economic times.
A donation of £11 per month ensures a child in care receives regular parcels with books, writing materials, CDs and games.
For more information and to donate, visit www.childrensreadingfund.org.uk.
Follow the project on Facebook at facebook.com/booktrust and Twitter, hashtag #changethestory.

The Children’s Reading Fund will support children across the UK in three key target groups:
  • Children in care – A child in care is more likely to go to prison than university. The number of children in care in England is rising and the Children’s Reading Fund will allow Booktrust to expand its award winning programmes improving the educational outlook for children in care. Around 5,000 children in care are currently supported – only 10% of the total number.
  • Children with additional needs – Cuts to public funding are increasingly putting children with additional needs at risk of exclusion: the average deaf child leaves school with a reading age of just nine. The Children’s Reading Fund will allow for increased support for children with additional needs including blind, partially sighted and deaf children ensuring that they have the same opportunities as any other child.
  • Socially or economically disadvantaged children – At a time when discretionary income for low and middle class families has evaporated and more and more families are struggling to make ends meet, The Children’s Reading Fund will support parents and children for whom poverty is a barrier to reading and writing to ensure that access to books remains a child’s universal right, not a luxury.


Text (c) Children's Reading Fund

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Periyar river in Kerala under threat from pollution

Photo (c) Care2
The State Government of Kerala in India is being petitioned by international activists because a major regional waterway, the Periyar river, is under threat from pollution. Towards the mouth of the river, researchers have found high levels of DDT, lead, cyanide and mercury produced by local industry, agriculture and domestic waste. This poses a health risk to humans as well as destabilising the aquatic environment. Environmental campaigners claim that the Kerala Pollution Control Board has failed to take proper samples when serious pollution has been reported. They say,

"Water pollution does more than make the river smell bad. It wrecks ecosystems and livelihoods and is not something to be ignored."
To learn more about the Periyar river, there's a beautiful site called Periyar River Keeper, created by an environmental pressure group; and for images and a thoughtful summing-up of the situation by photographer Marco Bulgarelli please click here. To sign the petition demanding that the state government acts on curbing water pollution, please click here.

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow for the International Reporting Project. She is reporting on issues of global health and development. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

A network world? Political protest in the Middle East and the UK

The following article is based on contributions I have made at various British Council External Affairs Unit events focusing on contemporary UK-Middle East cultural relations.

I wonder why exactly it is that Britain thinks the Middle East would want its involvement, interest, advice or assistance – or any other colonial euphemism – when it comes to cultural revolutionary matters, or indeed why Britain thinks it has anything to offer which the rest of the world would be grateful for. Even the mention of British-ME relations has provoked riled reactions when I’ve mentioned some of the events I’m involved in to Arab colleagues. ‘Relations’ is such a neutral word, implying mutuality, equality, freedom, fairness, a level playing field rather than power, appropriation, dominance, control, politicking and inequality.

I have been shown by countless Arab activists how the framing of the Arab revolutions in the Western media has conformed to well-established Orientalist stereotypes, which include un-nuanced, unperceptive and always-negative assumptions about religion, law, sex and gender, class, colour, culture and language. The first and most obviously insulting implication is that the Arab states were somehow asleep and unawakened more than eighteen months ago, then suddenly arose from a political stupor and began brainlessly copying each other. In reality, many countries have a long history of protest and demonstration and many of the most prominent activists are themselves from politically active families. Then there is the West’s avid obsession with Middle Eastern women: that spicy contrast, as they see it, between the strong presence of lots of attractive English-speaking ME laydeez leading popular revolutionary movements and marches; the spectre of the tragic-eyed, veiled figure which haunts and titillates the Western imagination; and the commonness of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other types of gendered attack and oppression as perpetrated and advocated not only by men on the street but police officers and governments. Outsiders do love a high-contrast contradiction, without being able to see that such a juxtaposition is not only common in all countries including Western ones, but is also obvious: where there is the strongest oppression there is the strongest protest, which meets the strongest resistance by the oppressors. The abuse of women is endemic globally, is perpetrated by those of all colours, classes and cultures and is  justified and excused using exactly the same arguments and language everywhere from America to Afghanistan.

Yet, nonetheless, the clichés and culturally bigoted obsessions remain, as does the repetition of images which reinforce the clichés. “Why is it,” a man from Beirut asked me at an event, “that whenever the news covers the Middle East, you’ve got loads of angry men shouting in the streets, a woman in a full veil crying over the dead body of her son? Or a camel.”

My Arab colleagues claim that Britain has never lost its colonial assumption of supremacy and its feeling that the rest of the world, particularly the coloured portions, are simply there to be used. They may be used in various different, interrelated and mutually reinforcing ways: for financial profit by the removal and sale of natural resources, the reinforcement of cultural influence and therefore political power, for amusement and novelty value (the colours! The sights! The sounds! The smells! All those happy smiling helpful faces letting us know that poverty’s not really so hard!), an exotic education, an erotic adventure and other types of bodily exploitation including building work and domestic slavehood. “The only person my grandmother loved was her ayah,” said a posh woman to me at a dinner party once. Lucky ayah. What happened to her? Nobody knows. You can go somewhere, do exactly what you like, smiling in that insipid, arrogant way, saying nothing except to those who are exactly like yourself. And when you have lost interest and wrung everything you want out of the country, people, economy, culture or situation, you can wash your hands and leave without a backward glance.

But are things changing? Is Britain moving closer to the Middle East, not through its strength, but through its own weaknesses, changes, eruptions and faultlines?

Scene: a high profile international summit meeting, plenary session. There are many people in the room, The Suits themselves, white government men in grey suits, the secret rulers of the universe, who claim to be deeply concerned with the Middle East but do not speak Arabic and, but for one or two, are listening to the simultaneous translation through their headphones. The simultaneous translators are themselves extremely high level Arab academics, translating back and forth between English, French and Arabic.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of what’s being said by the high-ups, particularly their fascination with social media. I think people get too excited about the digital revolution and assume that ‘everyone’ is online, is educated and literate, is politicised, interested and willing or able to become an activist about issues they care about. When leaders from rich countries and bourgeois societies talk about the world ‘we’ live in, they too often refer only to the world of cultural, educational and financial elites. They mistake their own privileges for some kind of universal truth rather than an exceptional minority experience produced by their elite circumstances. It’s too easy to celebrate our ‘connected, globalised, international’ world because it sounds pleasant and exciting, but the vision of a world society in constant dialogue overlooks extreme differences of culture, opportunity, wealth, access and privilege. 

Anyway, here’s the party line from the world leaders of today. Following Chatham House rules I can't tell you who voiced it but put it like this, he's a pretty big deal:
We live in a fundamentally changing world. The old form of political blocs has ended and is not going to come back. Even America cannot now act and expect no-one to speak out. In the new world, you no longer need to be strong to be heard. You need to be clever and honest. The world we live in today is a networked world made of interactive, nuanced relationships and networked influences.

The leadership challenge is a common one. When you look back, the model was simple: top down. The leader spoke, everyone else did. Now, the vertical model is gone. We talk business to business, people to people, and this allows us instantaneously to enter into the lives of others. Leadership necessarily must be much more fragmented and localised. Leaders need to learn the art of dialogue. We know how to negotiate, we know how to send diplomatic telegrams to each other, but what we’ve forgotten how to do is sit down, listen and learn. We live in a world of multiple threats – terrorism, extremism, economic meltdown – and if we don’t get our act together, they, rather than us, will be the winners.

A Middle Eastern politician adds that the challenge is to “renew leadership in the face of mutating change. There are a number of stakeholders who are coming out from underneath the iron curtain and fighting for legitimacy. Not just political stakeholders but social stakeholders: women, children and marginalised people.”

I love how women and children are always lumped together, as though a woman is some child-connected type of incomplete, weak and minor sub-adult rather than an independent part of more than half the adult population. I also hear a great euphemism from a British politician: We have “undergone change through non-ballot-box means” – in reference to the riots and the rise in UK activism.

As one of the UK cultural diplomatic people I contribute to summing up the ‘revolutionary times’ we’re all getting excited about. I want to show that instead of thinking in terms of a generalised revolutionary fervour, we must recognise that in the last several years, protests have been spurred by several specific issues, although many politicised people participated across several of those issues.

The latest era of protest has come about through a combination of people’s reaction to specific recent policy changes made by the government and a longstanding anger at certain issues that haven’t changed in decades despite long-term campaigning. The government’s cuts to social and public services, charities, community services, public bodies, the health system, the benefits system and crisis help providers (including those treating rape, abuse and intimate partner violence survivors) all disproportionately affect women, single parents (the overwhelming majority of whom are women) and the poor (the majority of whom are women). The effect of these cuts has radicalised a large proportion of the population, many of whom may not have considered themselves to be political before. The steep increase in university tuition fees has increased anger and the fear that the young are being condemned to debt even before they begin their independent working lives, which may take some years to establish – in combination with the ever-rising age for first-time single home ownership, the difficulty of attaining a mortgage and the unaffordability of living in London, where a significant proportion of desired jobs are.

There is an increasing cynicism about government and leadership which first showed itself (in recent history) in the protests against the Iraq war, which the Labour government ignored; the expectation that the coalition government wouldn’t work and that since New Labour strong differences between the values of Left and Right had been eroded and that all politicians are essentially the same; the aggression of George Osborne in pushing through the cuts without doing any kind of audit to see who would be hit the hardest; and the revelations following the Leveson enquiry about the interconnectedness of politics, finance, policing, the media and other influential sectors of society.

The riots were triggered by the police shooting a young black British man without reason, but they were fuelled by longstanding frustration at discriminatory police practices, the unjust over-representation of young black men in the criminal justice system, the treatment of black British suspects in police custody and the lack of police attention and due care when young black Britons are victims of crime. They were also, underneath that, prompted by anger about persistent inequality of opportunity, poverty of expectation, marginalisation, racism and disadvantage through prejudice.

At the same time, there has been an incredible resurgence in feminist activism, spurred by a multiplicity of issues both old and new: the endemic nature of sexual assault, street sex harassment, sexual abuse and other types of sex attack; persisting low rape conviction rates, ubiquitous rape myths which blame the victim not the perpetrator, inadequate police and judicial treatment of rape survivors; women’s experience of everyday sexism and casual misogyny at university and at every level in the workplace; the way the media ignores, under-reports or misleadingly reports sex attacks and subtly blames the victim; the extreme under-representation of women as influencers, leaders and experts in the media, the arts, politics, big business, finance and at all higher levels of all major professions; the unequal division of labour within the home; the pay gap; the pornification of mainstream cultural imagery and the normalisation of the sex industry; rising rates of body anxiety, eating disorders and body dysmorphia; the normalisation of abusiveness in teenage relationships; and the fact that two women a week are killed by their current or ex partner.

I also believe that the political cycle is too short term, that politicians need to look ahead at least twenty years into the future but are restricted by election cycles and cannot establish long term change when the electorate and political peers alike have short term interests. Interestingly, when one UK speaker at a conference on this issue is talking about the importance of social entrepreneurship and giving the usual stuff about “the digital revolution is a game-changer... it’s made the world incredibly fast”, he is interrupted by an incredibly impressive international economist who points out that these are not necessarily the sectors, though they're culturally sexy (my phrase, not hers), that lead to concrete economic growth. She points out in the Middle East North Africa Region a strong source of employment is agriculture – in addition to the science, engineering, technology and communications jobs we’ve already discussed at the meeting – and reminds us that 100 million jobs are currently required in the region simply for it to stand still. Social media creates buzz, not serious employment.

It would be easy to be too keen to map the UK revolutions onto the Middle Eastern ones. There are however many strong differences which Arab specialists highlight as requiring particular focus.

First, demography led, in part, to the recent Arab revolutions. They were led by young people and supported by the means of communication, organisation, co-ordination and documenting enabled by social media.These young people now need to be involved in the political process and reassured that politicians and governments are trustworthy and will not just use 'democracy' and its slogans to come to power.

The Middle East must recognise and support the role of education in preparing citizens for social development, political involvement and social change in a very stable way so that they are trained to handle their own future by developing critical and analytical thinking. This type of education must broaden the mind and include all ages and both genders. All Arab speakers, of both sexes, have stressed gender and sexual equality at all levels of society as a major issue and a vital component in creating a “coexistent culture of tolerance and civil engagement.”

Many of the Arab specialists I've spoken to cautiously undercut the Western commentators’ excitement about the Arab revolutions, pointing out the unpredictability of the protests and the inefficacy of protestors to produce concrete proposals and future predictions of specific need. They expressed a desire for the ‘new’ generation of politically active players to get used to working with short, medium and long term future projects. They also stressed the development of a strong civil society to fill the gap between politicians and the people – “the best speakers for people are members of civil society who can challenge politicians, who after all do not know the will of the people.” But the politicians, for their part, must also value and take heed of citizens’ initiatives and additionally give young people a chance to contribute instead of relying only on senior politicians.

In the move to democracy in the Middle East there must be a rectification of the loss of faith and confidence in institutions of power, an encouragement of people to participate in elections and put faith in political leaders so that civil society becomes a real actor in social change. Locally owned, locally grown and locally run models are needed to create institutions which fit the context of their societies.

Something welcomed by my Arab colleagues was the proliferation of social media, as against some of the UK speakers who lamented the fact that “there has been a shattering of media into a pervasive chatter, catchphrases and non-news that leads people to skip from topic to topic, creating a culture in which everyone feels they need to say something, leading to an exhausting and continual creation of the self – the development of an online identity which itself ultimately leads to exhaustion and apathy.” The Arab speakers were happy about the development of social media as “leaders can no longer promote an overarching image.” However, “when everyone becomes a commentator and makes statements which are unfounded, trust breaks down.”

The challenge of post-conflict societies is in the opening up of society, the discussion of values and an engagement with the discomfort of change. Bedding down into transitional democracies is a long process in mid- and post-conflict societies. We must be on guard against potential disappointment in mass-led movements when the rate of change doesn’t keep pace with the intensity of desire for change; when expectations are unfulfilled, take a long time, encounter resistance or are bogged down in process and practicalities, there is a weakening of resistance and a loss of faith. There must be, at the same time, a simplification of the bureaucracy which stifles and undermines so many aspects of the political process.

There are also certain specifics that my Arab colleagues mention, which are not such stark issues in the UK: the importance of the rule of law (to which one British wag said, “which laws, specifically?”), women’s rights, combating corruption and the funding of politicians and media outlets by business interests, regaining people’s trust in judiciary mechanisms, equality under the law, a constitution which is freely chosen by the people, free speech without the threat of reprimand or persecution, strong infrastructures including quality universal education. They were also cynical about the extreme reaction of the West to the post 9/11 threat of fundamentalism, extremism, political Islam and terrorism, which the West often elides together – yet these issues were something North African and other Middle Eastern states had already been dealing with for a long time.

While the MENA region shares with the UK certain concerns about the economy, employment, the quality and nature of leadership in a multi-pole world, the new relationship between citizens and those in power and the requirement that politicians regain the trust of the people, there are some differences and tensions. For a start: what exactly is Britain’s motive in wanting to paternalistically ‘get involved’ or somehow ‘help out’ in the Middle East revolutions?

Monday, 7 January 2013

Redacted: I learn international state secrets. But I can't tell you what they are.


So. This is power. I’m attending a conference organised by ...I can’t say... in ...I can’t say... to discuss the cultural, political and economic future of mid-revolutionary Middle Eastern states. I’m travelling with the rulers of the world, Sirs and Baronesses, trustees, consultants, thinktankers, lobbyists, doers of good works, vested interests, diplomats, patrons and all that secret population of people who realise that fame and power are not the same thing, shun the former, shore up the latter and occasionally parcel it out to carefully chosen allies. These people are a breed apart. They’re not good looking. They’re not well dressed. They’re not witty. They’re not even that interesting. But they’re super crunchy hardcore power players, world-rulers and society-changers and no mistake. They are vigorously of-this-earth. They talk politics, economics and brute facts. They’re weird, but I like them, and since I’m doing a lot of this kind of stuff – it’s called cultural diplomacy, which always sounds faintly sinister – I’ll have to get up to speed, fast.

These are the people who, at school, were on every committee, put themselves forward to be the captain or prefect of everything and did it really well, got all A*s at GCSE without trying, involved themselves in every campaign, rose in their universities’ student unions and have been involved in politicking and improving the world (or bending it to their advantage), in some way, all their lives. They wield incredible influence, but downplay themselves. After a while I stop asking anyone what they do, especially after a slippery, handsome Hugh Grantish chap blibbers to me, “I’m hopeless really, don’t listen to a word I say, I have no culture at all. Everything I say is rubbish. I’ve only just taught myself how to use the Internet.” I later find out he’s written countless highly regarded books about international affairs, is a much-garlanded academic and been involved at the sharp end of US politics for fifteen years. I’ve learned that when someone tells me their Arabic is “absolutely terrible”, it means they’ve got a PhD in it, and that if they say they know the Arab world “a little bit” it means they’ve spent the last 30 years being posted everywhere from Libya to Iran to Yemen and have at least 20 half-brown children helping to populate the Arab League.

“What are the Chatham House Rules?” I ask a passing Peer. “Is it that you can only tell a secret to one person at a time?”
“When a discussion takes place,” she tells me, “you can’t report the person who said it. You can report what was discussed, but do not attribute it to anyone, because it’s politically dicey and it might go against the official line. At this stage we’re just trying out different ideas.”
            I meet a posh chap from one of a youth advocacy group. He looks very clean. I ask him what his group is all about.
“It’s quite odd, it was set up by the Foreign Office originally, but now it’s more youth-led. It sent a delegation to the World Youth Forum in 1948. Trustees must be under twenty-six but the average age for the British Youth Parliament is teens.”
“That’s disgustingly wholesome,” I tell him.
            There are nearly a hundred speakers at the event.
“Are we really making a difference or just pissing in the wind?” I ask another nearby chap.
“I think, the latter,” he carefully replies, “I think it’s something They’re doing to say They’ve done it.”
“Do you think, afterwards, the information travels upwards to the ones who make the decisions?”
            He doesn’t know.

I overhear two people complaining that thinktanks “bend with the wind” and “throw out bits of research and hope it goes along with the flavour of the times.” I still can’t work out what most of the politicos, consultants, trustees and thinktankers actually do in their daily lives and nobody I ask directly will give me a straight answer.
“Who’s here?” I ask someone, looking around at everyone talking in English, Arabic and French. The very big wigs all know each other, obviously.
“The great and the good,” he replies.
“And the low and the bad?” I ask.
            This is what Barack Obama does all day long: summit meetings all over the world, all day, every day, talking and talking, without a break, and for real, not pretend.
“Have you been on many Unmentionable Events before?” a woman asks me.
“No, when I wrote fiction I went on lots of cultural things, tours. And I have a lot of contacts within Unmentionable. But I’m so political, I prefer this.”
“By political, are you affiliated with any particular group?” she asks warily.
“No, no. Small p political. Whenever I’ve met a party politician or process politician I’ve been chilled by them regardless of where they are on the political spectrum,” I say.
“I completely agree with you. I’m in the [REDACTED] but as a [REDACTED].”
“It’s that steely ambition politicians have,” I say, “and whenever you talk to them you can sense them wanting to know what you want. But you might not want anything. You might just want to make friends.”
“I’m with you,” says my new friend. “They judge you according to their own standards.”

So, what is the idle chatter of the great and the good? I eavesdrop. They’re talking about the weather, the mansion tax and a US political sex scandal involving the FBI.
“There have been some quite serious communication failures, I think, at the BBC,” says someone.
Then there’s some amazing insider gossip which goes like this:
“So... what’s happening with Russia?”
“It’s extraordinary! They’ve suddenly decided they love us.”
“David Miliband really fell out badly with [REDACTED].”
“I’m sorry, I have to say [REDACTED] really didn’t deserve those threats from NATO.”
“Well, I’ve had lots of very uncomfortable conversations with [REDACTED] that the Foreign Office...”
            They move on and I then hear someone boasting loudly,
“It’s so funny – I’m reading two books, neither of which have been published yet. Talk about being ahead of the game!”
“Do you read Prospect mag?” someone asks her.
“Yes I do. Yup.”
            The man she’s talking to seems to be some kind of expert on China. He complains,
“The thing that really pisses me off is that most people or many people these days think they have a book about China in them and most of it is extraordinarily naive. Part of the problem is the sheer level of ignorance about China. There are some Chinese academics willing to talk about matters as they really are... illegal appropriation of land from peasants... the level of corruption....”
“Do you know Bigwig? Peter Bigwig?” the woman interrupts. “He was chair of Bigballs Willey, now Vice Chair of Important Big-Big...”
            The man goes on,
“I just went out to [REDACTED], worked with [REDACTED] for five years, went over to the [REDACTED] in Beijing. I speak Mandarin. Books on China are so superficial.”
“I tend to concentrate on US foreign policy towards the East, the Middle East, towards China. I was coming back this Sunday and they asked me to go to the Gulf States and then to go to Saudi. I don’t like to do that, two trips in six weeks,” says the woman.
“I’m actually going. I’m going. I’m flying directly from [REDACTED] on Sunday to [REDACTED],” says the man.
“What I like to do is the big powers, because if anything happened to them...”
“Traditionally, people in my position, they want to be everywhere, visit all the Unmentionables...”
“Yes – also – and I, I read a lot so I find it much more useful to read books instead of sitting in airports, travelling, meeting people.”
            The woman behind me on the plane is reading the FT. Actually reading it.

In the airport we arrive at is an advert showing a boy tugging at his father’s trouser leg, looking up at him accusingly. The strapline goes,
“What would you tell your child if they asked you why you never invested in Eastern Poland?”
            The conversation around me is about a very famous politician.
“He has quite a lot of dinners around security and defence issues. I’m frequently the only woman in the room, so I make up the gender allowance. He’s having an event on Syria and I definitely want to go to that. He denied it but I heard him say the [REDACTED] Trust is going to keep him on for another few years.” The conversation goes out of focus and then sharpens again. “House of Lords, House of Commons Committee... and they did an enquiry into expenses.... absolutely shocking stuff. There was a link from the web site to his consultancy! I tell you, the politics of it got absolutely filthy.”
“There is an adviser to the government here,” someone tells me.
“Is he a nondescript man, in a grey raincoat, called Mr X?” I ask him.
“No. We have a name,” he says, sinisterly.
           
“There was supposed to be a women’s panel but it was dropped because of ‘cultural sensitivities’, apparently,” someone else tells me.
“What, the [REDACTED] couldn’t stand women daring to talk amongst themselves?” I ask.  
I can’t get anyone to verify whether the detail about the women’s panel is true or not. What I can confirm is that at the conference is one table of extremely surly Middle Eastern men with closed, thick, dissatisfied faces, who speak to no-one but each other and visibly look furious whenever any woman speaks about anything and any man speaks about ‘progress’, ‘pluralism’, ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ or anything of that nature.
            The few instances of outright misogyny I hear come – saddeningly – from women. At some point I’m talking to a nice man and it occurs to me that I wrote an article about the organisation he works for, after a staff member of his contacted me blowing the whistle on a major conference they were organising about the economic future of Europe. They had invited 12 men to speak at it, and 0 women. The man tells me defensively that they did get a few women in the end, that “we were very happy with the panel and how it went, and then there’s my wonderful colleague Fiona (not her real name) who’s just enormously clever and [blah blah blah].” This, verbatim, with no editorialisation, is the very first thing Fiona says to me when I meet her at breakfast the next day:
“Oh, you work for the BBC? I want to ask you something. I want to ask you: why is [revered woman broadcaster] so fat? Why is she so fat? What is that about? She can barely move. And who’s that other one, that woman from the charity? [Camila Batmanghelidjh]. I know they’ve got their theory: they swan in like that and everyone goes, Ooh, they’re here, but what is that about?” She then namedrops several other people to try and scope me out. Then she drops the name of a respected veteran female newspaper editor. “She’s a good girl.”
             
There are individuals from all points on the political spectrum including those with extremely right wing views who, for some reason, are always the liveliest, wittiest company. Here we go:
“Have you read Peter X’s book? Former editor in chief of [REDACTED]? His book’s out this week and it is fantastic. It attacks that ultra-liberal idea of, hey, let’s have open borders, everyone can come in, let’s all live together.” A sour pause. As someone who works with asylum seekers and displaced people and knows both the laws and the reality of these people’s lives – as well as the many pejorative myths surrounding asylum - I’m almost coming out in hives. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s your attitude,” the person goes on. “I’m worried about the students. Students coming in – what is this ‘acquired right to remain’? My cousin did it. Came here to do a PhD and never came back. Came here with a husband and baby. Never went back. One of the things he does take on in this book is the asylum and refugee system. And in certain circles you’re just not allowed to criticise the asylum system, the court system. The first leakage happens through work; the second leakage happens through family reunions.”
“It really bothers me the way the Home Office leaks really bogus figures,” says a guy, mysteriously.