Thursday, 14 June 2012

Not really a poem but some sort of a love song for the man I saw dancing in North End

Waiting at the traffic lights
I watched you dancing.
On the pavement of a busy street
filled with shoppers
and people going home
or somewhere.

You were totally absorbed
gyrating at the centre
of your own world,
way outside the boundaries
of ours, with its unspoken
and outspoken agreements
of what is 'appropriate' behaviour.
Of what is acceptable enough
to merge anonymously
into this particular matrix.

You stood out alone,
not even legitimised by a purpose,
no Jubilee street parties now,
no hat at your feet for spare change.
Your smart black hat firmly on your head,
asking for nothing, not open to trade.

Your body swayed and moved
like you had Caribbean sands
beneath your feet,
not those hard grey pavements.

Your face turned upwards, smiling,
like it was shining under a sun so radiant
you did not notice the cold dark skies
and spots of rain.

You looked peaceful, happy even,
no one yet bursting your bubble,
your arms waving and spiralling
in the air above your head,
your legs and feet moving your body
to a rhythm none of us could hear.

Yet watching you
there was music
visible, almost audible ~
somewhere beyond the grumble of engines
and the mental shouting of assumptions
and judgements, doors always slamming in your face
to contain the unpredictable,
the incomprehensible?
You the untouchable, somebody's son.

I saw the small crowd
nearby at the bus stop
laughing uncomfortably,
some taking the piss,
some moving further along
looking away down the road.
People carrying bulging bags
walking in elaborate detours
to avoid passing too close,
repelled by an invisible force-field
several feet around you.

Anxious about the possibility of engagement.
Scared... of what?
Scared you would kill them
or talk to them
or get them to dance?
Scared they would catch some notes
of the mysterious melody,
that their feet or their hearts
would skip a beat
to those unseen drums?
Scared of surrendering
to what is broken,
of not being able to mend,
none of us ever knowing
what's coming for us
around the next bend.
Scared of not understanding,
only guessing at what drugs or illness
or crisis brought you to this moment?

So we walk on by,
we get on the bus.
The lights change,
we drive on.

We are all getting on with our lives
fearful of scarcity
unsure if there is enough
compassion to go around.

And just supposing you were dancing
for nothing but the pure uninhibited joy of it,
because you are alive,
because this world gets more insane
with every passing second
and you are shimmying your own
way of surviving it.

How mad would that be?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Purging Some Royal Confessions And Stuffing The Jubilee With Rebel Arts Women's Radio!

On Monday 3rd June I was staying in Cambridge with a friend of mine. Although I'd have ideally liked to have her all to myself for the evening, I felt privileged to accompany her to the Cambridge Community Radio studio where she was going to be interviewed as part of the live broadcast of Rebel Arts Women's Radio (RAWR).

RAWR is a part of the Rebel Arts Radio Collective which broadcasts every Monday night:
RAWR broadcasts every first monday of the month
The podcast from last Monday's show isn't up yet, but hopefully it will be soon and I'll add the link here.

I found myself sitting and smiling in a tightly packed recording studio with several other women in a fun and enthusiastic atmosphere. The show was being presented this night as an alternative to the media blanket of coverage about the Jubilee, and it opened with a call of 'Stuff The Jubilee!'

My Mum likes to remind me that as a child I used to apparently get a lump in my throat when 'God Save The Queen' was played. She wasn't talking about The Sex Pistols.

Well, I guess I still get a bit of a lump in my throat but it's for far less palatable reasons these days, since British patriotism is so often connected to jingoistic support for wars I don't agree with or attacks on other cultures or tabloid rantings against immigration.

I remember my mum singing 'I Vow To Thee My Country' as she was doing the housework. I liked the sound of her singing. My favourite though, was when she was singing 'Jerusalem'. I can remember hearing it from the kitchen when I was down the other end of the house in my bedroom and there was something comforting about it. Possibly because of this, Jerusalem always remained one of my brother's favourites too. I used to have some interesting discussions about the Royal family with my brother, ranging from whether Princess Diana was assassinated to whether the Queen really does have reptilian DNA. Whatever, he liked a portrait of the Queen I gave him and kept it up in his room:

I can remember when I was about 13 going to Portsmouth to join the crowds during a visit from the Queen. When the Royal car drove past us all, everyone was going crazy waving and calling. Lots of people tried to chase down streets to follow and predict where the car would drive through next, to catch a glimpse, get a photo. I was running down backstreets and got separated from the rest of the crowds. I was just running randomly, out of breath, when suddenly the Royal car turned into the street that I was standing in. I just stood and looked straight in at the Queen and waved as it drove slowly past. She smiled and waved back. I would need lots of exclamation marks to describe the excitement I felt that the Queen had looked at ME! She'd waved at ME! With no one else around! That day I was just a young girl in the street feeling bowled over by Fame and Fortune and the ultimate in Celebrity bestowing upon me a momentary, cursory, acknowledgement of my existence. To my adult mind now, from seeing a bigger picture of a world divided by inequalities and privileges, that all seems a little bit sick. Or at the very least, ungrounded!

Oh crap - I just found my brother's old photograph album and it looks like I must have been 16 - old enough to know better!! >Cringe<  Unless of course this was a later visit? ;-)

Photo taken by my brother Paul, outside Portsmouth Guildhall, 13th May 1987

When I was a kid I was more susceptible to the fairytale fantasies of Kings and Queens, Princesses and Princes and notions of gallant battles between good and bad where 'our country' was obviously 'good' and the one to be proud of. It's sad to grow up and get informed. To discover that behind the beautiful fantasies is so much cruelty, injustice and ugliness. To realise that amongst other things Queens are heads of  armies that drop bombs on innocent children.

I don't particularly hate the Queen as an individual person, though I doubt she'd ever be a close friend. I reckon within nanoseconds we'd be rubbing each other up the wrong way. To me, she and the rest of the Royal Family are a part of the State apparatus in this country that I would like to see fully restructured. I guess they are such blatant symbols and real examples of undemocratic power and privilege, and represent the upper end of a wealth hierarchy which I do completely oppose. It just isn't at all fair and I quite like things being reasonable and fair.

Girls...from Google images (Disney)

Emotionally, more of my angry feelings focus on the power and wealth hierarchies together with the heavy gender and class conditioning, running so intrinsically through our society, that so many people seem to think it's normal and the only way things can be. After all, there will always be poor people. Won't there? You can't ever have gender equality because girls just want to play with dolls and be princesses and boys just want to play with guns and be soldiers, right? Must be in their genes. And if everyone was born and brought up to feel that their lives and the lives of others, were equally worthy and valuable, who would do all the shit jobs? And who would consume all the shiny things? And who would the enemy be, whose humanity is less important than ours? Hmm, what a conundrum!

Boys... from Google images

I did manage to avoid most evidence of the Jubilee, apart from seeing a brief glimpse of the giddy jubilations in London on the TV. Also I kind of stumbled on a street party while I was walking in Cambridge, with all its bunting and long tables all down the street, laden with cups and plates and doilies. It reminded me of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party and I can definitely see the attraction of that - I think it pushes buttons in people, stirring feelings which get too easily forgotten these days - the stepping outside of our usual boundaries, the longing for real communities, where people get to know their neighbours and kids play safely in the streets without cars. And all held romantically together by that great British tradition that I am rather partial to - the cup of tea (though I think there were quite a few Continental beers on the table too...) I didn't have my camera with me but here's a nice little video that was taken there by the BBC:

I so hope the neighbourly smiles and community bonding doesn't crumble as soon as the bunting comes down. Maybe they'll be inspired to hold the next one in celebration of saving the NHS or kicking the Tories out?  Or just for the pure joy of reclaiming the streets for people to chill out and spend time together in, playing music, sharing food and getting to know each other instead of driving through or shopping in.

We can't ignore the fact that the Jubilee is taking huge (as yet unknown) costs from public money at a time when economic cuts are so severely damaging services and support and personal lives of so many, particularly women (bearing in mind that British taxpayers, who financially support the Queen via the annual £30m sovereign grant, have already contributed an additional £1m this year to help with the costs of the Diamond Jubilee - The Guardian 5/6/12). At least it could prompt some questions about our priorities and what can bring more lasting happiness and pride to our lives and our society than a few lavishly spent days.  Party pooper, doh!

 from The Guardian, March 8th 2012

from Freedom Newspaper, March 8th 2012

So, getting back to sitting in the studio of Rebel Arts Women's Radio! While elsewhere people waved flags and raised a glass to one particular 86 year old woman, here the theme of the evening was about challenging stereotypes of older women by interviewing three ordinarily exceptional women who spanned 70 plus to 90 plus years.

The first woman to be interviewed was Elspeth Owen, who in her 70's was glad to be able to now officially call herself 'old'. She'd always liked old things she explained: old trees, old clothes... and now she could like herself being old.
"There's a confidence in being old, seeing through things that have taken you in before and being freed now from those things".
She spoke strongly of the importance of not getting stuck or segregated by age. This is one of the ridiculous things about schools - that age groups are not mixed but that children move through their lives only with those of their own age. Elspeth spoke of her deep appreciation of the value of being with people of all different ages. Thirty years ago when she was bringing up two boys she felt it was a time of optimism, exploding feminist awareness inspiring confidence and all sorts of changes. Nowadays she feels that women are struck by new anxieties and even more of a shift towards material needs. She's both an artist and a kind of self-invented pilgrim. Inspired by early walks she joined back in the 80s to Greenham Common, she is now continuing to integrate art and walking with her project 'Material Woman'. She will walk on Dartmoor between the two full moons in August and hopes to walk with a different person each day. She invites people of all ages to join and walk with her. To find out more about Elspeth's art and walking projects, visit her website at

Elspeth Owen

Next, Marie Thompson (apologies if I've misspelled any names) was asked what she liked about being 79, to which she replied "being alive!" She elaborated "being free, not worrying so much about what people think". Actually she felt little different to how she felt 20-30 years ago.  "Age doesn't matter that much". The big issues for her now are keeping fit, making art, getting a new kiln, and her work with the Freudian Slips Women's Theatre Group - knowing she can walk out onto the stage and not worry about nerves.
Image snatched from Simon Mullen's Cambridge blog

Being gay, she feels that amongst her friends she's not so surrounded by traditional stereotypes and not very affected by ageism. Otherwise,"if people speak over me, I shout a bit louder!" she laughed. She described how in 1953 when she was twenty, society wanted you to get married, have children and there was a lot of pressure to conform to that. However, the experience of bringing up kids then felt freer. They could play out in the street or the garden and there were less fears around that. Young women today, she feels, have a lot more worry about dangers to children and a lot more materialistic pressures. For the future she's looking forward to more life, more excitement, pottery camp...

Marie Thompson (right)

Finally Joan Court took her place in front of the mic. She didn't have much to say for old age. Being 93, she felt that it was a bit of an inconvenience. "Life is activism and because of less mobility, activism becomes limited". There's increased vulnerability, after all, you're not so steady on your feet if the police decide to charge or shove from behind. She explained how her cardiologist had expressed concern to her GP that she "doesn't seem to know what is a suitable way to behave for a woman of her age". Laughs all round! When Joan was younger, she was absorbed with the idea of Indian independence and was very inspired by Ghandi, who she was to later meet when she was working in India as a nurse and midwife. To a lesser extent, Kipling was also an early inspiration with his Jungle Book and stories of Mowgli being brought up in the forest by Mother Wolf. This provided helpful escapism from an abusive family home-life. Through her work in India, Joan helped to reduce maternal death rates in Calcutta, where mothers were dying, particularly from anaemia, through starting a clinic where mothers could receive antenatal care and vitamins etc. Much of these times are documented in her first book "In the Shadow of Mahatma Ghandi" together with her increasing concern about the appalling abuse of animals across the world.

She has a second book called 'The Bunny hugging Terrorist' and a third due to be published soon, which will contain interviews with many animal rights activists, entitled, 'Animals Betrayed'.
Joan became a passionate animal rights campaigner and activist, both locally and also nationally, and sailed with the activist ship Sea Shepherd when she was in her 80s.

Here's a Youtube video recorded a few years ago where Joan is interviewed about her views on the animal rights movement:

She went on to talk about one of the current campaigns she's involved with, to help 'Asbo' the Cambridge river swan, who was recently removed from the river after reports of aggressive behaviour towards rowers who were disturbing his family and nest. Despite the RSPCA advising that he be left with his nest, the River Authority went ahead and removed him and clipped his wings so that he could not fly home. Joan is inviting people to come and join a national demonstration against the killing or removal of wildlife on the river and for the return of 'Asbo'. This is on 16th July when the Cambridge colleges have their annual boat race, the Cambridge University Bumps. For more information:

Joan Court (right)
After an interesting and enjoyable evening amongst women who I would certainly drink Pimm's and string up bunting for, I was happy to get back to Joan's house for a lovely cup of tea, chat and cuddles with the cats (the true royalty! Although my dog remains a republican in that respect).

The gorgeous Timothy

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Why I Went To Take The Flour Back

On Sunday 27th May our family travelled to Harpenden, Herts to join around 400 others at the protest at Rothamsted Research Centre, where an open air field trial of GM wheat is currently growing.

We listened to some inspiring speakers: farmers, activists, charity workers.

Gathuru Mburu who travelled from Kenya, representing the African Biodiversity Network
We met lots of people who care about a food supply uncontaminated by GM. Some of us ate scrummy food supplied by the lovely Veggies

We listened to discussions about how instead of reducing the amount of pesticides used on crops as is claimed by the GM supporters, the reverse is often true and in many cases the use of GM crops have actually increased the need for pesticides. Just as the arguments that GM technology will solve the world hunger problems are a way of attempting to cast a benign PR front over the profit driven motives of the industry.

These issues were highlighted several months ago when the Global Citizens Report On the State of GMOs was released:

Even regardless of the harmful impact on our environment, on food sovereignty (people's right to control and shape food policy, as opposed to companies and corporations) there is also huge concern about the impacts on future human and animal health from the consumption of these products.

The fact that this particular crop of GM wheat contains a synthesised chemical enzyme which 'has most similarity to that from cow (Bos taurus)', but is not actually from a cow does nothing to reassure me.

It doesn't make me feel any more confident when I read it contains a synthesised gene 'similar to that found in peppermint (Mentha x piperita)' because what concerns me is that biotechnology is attempting to move us ever closer to food composed of laboratory created chemicals which in Rothamsted Research's words 'are not found naturally' (application document) and ever further away from food produced naturally from the Earth and by organic, diverse and sustainable farming methods.

If they want to genuinely solve the world's food crisis they could do better by reading a few basic permaculture books and challenging the inequalities in our social structures which sees much of the world's people lacking access to adequate food and clean water, while the rest of the world are creating vast monocrop deserts, logging forests, wasting land and resources on animal agriculture, and gorging themselves on literally sickening crap (think McDonalds etc)... The production and distribution of food on this planet is rife with exploitation, murder, suppression and inequality which favours Western industrial nations and corporate powers. This is of little concern to those wanting to pull the strings, supported by the lies and unstated agendas of those such as the biotech industry and  organisations with highly dubious interests such as 'Sense About Science'. 

Gathuru Mburu talked at 'Take The Flour Back' about the move of GM into Africa as being like a 'second colonialism', a 'second enslavement' attempting to create dependency on Western Corporations rather than supporting the development of diverse small scale farming (as has been feeding African people for centuries) which would place African people in control of their own food production.

This is an enslavement where if we don't resist now and hold onto the ownership of one of our most basic necessities in life... that of food and the seeds by which it is grown, we will be forever at the mercy of corporations. This has nothing to do with progressive science.

As the environmental writer Graham Harvey writes, referring to the director of Rothamsted Research Maurice Maloney, he is 'in the business of privatising nature and bringing the world's food supply under the control of large corporations'.

Due to the huge police and security presence protecting the trial field there was no opportunity for us to breach the fences and reach the crop. Led by the French group of GM activists  Faucheurs Volontaires (Volunteer Reapers), we all linked arms and walked as far as we could until stopped by police lines. Here we sat and a statement was read out.

The GM wheat trials can be protected by fences, police, security and High Court injunctions, but what is protecting the diversity, integrity and safety of our food and environment, our farmers and growers, our children? As always, it is us, with all our diversity and integrity and our courage to not feel defeated when taking whatever steps we can towards environmental and social justice.

I tend to agree with Graham Harvey when he says that 'Rothamsted scientists seem content to gamble our food security on an unproven and potentially unstable technology... the current tide of indignation over the Take The Flour Back protest is in reality part of a cynical agribusiness campaign to get this unnecessary technology accepted in Britain' (from an article by Jonathan Matthews in The Ecologist, May 25th 2012).

And as with many things, confronting such giants as agribusiness with it's State protection can be tiring work and we need to make sure we take a well-earned break so we can be up and at 'em all the stronger the next time!

Finally, here's an account of the day from the Take The Flour Back Website:

European activists link up to draw the line against GM

More than 400 growers, bakers and families from across England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Belgium marched against the return of open air GM field testing today. Take the Flour Back linked arms with their European counterparts, notably France’s Volunteer Reapers and walked calmly towards the site, before being stopped by police lines.

Take the flour back
Kate Bell from Take the Flour Back stated that “In the past, kids, grannies, and everyone in between has decontaminated GM trial sites together. Here at the beginning of a new resistance to this obsolete technology, we see GM hidden behind a fortress. We wanted to do the responsible thing and remove the threat of GM contamination, sadly it wasn’t possible to do that effectively today. However, we stand arm in arm with farmers and growers from around the world, who are prepared to risk their freedom to stop the imposition of GM crops.”
People enjoyed a GM free picnic whilst listening to a range of speakers opposing the trial, including Graciela Romero, International Programmes Director of UK development charity War on Want. Lawrence Woodward, previously Director of Elm Farm Organic Research Centre, former head of standards at the Soil Association, and now involved in Citizens concerned about GM. Plus several British farmers including Peter Lundgren, a conventional wheat farmer from Lincolnshire.

Gathuru Mburu, co-ordinator of the African Biodiversity Network, spoke on the global fight for control of our food supply.

Gathuru Mburu
Mburu explained that:
“Experimenting with staple crops is a serious threat to food security. Our resilience comes from diversity, not the monocultures of GM. Beneath the rhetoric that GM is the key to feeding a hungry world, there is a very different story – a story of control and profit. The fact is that we need a diversity of genetic traits in food crops in order to survive worsening climates. Above all, people need to have control over their seeds”
This statement is released amongst growing calls for the scientists to demonstrate sensitivity to public concern by harvesting the crop before pollination, removing any risk of contamination with non-GM plants.