Friday, 29 July 2011

I am too tired to send CFS researchers death threats

It's an odd experience, having Radio 4 as your alarm clock. You wake up gently, with James Naughtie's mellifluous tones creeping into your ears, the news of the day quietly infiltrating your dreams. Which means that I'm never entirely sure whether the odder stories are entirely true or just the product of my crazed dream state. Super-antibody fights off flu: probably true. Queen Mother in fact a Time Lord and regenerated as Kate Middleton: probably not true.

People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sending death threats to researchers working in the field? Weirdly, true.

As far as I can tell (I have checked this while actually awake), the people in question are angry at any suggestion that the syndrome might be caused by psychological or psychiatric factors. Which I understand, up to a point: having fought with a series of doctors who dismissed me as a malingering hypochondriac (Dr Dickface McBullyo being the worst of a rubbish bunch), who took one look at my medical history and chalked every ailment down to Depression'n'Anxiety, I get the frustration of trying to make people understand that this is a real physical problem that is really limiting your options in life.

I guess the problem is that people think that "psychological" equals "all in your head" equals "not a real thing". Which says a lot about how seriously we take mental illness.

Everything is interconnected. Stress can exacerbate heart disease. Exercise can make you happier. Imagining The Mind as an ethereal entity which floats around without interacting with the physical body at all is, from a medical point of view, bollocks: how else could taking a pill change your mood?

The people protesting are concerned that all government funding is going into researching possible psychological causes of CFS/ME, rather than searching for a virus. (Some of the claims are just bizarre: Professor Myra McClure was accused of having a vested interest in not finding this virus, which, given that she's a virologist, is... yeah.) Which is a valid point: given that there's no hard evidence pointing either to a purely physical or purely psychological cause, it would make sense for funding to be split equally between the two.

I'm not fussed, personally - and I doubt many people with CFS are. Whether psychological, biological, or some mix of the two, any and all research is welcome because the more we know about it the better the prospects of alleviation or cure. If the One True Cause does turn out to be psychological, at least I can then get to work on tackling it.

I suppose the insistence on a purely physical cause could be seen as pragmatic, in a way: not the death threats, which never really improve one's public image, but the attempt to distance CFS from mental illness. Purely because our society really doesn't take mental illness seriously, so the headline CHRONIC FATIGUE CAUSED BY CRAZINESS would be read by many as CHRONIC FATIGUE NOT ACTUALLY REAL - JUST HYPOCHONDRIA. Pragmatic, maybe, but not helpful; it's just joining in the pile-on. "We're ill, we're not crazy, not like those people over there."

Or, in the immortal (and probably misquoted) words of Dumbledore: "Of course it's inside your head, but why should that mean it's not real?"

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Empire State of Mind

Remember this lady? The "I'm allowed to call a Paki shop a Paki shop because I'm not racist" lady? Well, she may become a regular feature on these pages, if the last few days are anything to go by. Perhaps it should become a series entitled The Sun of Patronising People You Perceive To Be Different To You Never Sets.

Ah, the photocopier: where so many friendships are formed. Where so many important points are debated. And where so much random bigotry seeps out, poisoning the air of conviviality and also making  its recipient, me, and my partner in "let's have a philosophical debate about whether the word 'cunt' can be reclaimed while waiting for the laminator to warm up" discussions, piss ourselves laughing!

Dramatis personae: jolly hockey sticks frightfully isn't it middle aged white lady - let us call her Samantha. And a young British-Asian woman with keen sense of sarcasm and headscarf who, to protect her anonymity, shall be known as Samhita.
Samantha: So where are you from?
Samhita: Bethnal Green.
Samantha: Oh... but you have a bit of an accent?
Samhita: Um. Most people speak like this in East London.
Samantha: Yes.. but.. where are.. what are..
Samhita: Yes?
Samantha: Where are your, er, parents from?
Samhita: My dad's from Pakistan, my mum's from what was East Pakistan when she was growing up and is now Bangladesh.
Samantha: Oh I see. Your parents must not be enjoying this weather very much!
Samhita: They... have been here... for fifty years. I think they're used to it by now.
Samantha's lived abroad for much of her life (so has probably spent less time suffering through British weather than Samhita's parents!) - Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia - but unfortunately this hasn't triggered the realisation that most of the world's population isn't actually white and English. There is a certain kind of person for whom travel really doesn't broaden the mind; it calcifies whatever prejudices were there before, and reinforces them with the certainty of someone who thinks they've seen everything the world has to offer - and isn't that impressed. ("Well this is all very nice, but they still can't make a decent cup of tea.") However far you go, however many people you meet, if you still see everything through your lens of Britishness - decide the worth of a nation by how well it matches up to the way things are done at home - see your country and your culture as the measure of all things - then for all the understanding you've gained you might as well have stayed at home.

People like this seem to come back to the UK and feel they've somehow earned the right to be as cantankerously bigoted as they like. It's as if they now know more about Foreigners and have authority to argue with you if you gently suggest maybe they're being the tiniest bit racist.

One of the most entertaining examples of this was when a dude came back from his Gap Yah and proceeded to tell my BFF The Truth Of How Things Are In China. You'd think that said BFF, what with speaking fluent Mandarin, visiting the country regularly, having a number of friends and relatives in Hangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong - oh yeah, and ACTUALLY BEING CHINESE - would be something of an authority on the matter, relatively speaking. But no - apparently a better preparation for the position of Resident China Expert is six weeks of teaching English in Beijing!

I mean: Samantha Pseudonym wasn't trying to be offensive. She didn't mean to hurt Samhita's feelings. She was genuinely interested in Samhita's family history and cultural heritage, but just went about it in a dramatically cack-handed way: when I was chatting with Samhita later, she said that it's not the question itself that grates - "what is your ethnic origin, if you don't mind me asking?" doesn't bother her in the least - but the othering, the implicit message of "you are different and I must definitively categorise you before we can continue this conversation". You know, in the same way that people don't quiz me as to where my parents grew up, when and why they moved to Southampton; in the same way that they don't decide they've got the measure of me just because they now know my dad was born in Norfolk.

I think I shall let Samantha have the last word, given that this phrase is such a gem it really deserves to be savoured. She once actually uttered the words "Well, I think I do understand other cultures, because I have a Malaysian housekeeper".

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Guy, meet boner

Some of my favourite search terms that have led people, by mysterious googlepaths, to this here blog:

  • Amanda Seyfried's tits
  • stop feminism
  • because I need to be thin
  • I'm in love with my boss
  • can't stop fucking
  • Dawson's Creek rape
  • guy meat boner
I get a fair amount of traffic from some awesome people who are kind and helpful enough to link to me (yo, Kitty, you are awesome!), I shamelessly self-promote of a Sunday, but the weirdest way anyone has ever found their way here? The most beautiful, utterly inexplicable, quite possible scientifically impossible path from "the internet at large" to "Hannah's very important thoughts on stuff and things"?

Montel Williams' Wikipedia page.

Explanations welcome.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Me and my shrivelled ovaries

The best thing about turning 25 is that people are encouraging me to have babies immediately not because it would be cute, or funny, or because then I could take my children to Lapland to see "the REAL Santa" (true story), but because my "biological clock is ticking".

Right now, I find this hilarious. But I'm guessing that after four thousand five hundred and six repetitions, it will get less funny.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Agonising Aunt: if in doubt, do not ask Amy

Take my hand, beloved reader, and come with me to the Museum of Really Fucked Up Advice From People You'd Hope Would Know Better. Spoiler alert: the moral of this story is "Don't Ask Amy, Ask Me!"
My husband very strongly dislikes my best friend. He feels that she is a “bad influence” on me, as she is still dating and hasn’t settled down in her late 20s, goes to a gym that offers “pole fitness” classes, and had an abortion a year ago.
How exactly this "bad influence" is exerting itself is unclear, given that Confused has clearly "settled down"; why exactly "still dating" in one's "late 20s" (SPINSTER!) is evidence of scarlet harlotry I dread to think - similarly, how merely going to a gym which offers classes in PORNY PORNOGRAPHY STRIPPER SLUT DANCING or terminating a pregnancy demonstrate bad influenceness is beyond me. But then, I'm not a misogynist!
He also knows that I confide in her when he and I have a bad fight or when I need to vent about something relating to our relationship. She and I have been very close since before he and I started dating, and have known each other since we were in elementary school. She is always very supportive and I try to be there for her.
My friend does not harbor any ill will toward him, but she is frank about her concerns that he can be controlling at times.
So she's supportive and he's critical and controlling: okay, you're painting a very vivid picture here.
He is always angry when I am talking to her on the phone and has gone so far as to hack into my e-mail account and read our e-mails to one another. Heaven forbid the e-mail contain a reference to an acquaintance of ours we find attractive or a (justified or not) complaint about a habit of his.
He snoops into your private communications with a supportive friend who worries that he is too controlling.
I hate having him sulking and angry, but I feel like I should be able to chat privately with my friend.
So hands up who is going "well, relationships are hard; maybe they should compromise". Now hands up everyone who's thinking, "without wanting to pass judgement on a stranger's relationship solely based on a few hundred words in an advice column, this relationship sounds like it could be abusive, and any responsible agony aunt would flag that up". Let's see what Ask Amy has to say:
Your husband is being unreasonable. But then, so are you.
Oh yes, it's so unreasonable to expect one's husband to respect one's privacy! It's all "I want, I want, I want" with you, isn't it? Having a supportive friend, someone you can talk to about relationship niggles, being able to live your life in a reasonable fashion without having to navigate your husband's tendency towards being "sulking and angry"? SO DEMANDING.
The problem here is that you are putting your friendship with your girlfriend in the middle of your relationship with your husband.
OR, "the problem" here is that Conflicted's husband is threatened by her having a close relationship with someone who isn't him.

Delightful Ask Amy also recommends that Conflicted act more "like a grown up". High fives, Ask Amy.

You know, last night I read a piece on The Pervocracy entitled "Why does she stay with that jerk?" Reading this garbage, I'm depressingly reminded of number 6. It's terrifying being in any kind of advisory capacity - I'm only an administrator, but I'm the first point of call to anyone coming to this organisation for financial support, and being approachable and non-judgemental is the single most important part of my job. If I forget to write down their date of birth, no one cares. If I make them feel guilty, embarrassed and frightened, they might never come back - and their financial situation could spiral madly out of control and end up with County Court Judgements, attachment of earnings orders, eviction, prosecution, and prison. So, no pressure.

With that in mind you'd hope that Ask Amy would be a bit more aware of the power of her position, and the responsibilities attached. If Conflicted is in an abusive relationship, and this is the first time she's tried to reach out - well, having read Ask Amy's response, do you think she's going to ask anyone else for help? Yeah.

Like a new generation rise

I've had a super weekend, thanks, since you ask. My gentleman admirer took me back to his hometown to visit the family, including his 18-month-old niece. So I pretty much spent two days talking to the toddler, hitting things, and shouting "PIGGY!" at roughly 30-second intervals, with only a vague awareness that there were other people in the vicinity. My true peer-group: the under-twos.

A thing that is awesome: she's learning to talk (see above re: "PIGGY!"), which means that if you go to pick her up and she's not in the mood, she can say "no". I always find it a bit weird how children get passed around like puppies with no choice in the matter, how it's assumed you can ruffle their hair and hold their hands without asking, so it's brilliant to be able to reinforce her sense of bodily inviolability by the delightfully simple means of asking her permission and respecting her answer.

A thing that is weird: "Welll, she'll never be able to play cricket, will she?" "What a pretty dress you have on!" Barbie paddling pool, Hello Kitty bib, two baby dolls before she's even out of nappies herself; pink rabbit, pink jumper, pink bowl, pink, pink, pink... "Don't throw her around like that, you're so rough with her!" (She was shrieking with delight and shouting 'MORE!') In response to her answering "no" to "would you like a cuddle?": "Well, aren't you a bossy little madam?" PINK, is what I am saying. I plan on being Awesome Feminist Auntie, making sure I mix in a lot of "clever", "strong", "brave" compliments alongside all the "pretty", "good", "princess" ones; I'm already looking forward to reading her some Swallows and Amazons in years to come, and semi-seriously planning a picture book about Emily Wilding Davison.

Corrupting the next generation: a joy that comes with age.

Friday, 15 July 2011

It's "not using the most offensive words you can think of to define others' experience" gone MAD!

"Goddamnit, it's political correctness gone mad! Why can't we call bints, cripples, blacks and buggers by their proper names anymore? Bah bah green sheep! YOU ARE INFRINGING MY RIGHT TO FREE EXPRESSION!"

Oh, you think I'm creating an evil straw-man to rant about, don't you? But no! This is, in essence, the argument I've just spent an hour combatting. It started with tales from an equal opportunities seminar where the facilitator suggested that the phrase "Paki shop" was, perhaps, to be avoided.

"But I'm using it just as a descriptive term! I'm not a racist, so I'm not implying anything racist by using that word - it's just shorthand for 'a shop run by a Pakistani family'!"

Which I'm sure is totally true, if you are a white lady who doesn't believe in racism! Or believes that it is big and obvious and you can always see it coming, easily identified by the fact that it is being done by a drooling neanderthal with a shaved head and knuckle tattoos saying "I believe in the superiority of an artbitrarily-defined 'Aryan race'".

Yes, words change their meanings. Yes, words mean different things in different context. But I sincerely doubt that we are so fucking post-racial that racial slurs have somehow magically shed all of their harmful history and can now be used to mean whatever you want them to mean. I can decide I'm so post-footwear that I'm going to refer to my shoes as wardrobes: that doesn't make strapping an IKEA flatpack to my feet any more of a workable plan.

More importantly, why the shit would you want to reclaim that word? Is fighting for your right to use every single slur in the world really a good use of your time? (Interestingly, she's highly opposed to use of the N-word*, and considers its reclamation by African-Americans as "problematic". [You tell 'em, White Lady!] I'm not really sure what to conclude from this - whether it's to do with ranking some forms of racism as badder and racistier than others, just the random effect of the ways she personally has heard the two words used, or the fact that it's easier to accept the existence of racism abroad than in your own backyard?)

She then tried to say that "Paki" is exactly the same in terms of history, offensiveness and emotional impact as "rosbif". "Yes but France wasn't part of the British Empire, and - " "OH BUT WHAT ABOUT CALAIS? Did we not invade?" Yes, yes we did. And the relationship between two warring Medieval European states is precisely the same as the historical legacy of an invading, colonising European state, intent on annexing the entire Indian subcontinent, decimating its economy and stripping it of all natural resources, maintaining dominance for a century through brutal repression, torture and massacre! PRECISELY THE SAME. It's times like these when I want to be a total history-geek arsehole and say, "Go read Edward Said and then we'll continue this argument." But I never actually made it through more than a chapter of Orientalism, so, there's that.

We ended at an impasse, with my main sticking point being "Why would you use a word that you know might offend people, why would you fight for the right to use such a word, and why do you insist on seeing this as an abstract philosophical point as opposed to the very simple idea that 'making people feel bad is bad'?" With her sticking to her "BUT WE SHOULDN'T BE AFRAID OF WORDS AND YOU CAN'T TAKE MY WORDY RIGHTS AWAY FROM ME" funs. Because, you know. We're running out of words, after all.

Actually, I'm not sure why I bothered, given that once you've repeated the "Bah blah green sheep" crap as truth, you've officially lost the right to debate. With anyone. Ever.

* Refusing to type That Word while typing "Paki" in full might not be logical or consistent, and might in fact undermine my argument; I'm open to suggestion.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

In other news: standing for choice

I ate two breakfasts in preparation for yesterday's pro-choice demo. I stood, I clapped, I cheered; I wore a miniature placard in my buttonhole; I did not chant, because chanting makes me feel like a tool. And after an hour my legs decided that standing up was no longer a viable option and we staggered home to spend the rest of the day in bed. In conclusion: there is a reason I do not go on protest marches.

The Queer Resistance crew were awesome. My favourite placard, which I didn't manage to get a picture of, said "Some men have wombs. Get over it."

George V, with a pigeon on his head, looked surprisingly like Ming the Merciless.

Can't fault the sentiment, but I am curious as to how a wooden coathanger would have been used to procure an abortion.

And finally: my Mum-knitted Canada goose does not approve of abstinence-only education.

Get your bad fantasy out of my good fantasy

Two things that I enjoy: Rationalism in reality, and fantasy in fiction. A third thing I love: rationalism in my fantasy fiction. Which may be asking too much, but apart from anything else, it helps with the suspension of disbelief - okay, house elves' magic being "different", enabling Dobby to save the gang from Malfoy's dungeon, is convenient and also a useful illustration of how underestimating non-human sentient species is a fundamental flaw in the Death Eaters' world view, but how is it different? How does it work? How can house elf disapparation - so "different" - be used to take humans along in a place where humans can't disapparate? Does it matter? No! But it's hard to get swept away with the Life and Death and Sacrifice and Heroism when you're muttering at the pages in the manner of a disgruntled two year old whose parents won't answer the eternal question, "yeah but why?".

How much more vexing, then, when fantasy fiction uses stories from the real world to undermine rationalism. I've been on a bit of a Torchwood/Doctor Who marathon recently, because I am strange and geeky and feel a compulsion to watch things I like over and over until I know them pretty much off by heart, and there are two episodes which - while good - have left me grinding my gigantic atheist teeth in a rationalist fury.

In The Unquiet Dead, Rose and lovely smily Christopher Eccleston join forces with super-skeptic Charles Dickens to deal with ghostly gas aliens which can reanimate corpses. Dickens scoffs a lot, they hold a seance, and Gwen Cooper's great-great-granny explodes the lot of them. (Spoilers! If you are in 2005.) In Torchwood's Small Worlds, naughty fairies kill a paedophile, a nice old lady, and a bad step-dad, all in the cause of protecting a little girl who eventually scampers off to live with them. But they're not any old fairies: they are the exact same fairies who were, in actual this-world reality, cardboard cut-outs invented by some bored teenage girls. Funny thing about seances: they were also, ultimately, borne of the invention of some bored teenage girls. Both are proven hoaxes: in both cases, the originators admitted they'd made the whole thing up. And in both cases, these confessions led to absolutely no diminishment in the enthusiasm of spiritualists or fairy-fans.

Skeptics don't come off awfully well in either episode; Dickens' refusal to believe anything otherworldly is going on is treated as a pain in the arse, a wilful closed-mindedness that could get people hurt. And Gwen's knowledge of the Cottingley Fairies hoax is, similarly, dismissed as stubborn intransigence. To be fair, when swirly alien gas-ghosties are swirling round your head, emanating from the body of a dead old lady in the middle of a theatre, continuing to insist that nothing unusual is going in would be fairly closed-minded - not to mention pointless. But the message (intended or otherwise) of both episodes is that failure to believe wholeheartedly in Weird Shit is a bad thing - and that both of these verified historical events were, in fact, actual paranormal events.

Which pisses me right off.

It's like writing a story in which girls love shoes and boys love beer and sex will kill you (but only if you're a girl!) and girls are all about Emotions and boys lose the power of rational thinking when faced with sizeable bosoms and if you go to a frat party you run the risk of being eaten by a giant penis monster (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, BUFFY), and then saying, "What? Me, not a feminist?" Sure, in the context of your story, the decisions and motivations make sense, but you've made the decision to create characters and situations which propogate inherently sexist messages. And yeah, in the context of these two stories, skepticism is misplaced - but did you really have to pick these real-life examples? That decision - and the highlighting of real-life skepticism surrounding them - suggests that something scientifically-inexplicable totally did happen in seances, despite merry bushels of evidence to the contrary, and there totally were fairies, and if you don't believe in them instantly you're just a bone-headed evidence-denying fool.

At one point Dickens even utters that endlessly irritatingly misused quote "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy". Which, hey, they're probably are, and in the world of Doctor Who there definitely are. But those fairies, and those accordion-playing ghosts, are still completely imaginary. And what with Russell T Davies being on the "not believing in God, ghosts, or goblins" side of the fence, it'd be cool if he'd be a bit more careful about propping up irrational superstitions through good, healthy fantasy.

Monday, 4 July 2011

International Maritime City gets bolshy

Pride in a place is an odd thing. Getting some sense of self-worth from the fact that your parents happened to meet and make babies in a particular city makes little rational sense. But, like its big brother patriotism, hometown pride does have an emotional pull.

Pride in being a Londoner is different, in that it's not congratulating yourself for a quirk of fate, but for a conscious decision: some might be born Londoners, but many of us choose Londonerdom; we're here because we need this place, for whatever reason. In one of Ken Livingstone's finest moments he said that we
... choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves.
Living here doesn't necessarily mean signing up to any particular set of values (other than being grumpy on the tube), but to me, it means loving the place, the people, the history; not "tolerating" other cultures, but living alongside them in the most mundane way possible: a Turkish fry-up to cure the hangover you got in an Irish pub. Strolling through a Chinese cultural fete on your way to a Norwegian yarn shop before catching the bus into town to check out an exhibition on 16th century Afghan metalwork. Trying to buy sweet potatoes in your local cash and carry, only to find that they're something else entirely once you've scrubbed the dirt off. Eating them anyway. London is brilliant precisely because people come here from everywhere. I live in officially The Most Ethnically Diverse Local Area In The EU, and it's awesome.

But I grew up in considerably-less-colourful Southampton. I'm thawing towards it in my old age, but it is not the most thrilling town in the world: I mean, this is a place which is proud of its association with the most famous maritime disaster of all time. Driving through city limits, you're welcomed to "Southampton: Home of Ocean Sailing and the Titanic!" Which is... reassuring. So the news that they're spending millions of public money on building another Titanic memorial museum to replace the other Titanic memorial museum and to complement the ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY SEVEN other Titanic memorial statues, plaques, fountains and flowerbeds - and trying to fund it by selling off the municipal art gallery's collection - did not fill me with hometown joy.

But the news that the city's refuse workers and other council employees are fighting tooth and nail against being forced to reapply for their own jobs to be taken on at reduced wages and crappy contracts? Thrills me to my strike-lovin' core. This might be the best thing Southampton's done since setting fire to Oswald Mosley.