Sunday, 26 February 2017

Having my cake and eating it

Son, Brother, Uncle, Husband, Father, Ex-boy, Man

I thought growing up through the 1960s, 70s and 80s that the case for gender equality had been made and the world was entering a better phase as far as Being A Woman and Being A Man. But something happened during the 1980s and in the decades since so that the Twentieth Century advancement of many civilising ideas to improve international societies through gender equality has been halted. Feminism now seems to be a contentious concept rather than the patently, blatantly, unquestionably, obviously, undeniably sensible idea it really is. As a son, brother, uncle, husband, father, ex-boy and man I cannot for the life of me see why anyone thinks there is anything wrong with equal pay, equal opportunities and equal rights between women and men.

My test of Feminism

When male students tried to challenge me about being a feminist during my days as a teacher, I asked two questions:
1) Do you think ALL males are superior to ALL females?
2) Do you think a man should be paid MORE for doing the same job for the same hours as your mother, sister, niece, wife or girlfriend?
If the answer to both questions is YES, you are NOT a feminist. If the answer to both questions is NO, you ARE a feminist. If you are not sure, you need to think more about it and keep asking questions. Anyone who thinks feminism is a movement that wants anything other than equality is perverting the idea of feminism.

Perverting Feminism

Back in August 2016 Philip Davies (Conservative MP for Shipley) made a speech at a Justice for Men and Boys (J4MB) conference. (Click here for an account.) For the record, I’m all in favour of Justice for Men, Boys, Women, Girls and Humans of All Types and Flavours. Justice is a good thing. I think everyone favours Justice. King Arthur favoured Justice, and that’s good enough for me. The trouble with J4MB as an organisation is that they issue awards for Gormless, Lying, Toxic and Whiny Feminist of the Month. It’s not an organisation, therefore, that makes the world a better place; in my opinion J4MB has calcified into a throwback group with knuckle-dragging attitudes. But my MP decided to speak there and used a phrase that has now been stolen and reclaimed as the name of a group I’ve recently joined.

Shipley Feminist Zealots

Philip Davies told the J4MB conference:
“In this day and age the feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it….They fight for their version of equality on all the things that suit women – but are very quick to point out that women need special protections and treatment on other things.” 
Davies’s misconception is that women and men are currently starting from an equal base so special protections are unecessary for women. If only that were true…. No-one is preventing Davies – or anyone else for that matter – standing up (and organising conferences and demos) for the rights of boys and men. It’s not an EITHER/OR scenario. Philip Davies claims to be in favour of democracy but his favoured attack in emails is to bully and patronise constituents who disagree with his stance on issues (I have personal experience of this, as do other members of my family.)

Having cake and eating it

To his credit Philip Davies always replies quickly and “robustly” to contacts and is willing to engage in personal appearances. So yesterday he listened and responded to the group I have felt compelled to join: Shipley Feminist Zealots. The meeting openly discussed with Philip Davies:
  • the Istanbul convention
  • sex education and PSHE in schools
  • pay rates, rights and experiences for disabled people
  • car parking for carers at NHS sites
  • honour killings
  • his regular parliamentary filibustering
  • his insults about constituents in newspaper reports and emails
Many thanks to the organisers of the meeting with Philip Davies. Many thanks to all who baked cakes (I couldn’t stop myself eating some!) And special thanks to Jenny who chaired the event with skill, patience and grace.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

A mighty woman with a torch

The Colossus of Rhodes

In 280 BC the sculptor Chares of Lindos supervised the erection of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to commemorate the Greek island of Rhodes’s victory over Cyprus who had besieged the island 25 years before. The statue became known as the Colossus of Rhodes and apparently straddled the mouth of Rhodes harbour. Many writers and artists have attempted to imagine what it looked like from various contemporary descriptions. Illustrators of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones have used its concept to depict the Titan standing in the harbour of the Free City of Braavos.

How the mighty are fallen

The Colossus of Rhodes stood for 54 years but broke off at the knees during a devastating Earthquake in 226 BC. For nearly a century travellers would write about the immense ruin. Pliny the Elder couldn’t reach his arms around one of the fallen thumbs. There have been many famous statues since Chares’s Colossus and recently one particular statue has been haunting my imagination. I’ve been lucky enough to see it on a holiday in New York and was very moved by the poem carved into its pedestal, a poem that references the Colossus of Rhodes. The statue celebrates the immigrant founding of modern America and its words have been quoted many times (“world-wide welcome….Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me….”)  The words seem to have been forgotten for the moment, by far-right politicians and their supporters in America, Europe and Australia.

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I’ve quoted from Shelley’s Ozymandias before (here) in the context of life’s futility. It is a worthy companion poem to The New Colossus and a comforting, though tragic, idea when feeling in despair about global politics. Nothing lasts forever. The Colossus of Rhodes fell. The Statue of Liberty is currently an empty gesture. Ozymandias became a couple of legs and half a head. The mighty fall. In the musical Avenue Q the characters wisely sing that everything “Is only for now….” What will happen to us all? Time will tell.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Saint Valentine

Instead of chocolates or flowers, why not smear your Valentine with the skinned hide of a goat?

As well as lovers, Saint Valentine is patron saint of bee-keeping, epilepsy, fainting, plague, teenagers and distant travels. We tend not to focus on these other items on February 14th (Valentine’s Day since the Fifth Century AD.)  February is named after a Roman festival of purification. Strips of grisly goat skin were called februa, the verb “to purify” was februare. Grisly goat skin? Valentine’s Day? Where’s Cupid in all this?

Cupid in various guises....


Imagine gathering at a sacred cave where you believe the baby boy twins Romulus and Remus were reared and suckled by wolves (wolves in Latin = lupi.) Imagine sacrificing a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. Imagine two naked youths taking bloody strips of the goat’s skin and wetly slapping the crops to make them grow. Imagine those nude teenagers then turning to local women and swatting them with the same bits of gory flesh in the hope that the sacrifical blood would make the women fertile. Imagine to end the day all the young women place their names in a big urn and the city’s bachelors come along to choose a name; these matched pairs then stay together for a year – either resulting in marriage or the parting of the ways and another turn next year. This festival of Lupercalia was banned at the end of the Fifth Century by Pope Gelasius (great name, not a flavour of ice cream!) who declared February 14th would now be known as Saint Valentine’s Day and there would be no more naked yoofs slapping folk with bloody goat hide.
The joys of Lupercalia

Blind Cupid

So, for Valentine’s Day, we send cheesy cards, boxes of chocolates and flowers today, instead of sacrificing goats…. All the main Christian festivals are attached to pagan days, as a way in the past of the Church “Christianising” them but I think most people sending flowers on February 14th will hardly be giving a thought to the bloody goats strips or even the original Saint Valentine. Most people prefer to think they are following the tradition that Cupid, the god of love, was son of Venus, a female deity associated with love and that worshippers of Venus used to bring sweets and flowers to her altar.
What's Saint Valentine got to do with it, if anything?

The historical Saint Valentine

As far as we can tell, Valentine was beheaded and buried around AD 270. Emperor Claudius II had executed him for performing marriages outside the rule of the clergy. Apparently whilst in prison Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter (who may or may not have been blind) and his final letter to her before his death was signed “Your Valentine.” There are, as ever, several other variations of the Saint Valentine origin story. Chaucer himself may have invested the name of Valentine with courtly love through his satirical Parliament of Foules, written around 1382. Shakespeare certainly imprinted it forever with his portrayal of the faithful Valentine in Two Gentlement of Verona, a contrast to the more macho and devious Proteus, both best friends who fall for the same woman in one of literature’s archetypal triangles.
Proteus and Valentine, Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona

Saturday, 11 February 2017

I must go down to the sea again

Formy Beach and Woodlands

On a recommendation we drove over to the coast between Liverpool and Southport for an alternative to cobweb-blowing walks on the Yorkshire moors. The National Trust look after an area of the coast centred on Formby. It was a spirit-lifting day: pine woodlands, sand dunes and what seems like miles and miles of beach to walk along.
Why are humans drawn to the sea? Is it the sound of the womb-like waves? Is it some ancestral call to an earlier phase of evolution when we travelled the sea for survival (as in Disney’s We Know The Way from Moana!)? Or is it just the memory of childhood holidays of buckets and spades?
The sea makes me feel insignificant as it ebbs and flows but I also feel curiously connected to the planet knowing that on the other side of the expanse of waves there are other people with the same worries, griefs, joys and hopes as me. At primary school I had to learn the following poem so maybe Mrs Hawcroft, my Year 6 teacher, is the inspiration for my love of the sea.

Sea Fever by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Walling in and walling out

Walls: walling in or walling out or falling down or being pulled down?

Walls, walls, walls

Walls protect, yes, but walls are also forbidding barriers, and they can form a prison, and they can be a symbol of loneliness or isolation. Blank walls staring out have been used over centuries to depict intractability as well as inertia. Shirley Valentine talked to the kitchen wall in her domestic solitude, Pink Floyd sang about Another Brick In The Wall, Achilles chased Hector three times around the walls of Troy, Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho and then brought them a-tumbling down with shouts and rams’ horns. As Robert Frost wrote:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Pink Floyd, Jericho walls, walls of Troy, Shirley Valentine

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show….

Quince: This man with lime and rough-cast doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper….
Tom Snout plays Wall in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Sinister cranny

Wall: In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall;
And such a Wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often, very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same Wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper….

Cursed be thy stones

Pyramus: O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot!
And thou, O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall,
That stand'st between her father's ground and mine!
Thou Wall, O Wall, O sweet and lovely Wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eye!
Thanks, courteous Wall: Jove shield thee well for this!
But what see I? No Thisbe do I see.
O wicked Wall, through whom I see no bliss!
Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me….
Human Rights March in Leeds in response to President Trump's policies - proud of Sally, Harriet, Maggie and Christine and all the rest who attended

This vile Wall

Thisbe: O Wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones*,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee…. 
Pyramus: O kiss me through the hole of this vile Wall!
Thisbe: I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all.
*Stones, of course, are Elizabethan slang for balls/knackers/testicles and – hole – well, the precise hole being kissed depends on which chink the actor playing Snout offers up…. 

Many American landscapes are awe-inspiring; countless aspects of American culture are having a positive influence on the world; and I know and love people in America:

  • Inspiring world figures like Mohammed Ali, Neil Armstrong, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks;
  • Novelists like Harper Lee, Kerry Madden, John Steinbeck, Anne Tyler;
  • Playwrights like Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepherd, Tennessee Williams;
  • Poets like Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bishop, ee cummings, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound; 
these are, dare I say it, tremendous people, without thinking too hard about who to include, not to even begin mentioning singers and actors…. Tom Hanks, Katherine Hepburn, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, for heavens’ sake, to name but four…! Is this a country that needs a Wall? A country whose current manifestation and wealth has been created from immigration? When birds fly around the globe, do they see borders?

Mending Wall

Genius satirical banners in the UK courtesy of The Poke
Robert Frost’s celebrated (American) poem Mending Wall was first published in 1914, right on the brink of the First World War. I haven’t seen it printed yet in the context of President Trump’s policies so here it is. “Good fences make good neighbours” is what the neighbour in the poem repeats (twice) but the poem has a tension that pulls away from that cliché and more potent are other lines that are repeated: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Thanks to The Poke

Brief personal thoughts on Mending Wall

In Spring, two neigbours walk the wall between their properties to make repairs – is there a reason for this wall to be built at all? There are no cows, just apple trees and pine trees. Should you summon “spells” to counteract “elves,” a whimsical idea that suggests wall-building is an ancient, outdated ritual, not suited to modern thinking. Maybe the act of building a wall is a chance to talk about boundaries, to talk about customs on either side of the wall, to negotiate why the wall is there. Could a wall be built as a sign of goodwill, mutual trust and cooperation? Or is the wall an act of aggression, a hostile barrier to community? If you place a boulder (a stone, a “loaf,” a ball) into the wall, one day it will fall down. Walls fall down. Sometimes they are pulled down. Has any wall ever “stood the test of time?” How jubilant the world was when the Berlin wall was brought a-tumbling down! We build walls, even when they are not needed. Some people break walls, even when they shouldn’t. The world carries on building walls regardless of whether or not they are effective. Like all great poems, all these ideas are wrapped up in the distilled metaphor of Frost’s Mending Wall.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Like an old-stone savage armed/He moves in darkness

Good fences make good neighbours! Do they? Do they REALLY, though? Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.