I wrote about the Ankara bombing for the Huffington Post

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I wrote about the Ankara bombing for the Huffington Post (I’m a Huffington Post blogger now!) because it really, really, really sucked. You can read it below, or here

I was sleeping when Ankara city centre was hit by twin explosions just after 10am on the morning of October 10th. I woke up to a message from my boyfriend: “Two bombs have gone off near the train station. Looks like a lot of people dead. Might want to let your mum know you’re OK.” His office is metres from where the blasts tore through a crowd of peace protesters, hitting with such force that his whole building shook. My heart stopped as I read it, the air knocked out of me by the realisation that he might not have been OK, and that many people weren’t.

It’s a strange feeling to see the city you live in, a city so few people outside of Turkey seem to know much about – forgotten, as it is, under the shadow of the mighty Istanbul – as a disaster zone on TV news. Most Ankara residents had expected an attack at some point – violence was the flavour of the summer in Turkey after the uncompromising Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to gain a majority in June’s elections. Snubbed by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who surpassed the 10% threshold in their first parliamentary elections, old tensions between the state and rebel group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flared up. As if that wasn’t enough acronyms to deal with, ISIS seemed to be advancing on Turkey, too, having already been held responsible for July’s deadly suicide attack in Suruc that killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists.

When an attack hits in such a vile and callous way, anticipated or not, it’s devastating. It’s not just another faceless, violence-afflicted place in the Middle East, you think, watching UK TV reporters explain what happened and imagining how others will see it. This is my home. The people cruelly targeted were not soldiers or rebels, they had gathered to protest the recent violence between the PKK and the state. As Turkish novelist Elif Safak wrote for the Guardian: “Innocent hearts beating for peace [were] brutally stopped”.

Pleas for blood donations flooded expat groups on social media. Once I’d gathered my thoughts and had some assurance it was safe to go out, I headed to Numune hospital, one of three treating the injured. I was unable to give blood – turned away on the grounds that I have not yet been in Turkey for three years – but was moved to tears to see how many people had come out to do what they could.

Soon, however, the mood turned. Frustrations were vented on one of the blood vans, which had stopped taking donations. Men screamed, lashing out at the van as a mob chipped and dented its sides before it could drive away. Anti-government chants aimed at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spread quickly and the crowd swelled, blocking the road.

It’s easy to see why emotions are running high. The death toll currently stands at 102, with hundreds more injured. Many were young – teen activists, future MPs and a nine-year-old boy all lost their lives. The 20-year-old daughter of teacher Izzettin Cevik – whose image, blood spattered and cradling his injured, crying wife, became one of the defining images of the tragedy – died instantly.

With a second election in November looming, Turkey is on a knife-edge. The government, accused of harbouring an anti-democratic ‘deep state’ faction, is increasingly facing allegations of foul play and protests against them are commonplace. Just a few weeks ago, a former ISIS fighter told Newsweek that commanders had informed troops that the Turkish state was an “ally” and their forces would not bother them.

Yunus Emre Alagöz, the brother of the Suruc bomber, has been identified by Turkish authorities as one of the Ankara bombers and many more men with suspected links to Isis and the PKK have been arrested. Yet at the 10,000-strong protests against the blasts that swamped the streets of Istanbul that night and the mourning ceremony in Ankara the day after, similar anti-government songs could be heard: “Erdogan, murderer”, “police, murderers”. ISIS may be held accountable for the attack, but the people have their culprit. Whether they hold the government directly responsible, or blame them for failing to protect people, it doesn’t look good for Erdogan’s AKP. If they do somehow win their majority on November 1st – in the past, election rigging has often been suspected, with the state once even blaming an unruly cat – Turkey looks set for a rocky future.

I am haunted by the image of the girl I saw leave the hospital, no older than 21, her arms and legs bandaged and dried blood splattered across her clothes and brand-new Air Max. I think of all the people who died protesting for peace, while 5km away I did nothing but drool on my pillow. Yet despite all the heartache and uncertainty, life in Ankara goes on. People still buy food from the supermarkets and walk their dogs. Friends still meet for coffee, perhaps hugging for a few seconds longer as they greet.

The city is bruised, but not defeated.

Ankara fell victim to the very worst of humanity that day. In the people who queued to give blood, however, and those who gave everything to help the injured, I also saw the best. No matter what happens over the coming weeks, the Turkish people refuse to give into fear.

Nor should they.

Is Turkey heading towards civil war?

Is Turkey heading for civil war?

I wrote this piece for News Hub a few weeks ago, but it seems apt now following the awful bombings in Ankara. Can read it on News Hub here.

Things are not looking good for Turkey. The Turkish lira is at a record low against the US dollar and society is polarized over ongoing clashes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces. Last week, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, warned that the country is on the verge of a civil war.

With violence escalating, it seems worryingly viable. Old tensions between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – which they consider to be a terrorist organisation – have been well and truly reignited in a conflict that has seen 40,000 people killed since 1984.

The PKK were first to break a two-year ceasefire in July. They claimed responsibility for the shooting of two Turkish policemen – a reprisal, they claimed. Many Kurds sympathetic to the PKK blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for being complicit in, or at least passive towards, an Isis-blamed suicide attack that claimed the lives of 32 activists in Suruc, close to the Syrian border.

Days of fighting followed and when Turkey finally announced airstrikes on Isis militants in Syria, it only took until the next day for the guns to turn instead onto PKK targets in Iraq. Suspicions of the vehemently anti-Assad AKP government’s ties to Isis are never far away. The government denies any link. However, while Kurdish fighters remain the biggest resistance against Isis, these attacks will have done little to hinder the jihadists.

Since then, a series of nationalist protests, car bombings, arson attacks and sieges have brought violence well and truly back to the streets of Turkey. The government have been accused of fanning tensions for their own political means. If Turkey is heading towards a civil war, it’s increasingly believed that it’s by design rather than accident.

In June, just before the peace was broken, the AKP failed to win a political majority in a general election for the first time since 2002. The party’s rule had become increasingly authoritarian, swaying the secular country towards Islamification. They were denied their majority by Demirtas’s left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP who surpassed the steep 10% threshold – with 13% overall – in their first general election.

The streets fizzed with excitement that night, a real sense of euphoria after years of oppressive rule. HDP had the young and the alienated on their side, both Turkish and Kurdish, and channelled the revolutionary spirit of 2013’s anti-government Gezi Park movement.

However, coalition talks, which appeared a non-starter from the off, collapsed and a new election has been scheduled for November 1st. Beyond simply retaining control, the AKP and their controversial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who undertook the largely ceremonial role after hitting a three-term prime ministerial limit last year – seek a majority so that the constitution can be revised, ushering in a new presidential system. A move no doubt learned from Russia’s Vladamir Putin.

The subsequent frosting over of Kurdish-Turkish relations seems too convenient to be coincidence. As Marxist theory goes, the best way to end a revolution is with a counterrevolution. Years of massive economic growth led to increased inequality, with the poor now paying the price for the current crisis. Yet divide people on national lines instead of class ones, and it becomes far easier to sway the vote.

If Turkey did somehow engineer PKK retaliation over their handling of the Suruc bombing – or subsequent skirmishes – would Erdogan really be willing to throw the country back into bloody conflict just to win an election?

He is certainly a figure of scorn to his critics, trailing in his wake a string of corruption scandals, inflammatory comments about women’s role in society and incessant attacks on the press. He has shut down pro-Kurdish TV stations, online content is frequently blocked and many journalists have been arrested and even deported for daring to question his government.

Erdogan’s policies are uncompromising, everyone who disagrees with him is soon publicly branded a terrorist, or said to be aiding terrorists. When tapes were released claiming to contain recordings of him ordering his son to dispose of millions of dollars of incriminating cash amid one corruption scandal, he refused to step down, dismissing it as a plot to bring down the government. He’s no Mother Theresa, but as to whether he would risk thousands of lives for a game of political chess is not for me to say (see journalism prosecutions above). However, growing numbers of Turkish people believe so and it’s a feeling that’s not going to be easy to shake.

Either way, it’s the Kurdish civilians who are left baring the brunt of the country’s power struggles. Street attacks on the Kurdish minority are growing, and their cities are under siege. Few feel protected by official forces. According to even the pro-government press, 1,100 Kurds have died since the recent unrest compared to 150 soldiers. If civil war is brewing in Turkey, it’s because at least one side wants peace. They are, however, willing to fight for it.

I wrote a piece for the Telegraph about whether foreign women are safe in Turkey

Are expats safe in Turkey?

This weekend’s twin blasts in Ankara were devastating to local residents. Before this summer’s elections and the violence that followed the AKP failing to gain their majority, I wrote this for the Telegraph’s Expat Zone. Just goes to show how much the next election in November matters. You can read the edited version here

Between the threat of terrorism and questions about women’s rights, Turkey has been making the headlines a lot lately. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is the 18th most likely country in the world for Brits to require assistance while abroad, with violence against women on the increase, too. Last month saw protests in cities across the region following the violent murder of 20-year-old female student Ozgecan Aslan, although it was the male demonstrators in skirts who attracted the most attention.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that since I moved to the Turkish capital, Ankara, from London almost six months ago because of my partner’s work, the thing I’ve been asked most by friends and family is: “Are you safe?”. It’s a tricky question to answer.

Let’s start with terrorism. It’s hard not to be a little on edge considering warnings of heightened security risks across the country and the recent suicide bombing of Istanbul’s busy tourist district, Sultanahmet. One American told this paper late last year that she felt an “unnerving sense of doom” and likened the atmosphere in Turkey to pre-war Germany. Others talked of making escape plans and avoiding crowded places such as shopping malls.

I was jumpy during my first few months here too – every low flying plane or loud noise set my heart racing. However, how many major capital cities are there that aren’t at risk from terrorism? The UK’s terror threat level is set to ‘severe’ and I’ve been having mini-heart attacks following loud noises in London since 7/7.

The longer I’m in Ankara, the less I worry. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO and, along with armed police, soldiers are omnipresent. It’s a little authoritarian, yes. Ankara’s government buildings are so dystopian they could have been pulled straight from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet when there are frequent warnings of planned attacks on the city – particularly the US embassy, which I live alarmingly close to – a spot of austerity and few weapons can be surprisingly comforting.

Gender inequality, is, for me, a stickier topic. Turkey ranks 125th out of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender gap index, meaning little has been done to tackle inequality. To put that into context, India was 114th. 300 women have been murdered in the last year alone and UN Women have warned that: “Two out of every five women in Turkey are exposed to sexual and physical violence.”

It can be hairy at times being a woman in Turkey. Two of my friends have been followed in the street and a group of young men once tried to solicit sex from me when I accidentally wandered into the old town after dark. However, if I’m honest, despite my concerns over the treatment of women in Turkey, on a day-to-day basis I don’t feel repressed or unsafe. It saddens me to admit though, that this has a lot to do with where I live – in Kavaklıdere, a posh part of town that could perhaps best be described as the Kensington of Ankara. It’s an area dotted with embassies, trendy bars and restaurants close to the city centre. It’s liberal, young and politically fervent – on Fridays nights women get their glad rags on and drink/dance/chat their working weeks away as they might anywhere in the UK.

That being said, the US government rates Ankara’s crime levels as ‘low’ meaning that, despite Turkey facing its fair share of issues, it wouldn’t be that crazy to class Ankara as a fairly safe city. Unlike London, there is little street crime. If you absent-mindedly leave your phone on the table in a bar, more often then not, it will still be there when you get back. There is, however, one side of Ankara life that does scare the life out of its residents. Oh, how I wish drivers would pay attention to the roads

 

I wrote for the Independent about the Northfield Bully

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I wrote this a while ago (sorry!) for the Independent, because I was just so outraged and unsettled by the way people were behaving online. The video of the whole debacle kept popping up in my Facebook newsfeed and the bile that poured out adult’s mouths, and from national newspapers, towards a teenage girl was shocking. No one was saying anything and I really wanted to, well, tell them off in some way! We can’t beat bullying, with bullying: Edited version here

When it comes to bullying, we’re told to lead by example. Yet this week a vile and bile-filled witch-hunt against a 16-year old girl has proved that we’re not setting a very good one.

The girl – who can’t be named due to her age – was accused of bullying two 14-year old schoolgirls in a video that went viral. It shows a clash between two groups of teenagers in Northfield, near Birmingham, last Saturday. The accused is seen telling the two girls to “get on your knees and say sorry” for giving her a “dirty look”, before punching them and emptying their bags onto the floor.

The humiliating ordeal makes for uncomfortable viewing, although the video was seen more than 7 million times on Facebook before the police requested that users remove it. What was more uncomfortable, however, was the vitriolic hounding of the alleged ‘bully’ following its release.

Forget uncomfortable, what I mean is disgusting, gross, inexcusable. A cyber lynch mob smelled blood and they went after it with gusto. A stream of commenters, mostly adults, flooded social media. They wanted justice, closure for the alleged victims, but most of all they just wanted to hate.

The girl’s identity was uncovered through social media and released online along with her phone number. Nasty Facebook groups were set-up calling for ‘karma’ to be served. Insults were hurled at the girl’s behaviour, at her appearance and there were physical threats. Some even asked for her to ‘kill herself’.

The tirade got so bad that she had to be taken into police custody for safety and her phone was destroyed due to the number of death threats she was receiving. Later, she was forced to flee her home with her mother when an angry gang of vandals descended.

“A bunch of adults turned up and started spraying graffiti,” one eyewitness told The Sun after the words ‘scum’ and ’bully’ were left on her door. We’re talking about grown humans, intimidating a girl barely more than a child. Forget eye-for-an–eye, this kangaroo court were after a whole head.

I was bullied as a teenager and it can ruin people’s lives. According to charity Ditch the Label, as many as 43% of young people in the UK are thought to have suffered bullying of some kind and it has recently been linked to depression in adulthood. So why on earth did this army of supposed morality enforcers decide the answer to bullying was more bullying?

Internet vigilantism and high-profile online hate campaigns have become so commonplace that the equivalent of three people a day were convicted of trolling in the UK last year. This was just the latest in a long line of recent hate campaigns that started online. We’ve seen Reddit’s interim chief executive, Ellen Pao, hounded from her job by trolls. Beauty blogger Em Ford was branded “disgusting” for daring to show her naked, blemished skin online. Don’t even get me started on both corners of the Katie Hopkins debate. It’s normal now, sort of acceptable in some circles, even, to bay for blood at anything we don’t like online. We re legion, and our anger is magnified many, many times.

Yet what a confusing message we’re sending out to youngsters. The teen in the Northfield video broke the law, and she was dealt with accordingly. She pleaded guilty to assault and robbery at Birmingham Youth Court, but is yet to be sentenced. Although she claims no memory of the event due to drink, she was said to be “disgusted” by her actions when shown the video. Bullying is wrong, wrong, wrong. Unabashed group hatred from a distance, however? Why not.

Teens bully – it’s not right, but it happens and we work towards putting it right. Adults, however, we’re supposed to know better. Let she who is without sin write the first tweet, as some feller once almost said. Especially when we’re talking about teenagers.

General election 2015: The tax accountant’s view on non-doms and tax avoidance

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I spoke to a tax accountant from one of the Big Four about tax avoidance ahead of next month’s general election

The election is coming. I said, THE ELECTION IS COMING! That means, batten down the hatches, we’re in for an intense month of political windbaggery. One of the hottest topics this year is tax – inheritance tax, income tax and perhaps most emotive of all, tax avoidance. The tax-free status of non-doms has, this week, been touted by Labour as a key policy for May’s general election. Supporters say that the current system, which allows non-UK born residents to legally avoid paying tax, is unfair and discriminates against UK citizens. Naysayers, however, say that scraping the tax breaks will make the UK less appealing to rich foreigners and therefore reduce the amount of money coming into the UK.

Over the years, plenty of politicians and parties have attempted to close this loophole, yet none of them have been successful. Why? I spoke to a tax accountant with one of the Big Four accountancy firms to find out more, he or she chose to remain anonymous for professional reasons.

Do you deal with businesses or individuals?

Most of the clients I deal with are predominantly wealthy individuals who are internationally mobile. Many are born outside of the UK, but have lived in the UK for several years.

Do you have any examples of how the current system is being abused?

The main headlines over the last few months have been about offshore accounts hidden in Switzerland. The thing that interests me is the way the newspapers make it sound like something from James Bond, as though these people are stashing millions of pounds away to hide it from HMRC. Sadly, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not that exciting. Yes, these Swiss accounts exist, but HMRC should, in theory, know all about them because of the various information disclosure agreements in place between the UK and Swiss governments – why have there been so few prosecutions for holding Swiss accounts?

Note from editor: As of 1.1.2013, Swiss banks are obliged to declare account details to HMRC

Yes… why?

There are various legitimate reasons for holding overseas accounts such as those held in Switzerland. In the vast majority of cases the individuals holding the accounts are what are called non-UK domiciled taxpayers. The meaning of ‘domicile’ is complicated, but often it relates to individuals who were born overseas but are now resident in the UK on a temporary basis.

There are various tax advantages in being non-UK domiciled, one of which allows non-doms to avoid paying UK tax on income received from their foreign bank accounts, as long as they do not bring that income into the UK. The real question is why does the government allow this tax benefit to non-UK domiciles, when UK domiciles – who are typically British-born residents – would be required to pay tax on income from the same foreign accounts?

The simple answer is that a sizeable number of the non-doms holding Swiss bank accounts are extremely wealthy individuals, and it makes the UK a more attractive place to live from a tax perspective. From the government’s viewpoint, attracting wealthy individuals from the Middle East, Russia and the US, for example, brings significant investment into the UK. This may include the creation of new businesses and therefore help to reduce UK unemployment. It also means more money flowing into the UK in the form of retail spending (i.e. increase in VAT revenues) and a boost to the property market, which brings an increase in stamp duty revenues.

The Big Four accountancy firms assist the government with setting tax legislation, and have been accused of unfairly using that expertise to help their clients to then bypass the law. Should they be allowed to do this?

In terms of tax legislation, which is increasingly complicated, the government drafts new laws, but consults with various bodies – including the large accountancy firms – in order to understand the potential tax consequences and iron out any anomalies. As far as I am aware, the Big Four have no vested interest in making, or actually writing, the tax law.

It’s true that the Big Four, like all accountancy firms and other financial institutions, use their expertise in, and understanding of, legislation to help their clients to mitigate taxes. However, it’s important to understand the distinction between ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘tax evasion’. Tax evasion is a criminal offence; it is not paying the taxes that you are legally required to pay. Tax avoidance, however, is when a party takes – often simple – steps to avoid paying certain taxes, which doesn’t involve anything illegal.

I’m not aware of any of the big firms being involved in tax evasion. Firstly, they receive sufficient fee income that they don’t need to do it. More importantly, they would never risk involvement in criminal activity because it would ruin their reputation and public image.

How do you feel about new proposals, put forward by both Labour and the Conservatives at various points, to fine accountants and firms for exploiting legal loopholes to help reduce their clients tax bills?

The law is extremely complicated which is why individuals pay accountancy firms to help them understand it. We help them structure their tax affairs efficiently, in line with their specific circumstances. Accountancy firms have received such bad press recently – why, when they are simply advising individuals on how the law works?

The main reason is a lack of understanding about what accountancy firms do. There is a belief that they are actively advising individuals on how to evade tax. This is completely unfounded and I think some of the recent journalism on this topic is poorly researched. Perhaps the question we should also be asking is why are all the negative stories about the accountancy firms and banks coming out now? Why did the phrase “tax cheats” appear on the front pages of newspapers and on the BBC’s Panorama show? After all, the government is fully aware of the role of accountancy firms – they are simply advising on the tax legislation written by the government.

The information about the HSBC clients holding accounts in Switzerland was given to HMRC several years ago, in 2007. There’s a general election next month though, and along with tough rhetoric on immigration and saving the NHS, there is nothing that riles up voters more than the perception that some people are cheating the tax system. It gives the political parties another ball to kick around in their political wrangling. Pointing the finger at accountancy firms deflects from the fact that everything goes back to the law that they have written.

What changes would you like to see to the system to make it fairer?

There is an argument that everyone living in the UK should be treated as equal, that there should be one simple system that applies to all. This would make sense, but the UK tax system has become so complicated that it would come at a huge cost to the government to re-write the law. The fact is, the existing law achieves various political objectives – for example, it attracts wealthy foreign individuals to the UK.

If you haven’t registered to vote yet, make sure you do – https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. The deadline is 20th April 

The Ascent of Lavender Hill (17.9m)

Battersea Arts Centre

Battersea arts centre fireI was very sad to hear about the fire at Battersea Arts Centre yesterday, especially as it has only recently under gone a refurbishment. Places to enjoy and learn about the arts are an ever decreasing thing in my beloved south west London due to the ever creeping cultural oil slick known as luxury flats. I’m so relieved no one was hurt and hope to see it back on it’s feet soon, I have such fond memories of the place.

Last year, I wrote a psychogeographical essay about BAC and Lavender Hill for Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City, a collection of works exploring London’s peaks put together by Penned in the Margins. In tribute, here it is: 

Lavender Hill, SW11 (17.9m)

 

Dull grey skies. Commuters and casual shoppers buzz in and out of the station as I set off up the hill into an icy breeze. I’m climbing Lavender Hill: a hump of ancient glacial spew in the heart of Battersea, just north east of Clapham Junction. The road, an eponymously named section of the A3036, is my guide through this wild urban landscape. It’s a typically London thoroughfare, perennially thronging with grubby cars and lorries and bearded cyclists heading up to Westminster or down to Wandsworth, then on. At three-quarters-of-a-mile long and just under eighteen metres tall – that’s less than two tail-to-tail double-decker buses – the hill offers a tough climb, but I should be able to make it.

I follow the pavement, passing the first row of shops. School kids are beginning to swarm; a tumultuous army of blue blazers swagger into newsagents and fried chicken joints. A spit of rain falls in dark modicums on the floor. I walk up against the flow of pedestrians and, a little way along the road’s southern edge, come to Battersea Library – an old four-storey, red brick reference library with rosewood-coloured turrets that disappear up into the murk above.

I’d been past here many times before and its gaudy posters and out-of-date notice boards are all familiar to me, so too are the rowdy pair drinking Kestrel Super Strength on the wooden bench near the entrance. Two men: one a ball of tattered tweed and matted blonde fuzz, the other wearing a huge winsome grin and a wooly hat so weathered there’s more hole than hat left. In the still moments, before the wind washes the air clean, their interesting perfume – of stale hangovers and festering bodily fluids – reaches my unwelcoming nose.

Despite being thoroughly sozzled, they shiver in the cold. It’s been a mild winter, but the temperature has dropped and my hands and cheeks are beginning to feel it too – each turse lash of wind leaves my bare skin a little more raw. There will be a frost tonight, the gritty surfaces of shallow, greying puddles will freeze, but too many feet tread these pavements for it to last long. Ice rarely lasts long in London. Once though, a long time before the city, this land was covered with ice.

During the last glacial period – the time when our current ice age was at its most extreme, around 18,000 years ago – harsh winters and freezing temperatures meant that vast sheets of ice formed that, at their peak, covered a third of the Earth’s surface and claimed millions of gallons of water. Sea levels and rainfall plummeted. The air was starved of moisture and the land of colour

a barren monotony,

 

stillness

broken only by powdery

frost

drifting

across white plains. Much of

Britain’s green landscape was like an Arctic tundra; a desert of wind and cold reaching all the way across Europe, unbroken by country borders or the North Sea which hadn’t yet formed.

Whole forests and mountain ranges were consumed by these ‘rivers of ice’, glaciers that became oxymorons under the sheer weight of their own mass; solids that oozed and slid and behaved like liquid plastic. The ice slowly smothered everything, devastating the landscape so that, when the world eventually began to warm and the glaciers retreated, our geography was changed forever. What hadn’t been crushed or eroded by the ice was altered by epic floods with such force that new seas were formed, dividing us from mainland Europe and trapping the Thames which, until that point, had been a tributary of the ancient German river Rhine. The chewed up remains of the old land, carried in the bowels of the glaciers for thousands of years, became the raw material for a new terrain, for some of its hills and contours. Lavender Hill is one of these glacial dumps. Perhaps not the Ice Age’s most mind blowing achievement, but useful for anyone trying to get to Westminster from Wandsworth.

At roughly the same point as the library, and the bench where Scruffy Blonde and Smiley McGrubberson are bickering over a tab end, the earth deep below the modern city begins to change. Below the pavement and subterranean electricity cables, glacial gravel merges with Taplow gravel – the granular, sand-rich foundation of the Thames Terraces. The river is just over a mile away. It’s these conditions – the good drainage and elevation – that helped give the hill its name: before the station brought an almighty wave of urbanisation just over 150 years ago, this was agricultural land ribbed with vibrant rows of sweet smelling lavender. I try to imagine the aroma as I pass the two drunks and head onwards.

The road ahead is faced with a dense entanglement of shops and houses, it’s noisy and cluttered: boxy council blocks and boarded-up boutiques; health food stores and posh estate agents. Victorian terraced houses, mostly divvied up into newsagents and dim-windowed bedsits, watch over me as I climb the slope. The incline must be hitting a heady five degrees by now. The sky has turned pale and bright and I squint against the glare.

The pleasure in higher ground usually lies in perspective, the comfort one gets from feeling small against the vastness of the landscape. The chance to, as Rob Macfarlane puts it, “look down on a city that I usually look across. The relief of relief… a way of defraying the city’s claims on me.”* But Lavender Hill doesn’t feel like a hill, despite the gradient. Most of the view is obscured by a thick fog of glass and brickwork, it hems me into the road. I can’t see out and it dampens my senses. I’ve no concept of the topography of the outlying land or the direction of anything – there is only forward or back. I don’t know if, beyond the buildings, the rest of the city is even there. For all I can see, this, right here, is everything.

***

The cheerful purple heads of lavender flowers yield abundant nectar meaning that, before the station brought an explosion of shops and houses that proved fatal to local farming, nearby bee hives were swimming in high-quality honey. As one of nature’s perfect partnerships, together they brought farmers here a hearty revenue from the markets. Lavender was thought to protect against disease, a cure-all, it was burnt to cleanse sickness from the air and honey was used as a medicine. Sometimes the heavily-scented oil was used as a household cleaner or mixed with beeswax to make a fine polish. They were eaten together too, lavender was added to honey to create an aromatic and indulgent treat.

At the summit, roughly, of Lavender Hill is Battersea Arts Centre. It was built in the late 19th century as the town hall of the defunct borough of Battersea, but is now a theatre and arts venue. I heave myself up the last hardy chunk of the ascent, then head inside for some well-earned refreshment. In the entrance hall I’m struck by an elaborate glass mosaic on the floor: a medley of blues, pale to bright, like a pool glistening under a hot sun, and all around, not much bigger than my foot and sort of floating, there are simple black and gold bee emblems. Some have their wings outspread as though poised for flight, others appear to be resting or feeding.

Battersea Arts Centre floor

I sup a luke warm latte in the ground floor café and ask around to see if anyone knows about the bees. Are they anything to do with local lavender? No one seems to be sure. A waitress tells me she overheard a walking guide say they were part of the original council’s statement of intent, it would remind them to work hard and value teamwork. Another says she’s sure they stand for BB, or Battersea Borough. Neither know anything about lavender.

Warm and slightly buzzing, I feel set to tackle the descent. So I hit the road again in the direction of Westminster, following the chewing gum-strewn pavement as it eases down the reverse of the hill. Ashen people wait at a bus stop under an ashen sky, shrinking into their scarfs and collars against the chill. In this light, there is little that doesn’t appear grey. The houses with their peeling and water stained paintwork, the leafless bushes that spike up from behind low lying walls, the pitted tarmac and dirty pedestrian crossings. Even a patch of grass, the front yard of the Ascension of Our Lord church, is also somehow sedate and drab.

Just near the next crossing however, a clearing catches my eye. It’s a sudden and momentary break in the terraces and estates on the northern side of the road, a window out from this claustrophobic gloom. Two steps to the left or right and it would be missed, but from this one accidental spot I can see all the way across London.

A view – at last.

I stop to survey the scene, soaking in the soothing magnitude of the distant landscape. I can see for miles across the tops of all sorts of buildings: the sallow chimneys of Battersea Power station; the rolling crest of the London Eye then, tiny from here, and the sharp apexes of Parliament and the BT tower. It’s an immense chain of man-made peaks, an architectural mountain range growing ever smaller as it disappears into the horizon. People must have been admiring the view for thousands of years, yet it’s unlikely any two viewings were ever alike. Once a glacial tundra, then farmland and now a huge network of glass and steel, bombastic monuments to money and power that are forever rising and falling, a scene that ebbs and flows from one season to the next just like any natural environment. Although the height of these structures greatly exceeds that of my tiny natural hill, it feels like I’m much higher than they are. I can see our position, Lavender Hill’s place in the world, and be certain that I’m very, very small.

* The Wild Places. Macfarlane, Robert. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Mount London cover
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I wrote a piece for the Guardian about man-shaming portmanteaus – they need to die

mansplaining

I wrote a thingy for the Guardian about man-shaming portmanteaus – mansplaining, manslamming, manterrupting, manspreading, etc. They’re stupid, stop it – men are people too, I suppose. Male entitlement is an issue. Derogatory words highlight the problem (and are fun, let’s be honest), but fuelling gender-squabbling isn’t doing equality any favours. Funnily enough, this seemed to be a popular piece with men-folk. Fancy version here, unedited version below. 

Men. If they’re not ‘mansplaining’ things to women they’re ‘manslamming’ us in the street, ‘manspreading’ on the tube or ‘manterrupting’ us during work meetings. Even as a hairy, sensible-shoe wearing man-hater – otherwise known as a feminist – the rise and rise of the man-shaming portmanteau has left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

First there was mansplaining, which was declared 2014’s Aussie word of the year by Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English this week. It refers to the very real tendency of some men to explain things to women, whether they need them explaining or not, because of an ingrained assumption that they’re too ignorant – their pretty little heads too full of boys and make-up, no doubt – to understand.

The term is thought to have been first coined by feminist commentators in 2008 following the publication of Rebecca Solnit’s scathing essay, Men Explain Things to Me. The piece recounted the painful tale of the time an over-confident and clueless man at a party explained her own book to her – an experience that many women can sympathise with to some degree.

One of the problems with simplistic terms like this however, is their ease of use and humour risk diluting any message. They become an easy-to-mouth solution for a more complicated problem, and this one quickly took on more pejorative meanings. It became a go-to phrase for mumbled or garbled explanations and the trump card in arguments, but this sort of overuse just desensitises us to the real issue which is that, yes, some men really do talk down to women.

More recently, manspreading reared it’s ugly, er… head. According to the New York Times, who announced a Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign to banish it from the New York subway late last year, that’s when men “spread their legs wide, into a sort of V-shaped slouch, effectively occupying two, sometimes even three, seats” on crowded trains. Then New York Magazine hit us with manslamming: pedestrian collisions caused by the refusal of some men to make space for other people using the same pavement, especially women. They said of the two issues that “arguably, both are symptoms of a culture that teaches men to self-assuredly occupy any and all space available to them, regardless of who’s nearby.”

While a sense of entitlement certainly causes some people to behave inappropriately towards others, privilege is far more complicated than man versus woman. Aside from a few word derivatives – such as ‘whitesplaining’ – the man-shaming portmanteau ignores other socio-economic factors associated with entitlement like race, class or aesthetic values.

The most recent lexical blends to enter the fray are Time magazine’s manterrupt and ‘bropropriate’. The former blending ‘man’ and ‘interrupt’ to describe an unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man, often in the work place, and the later denoting the stealing of a woman’s ideas and taking credit for them. It puts me in mind of an old Fast Show sketch where three men are discussing how to break into a car, presumably one of them has accidentally locked his keys inside. Arabella Weir, who happens to be strolling past, suggests putting a half a tennis ball over the lock, “then smash it with the palm of your hand and the air pressure forces the lock up”. The men ignore her and then pass the idea of as their own while she looks on, horrified: “can any of you actually here me?”

While women are certainly not equal at work, a recent survey found that female employees felt they were held back by negative office politics, neologisms like manterrupt risk trivialising the problem and undermine feminism’s message of equality, not anti-male rhetoric. They serve to polarise people rather then unite us against gender-based social discrepancies and invite absolutism – “manterrupting? Never speak when a woman is speaking because she is a woman,” raged one Redditor.

It reeks of gender essentialism – the idea that specific physical, social and cultural traits are native to a particular gender. It may be satisfying, refreshing, even empowering, to give men a hard time, but I can’t help imagine how I would feel if faced with similar accusations – ‘womanterrupting’ or ‘womansplaining’ for example. It would be degrading.

Besides, bad behavior is not exclusive to the male half of the species. I’m guilty of at least a few of these terms. I’ve had the odd fracas with tortoise-paced members of the public during a frenzied morning commute. Not because of their gender, but because in the awful time-sparse world of a city dweller they were – and I’m not proud of this – collateral damage. On the tube, I find it comfortable to sit with one leg crossed over the other, despite the fact that it means accidentally kicking standing passengers sometimes. I have patronisingly explained the obvious to intelligent people on more occasions than I care to recount and, sometimes, on intercity trains, I leave my coat on the seat next to me so people think I have a friend in the toilet.

Entitlement is still a problem. However, before we go smooshing any more man-words together, it might be worth remembering that a prat is a prat, whatever their gender.

Censorship on campus: In real life, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you

Free speech scribble wall

Facebook-style community standards are making our universities boring. Censorship doesn’t just give students the freedom of tolerance, it prevents them from learning to tolerate.

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where controversial debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring (not you, Anna) and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

Bath spa university logoIt didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s recent Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach. More worryingly though, Bath Spa was listed as one of five universities that actively prevented it.

Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me tell you that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red.

In red universities, the idea of “safe space”, a commitment to provide a tolerant environment for students of all identities so that they are free to express who they are, is deemed more important than freedom of speech. The origins of safe space make sense – it was born out of US protests against military recruitment on campus in the 70s and the ‘no-platform’ policy against fascist groups later that decade. But the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. It’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets community standards.

Comedian Kate SmurthwaiteLast week, for example, comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show, Lefty Cockwomble, was cancelled at red-ranked Goldsmiths University because her views on sex work were flagged as inappropriate. The comedian ‘likes’ the Nordic model of legislation on sex work – which criminalises buying, rather than selling, sex – while Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, according to one of the event’s organisers, “’for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”.

The society voted 70:30 in favour of letting the event go ahead. However, Smurthwaite was branded ‘whorephobic” by a few vehement opposers who threatened to picket the event anyway so the community moderators pulled the plug. Ironically, the show was about free speech and had nothing to do with prostitution, but Smurthwaite is not alone. Both Julie Bindle and Germaine Greer have found themselves unfriended by unions too, for their controversial views on trans women.

A no-platform attitude to outlandishly degrading content or sexist, homophobic or racist hate speech is understandable. Yet Goldsmiths’ view on prostitution is too radical to sensibly enforce rules that exclude non-believers – their femsoc only has 220 likes on Facebook, but the Nordic Model Advocates have a whopping 815. Besides, in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in.

Supporters of safe space argue that while debate is important, there is a place for the discussion of opposing or potentially hurtful views and that place is not, as they see it, students’ homes. Providing a platform for ideas legitimises them, and broadcasting one’s opinion is not an absolute right. It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts. However, it’s all a bit ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. Building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t teach them to tolerate.

If the recent attacks on Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo highlighted anything, it’s that we live in a diverse world where the inability to efficiently debate opposing views can have disastrous consequences. Sometimes in life, there are going to be people who don’t like you and university should help prepare us for that. I did learn one lesson in tolerance from my university, however – how not to deal with people who bore me.