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.

I was shortlisted for The Columnist writing competition

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Back in September I was extremely chuffed to be shortlisted for The Columnist, a competition that used to be run by the much-missed arts charity IdeasTap but has now migrated to Hiive (a great network for creative professionals). I made the last ten, and seen as there were 490 entrants I was smiling for ages. This was my entry:

 

“Saturday.”

This is the last message I sent to my best friend before she turned into a ghost. She didn’t die, but our friendship did and now I wish I’d said something more meaningful.

Ghosting is when someone cuts you off dead – the ultimate silent treatment. Your calls are ignored, your texts left unread and, if you’re as unbearable as me, you might even find yourself full-on digitally blocked (even Linked in – I’m not going to late-night stalk your endorsements). Like the dad who goes out for cigarettes and never returns, my friend went full Houdini on me – poof, and she was gone.

There are times when disappearing into the ether is the only way to deal with a ghoul, I get that. Who could blame Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for pulling an Irish goodbye on Humbert Humbert? It doesn’t get much more creepy than a 36-year old man who obsesses over a 12-year old girl, even before he starts bribing her for sexual favours.

Lolita escapes Humbert’s ever tightening-grip by doing a jib from a hospital and it worked, for a couple of years at least. Today, she’d probably instead have to delete her Snapchat and get damn busy with her location settings, but still, this is an extreme case. Most of us – and thankfully, I include myself in this – are not paedophile sex pests.

Bff or worst-date-ever, most people deserve a bit of explanation. Yet 11% of Americans admitted to ghosting someone they were dating in a YouGov survey last year. There is a sense that, through an illusion of exclusivity, ghosting is not just about ducking out quietly, but in fact a kind of self-elevation.

In Ali Smith’s book There But For The, reluctant dinner party guest Miles Garth slopes off upstairs between the main course and dessert. He locks himself in a spare room and refuses to come out. Ever. In doing so he becomes not just a source of desperate intrigue to the remaining guests, who gather around the door trying to find out what they can about Miles, but to the whole country. He becomes a minor celebrity, not just conspicuous in his absence, but tantalising in his mystery.

In short, unless someone poses you a serious threat, ghosting is all a bit look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me juvenile. How far can people-erasing go anyway? You can’t delete people from the real world or your brain. We’ve seen it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in Black Mirror, even Red Dwarf, and it never ends well.

I was a good friend (honest) – the sort that always remembered to hold the tomato in sandwiches and to put wine in the fridge. Yet now I’m left picking over every word, every time I mentioned a day of the week, and wondering how it could’ve been taken the wrong way. Besides, there are few greater pleasures in life than calling an arsehole an arsehole. If we ghost everyone who pisses us off, what joy will be left?

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.

I wrote a piece for The Independent about Idris Elba and James Bond

Still from The Independent online

Idris Elba for Bond! I wrote a little thing on the matter for The Independent (and you can read it here), or take a gander at my unedited version below. The self-denied racism that has accompanied this affair is something I’ve found quite shocking (‘it’s not about him being black, it’s about James Bond being white’ – that sort of thing) and I may write a follow up blog about it soon. Hope you enjoy… x

It’s not often that colossal noggined rapper Kanye West has something interesting to say, but as the debate over whether actor Idris Elba could take over the reigns as fictional character James Bond rages, he’s finally hit the jackpot. Speaking to The Sun this week he said: “Artists should be visionaries. A black James Bond would be visionary no doubt. Something that 30 years ago would have seemed crazy should now be something that is a real possibility.”

Elba has all the credentials of a perfect Bond – he’s suave, intelligent and he looks damn fine in a suit. Yet the idea that a black man could play the martini-swilling spy has gotten some stirred, and a few more shaken. “Isn’t 007 supposed to [be] handsome?” Elba tweeted a few days ago alongside a selfie showing his beautiful – oh so beautiful ­– face, contorted into a half-squint. A reaction that showed true Bondesque grace and humour in the face of the unabashed racism that followed the Sony Hacks leak suggesting he could be in the running for the role.

The most prominent of these racists is perhaps controversial American talk show host Rush Limbaugh. “But now [they are] suggesting that the next James Bond should be Idris Elba, a black Briton, rather than a white from Scotland” Rushbo fussed on his show last Tuesday. “Fifty years of white Bond because Bond is white. Always Scottish. Always drank vodka.”

This is an argument riddled with inaccuracies. There has only been one Scottish Bond, Sean Connery. The others were English, Welsh, Irish and even Australian. In fact, Ian Fleming only invented the character’s half-Scots, half-Swiss heritage after the cinema release of Doctor No in order to honour Connery. He hasn’t always drunk vodka-based cocktails either – as a functioning alcoholic he’ll drink anything from Dom Pérignon champagne to a Campari-based Americano.

A man with such a penchant for booze, you might think, would die young, but if his Authorised Biography is anything to go by, he would be 94 by now. Yet the actors who have played him have ranged enormously in age – George Lazonby was 29 in Her Majesty’s Secret Service while Roger Moore was 57 in A View to a Kill. Craig was hardly an archetypal Bond either with his blue eyes and blonde hair. The spy franchise has always adapted, always stayed fresh in order survive. Because that’s the beauty of fiction – you can do what you want with it. It exists to be visionary.

Elba – who is 42 – has said that he doesn’t want to be known as the ‘black Bond’, others in the role were never defined by what made them different. And nor should he be. However, the movie industry’s track record of substituting white actors for characters of other ethnicities is not great. The recent film Exodus caused a Twitter riot due to its “whitewashed” portrayal of Egyptians and Israelites. Laurence Olivier once blacked up to play Othello in the 1965 film of the same name. Isn’t it about time Hollywood evened things out?