Friday, 30 August 2013

In conversation with Joan Court and a few people with paws...

This is being published at a particularly terrible time for this country. A time when the killing of badgers has begun which, if allowed to continue, will eventually see thousands upon thousands of these beautiful creatures shot and over 70% of the entire population wiped out.

At the same time as plans for fracking across 60% of the country are being proposed which will not only devastate wildlife and the very nature of our landscape but have the capability to contaminate the water we drink, the air we breathe and pose such largescale health risks to the population of this country (human and non-human alike) that I find it actually quite unimaginable.

And of course the list goes on...

Which makes it a very good time to think about the people who are organising and taking action and not giving up in the attempt to change this world and move it from one of cruelty and greed to one of compassion and justice. One such person is my friend Joan Court, who has dedicated many decades to actively changing the world for the better and who is a constant inspiration to me.

Joan speaking at a recent demo in Cambridge against the cruel experiments on genetically modified mice.

Every time I go and stay with Joan in Cambridge (which isn't nearly often enough) I love to hear the stories she can tell me from her truly amazing life of the last 94 years, as well as the current affairs that we might discuss.

Back in 1989, when I'd just moved to Cambridge as a student (at the now named Anglia Ruskin Uni) I rang the contact number I'd found for Cambridge Animal Rights and two days later I was meeting up with Joan, Hilda, and others who I was to become close friends with, to go and inspect a pig farm, which began a busy time of animal rights campaigning and a new social life!

Having previously published two biographical books, Joan has recently published a third book which is a collection of pesonal interviews with over 20 animal rights activists. These provide a rare insight into the views and motivations of a diverse range of people who despite some differences in outlook share a common vision - that of animal liberation and an end to cruelty and abuse of those we share this world with. Acting in the interests of this vision has changed the course of lives and has not always been easy, sometimes leading to conflicts in personal lives or imprisonment. Through this book, Joan has provided the opportunity to get a glimpse of some of the real people behind the often dehumanising portrayals by the mainstream media of 'animal rights activists' or 'terrorists' as they have occasionally been depicted.

One of the recent times I stayed with Joan I asked if she would tell me about some of the times from her earlier life and I had the honour of spending a whole afternoon and morning listening to her fantastic memories and I took notes which I now share below (with her permission) as they deserve a wider audience.

As with any conversation that takes place at Joan's home, it has to be paused regularly to say hello to a cat, to make space on a lap, or to be mesmerised temporarily by the intense gaze of a beautiful pair of feline eyes. So in the spirit of the environment in which this conversation took place, the text pauses every now and then for one of Joan's cat family to wander through and bathe in a little attention.

Thanks again Joan, and I look forward to coming back to see you again soon. And get some more stories ready because I never tire of listening to them! Much love always xxx

To read more of Joan's life and work, take a look at her two autobiographical books, along with her latest book, all of which are available from Amazon.
Joan Court:

From childhood I've felt empathy with animals and people which has led to a life spent campaigning for people and animals. I feel close identification with people too. I'm a dreamer, a romantic but have tried to actually do something about it. 
It was a dream of my brother Peter and myself to go to India. I was intensely influenced by books, in particular Kipling, and also the history and social injustice of people living in this country, people living in poverty. I began reading about Ghandi. I became vegetarian and interested in Indian Independence and the work of saving the lives of mothers and babies in India.

This led to four years midwifery and nursing training. During the war I was a District midwife, delivering babies at home in London. I never saw a depressed mother during home deliveries and all were breastfed. We had to conduct the service during air-raids and the house allocated to us was bombed. I slept understairs with a cat, Emily, and the telephone beside me. I'd go out on my bicycle with the bag strapped on the back. Occasionally I would find myself walking beside the bicycle wondering what had happened after a bomb had dropped nearby. If needed,an ambulance would come out.

In spite of the bombs, it was quite a peaceful occupation, with mothers sitting up in bed, happy, while I bathed the baby or burnt the placenta on the fire. I'm quite critical of modern midwifery care - the medicalisation of childbirth. Midwives are not trained for breach or anything other than a 'normal' birth, when a midwife could be adequately trained for dealing with this at a home.

Are you looking at me Katy the Shaman, do I need some healing?

I was intent on going to India and got involved with the Quaker Unit operating in Calcutta and read research papers with recommendations on what could be done to reduce the maternal death rate. I had to get permission from the Viceroy then started a midwifery service in downtown Calcutta, working with Hindu nurses close to the Muslim area.

It's not difficult to reduce the death rate by improving antenatal care. The main deathrate was from tetanus often caused by the practice of applying cow dung to heal the naval. Most babies were delivered by untrained women. I helped to train local midwives and student midwives at the hospital.

I met Ghandi - everyone met Ghandi at that time. I worked with him briefly where he was in a village doing a hunger strike. I was asked to give him support. In my view, he's a Saint. He believed the future of India lay in the education of women. He was strictly vegetarian but like most Hindu's he believed in the importance of milk and wished there was a substitute for it, before the days of soya milk, so he travelled around with his goat.

He doesn't have paws... how did he get in?!

The thing about my life, is I'm an intense romantic, but in my case all my dreams did come true. I did go to India, meet Ghandi, listen to EM Fortser...

But work in Calcutta was interrupted by riots against the British. After being mobbed once or twice I took to wearing sari's. I never came to any harm. The main danger was from the Ghurkas who seemed to shoot anybody in sight. About 7000 people were killed in a day or two around my area. They were brought in by the British during the Hindu-Muslim riots.

I was one of the few people with a permit to go out into the street. I would go out to both the Hindu and the Muslim areas to attend to mothers. I was very single-minded about reaching any patients in labour. I tried to take any injured people to hospital on a handcart. I wasn't able to take students out during riots.

We lived in a street which had five Hindu temples in one little area and worshippers would bring gifts of fruit etc, which had previously been offered to the gods and goddesses and consequently got dysentery. The flooded streets during the monsoon had rats floating everywhere and leaping around on rubbish dumps. As a consequence people would get Weil's disease and jaundice. Fortunately I had a good immune system having been brought up in such a filthy home! I think it's impossible to not get ill in Calcutta. Everyone working there had intestinal parasites. The diet was strictly vegan... rice and dahl or vegetable curry.

I still feel intense nostalgia for India and am sorry I didn't get back.

Hello Ming Ming, don't you be nibbling Joan's arm anymore please!

I had a period of sick leave up in Kalimpong and Darjeeling, North India, with a view of the mountains and travelled up on a beautiful little steam train.

So I left India in October 1947 and saw the birth of an independent India and the Indian national flag flying in all the villages. Also the reconciliation of Hindus and Muslims, which didn't last of course. But when peace was restored in Calcutta, Hindus and Muslims were bathing each other in rose water and using their cutlasses to cut off the tops of coconuts instead of the heads of their enemies.

My time in Calcutta was the most intense time of my life. When in Calcutta I read about a horseback nursing service in Appalacia, America. It sounded a highly romantic job and you know what I'm like, so I returned to England and did my Public Health Visiting education. They were a bit reluctant to take me as I could neither drive nor ride a horse. But their attitude was "you sound the right sort" so I got the job!

I looked after 100 families, so called Hillbillies. It was a wonderful life and I fell in love with my horse Dock. 

I look back on the days in Kentucky with a tremendous nostalgia. It was solitary, sometimes quite dangerous and pioneering. We gave total care to the families and their animals as far as we could, and if we had an emergency all the men would appear, make a stretcher and carry the mother to where they could hitch a ride on a coal-truck to the local hospital.

Ohhh Lily, you are too beautiful, I know!

I'm really not very practical and I'm amazed to think I was once able to change a tyre and ride my horse up the creeks. I had to ride very slowly as I was carrying very expensive equipment in the saddle bags. People lived in extremely primitive homes with a central fire and no electricity. Babies were delivered by torchlight. The walls were decorated with old newspapers and magazines and slogans "Love Your Mother".

Some families made moonshine, illicit alcohol, which we were never allowed to discuss. Usually the fathers worked in open-cast mining, there were frequent accidents. All the children were infested with parasites and the wells were often contaminated from the latrines.

It was a wonderful service and I was happy that we were able to give first class midwifery and nursing care. It had many elements of danger and adventure which are in my blood stream.

When I came to the end of my contract I was offered several jobs, one with the WHO in Pakistan. An intense love affair with a Russian Jew which had begun in India and continued through my time in America, broke up and it was time to leave America. I accepted the WHO job in Pakistan as a midwife consultant advisor and subsequently worked in Turkey and Western Australia.

I got into difficulties in Pakistan due to establishing family planning in Lahore. The Government were opposed to it. The Minister said "we need men for the army". They tried to get rid of me, to send me to Africa. I also made an enemy in Pakistan (a WHO nursing officer) who said 'the trouble with you Joan,is you're more interested in social work than you are in nursing', and a light dawned!

Ah sweet Charlie, I didn't forget you

Passionately keen on education, I began social work training in Bristol and London and qualified as a Psychiatric Social Worker. I joined the NSPCC, pioneering the treatment of what was then called 'Battered Baby Syndrome'. I got into difficulties with the Director for questioning NSPCC policy at the time. They'd prosecuted a young mother for harming her baby when I felt the fault lay with medical and social services, for not helping identify and support her with her problems. I refused to resign so they fired me.

I hadn't been out of work since my teens so I found this disturbing. I was offered a number of jobs and then someone suggested the DHSS. I didn't understand any of the questions but they wanted me so they could implement recommendations made by my unit over the last five years. I spent the next five years as an incompetent civil servant, advising the minister on family planning, child abuse, battered women etc. I was also asked to review all recent deaths of non-accidental injury and became an expert witness.

I met an old school friend, Mary Tew (Mary Douglas), Professor of Social Anthropology, read her book and thought I should have been a social anthropologist. I applied to the University of Cambridge and got accepted to do a degree in Social Anthropology. I had a Masters in Social Work from America but didn't have a first degree and thought I should have. That's how I came to Cambridge.

I continued to work as a Guardian Ad Litum until I was 77. This involved working with a solicitor as an independent social worker listening to the wishes of children and trying to make recommendations which were for their benefit.

In my second year at Newhall, I picked up leaflets about vivisection and this started the last 30 years of my life in Cambridge as an animal rights campaigner. 

So I look back on my life which doesn't seem that unusual to me. I regard myself as impetuous, and I have a strongly developed imaginative life. I should perhaps mention that I always wanted to be a writer, as books have always been my lifeline, as they were for my brother too. I suffer from severe writers block but I have managed to publish three books, thanks to the enormous encouragement I've received from various sources.

I think I've got a very hard working Guardian Angel!

I've been active in all the main animal rights campaigns and resent the limits on ability of old age now which prevent me going on marches etc. We learn more and more about the horrendous and sadistic treatment of other sentient beings and it haunts our lives. Human beings have destroyed the seas, the sky and the earth but there's a great danger in apathy. I think we should continue to do whatever we can for animal rights and animal welfare and I deeply respect and honour all our fellow campaigners. I am sustained by my friends and companion animals.

Joan and Ming Ming, August 2013

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Some Thoughts After My Visit To Balcombe

This week my family visited the Balcombe Community Protection Camp to participate in the opposition to fracking. The work of the energy company Cuadrilla, which has been given the licence for exploratory drilling at Balcombe with the intention of fracking there in the future, had been halted for the previous few days by a big Reclaim The Power event which saw thousands of people taking part in the protest as well as attending workshops and talks. Here's a great short film recorded during this time at Balcombe (Produced and Directed by Felix Gonzales):

It's really easy to get to Balcombe. There's a train station a 5-10 minute walk down the road (with regular direct trains from London Victoria and Brighton). Just turn right out of the train station and follow the road. The camp runs along both sides of this road, so you can't miss it!
Now that drilling and work within the site has begun again, several trucks and containers with pipelines and chemicals/water are entering throughout the day. Currently at these times Balcombe protectors are slowing the process by walking in front of the vehicles, pushed along from behind by a police cordon.

If you walk too slowly, as apparently I was doing, you get threatened with arrest and this man gets excited about putting you in his movie...
Many people have been arrested during recent blockades at Balcombe. This slow walk in front of the vehicles seems to be the most you can currently do without being arrested. The fact that the police got so upset when I was walking a fraction slower than they wanted me to (they really were splitting hairs) was explained to me afterwards by the police liaison officer as being due to their 'understanding' that a specific speed of walking pace had been agreed upon with protesters and they would not permit it to get any slower! Some camp people appeared to be comfortable with this 'agreement' but I certainly heard other camp people saying they were not aware of such an agreement. So in my mind, the following questions arise:
* Is it true that agreements regarding conditions of protest have been made with the police?
* If so, who made these agreements?
* If such agreements are made how are these being communicated/discussed with new participants of the camp?
In my view, we are each free to take non-violent direct action against fracking at locations where the industry is at work, and we are free to not agree to the police determining the conditions of our resistance. Personally I don't feel comfortable making agreements with the police or to have others make those agreements on my behalf. Of course I fully understand that arrest may be the consequence of certain actions and that would be the responsibility of the individual and not the camp, though communication and solidarity within an organised community is good and important.
There are always different attitudes about what relationship and communication is best to adopt with the police. It's frustrating that any of our time and energy has to be given to this issue since it always seems to detract from the main cause at hand. However, when the police are being used more and more in this country for political purposes, are behaving increasingly aggressively, and more voices are publicly expressing concerns that we are moving towards a police state, then this is going to be a conversation which keeps arising. Yes of course I recognise that beneath their uniforms the police are made up of unique individuals some of whom refuse to surrender their humanity in favour of the worst they can get away with. Yes, I've experienced some of them being thoroughly decent human beings. However, that doesn't mean I'm going to start hugging them or getting into nice comfortable small talk or ever give them my trust. Because while today they may be sharing their sandwiches and putting flowers in their lapels, tomorrow they may be kneeling on your friend's head, pushing you over for no reason or practising maximum pain control on my pressure points. I can be polite (and usually am) but I also think it's important to remember who my friends are and they're not the ones wearing yellow jackets protecting life-destroying corporations.Talking of which, the sign on the side of this tanker desperately needs correcting...
...which should obviously read as Total Environmental Destruction Technology
There have been dozens arrested throughout the campaign including the high profile arrest last weekend of Green MP Caroline Lucas with court hearings taking place over the next few weeks and months. I found that the way the presence of those previously arrested is maintained by visual reminders fixed up all around the camp was very effective.
Here's an interesting short film which discusses policing in relation to the fracking protests at Balcombe, including an interview with the Rev Peter Owen Jones and some music by the excellent Damh the Bard.


Alongside the road are many hand painted banners and home printed placards illustrating why people are here. More are being made all the time and I love the diversity and individual expression being demonstrated here. Paints are always welcome for the people of all ages who want to creatively explain why they are here or what they feel.


My very favourite artist at the camp was someone who was hugely productive, and I was honoured to help him carry one of his newly painted placards up to the main gate. Actually, my brief meeting with him and hearing him talk with such intelligence about the messages he was producing was one of the most inspiring experiences of my visit. Here he is with his Grassland v Gasland placard:

Another lovely experience was witnessing a local couple stopping by early morning (possibly before work due to how smartly they were dressed) and collecting lots of empty water bottles to take off for refilling. Clean drinking water is an essential daily need of this camp just as it is a vital central issue at the heart of the fracking concerns. So, this was heart warming...

As was the woman who turned up at lunchtime with tray loads of Danish pastries and whipped cream. OK, so it wasn't vegan and I couldn't eat any but there were lots of eager takers and I was nourished by the kindness all the same.

Speaking of nourishment, there's a big camp kitchen cooking communal meals and a 'tea and info' tent where you can make yourself a cup of tea pretty much any time of the day. During my visit it did seem to be the same bunch of people in the kitchen most of the time but hopefully there's more volunteers doing this essential work than it appeared. The backlog of washing up which had built up due to a water shortage was of potentially soul-destroying proportions and took some awesome people several hours to clear, so if you visit the camp and you're able to, please volunteer to help out with this!

Of course, what goes in must come out and there are some truly impressive compost loos to deal with that. While I was there, a new toilet for campers with disabilities was built.

It's a family friendly camp and there's a large kids space with a tent full of craft materials, paints and fabrics etc. Poster paints were running low while I was there so that's another thing for the wish list... If you do take some paint to donate please bring GREEN as that's my inspiring artist's favourite colour and it'll be put to good use!

Musical instruments are great to bring along too. My son took his guitar and enjoyed playing to people. If the person who filmed him singing his song about pollution is reading this, please stick it on Youtube or something and send us a link as I missed it...

We were really lucky to catch a Seize The Day gig while we were there. This was a great night of dancing and singing along to some of the best genuinely passionate and politically authentic songs ever. Definitely check them out if you don't know about them...

There's tent spaces for quiet/meditation, meetings/workshops, library, kidspace, general chillout sofas, and the basic infrastructure for an effective community to live, organise and take action from. I think there's possibly some organisational issues to give a bit of love to, mainly in the way of communication. And with people coming and going from so many different groups, backgrounds and viewpoints, there's obviously going to be a bit in the way of internal politics going on, but this doesn't have to be a bad thing so long as no one is trying to dominate or drain and if we can make a commitment to respect each other and be open to genuine co-operation. Diversity can be a strength and this movement is going to be huge because if the Corporate-Government continue with their current plans, this madness is going to be huge. That's a hell of a lot of organising and working together to get used to and I hope that all across the country we can get united behind the clear intention that together we will stop the fracking nightmare from becoming a reality here.

I haven't written a lot here about fracking itself because there are so many great places to find this information and media sharing about the issues. Some good places to look are:
And in my own local area there's a public meeting in Havant next Thursday 29th August: