Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Better Together : Strength in our Union

I've resisted from getting involved in the Independence Debate for a very clear reason - tomorrow's vote is for the people of Scotland and not for me. Scots will decide based on a whole load of issues that just don't affect me. If Scottish Independence is successful at the vote, it isn't me who'll have to contend with questions of currency, or national security - in one sense I'm grateful for that fact. It's the same reason that I haven't phonebanked anybody in Scotland to try and pull them round to my way of thinking - when it comes down to the brass tacks of the issues, people will do what the Queen said and think carefully before making a decision.

What I'd like to speak for, however, is the ideology of the United Kingdom. It's funny, because over the past few years there seems to have been a rise in the ideas of the individual nations. I don't really consider myself English, because to me, England is the past, and the past is another country. The things that make me proud of where I come from have all happened since the Union was formed, and in that sense, I consider myself to be from the UK - I always have done.

It wasn't England or Scotland or Wales that brought the National Health Service into being - it was the United Kingdom - it was our collective achievement. I'm one of these slightly annoying people who will very rarely hear a bad word said about the NHS, because to my family, it's been nothing but brilliant - never glamorous or incredibly impressive, but it does it's job, quietly and without complaint.

Similarly, something like the BBC makes me proud. It makes me proud that we still all fund a national broadcaster that has become a world leader in exporting TV from the United Kingdom around the world. The BBC is almost an anachronism in our world of contracting and squeezing margins - but it's an anachronism I'm so proud of.

It's also the UK - not any one of it's nation states - whose MPs voted to ensure that going forward, we give 0.7% of our GDP to aid abroad. That makes me proud, because it is so British. It is British to look at what we have, accept that *relatively* we're doing well and see what we can do to help elsewhere. It makes me proud to see on the news, boxes marked 'British Aid' being unpacked from shipping containers in the world's poorest and most extreme locations. That wasn't Scotland's achievement, or England's achievement, it was our achievement.

When the Better Together campaign has spoken about how the Union makes us strong, they've too often gotten the wrong end of the stick. Too often, when talking about strength, they've started talking about the threat from terrorists, or how an independent Scotland would fund it's Armed Services - to me, that isn't what strength is about. Strength is about how we look after those who can't look after themselves. Things like the 0.7% aid bill, and like the changes made by the LibDems and Labour to the Bedroom Tax* when we stand together as a United Kingdom, we can do untold good in the world.

So that's what I hope people spare a thought for when they go to vote tomorrow. Not being scared or concerned about the dangers, but having their eyes wide open about the possibilities that Independence promises and the proven record that the Union has to do good. More than that, I hope that the vote and the aftermath go ahead without too much upset between neighbours. Over the past weeks I've seen for myself the parting of friends over this issue, and nothing is as big as that. I hope that whatever happens, the union between friends and between neighbours remains intact and whilst I hope that the United Kingdom I care about isn't divided, I also hope that proud Scotland isn't divided either.

*Stop trying to make 'spare room subsidy' happen, guys - it's not going to and it's getting embarrassing

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Pride - A few Footnotes in History.

Tonight I went to see Pride at Komedia in Bath. I'd seen it advertised, and just knew that I'd have to go and see it. It covers the work of LGSM - Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, a group formed during the height of the 1984 Miners' Strike. It follows the story of how a group of LGBT people ran street collections, jumble sales and benefit gigs to raise money for struggling mining communities in South Wales as the strike wore on and grew more and more bitter.

The film was cast incredibly well, the plot dipped and peaked beautifully (having me in tears more than once, unsurprisingly) and the soundtrack was just incredible. Not only was there a real A to Z of popular gay music from the 80s, there was also a really beautiful blending of typical orchestral soundtrack with the sounds of brass mining bands.

For anybody with any interest in the struggle for LGBT rights, this film is a must see. Mainly because it focuses not on the wider battle, but on something that many won't know about and something that could have ended up being a footnote in the history books.

The film also reminded me of a group that I used to be a part of. I found the Queer Youth Network - an online and 'real life' community of young LGBT+ people - that I found when I was about fourteen. I remember being amazed that there were so many people out there who were like me, and I remember feeling absolutely free to talk openly about my own experiences. The forums there contained things from 'How do I meet nice men?' to debating 'Jackboot Jacqui's' time as Home Secretary. What's more, I loved QYN for how political it was.

QYN were absolutely instrumental in overturning the last vestages of the homophobic Section 28, it held Pride events to account, marching under 'Pride not Profit' banners and it demonstrated at the Stonewall Awards when (the horribly transphobic) writer Julie Bindel was given an award. In short, QYN stood for something that's very important in politics - never resting on your laurels and always fighting to move further and faster.

It was also full of some people who were just the most inspirational. Jack Holroyde, who lobbied Jacqui Smith to ban the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church when they planned to picket in the UK, stood for election as a Liberal Democrat in May this year. David Henry ensured that QYN remained radical, but importantly, remained a caring and nurturing place for young LGBT people. He actually stood against Hazel Blears in 2010 for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - importantly, he spoke real truth about Blears' record of over-claiming expenses. I guess what I'm saying, is that while I loved Pride, the best thing about it was the fact that it reminded me of the amazing people I know, who to this day still fight battles big and small for our LGBT+ community, and our communities more generally.

Pride might be seen as a film about gay rights, or about the plight of Miners in Thatcher's Britain, but more than anything, it's about British communities, whether geographical or cultural. It's about how we pull together, and show support. For me, QYN was about all of those things. It's a little footnote in history that I only played a really small part in, but it's a period that I remember with great fondness. People in all walks of political life can learn something from QYN and something from this film - that we should never be complacent - that we can always do more and go further in the struggle for fairness.

* With some irony, in researching this article and going back through QYN stuff, I see that they've also picketed a lot of LibDem stuff since 2010. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it, though what I will say is that I love how diverse a range of 'afterlives' we've all gone on to. From socialists to conservatives - being staunch in your beliefs is never a bad thing.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Joan Rivers - comic, actress & hateful bitch.

I just learnt of the death of Joan Rivers, and I'm writing this whilst feeling really quite upset. Upset that the world has lost an original comedy legend, and upset because I have a feeling her death will be characterised in certain ways by certain people.

Joan Rivers was a comedian (I don't use the word 'comedienne' because having a vagina makes very little difference to anything) who made people laugh for decades. She knew that her job was to entertain people and she did absolutely anything to make sure people got what they paid for. She's become notorious for tearing people to shreds on shows like 'Fashion Police' and 'Joan and Melissa' and it's something that she does with incredible skill. It's odd really, because the impression could be given that the hateful words she said often equated to hateful deeds, that she was a bad person, and this is the distinction I think it's important to make.

For example, Joan makes a joke in the clip below about how her perfect child would be Helen Keller. It's a pretty extreme joke, and in the clip she's heckled by a man whose son was deaf, she then tears him down pretty quickly and rescues her show with the deftness of a real pro. What the clip doesn't show, however, was that after the show, she spent over an hour scouring the venue looking for the heckler to explain what her comedy was and make it clear to him that she was upset that she'd been so heavy handed with him. It's an example of somebody who will let nothing get in the way of the momentum of her show, but who also has absolute empathy with the people who find her shows too close to the bone.



Josh and I went to see Joan when she performed in Brighton a couple of years ago, and I have to say that whilst most of the show had me in fits, there were parts of it that were just that touch too far for me. But that's comedy. That's how comedy works. I don't like Frankie Boyle because too often he goes too far, but I think the skill Joan showed so often was taking people just far enough over that line to make things tingle.

What I'm not going to do, is even start to defend every joke or comment Joan Rivers ever made. She made some comments recently about the Israel Palestinian Conflict that were really abhorrent, and even I watched the clips not knowing quite what to make of it. But here's the thing about that distinction - there's a massive difference between hateful words and hateful deeds. Yes, Joan Rivers made incredibly challenging comments about Gaza, yes she made jokes about absolutely anything (she was in New York on September 11th 2001 and refused to cancel her show) but she was also a woman who delivered meals to the sick and disabled at Thanksgiving. She sent the children of all of her staff to private schools. Whilst the headlines of the jokes might give you one view of Joan Rivers, there was also a very different, very private side that supported and cared for people and chose to do good. I'll say this now - I would rather that half the world spoke absolute trash but did the right thing, it would make a nice change from the current status quo where many people will do nothing to offend anybody, but where they'll also do nothing to make the world a better place.

I'm incredibly sad, because Joan's passing marks the end of an incredibly complex life and a glittering career. It marks the end of a life that was committed to making people laugh, and committed to blazing a trail for other female comics. And it also marks the end of somebody's life who often made so many people feel free, in a world that is perpetually offended. In Joan's performance in Brighton she made a joke about how the audience should hope that she dropped down dead on stage, because it would mean we'd get invites to dinner parties for the rest of our lives. I'm glad that Joan had more privacy, and I hope that what will be an incredibly difficult time for Melissa and Cooper doesn't become tainted by the inevitable tussle over Joan's legacy. I for one am incredibly grateful that my sister bought us tickets and that I had the chance to see Joan live - it was an experience I'll never forget.

So, there it is. See you later, Joan, you wonderful, hateful bitch.