I wrote about Turkey’s failed coup for the Guardian – thoughts 4 months on

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Four months ago today, an attempted coup devastated Turkey. It was one of the scariest and most bizarre nights of my life, my tweets about the fear, the explosions and passing F-16s were retweeted thousands of times resulting in constant phone calls from international press agencies and a very late night (and slightly drunken) appearance on Radio 5 Live. Later came international TV appearances, and being interviewed by George Galloway (of all people) for his show on RT, something I’ve still not been able to bring myself to watch. The coup was, thankfully, prevented but since then President Erdogan’s autocracy has gone from strength to strength and hardly a week goes past without the country taking a further dive into darkness in the name of weeding out enemies of the ‘state’. 

Almost a million people have been affected by widespread arrests and purges from state institutions. In the last few weeks alone, 370 NGOs have been shut down, more journalists arrested, a further 15 media organisations closed and the leaders of the pro-Kurdish opposition party were arrested, removing the only democratically elected voice that represented minorities as well as sought for greater moves towards womens’ and LGBTQI+ equality. Removing this voice will no doubt lead to more violence since the collapse of a ceasefire with the PKK last summer, violence that will play right into Erdogan’s hands as excuse enough for government forces to continue their operations in the southeast, razing cities to the floor in the name of counter-terror. And all the while the supposedly ceremonial president edges ever closer to securing the support he needs to rewrite the constitution, finally securing his ‘definitely-not-a-dictatorship’ new presidential system extending his grip on power. Needless to say, Turkey is not in a good place.

While accidentally finding yourself near-on in the epicentre of a coup that is going badly wrong is incredibly frightening, what scared me more was the nationalist frenzy it enabled. Nationalism so powerful, people laid down their lives to protect their country – a feeling that leaves people all too easily controlled and manipulated. I wrote about it for the Guardian, yet little did I know that by the time I would get around to posting it here, we would be living in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. Despite mentioning both in my article, the West’s capacity to screw itself over, to also be blinded by whipped up nationalism, has taken me by surprise. Nationalism is now a global sickness, and in trouble too is the very nature of democracy. We are now bitterly, and in some cases irreconcilably divided. While it is common to look down on Turkey as somehow backwards, as trying to catch up, the post-truth politics and pointed insults of both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns looked very much like Erdogan tactics to me. It is the nationalism that has been unleashed everywhere that frightens me now. 

You can read the published version here, or the unedited version below. 

 

I was at a BBQ in the garden of the British embassy bar in Ankara on Friday night when F16s started roaring overhead. We soon heard the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul had been blocked off, too, and began hearing talk from various off-duty officials of an attempt at a military coup, but it seemed so unlikely at first.

A friend in Istanbul called and said state media institutions had been taken over by army and jandarma officers calling themselves a peace council and that the broadcaster TRT was showing endless weather reports. Then the explosions started and we were told we had to leave – we were turned out on to uncertain streets by an institution we thought was safe.

Some who were there had been informed by their places of work to go home immediately so we sheltered nearby at a friend’s place, close to the Prime Minister’s palace – ‘we’ were a Belgian, an Italian, a Syrian-born Jordanian and three Brits. I had been tweeting what was going on and was talking to various news agencies – before my phone battery predictably died – as the jets continued to fly low overhead. I heard an unfamiliar noise and stuck my head out of the window to see a stream of tanks going past. It seemed pretty serious at that point.

As the night crept on into Saturday morning, the gunshots drew close, it felt like they were metres away, and the bangs, too – a mix of bombs, aircraft fire and sonic booms that are not always easy to distinguish from one another. Some of the explosions were so close the vibrations shook in my chest. My friends were crying and regularly running for shelter in the hall and the TV blanked out. There were frantic messages to loved ones. “This is much worse than it was in Damascus,” the Syrian-born friend kept saying. I even tweeted “I love you mum!”.

“I am calling you into the streets,” president Erdogan texted everyone with a Turkish number at some point in the early hours. He wanted everyone to “stand up” for democracy and peace against the junta. I was disgusted to see on social media later what that meant – boys barely old enough to vote pulled from tanks and beaten, whipped with belts, people posing for pictures with their thumbs up next to the bodies of dead soldiers. The police looked on. What sort of democracy was this?

Much has been said about ‘democracy’ – it was fired out by the government as a motivational buzzword to mobilize people. The quashing of the coup was touted as a ‘victory for democracy’, but democrats don’t burn down the homes of Syrian migrants, they don’t threaten to rape the children of their enemies. The army claimed to be acting in the interests of democracy too. Yet they killed civilians in the street, civilians who should never have been there in the first place. These people were not motivated by democracy, on either side, but nationalism and sense of honour.

Erdogan was Turkey’s first democratically elected president, but what he represents is not democracy. There is little understanding, it seems, among his supporters of the difference between the presence of elections and a true democracy. Democracy is instead used in Turkey as an empty term to legitimise any mob mentality that works in the government’s favour.

For two days and nights, many got no sleep because the mosques regularly called for people to take to the streets. On Saturday, nationalist protests swelled in celebration of what they called democracy – there were flags everywhere, guns, chants of “Allahu Akbar” and nationalist songs. They were out again yesterday and it continued well into this morning. The gray wolf salute of those affiliated with the ultranationalist, arguably racist, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were everywhere. My clothing has been disapproved of by passers by, something I have honestly not experienced much of in Turkey. This sort of nationalism scares me and Erdogan has asked for people to remain mobilised like this for a week.

While nationalism has become a global sickness – from Brexit to Donald Trump – as deglobulisation kicks in, Turkish society is crumbling under the weight of this growing tumour. Now an already polarized country will be further polarised and many silenced with the label of ‘traitor’. Erdogan and his party are whipping people into a nationalist frenzy to further their support and consolidate even more power.

While an impressive display of people power prevented the armed coup, it will likely now result in unleashing a further crackdown on dissent. Aside from thousands of arrests, many press outlets have already had their websites blocked. Friday’s events may well grant the government free rein to purge enemies while claiming they are the enemies of democracy – even the push to reinstate the death penalty is being touted as a democratic necessity.

When I finally got home on Saturday, I saw cars on my road squashed flat by tanks like they were little more than a Coke can in the name of democracy. I really hope Turkey’s democratic future won’t now suffer the same fate.

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I wrote for the Guardian about Britain and Turkey as Europe’s fringe nations

 

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The Guardian asked me to write something about Turkey and Brexit in the event of Brexit, and of course I though that was never going to happen. Eugh. But I was very happy to get to write something after all so I wrote about Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe – in more ways than one… 

Unedited version below or the final version here.

So, it happened. Brexit is upon us. The politics of fear won the day – the Turks are no longer coming. As we come to terms with the idea that the long EU divorce process is about to get going, Turkey – the country whose people we are apparently petrified of – is still plodding on with the longest engagement in history.  

Despite all the bile spewed about the country during the Leave campaign, it turns out Britain and Turkey are not so different after all. Like Britain, Turkey blames the EU for many of its ills. The slow speed with which their accession into the union has progressed is often seen as a deliberate move by the British, the US and the EU itself to undermine Turkish power. It is frequently referred to as a Christian expansion project, a union that exists to assert Christian ideals and dominance over the world. “Europe, you don’t want us because the majority of our population are Muslim,” President Erdoğan said at a graduation ceremony in Istanbul on the eve of the Brexit vote.

He also suggested holding a referendum on the country leaving the EU before they’ve even joined – TRexit, of course. “We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing,” Erdoğan said. With Frexit – France – also mentioned, and Nexit – the Netherlands – this may be the beginning of a worrying trend.

Also like Britain, Turkey sees itself as a country whose ideals are constantly under threat from outside forces. Turkey would be the world super power, if it wasn’t for those pesky Americans, Russians, Europeans… everyone. The idea that British secret service plots work to constrain Turkey is common. “It might sometimes look like it is Russia or the USA that is behind things. But they are all controlled by the British secret state,” Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, a televangelist and leader of an Islamist sex cult – that really is a thingonce tweeted. To which British Ambassador to Turkey Richard Moore amusingly responded, “So now you know…”.

UK ambassador tweet

Yet, despite all this, Turkey’s EU talks have been championed by Britain. Jack Straw led the negotiations in 2005 when Turkey’s membership talks were officially given the go ahead. He even hugged then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül in celebration, and was later awarded the Order of the Republic – the highest honor a foreign national can be awarded. Many British politicians have championed their bid. Cameron said in 2012 it was unfair that Turkey was being asked to “guard camp, but not allowed to sit in the tent”. It’s no wonder then, Turkey felt betrayed at being used as an excuse for Brexit.

It was Cameron saying that Turkey will join the bloc “in about the year 3000” that really stung – pro-government journalists scrambled to write things along the lines of, ‘see, told you everyone hates us’. Speaking on Newsnight via video link on Tuesday, Erdoğan’s chief advisor İlnur Çevik, said, “The French said we don’t want you. Many countries said this. But the way Mr Cameron put it we feel really, really taken in,” adding, “That kind of attitude really is deeply hurting the Turks”.

“Why should we be flooding Britain?” he said, on the much touted, but largely mythical, imminent invasion of Turkish migrants to the UK. “There’s no reason. Whatever exists in Britain also exists in Turkey. We’re not going to go there just because you produce Cadbury’s chocolates and Maltesers, for god’s sake”.

Turkey didn’t want Britain to leave, but our exit may well dent their EU ambitions enough for them to give up all together. “The fragmentation process of the EU has started. Britain was the first to abandon ship,” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Twitter. This all plays right into the hands Erdoğan, who seems to have gone off the EU and instead dreams of building a neo-Ottoman style Muslim union with him at its helm. “The people in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria are saying, ‘Forget about the EU, what could be the new scenario with Turkey?’” another of his advisors, Yiğit Bulut, said earlier this month. “Maybe the governments cannot speak about it because of the German government’s oppression, but people … have started to talk about how they will be ruled from Istanbul”.

Having been shunned by Germany and France in the past, held back by Austria, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that Turkey might change direction, or that the EU mıght not well give up on Turkey, too. Far right leaders across Europe are rejoicing at Brexit as a victory for “freedom”, which doesn’t bode well for Turkey.

Ironically to all those who wanted to keep Britain as far apart from Turkey as possible, Brexit could in fact improve relations between the two countries. Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe, in more ways than one. Both are united by growing romantic nationalism. Perhaps Turkey could even pick up some of the trade slack when we do eventually pull out – investment and exports between the two countries are already high.

If nothing else, Brexit may at least fight claims of the EU being an elitist Christian club. Turkish nationalists understand arguments of sovereignty and have backed the campaign. But with nationalists also threatening the freedoms of Turks who don’t fit their plan – LGBT people and Radiohead fans, to name but a few – is that really a side we want to be on?

I wrote for the Guardian about the silly demonisation of Turkey by Brexiteers

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I was truly ashamed to be British in the run up to the Brexit vote. Living in Turkey, watching the Turkish people be used as a reason to leave the EU was, well, just really embarrassing. I wanted to show Britain how ridiculous it sounded, and incidentally soon after the vote it was admitted that most of the claims (including the Express headline) were false (shocker). The comments on this piece were also predictably awful (never look below the line!), xenophobic, nasty, but the guy who insisted on believing I was Polly Toynbee – as pointed out by several of my friends – did give me a chuckle. 

The unedited version is below or the shinyer finished product here.

 

The Brexit debate has become an all too real version of the time a woman turned a pro-EU leaflet into a game of Cards Against Humanity, accept every single one of Vote Leave’s answer cards say ‘Turkey’. What happens if we stay? Turkey. What is the biggest threat to the UK? Turkey. I drink to forget…? Turkey.

 While Turkey has had more than its fair share of troubles of late and has a long way to go, the vast majority of the ire from leave campaigners has been pointed directly at the Turkish people. The entire of Turkey’s 78 million population, who are mostly criminals, terrorists and gangsters, are preparing to relocate to the UK on the off chance we’ll stay and they will, by some miracle, achieve accession sometime soon. This is quite something considering fears of a Cyprus veto and when only 10% of the population even own a passport.

Turkey’s high birth rate will mean four million extra Turks by 2020 say Vote Leave, and “we can expect to see an additional million people added to the UK population from Turkey alone within eight years.” Within ten years this will cost maternity wards £400m they say, offering no clue as to their workings out. A statistic from a Vote Leave survey warned that 16% of Turks “would consider” moving to the UK on EU accession, but what that means is a whopping 84% wouldn’t even entertain the idea – that’s quite embarrassing when you think about it.

With Turkey considering its own feelings about the EU, imagine if they talked about the threat of us staying in the same way?

“Considering the rate at which Britain’s population is ageing,” they might say, “and based on the 2.5 million Brits who holidayed in Turkey last year, we expect to see our coastal regions destroyed by swarms of Britain’s elderly escaping their chronic bad weather problem. Since the EU will no doubt force us to join the European Health Insurance Card scheme, the strain on our free healthcare alone will be unbearable.

“A life of microwave meals and alcohol abuse means liver problems our health infrastructure just doesn’t have the resources to cope with. Within a year they’ll have eaten all of our biscuits. Are we really going to allow one of the fattest nations on earth have free reign of our hospitals? Their fat teenagers attend our free universities? Already some five million Brits live abroad and as anyone who’s ever been to the Costa del Sol will tell you, the problem is they just don’t assimilate.”

And who could blame them? A predominantly Christian Britain will bring forced Christmas with them. Our Islamphobia will, of course, push Turkey’s young people to becoming radicalised. Let’s not even get started on the threat of troubles starting up again with northern Ireland — if that flares up again, how do they know the 1.8 million residents won’s use it as an excuse to move to Turkey?

“Violent crime is up,” the newspapers might cry, “and they don’t have enough spaces for prisoners so they could ship them all here – they did it to AUSTRALIA.

“They will flock here, force women to wear high heels to work, if they wear anything at all, and the vast majority will expect wages so high they will force hardworking Turks out of the job market.

“We are talking about a people who not just eat pork, but whose prime minister engages in sexual activities with it. A country whose most famous entertainers are allowed to touch children. Whose royal family… who have a royal family.

“There is nothing but a ‘pourous’ ocean between them and the US – how can they protect us?

“They are rude, their men like to get drunk, put on dresses and fight each other. They will never speak the language.

“If the UK remain in Europe, there will simply be no Turkey left to enjoy the benefits the EU will bring.”

As someone who lives in Turkey and has been welcomed, even as that most threatening of all migrants: an economic one, I am ashamed. Brexit really has brought out the worst of British. Get over yourselves! During the eight months or so I taught English, I asked my students if they’d like to live in the UK. Without exception they said no — it’s expensive and racist.

Turkish people are not symbols of an approaching migrant apocalypse. Politicians, government figures from superior, everyone-wants-to-live-there Britain vilifying a whole people for political gain? Sounds like you have more in common with our Ottoman brethren than you thought.

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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Breakfast TV: Why are female presenters so glam at 6:30am?

From the Daily Mail

From the Daily Mail

I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian G2 Shortcuts. Hope you enjoy…

Once upon a time, if a conversation arose about breakfast glamour, it would probably have been concerned with shiny high-class toasters. But something has happened to breakfast TV over the past few years, it’s gone sexy. So sexy, in fact, that Clare Balding said in an interview with the Mail on Sunday last weekend, that the female presenters look “as though they are going to a cocktail party.”

While most of us are still wiping the lip cheese from our mouths at 6:30am, presenters such as Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid are already glossy and preened. Even at this ungodly hour, they manage to bring us the news in killer heels and dresses as tight fitting as a lace wetsuit. More controversially, the trend for plunging necklines is revealing a bit more tattie than most people are ready for prior to their morning caffeine hit. Especially when the only growths you were looking for were the ones concerning the war in Syria.

“Why do you have to do that?” Balding said, pointing out that women should be judged by their talent, not their appearance. “Why would it be wrong to sit there in trousers? Why don’t they wear a dressing gown, present the show in their pyjamas once a week, maybe every Friday?”

And she’s right, the worth of female breakfast TV presenters – who, after all, are just doing their jobs, not running for Miss England – is assessed far more on looks than their male counterparts. A few weeks ago, Australian TV anchor Karl Stefanovic admitted to wearing the same blue ­suit for a year in order to make a point about the way his female colleagues are unfairly judged. He came up with the idea after hearing that co-presenter, Lisa Wilkinson, had been sent a letter by a viewer telling her to “get some style”. But predictably, no-one noticed despite the fact that blue, like, isn’t even his colour.

In the eighties, our wake up call came from Anne Diamond in an array of high-necked blouses and garish jumpers. In the nineties, it was a floppy haired Kirsty Walk. Today’s presenters might look as though they’re about to be whisked off to an impossibly classy soiree (not a single Ferrero Rocher in sight), and it may not be progressive, but with women in the media now under such close scrutiny, it’s understandable.

In the interview, Balding also talked of how she’s uncomfortable wearing “a skirt or dress because it is difficult to look good sitting down… I want to feel like nothing is going to distract from the job I am doing.” But until things do change, it’s likely that even pyjama-Friday would be a glamour-fest.

I wrote a piece for the Independent about vegan and veggie stereotypes

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I wrote a piece for Independent Voices – although I didn’t choose the old Secret Cinema selfie – about the tired stereotypes surrounding vegans and vegetarians. I’ve been a veggie for most of my life for non-moral reasons (I hate it), but as I get older I start to see more and more sense in abstaining from meat. It turned out to be a popular topic, it got a lot of shares on social media. A few people got in touch via Twitter and I even got an email from PETA offering me some statistics in case I want to write about it again. Which was a bit of a surprise, considering.You can read the sleek and fancy one here, or my orig below. 

Like 3% percent of the UK population, I’m a smelly, tie-dye wearing lentil-muncher; an underweight, pallid weakling; a patchouli-scented carnivore-hater. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t eat meat. It’s no secret that, with the world’s population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, we all need to reduce our meat intake, yet ridicule of vegetarians and vegans is still par for the course.

Much like the old breast or thigh quandary, abstaining from meat, and perhaps dairy consumption too, is an entirely personal preference. It doesn’t directly affect the health of those around you in the way that, for example, smoking can, yet it’s sometimes treated with a similar level of hostility. Last week, the co-owner of an Australian burger bar, Mark Clews, came under fire for mocking a vegan diner who was “wearing a tie-dye t-shirt”, labelling her “single minded” and “Nazi like” on the restaurant’s Facebook page. In an exercise in customer relations that Ryanair would have been proud of, his comment went on to say that veganism “was inspired by some tragic childhood event, or a divorce, or a car accident or some crap” before securing his seat as Vegan Basher General by adding: “They lack physical strength because of zero red meat in their diet!”

These stereotypes are all too familiar. They would take pride of place in a round of defensive omnivore bingo alongside ‘but don’t you miss bacon?’ and ‘I don’t trust anyone who lives off rabbit food’. But the supposedly archetypal militant, sickly, non-meat-eater is just a caricature. Like most stereotyping, it’s part of a defence mechanism that protects a person’s – or in this case, meat-eater’s – belief system from being challenged and attempts to project a superior place in society. But recent decades have seen the meat consumption of rich countries increase, sending grain prices and obesity levels spiralling, causing widespread deforestation and adding unnecessary pressure to already strained resources. We have reached the point where beliefs need to be challenged.

Organisations such as PETA are no help in the matter. Their recent London ‘die in’ – which saw naked protesters lie on the floor of Trafalgar Square in a blood-smeared jumble in order to promote veganism – did little to highlight the important health and environmental issues connected to meat consumption, and everything to confirm suspicions that meat-free also means sanity-free. So although I’m not full-vegan, I’d like to address a few of these myths. I have voluntarily forgone the consumption of dead flesh for the best part of my life and eat little dairy.

For starters, while I was probably still supping from tippy-cups the last time I allowed a chunk of red meat to pass my lips, my physical strength is enough that I ran the London marathon this year (although it’s perhaps best if we don’t discuss run-times). I don’t hate carnivores, in fact, my boyfriend is a one and is free to practice that as he chooses – my home is not the scene of a fascist dictatorship. Not with regards to meat, anyway. I rarely eat lentils, have never, ever worn tie-dye and often cook Sunday roasts for my carne-loving friends. Perhaps, most shockingly, I can’t stand Morrissey. You see, veggies really are just normal people.

Until now, I’ve not preached to anyone about eating meat either. My choice not to eat it was born not from a tragic childhood event, but a genuine dislike of the stuff (yes, even bacon). But this month is World Vegan Month and what better way to celebrate than by trying to go without consuming animal products for just one day? You won’t turn into a hippy, I promise.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about vaginas (well, feminine hygiene products)

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I wrote a piece for the lovely Guardian women’s blog about some of the more ridiculous things women have been convinced to do to themselves in the name of fanny-improvement. As always, you can read the original here, or my original below. 

Ever worried that your vagina doesn’t smell like soft fruit? Me neither. Yet last week, in a spectacularly unpopular attempt at foof-commodification, two Silicon Valley startup bros unveiled plans for a new probiotic supplement that enables women to biohack their nether regions, leaving them smelling of peaches. While the product’s official use is as an anti-microbial, the scent serving as an indicator that it is working effectively to protect against problems such as yeast infections, it’s an uncomfortable proposition that has caused outrage online. Especially as the pair’s other fragrant collaboration is a probiotic that makes pet dung smell like bananas.

“All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you,” said Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics who plans to make Sweet Peach Probiotic using DNA laser printing technology. Adding: “We think it’s a fundamental human right to… personalise it.”

Science has long been misappropriated in order to sell products, particularly those aimed at women. Some products have used vagina-guilt to sell totally unrelated products: “We all perspire up to 2 to 3 pints a day, scientists say,” claims one 1920s advert for Lux soap flakes. “Undies absorb odour. You don’t notice it, but others do.”

Other products however, have adopted more of what you might call a full cuntal assault – if eau-de-peche sounds a little fanciful, then how about smelling like toilet water, literally? During the first half of the 20th century douching – or the rinsing out of the vaginal cavity – was a popular method of treating infection, deodorising and even used as a contraceptive (though it is not generally recommended by medical professionals now as it can upset the sensitive bacterial balance of the genitals). The most popular douche brand in the US was Lysol, an antiseptic disinfectant advertised both as a household germicide for use in toilet bowls and a feminine hygiene product. Until 1953 it also contained cresol, a toxic methylphenol that can cause inflammation to the skin and burning. According to motherjones.com, use of the product killed 5 people and resulted in 193 cases of poisoning before 1911. Yet, it was still marketed as safe, employing aggressive ad campaigns that implied that, without it, women were doomed to a life of loneliness with a distant husband. One poster entitled “Love-quiz… For married folks only”, shows a forlorn wife whose man is about to walk out of the door, and reads: “Why does she spend her evenings alone?” before finishing with a solemn warning: “Always use Lysol.”

While companies are unlikely to get away with claiming that a lack of internal bleaching will render a woman forever alone in the 21st century, we’re still not free of unnecessary vag-products. My New Pink Button, for example, the feminine dye for graying vulvas that comes in four shades and brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘having the painters in’.

Following the backlash and subsequent withdrawal of funding from some Cambrian Genomics investors, Heinz admitted his pitch had been incorrect. Pitching partner Gilad Gome – who had spoken before of hacking microbiome to make vaginas “smell like roses and taste like diet cola” – was in fact not involved in the project and the founder of Sweet Peach Probiotics was actually previously unmentioned “ultrafeminist”, Audrey Hutchinson. The importance of scent in the product, she said, was grossly exaggerated and it really was intended for the much more useful task of curing thrush.

Yet until now, who’d considered that personalising fanny-cologne was even a possibility? It seems as far-fetched and pointless as wishing for tomato-flavored eyeballs. But it could well be a hint as to what to expect from feminine hygiene in the future – a healthy dose of biotech.

I wrote about EastEnders and comebacks for the Guardian

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I wrote a piece for the Guardian on a topic of GREAT importance: EastEnders. I’ve been getting a bit peeved with the heavy flow of characters making a comeback recently, especially as the new(ish) Carter family are simply wonderful, and more than enough for me. So I wrote a short little thingy for the TV and Radio blog. You can read it here, or my full version below.

Last week, EastEnders gave us the somewhat inevitable slick-haired and black-clad second coming of Nasty Nick Cotton. And just when you thought that was enough soap resurrection to be going on with for a while, the latest round in the EastEnders comeback extravaganza was revealed with a whopping four characters set to be raised from the dead for this year’s Children in Need special. All before you’ve even had a chance to perfect your best oak-tinged ‘hello Ma’.

The sketch will see Ian Beale knocked unconscious. Oh sorry, that’s not the good bit – and later he is confronted by the ghosts of mum Kathy Mitchell, aunty Pat Evans (although whether her voluminous taste in earrings has been allowed to continue in the afterlife is yet to be confirmed), ex-wife Cindy and daughter Lucy, whose murder earlier this year is still to be solved in one of the most achingly drawn out storylines in TV history. But after a slew of recent comebacks, EastEnders is becoming more like a tedious Facebook meme than a soap – ‘like’ if you remember Kathy getting beaten up by Phil!

Since Dominic Treadwell-Collins – DTC to fans of the show – took over the reigns as executive producer of EastEnders in late summer last year, the tally of returning characters has racked up more notches than Max Branning’s bedpost in an attempt to boost flagging ratings. So many, I simply haven’t got the word space, or patience, to mention them all. Along with Dot Cotton’s dastardly son, recent revivals have included: Womanizing David Wicks, Stacey Slater, broody – and no doubt less of a hit with female viewers following the hard-hitting Linda Carter rape scene – Dean Wicks, wet-flannel Sonia Fowler, Ben Mitchell with yet another new face – as actor Harry Reid took over the role – and even a brief surprise appearance from Peggy. With Martin Fowler’s return looming and rumours that frankly dull Charlie Slater, last seen in December last year, is to make another appearance, this extended trip down memory lane is becoming boring.

“It’s good to have one foot in the past while looking to the future,” said Treadwell-Collins in an interview with Radio Times earlier this year. “My idea is to make the show feel fresh with the Carters, but also a bit nostalgic by bringing back characters we love.”

And surprisingly to anyone who anyone who sat through the frustrating rehash of the Phil-Mitchell-gets-shot-and-sadly-survives storyline, he also said that “EastEnders has got to shake up the audience. We don’t want to do cover versions of greatest hits. EastEnders has to sing new songs…”

However, the episode, which saw Shirley shooting Phil in a jealous rage after he married Sharon, did bring in 7.13m viewers. It’s a long chalk from the 17m it received the first time round in 2001, but after ratings slumped to less than five million last summer – lower than Corrie and Emmerdale – he must be doing something right. Nasty Nick’s return has further boosted the show’s audiences, too, but how many characters can one show bring back? Will we be seeing a wet-tongued return from Wellard soon, or a surprise home visit from Doctor Legg?

Too much nostalgia can turn to indulgence, and indulgence inevitably leads to flabby storylines and before you know it, we’re going to need a forklift truck to get this thing up and running again. With the run up to the 30th anniversary in February under way, it’s easy to see why Treadwell-Collins is keen to relive some of the soap’s history, and who could be so mean as to deny the show a little whimsy for a good cause? But once the Children in Need festivities are over, enough with the comebacks – this girl’s had enough.