Friday 30 December 2016

Dead Famous, Famous Dead | Celebrity (and other) Deaths and Some Responses

A few months ago I almost bumped into my latest celebrity crush at Birmingham New Street railway station. I’ll not give the name. Far too embarrassing. But by way of a clue or two he’s a thespian known for radio drama as well as a presence on TV, and in at least two roles plays a character with a medical degree. . . It’s a thrill to see or meet someone whose work you admire, whether or not they do a similar job to you, or you ‘know’ them only through their on screen, stage, literary (or similar) performance(s). I’m always touched when well-known people speak of being star-struck on encountering or working with their own idols; evidence of how we all look to others for example and likely all, however lowly we consider ourselves, provide inspiration to others.

Because stories (of all kinds), music and other creative outputs affect us emotionally as well as cerebrally it’s not surprisingly that when an actor, singer, comedian, writer dies there is a certain amount (related of course to the fame and popularity (or opposite) of the deceased) of public as well as private grief. This year there has been a plethora of celebrity deaths with the baby-boomer generation, the rise of ‘celebrity’, and the easier access both to 24/7 news and public mourning, via the internet and social media, all being cited as possible reasons for both the rise of and responses to these events. 

In reflecting on my own reactions to some of this year's losses I acknowledged (in a shorter version of this piece that I wrote in May) that whilst I had a good deal of sympathy for Ronnie Corbett’s family, agreed with others that Prince was taken too soon, felt sadness at the loss of Terry Wogan’s wit and David Bowie’s music I experienced significant grief following the deaths of Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood. Having re-watched the Barchester Chronicles and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (saving Madly Deeply for when I felt stronger) and gobbled up the television tributes to Ms Wood plus various YouTube versions of sketches she wrote and/or starred in I felt sadder still that there will be no further creations from either of them. Just as sometimes it feels impossible, despite my acceptance of the opposite, that I’ll never, see, touch or talk to my deceased loved ones again, it feels incongruous that Wood won’t write another funny, insightful song or Rickman won’t sneer or smile in that sexy way that no other actor can get close to. And whilst I don’t believe I’m the victim of what some might call 'pathological fandom' I do feel that these individuals, although I never met them, where important to me. They made me laugh and cry, they entertained me and gave me pause for thought, I respected and took pleasure from their achievements and felt some connection to their humour and aspects of their politics. Since my first musings on this phenomenon there have been additional deaths with, in just the last week, Liz Smith, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Richards and George Michael being added to a list which also includes Caroline Aherne, Mohammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, and more, many more. Tributes and detail on the professional, political and personal influence of these and other celebrities who have died this year continue to be produced and broadcast.

There are of course examples of people who have died this year whose influence has been significant in the arts who are less well known, less widely mourned. So whereas the work of author Richard Adams may be remembered by many, that of 25 year old Max Ritvo, a poet who wrote about his experience of living with cancer, is less likely to be. And, in other areas; despite the value of their work Dr. Donald Ainslee (D. A.) Henderson who led the successful effort to eradicate smallpox and Vera Rubin, the astronomer whose work helped establish the unsuspected existence of dark matter, are hardly household names. Sadly, most of us likely know more about the life and work of Jo Cox MP, than we would had she not been murdered in June this year. 

Paraphrasing a social media post I read recently: ‘although most of us won’t trend on twitter when we die’ we all have some impact, some influence. When my husband John died in 2010 I received a number of letters from people (some of whom I had never met) that, in his job as a lecturer he had supported, influenced, inspired. Similarly following my mum’s death in 2012 several friends, including several I had not heard from for more than 30 years, spoke or wrote to me about the kindness and humour of my parents (my father died in 1979), highlighting their positive presence in the lives of young people other than me, their only child. Evidence of the importance of those of us who live ordinary lives in terms of legacy on the lives of others.

But what of Michael McCluskey, and others like him, who this year have died whilst living on the streets. Michael, in his late 40s, was known to many of the volunteers who work with the homeless in Medway, Kent and according to newspaper articles was a father and grandfather and a West Ham supporter. He was found dead in the high street on Christmas Eve and floral tributes were left in his memory.  A couple of months earlier in October about 100 people attended the funeral of Neil Dearden, who died in hospital but was previously living rough in Rochdale. The funeral was paid for by the £6,000 raised on a crowdfunding page set up by Mohammed Yousaf. Motivated to give Neil the ‘funeral he deserved’ Yousaf, a local business man, said: ‘Neil wasn’t a straightforward guy and had problems, but he was a wonderful guy and never harmed anyone. He was a true legend and a bit of a celebrity in the area.’

My life, like the lives of many others, has been enriched and enhanced, by the life and work of many of the famous, and not so famous, folk who have died this year, likely by some in ways I/we will never appreciate. The lives and deaths of McCluskey and Dearden are significant too and not only to those who knew and cared for them. In the UK the cost of a funeral in 2016 is more than double what it was in 2004 and homelessness (including those sleeping rough, squatters, sofa surfers, and those living in hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation) is clearly a crisis. In such a society the deaths of homeless people, with little fame and no fortune, and the responses to them, deserve as much, if not more of a reaction, as those of the more acclaimed and immortalised.  We should all, and here I include the political ‘elite’, the mainstream media, and each and every one of us, take note. With 2017 just a couple of days away one our hopes for the new year should be that Michael McCluskey and Neil Dearden, and others like them, did not die in vain. 

Monday 26 December 2016

What's love got to do with it?: politics, passion and positionality

My first political awakening came relatively late. It wasn’t that I was unaware of inequality, and injustice but I hadn’t ever before felt the burning need to people the barricades with like-minded others. It was a return to education following 10 years of training and working as a nursery nurse that did it. In a Monday evening A Level Course at my local FE College my love affair with all things sociological began. I couldn’t get enough of studying or of sociology and the effect it had on the way that I felt about the world and my place and position within it. This was the start of the growth of my personal political imagination; a development that opened my eyes wide to the tragedy of living in Thatcher’s Britain whilst at the same time filling me with excitement and a hope to work alongside others for a better future.

My influence has been moderate. In the research that I have done my aim has always been to raise questions about the social world in an attempt to change things for the better.  Many of the issues I have studied -- not least in the areas of reproductive and non/parental identity (i.e. the status and experience of those who do and do not parent); on gender and health; on working and learning in higher education; on the social and emotional experience of travel; on loss and bereavement - concern experiences that I, and others, think are both misrepresented and misunderstood. I can (at the local level at least) show evidence of some positive difference and I am humbled when my academic publications are referenced by others who work in similar areas. As teacher, as colleague, as supervisor, as mentor I have been privileged to be able to help others in their endeavours for change but I continue to learn as much as I give from those my job has been to teach or support. I delight in the many good friendships I have made through my professional life.   

In my research I have attempted to give a voice to individuals whose experiences have not always been given the attention it deserves. Additionally, some of my work has been auto/biographical. By this I mean that I have undertook research on issues of which I have personal 
experience and have explicitly reflected on the significance of this on and in my work. An auto/biographical approach acknowledges that when researching and writing about our self the traces of others are always present and when focused on the lives of others our own values, beliefs, experience is - whether explicit or implicit - part of the story. 

So my engagement with sociology, specifically feminist, auto/biographical sociology has been personally significant. It has not only helped to shape my identity and my understanding of important life events and experiences but it’s also given me a language to articulate my feelings and reflections. No where more is this evident than with reference to the encounters with loss which have peppered my adult life. My father died when I was 20, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid twenties and was divorced from my first husband at 32. My relationship with my second husband was happy but hard work given his many years of illness and when he died a couple of months short of seven years ago he was estranged from his two sons who remain estranged (their choice) from me, even though John had sole custody and they had lived with and were cared for by the two of us during their teenage years and early twenties. Almost five years ago the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these experiences – my mum, Dorothy – died following a short but nasty illness. Other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and as such I feel that that I have become something of an expert in bereavement.  Additionally, after more than 21 years of full-time work in the academy in December 2014 I left; accepting an offer of ‘voluntary' redundancy. So although I continue to work at various higher education institutions on a freelance basis, and enjoy the liberation from institutional administration, this change to my everyday working practices has required some significant adjustment for it is a loss of another sort. It was a loss – my miscarriage – that led me to sociology and in turn I believe that sociology has influenced the way that I ‘do grief’, just as it have influenced my engagement with the social and political world more generally. 

In a novel I read shortly after my mum's death I came across a reference to a poem entitled The Summer Day, written by Mary Oliver, the last three line of which are:

     Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
     Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
     with your one wild and precious life? 

I am still trying to work this out. I have done some stuff, achieved some things, but there is still lots more to do.

Much of my work in the academy has been multi-disciplinary and recently this has included collaboration with occupational therapists. Occupational science encourages us to use the term occupation broadly (not merely in relation to paid work) and suggests that although occupations may lose meaning when one is grieving paradoxically it is occupation that can help in regaining meaning in life. I have long found writing enriching, therapeutic even. The night I left my first marital home I packed a change of clothes, my toothbrush and the books on prisons and imprisonment I was currently reading in preparation for writing an undergraduate essay (marked coincidentally by the man who was to become my second husband although this was several years before our intimate relationship began).  Academic writing also helped me through John's periods of mental distress, alcohol misuse and physical illness.

In the last few years I have begun to experiment with other, different genres. Following the usual childhood creations I was left with ambitions to write fiction and memoir like my dad Ron, (a blue collar worker for most of his working life) did whenever he had time.  As well as a 40 thousand word memoir my dad wrote, and had some success in publishing, short stories in the 1960s and 1970s. He made up stories for me too; my favourite being the series about a gnome called Tipperty Tapperty Sam who lived under a bridge and made furniture for dolls houses. Despite my desire to follow in his storytelling example until recently I had no imagination about what to write. In 2010, not long after John’s death, I suddenly had a few ideas, and even more after my mum died in 2012. Not surprisingly perhaps many of my early (and current) attempts are grounded in, or relate to, my own life; early experiences, reworking of family events and challenges told to me by my parents; adult adventures and engagements with change. Other pieces relate broadly to research data I have collected and to events in the news. In 2015 I began writing short pieces of memoir all of which related in some ways to loss and to the legacies I believe that John and my parents have left me with. The two thousand plus words here represent one example of such work.

Following some, previously unusual for me, physical illness (evidence I believe of the connections between emotional and physical wellbeing and the fact that for many of us grief is an embodied experience) at the end of summer 2015 I began to feel very low. Almost a year later just as I was beginning to come out of this particularly part of my grief journey, I was struck by tremendous anger and anxiety. It wasn't that I wasn't distressed by the 2015 general election result, I was. It wasn't that I didn't feel shock and fear following the May EU referendum, I did. But what I really couldn’t get over was when at a time when the Left really needed to work together and to work hard for a better more secure future for all a significant number of the Parliamentary Labour Party thought that it was sensible to start an internal war. This was what really stimulated my second (party) political awakening. This time rather than experiencing excitement about my potential involvement I just felt very miserable (in an earlier blog entry entitled Stomach Churns and Chewed Nails I detailed some of my physical symptoms). In part my anger and anxiety was self-directed. I felt guilty for my political laziness over the past few years. I don’t regret focusing on the ‘personal as political’ in both my working and private lives but I have neglected the ‘bigger picture’ somewhat. My anxiety grew as I felt increasingly helpless in terms of what I could actually do. I missed John tremendously during this time. He was himself a political being, reflected in the choice of music and readings at his funeral, including a memory shared by a long-time good friend who recalled the time he and John were thrown out of a Conservative club just because they stood on a table to sing The Red Flag. I can't think why they both had lovely voices.  

Several months on I am a little less 'churned up' although my equilibrium is precarious and still likely to dip on a daily basis. This more comfortable state I credit, at least in part, to having found a way to live with the (now lower level) anxiety. Also relevant is that alongside my writing on this blog and elsewhere (some of which not surprisingly relates to recent political events and my responses to these) I have become more actively involved in party politics at a local level. I have also recently signed up for some additional volunteering which involves writing, listening and talking; all things I can go. With these developments in mind I like to think that I’m taking Maya Angelou (2006) to heart when she writes:

     You should be angry. . . . So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. 
     You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. 
     You talk it. Never stop talking it.

Alongside the activities detailed here I have certainly talked a lot in the last few months and I’m grateful to my dear, generous friends who have listened to me (a lot) and others who have read and commented on the pieces I have written. These communications haven’t always been easy or comfortable but they have all been useful in helping me to work out what I need to do next: to be useful, to feel useful. More than one person has challenged me on my support for a politics that is kinder, gentler and more focused on hope, peace and solidarity. It’s not that they don’t want similar but rather it’s the possibility, the reality of such as approach they are sceptical of. I accept this. Turning on the TV or radio or reading a mainstream or alternative news piece in my social media feed is all I need to do to be reminded how nasty and brutish the political world and broader society – both at home and abroad – can be, and often is. And yet: political campaigns to end infant funeral charges; speeches and alternative Christmas messages in remembrance of deceased colleagues, friends and family members; public discussion of the need for material and emotional support for the elderly, for those suffering from mental or physical ill-health, for asylum speakers; and solidarity with those who deliver our mail, enable our journeys to work, take care of us when we are ill who are fighting for more efficient, safer, better paid working conditions. . .  and so on, go some way to lift my mood. Add to this MPs staffing food bank stalls; recording (admittedly sometimes cheesy) charity singles; and highlighting the importance of love and care through their interactions with others as well as their political oration.

For those who want to find them, there are also many, many examples, of positive and life-affirming messages in literature, film and other cultural outputs. I Daniel Blake and Harry’s Last Stand (Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry's Last Stand: How the world my generation built is falling down, and what we can do to save it Icon Books) are both frightening reminders of how bad things are and how, if we don’t all fight hard to change things, they could get even worse. But IDB and Harry’s memoir are also about the power of positive relationships, of friendship and of love. 

I carry in my heart those I have loved who are no longer with me and despite my lack of traditional family I am lucky to have a life peopled with significant others who I love and who love me. If the personal is political, which it is, then the political is personal also. My personal politics is still developing, I'm still learning and changing but I know my approach will always include a focus on love for having received so much of it I have lots of it to share. Whilst writing this piece I have been conscious that some might dismiss my feelings and my ambitions as idealistic, as naive, as 'gross advertisement and sickly self-indulgence' (for after all I've had this criticism before, but that's another story). If so, so be it. After the year I, we, have all had I'm just doing what I know I have to do. 


The image on the front of Jeremy Corbyn's Christmas card is in fact more complex than it seems. On first inspection it's a dove carrying an olive branch. Looking again some people see 2017 and others the word JOY. Despite The Sun's suggestion that this is un-festive, whatever one's religious belief, or not, what more could we want for 2017 but peace and joy.
In my small way I need to keep working on achieving this for myself and for others, in order, not least, to feel comfortable within my own skin. 

Sunday 4 December 2016

The Twelve Days of Christmas | The 2016 version

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. 
A somewhat unusual present I’m sure you’ll agree,
but apparently this was all that was left after the Black Friday rush. 

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves. 
Symbolic of peace the doves represent a concept and ideal we definitely need to focus on just now; 
both at home and further afield. 
With the ‘politics of hate’ 
seemingly dominant on the streets 
and in much of the main stream media, 
more emphasis on peace, tolerance and kindness 
as strengths rather than weaknesses 
would be especially welcome. 

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens
A valuable gift for two reasons. 
First, the hens will probably cost very much more soon given that 'Brexit means Brexit'. 
Second, at least we can be guaranteed eggs,
even if,
fish fingers,
and goodness knows what else, 
are no longer available. 

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four calling birds.
Following his successful campaign
the present elect of the United States of America
telephoned rather more than four world leaders,
before the prime minister of the small group of islands, 
4,242 miles away, 
with whom the USA has a long standing ‘special relationship’. 
Not to worry for he remains great friends, 
and shares a desire to make his country ‘great again’, 
with a Britain (for now) based  like-minded other 
who is currently being given much more attention and air time than is sensible. 
Enough already. 

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me FIVE GOLD RINGS. 
A reminder of a summer of achievement. 
To cheer the soul during a year of disappointment,
and grief, 
many of us tuned in to the coverage of the Olympics. 
On one level a wonderful celebration of diversity, 
with huge support for all athletes irrespective of
social class, 
ethnicity and dis/ability.  
And yet there are divisions; 
(not least in that the Paralympics received less financial support and less coverage than the 'main' event a month earlier) 
and expectations; 
(woe betide anyone who doesn’t show the appropriate level of patriotic pride during their country’s national anthem) 
for those who compete. 
And as ever during such an event stark local inequality was highlighted: 

"Rio's plan, in hosting the Olympics, was to get the city on the world stage, attracting tourism and investment . . . With almost no effort, Rio stands out from most cities around the world. Who else has scenery and a percussive cultural mix like ours?

Now if we'd just managed to produce better sanitation, income distribution, housing, public safety, an integrated and efficient transportation system, public health and education ...The focus on marketing -- instead of our reality -- is why many locals aren't exactly psyched for the Olympic Games."

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me six geese a laying.  
What were they laying I wondered; 
certainly not the golden egg for anyone not a member of the 1%. 
Austerity isn't working for almost everyone - 
who needs an education, 
who gets sick on occasion, 
who wants to keep warm and dry and eat well, 
who is growing older . . . 
There is a gender difference here too,
as several reports tell us that austerity affects women twice as hard as men. 
it seems that Black and Minority Ethic (BME) women are likely to be even more disadvantaged. 
What’s good for the goose is clearly even better (if only a bit) for the gander. 
And yet the pressures on men are significant also as evidenced by frighteningly high and increasing suicide rates.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a swimming. 
By now my home is overrun with poultry, 
and by rights my true love was a tad foolish imparting this particular present, 
given that unmarked swans by prerogative right belong to the British Crown. 
So asking for a gift note 
I returned the bevy of swans to their rightful owner. 
I hope they are able to cope with the noise of the, 
recently announced, 
refurbishment of their keeper’s (sometime) place of residence. 
The renovations will be paid for with taxpayers’ money. 
All the queen's men and women are fine with this.
If we lived in a society where benefit reduction was imposed on many in social housing who are deemed to have a 'spare' bedroom; 
if we lived in a society where child homelessness was the highest it has been for nearly a decade; 
if we lived in a society where a man sleeping rough died on the same day that the charity Shelter reached its 50th birthday;
then maybe we wouldn't be quite so supportive of this particular DIY SOS. 

On the eight day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a milking. 
In the year when the Oxford Dictionaries' 'Word of the Year' is,
it is difficult to decide who deserves the prize for -
'milking it' the most. 
When a politician’s dress and shoe sense
is more important than her or his policies; 
when the facts about the value of immigration
are ignored in favour of xenophobia to deflect attention from a failing governmental agenda; 
when it's hard to tell whether the 'news' item we read or hear about is reality or satire,
I'm sure you are wondering if my reference to eight maids, 
(along with the rest of my festive booty), 
is itself a piece of 'fake' news. 

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing. 
Makes a change from cavorting ex-shadow chancellors. 
Great balls of fire indeed.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me ten lords a leaping. 
Rather excitable this lot. 
All new to The House of Lords, (along with a few others),
they have to fight for seats given the increase in numbers in recent years. 
And to think it's being suggested that the number of MPs in The House of Commons, (affecting all politics parties but the Labour Party the most),
be reduced. 
Inevitably all the jumping about led to a nasty accident or two,
necessitating a long afternoon sitting in A and E,
whilst overstretched and tired looking doctors and nurses rushed around us. 
On leaving the hospital I signed a petition,
calling on the government to give the NHS the funding it needs. 
You can find it at #CarefortheNHS

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. 
In remembrance of those in the public eye that died this year, including: 
Alan Rickman, 
Victoria Wood, 
David Bowie,
Lennard Cohen, 
Ronnie Corbett, 
Caroline Aherne, 
Andrew Sachs, 
Carla Lane, 
Terry Wogan, 
Robert Vaughn . . .
(and more, too many more).  

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming.
As we listen to the beat accompanying us out of a year we would rather forget,
the very best we should hope for, 
I think, 
is that in 2017,
we will begin to appreciate, 
as the late Jo Cox MP, 
said as part of her maiden speech: 
'that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us'.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Three for the Price of One | The Media, In/Equality, the 'Deserving' and the 'Undeserving'

Three different bits of writing here. The first draws on an academic piece I published 13 years ago, the second is a short piece of fiction I wrote recently and the third a poem written by a friend. All of these connect in some ways to issues of in/equality.


In 2003 I published a chapter looking at media representations of those accessing medical support to help them to conceive. My argument was that the mainstream media (often drawing on similar words and terms from politicians), identified specific individuals and couples as 'deserving' or 'undeserving'. Hopefully the following will clarify this:

Following low level infertility treatment in 1996 - a prescription of metrodine and pregnyl costing £36 - Mandy Allwood became pregnant with octuplets. Mandy was in a relationship with Paul Hudson, the father of her babies. They each had a child from another relationship and Paul was maintaining two personal relationships including the one with Mandy. The tabloid press, led by The Sun, launched an attack on the couple heavily criticising their life choices and their parenting ability and labelling their medical treatment as morally irresponsible. Included in one article was the following:

DO YOU KNOW MANDY OR PAUL? If you know Mandy Allwood or Paul Hudson, or                     anything about them, call The Sun on [telephone nos]. Don't worry about the cost - we'll                 pay you.

In my chapter I noted that the discourse of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' has a long history of use in the attack on welfare and support for those in need. Just compare Allwood/and Hudson's experience to the Conservative Government's campaign in the same year to 'root out' social security 'scroungers'. Huge
posters all across the UK encouraged us all to report people we suspected of 'cheating' the system.

Letherby, G. (2003) 'Battle of the Gametes: Cultural Representations of 'Medically' Assisted Conception' in S. Earle and G. Letherby (eds) Gender, Identity and Reproduction: social perspectives Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan

Not much has changed not least with reference to many media (and some political) references on refugees, those in receipt of disability and social security benefits, in terms of who is entitled to medical and social care (including infertility treatment) and so on and so on and so on. 


I wrote this short story a couple of weeks ago:  

Hold the Front Page: TIEGATE

'Not good enough, not good enough Frost. We need something catchier, more sensational. Our sales figures have been down recently and this is hardly going to improve them.' As he speaks the newspaper's editor in chief tosses aside the piece his junior colleague has been working on for two days. 

He continues, 'Celebrity break-ups and royal babies just don't do it anymore sadly. The great British public want more, demand more, these days. Having said that there seems to be quite a bit of attention for our latest piece on Brexit, Toberlone and Marmite. What else have you got, anything?'

'Yes, in fact I do.' Frost clears his throat nervously and continues. 'The new figures on child poverty and homelessness are out today and I've also got an idea for something about the human rights agenda and of course there's the recent NHS cuts and creeping privatisation story.' 

'No, no, too depressing and doesn't really portray the country in a good light now does it?' I know you're new Frost but I expected better. This doesn't really cut it in terms of your personal key performance indicators. Haven't you been to the company values induction session? I can get someone else to take over this assignment, if you're not up to it.'

'No chief no. I've got something else. The leader of the opposition has just made some really interesting comments about the US presidential election. I could easily put together a piece with some facts and figures to support his concerns and write something detailed on the Left's position on the similarities of some of the issues facing the UK and America and maybe something on how our 'special relationship' might be from now on.'

'For f*&k sake, are you serious? I really am losing patience now. The PM has already made a speech, everything's going to be fine, and even if it isn't our readers don't want to hear that. Surely it must be clear even to someone as stupid as you that we're not interested in what any of the opposition has to say. What do you think our job is; to educate people? Huh!' He laughs. 'If you'd got in first with a piece about the size of his poppy or his poorly tied tie. Now that would have been a little more acceptable. Look, I guess I'd better do the job for you. Just write something about the refugee issue, we haven't published anything on that for a few days. If you can't think for yourself just rework the usual. Be sure to emphasis the cost to the country and the taxpayer's purse and words such as surge, swarm and scrounger are always good for copy.' 

'But, but...' 

'No time for buts I'm busy and you've taken enough of my time. Just get on with it. It's the annual Children in Need fest next week so your next assignment can be something on that and the goodwill and generosity of the nation, blah, blah.'  


Finally, my friend's poem: 

Austerity Waltz

Round and round and round we go
Travelling across the floor
Who will be most challenged
Those with plenty rise as ever
Poor will fall some more
Can we stem this anguished flow
Does anyone really care
The streets are filled with homeless folk
Shelter ought to be there
Food bank queues around the block
Empty shelves occurring now
Behind their curtains the haves peep out
Staying in hold of such precious wealth
Whirling and whirling with giddy guilt
Then sense kicks in - its their own fault they say

That justifies it all.


Monday 21 November 2016

A Personal Piece Following Alcohol Awareness Week | Challenging Secrets

I was moved to write this after reading Steve Topple’s informative and honest account of his experiences of alcoholism, and the lack of resources given to this area, written to coincide with Alcohol Awareness Week (14th – 20th November)

What follows is (part of) my story.

My husband John died in February 2010.  John was kind, clever and funny. He supported me, and others, practically, intellectually and emotionally. He had the most beautiful speaking and
singing voice. I miss him.

John had been a heavy drinker for many years before we became a couple. Members of his extended family knew this as did some of our, shared, work colleagues. In the early days of our relationship he drank a lot but not in a way that appeared to affect his working or home life too much: he never appeared drunk although slept a lot in the day when he had the chance. A couple of years on he was drinking more and I began to find bottles of vodka hidden around the house. In the autumn of 2000 whilst off work having been diagnosed with depression John had a fit. At the time we assumed this to be a bad reaction to tablets he had been prescribed but I feel sure this was the first of very many alcohol withdrawal fits. For a couple of years following this he had perhaps three/five fits a year – each time related to excessive drinking followed by alcohol withdrawal – and then many more; eventually one every 10/14 days. Following a year signed off sick he left full-time work altogether. Over the next seven years John was hospitalised approximately 20-25 times. At first I called the paramedics whenever he had a fit but soon I was less frightened by them and became at least as knowledgeable as the A and E staff in caring for him during and after such an episode. When I was worried enough to ask for help medical personnel were always kind to both of us but often did not seem to understand what was going on and usually sent him home far too soon (in my view) and rarely acknowledged my growing expertise. Sometimes fits happened when John was outside of the house on his own and the ambulance was called by a stranger. Sometimes he fell and hurt himself badly when drunk. Over the years John had at least five longish stays in hospital (over a week) and he had to have stitches in his head several times. Other physical, psychological and emotional consequences included poor sleep, poor appetite (when drinking), lack of interest in hobbies, disinterest in family, frequent nausea and sickness. I’m not sure if John felt suicidal but he often talked about not caring if he was alive or dead. He also had increasing difficulty with mobility and when drinking heavily at times could hardly walk. He often collapsed/passed out on the bed, in the chair or on the floor and once set fire to the bedroom carpet as he passed out whilst smoking. Luckily his youngest son (then in his 20s) was there at the time and able to put the fire out.

Over a number of years (from the end of the late 1990s to 2007) John was offered and took up several offers of support, including a three month stint in a treatment facility which offered daily support to addiction sufferers, a three month stay in a residential treatment centre and living at a ‘dry house’ for approximately two months. I am absolutely sure that none of this would have happened had it not been for me advocating on John’s behalf. He responded well to this sort of support, whilst it lasted, although he never stopped drinking completely. He went to AA once and came home drunk. Much of his distress and low self-esteem related to his Catholic upbringing and schooling and any support accompanied by any suggestion of religious faith was abhorrent to him.

In 2005/6 things hit rock bottom when John’s attention to personal care deteriorated and he began to look much older than his chronological age. He seemed quite happy for me, or anyone, to take over the responsibility of care of the self from him. In February 2007 he was hospitalised due to a fit in the street and although he usually (on admission to hospital) asked the staff to ring me this time he was too confused and ill to do so. I was working away and when I couldn’t get hold of him on the phone I rang the hospital. The misspelling of his family name on admission meant that my call received a negative response. I rang the police who contacted the mortuary before ringing the hospital again and correctly identifying him. This hospital stay was the catalyst for change. Appreciating the seriousness of the situation the ward sister advised me to stay away and to fight (from a distance so he wouldn't be sent home) for institutional care for John. This I did and he was subsequently sent to a facility that cared for people suffering from alcohol induced brain injury. A regime that included no alcohol, good food and some exercise showed that this was not the kind of support that John needed and after six weeks he moved to a residential rehab centre, where he stayed for three months, and then spent a year in a half-way house. Having been alcohol free for more than 18 months John was diagnosed with mouth cancer in September 2008 on his birthday. He bore the treatment well but the after-effects were hard and he was in a lot of pain. In the late summer of 2009 I went looking for and found a half bottle of vodka in his backpack. Things got worse and in February of the following year John died following a fall the result of, or resulting in, a bleed on the brain. Despite the cancer diagnosis and treatment and the hard emotional work that John was engaged in the two ‘dry’ years were mostly happy ones for us.

I always tried my hardest to support and care for John. I managed some of the time. Other times I felt very low and overburdened by the responsibility. Although I often appeared calm and matter of fact about the situation, I cried a lot  and sometimes I screamed (at John) in frustration and anger. In addition to becoming more carer than partner over the years I was distressed by the fact that throughout our relationship John lied to me about his drinking (and related issues e.g. surrounding money); on occasion telling me that he had not had a drink when he was obviously drunk or promising not to drink and then immediately doing so. Additionally I spent much of the time feeling frightened. NOT frightened OF John; he was never physically or sexually abusive to me whist drunk or sober and was always a passive (if sometimes a bit belligerent) rather than an aggressive drunk. But I was afraid of what I might be coming home to after a day’s work (John dead, John drunk in a chair, John collapsed on the floor, John missing, the house on fire); afraid of John and John’s behaviour embarrassing me in public with friends and strangers and/or afraid that John might fall on me as I helped him up the stairs to bed, afraid that John might break his latest promise to me; which more often than not he did. During all of this time I was supported by friends, John’s sons, and most significantly by my wonderful mum (who sadly died in 2012).  Over our 18 year relationship I was offered and took up a total of two hours of counselling.

Sociologists, of which I am one, argue that family secrets operate to enable families to create a story through which a family can appear more like the ideal or mythical family. Although alcohol misuse may be one family member’s ‘secret’ it is a secret, like many others, that affects all the family. Indeed, alcoholism, alcohol abuse/misuse is sometimes called a family disease.  There are a number of websites offering support to those suffering from or living with problematic alcohol use. Not surprisingly many of these focus on the negative aspects of secret keeping  (see for example For many years John denied that he had a problem and whilst I tried to convince him that his drinking was more than just a ‘habit’ I colluded in his secret keeping. Of course many people knew, including many of my Facebook and Twitter friends and acquaintances who may or may not read this. About four years before John’s death I began to disclose ‘our’ secret when asked about my husband’s illness and/or lack of a job. At first I was surprised by how many people responded by telling me of a friend, sister, father with a similar problem.  I believe very strongly that John’s and my story, Steve Topple’s story and other similar ones need to be told, rather than hidden, to highlight the vital need for support services for all concerned. 

When John died, and before I had time to contact her, I received an email from the manager of the half way house he staying in in 2007/8. When I asked her who had told her she said that someone at my university who had heard of John’s death knew of him through a support group (for alcohol misuse) they accessed. I do not know who this was; clearly someone else with a family secret. I hope that s/he and those who love and support them are doing ok. 

NB: I have previously written about these issues. An extended and slightly different version of this account forms part of a book that was published by a study group of my professional association:  Letherby, G. (2015) He, Himself and I: reflections on inter/connected lives. Durham: British Sociological Association 

Monday 31 October 2016

Bless Us Everyone | Tales of Halloween Past, Present and Future

A story for Halloween written with apologies (and thanks for the quotes in italics) to Charles Dickens.


Last night I had the strangest dream.

It was All Hallows Eve so perhaps not surprisingly there were ghosts involved. Usually I sleep undisturbed so can only put the dreaming down to the especially tasty piece of rich Stilton that accompanied my port following my lunchtime steak pudding and treacle tart and custard. The Members Dining Room at the House does a great range of nosh and I dine there frequently. I was back in my seat just in time to vote against the latest suggested hike in disability benefits. Well the incentives to work really do need to be clear don't you think?

So anyway, I'm asleep - not just in reality but in the dream itself  - and I'm woken by a large, but somewhat translucent, bloke, standing at the foot of the bed and introducing himself as the ghost of Halloween past. I know, I know, unbelievable tosh but bear with me it's a strangely entertaining tale.

The ghost's aim, so he said, was to remind me of Halloween back in the day. I'd forgotten what fun my twin brother and I had curled up with mum under the bed sheets telling scary stories and making spooky shapes on the wall with our torches. Dad was usually at work in the pub, following his day job at the docks. The games stopped when we moved up from primary; me to the grammar and Paul to the secondary modern. Things were never the same between us after that. He still lives close to mum, who's a widow following dad's early death, which is good because I'm too busy to get down much. I offer to help financially but they both shun my generousity. Stupid, really stupid. After all I've got enough. I claim more in expenses than Paul earns in a year. There's a rumour going round that there are going to be some restrictions on what we request in future. Bah, humbug, I say. We work hard enough, surely nobody could begrudge us.

The next thing I know I'm being woken from another deep slumber by a second apparition, this time promising me an insight into the most significant events in the All Saints' Eve of the moment. It's another large one, this time with a huge orange head that looks rather like a hairy pumpkin. He seems to have come with a warning and repeats over and over: 'It doesn't matter what you do or who you do it to just be careful which email server you use'. Very odd. More than ever I'm convinced now that this experience must be diet related; may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.

The final visitor - this time  a vampire type, terrifying and yet seductive - arrives some time later. I'm getting fed up now as I've another full day tomorrow including a couple of crucial business meetings and a supper date in the city. The focus of this vision is Halloweens to come and before I know it we are in the centre of my constituency. We pass the local NHS hospital although it appears derelict with boarded up windows and doors. The high street is somewhat changed too with every other property either a food or clothes bank. Spoils the look of the place rather and surely not necessary for if they want to die, then they had  better do it and decrease the surplus population. 

I'm left alone for the remainder of the night thank goodness, and my rest is peaceful. On waking I'm refreshed for all is well with my world. Bless us everyone. 


Sunday 30 October 2016

The Power of Stories | Some Personal Feelings on I, Daniel Blake

Keith Oatley (2010: unpaginated  'Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact' New English Review) reminds us that in the preface of Oliver Twist (first published as a serial 1837-39) Charles Dickens wrote IT IS TRUE. In his tale of thugs, street gangs, prostitutes, cruel government officials, a few kind people and orphaned Oliver, Dickens set out to highlight the ‘unacceptably horrifying images of contemporary life'. Dickens’ writings did not eradicate poverty or cruelty, but he had influence, and some people reading his work for 'entertainment' might not have been aware of such experiences without Oliver Twist and similar.  

Recently in an interview about his film I, Daniel Blake, the latest in a large number of politically influenced works, director Ken Loach said 'If you're not angry what kind of person are you?'

Whilst in London last week I saw I Daniel Blake. I went prepared and shared my stash of tissues with the 60 something woman sitting next to me. The young man on my other side had brought his own. From the many reviews and responses I have read it is clear, despite the occasional denial or critique, that not only is this film having a huge impact on most of those who see it but it also very obviously speaks to the experience of far too many individuals and families living in poverty and dealing with a complex, harsh, and often nonsensical benefit system.  

My trip to London last week included participation in a conference. The Brighter Futures Symposium: enhancing opportunities for all in higher education was the fourth in a series of day conferences aimed to 'stimulate discussion, critical thinking and knowledge between the academy, policy and practice' with a specific focus on the experience of Black and ethnic minority students and staff. In my paper - The Power of Stories: using auto/biographical and creative approaches to explore and highlight the experiences of BME students and staff in HE - I argued (amongst other things) for the need to tell research and scholarly stories in different sorts of creative, accessible ways, not least in order to reach a broader audience than the traditionally academic. Loach could have directed a documentary. He has done in the past. If you prefer this genre visit Peter Stefanovic's Facebook page for real world examples of the social and political concerns highlighted in I, Daniel Blake and other similarly important issues. Based on extensive research the film (just like Oliver Twist) was a wonderful example of how the stories of real world experiences can also be powerfully told through film (and literature). 

I did feel angry when I left the cinema. I also felt ashamed; ashamed to live in a society where increasing numbers of people live their lives in such hardship, ashamed that some still deny that this is happening. I also felt humbled.There is great warmth in the film and many examples of loving care for others; determination and resilience; strength of character; humour.

Please go and see I, Daniel Blake. Don't forget your hankies.

Friday 14 October 2016

Prohibition 2020 | A Horror Story of the Future

Unless we are very careful.

In the summer of 2020 a law was passed which made the cooking and eating of jam illegal. Offences were punishable with large fines. Some perpetrators were even incarcerated in prisons more overcrowded than ever before because of both the rise in hate crime and the vigilant policing of anyone thought to be other from the tabloid media's definition of normal and acceptable. The popular Great British Bake Off (GBBO) had moved from the BBC to Channel 4 a couple of years previously with careful re-branding highlighting developing feelings about the status of the nation. Countrywide Rolling, Acidifying and Proving (CRAP) didn't survive for long though as the Victoria sponges and bite sized tarts just weren't the same without a generous dollop of strawberry or damson. For a while there was some bemoaning the loss of the weekly references to soggy bottoms and well roasted nuts but sorrow for a programme loved for its double entendres, as much as its baking tips, was quickly forgotten as there became much more important things to worry about. Strictly Come Dancing - another family favourite - survived, but only because it became easier for a politician to secure a credible mandate following a passable Paso Doble than through doorstep canvassing or coherent policy pronouncements.

Things had been going downhill since spring 2019 when a few folk inexplicably still felt like victoriously and joyfully proclaiming: 'we have got our country back'. Just who  'had' the country before had never been clear. In fact the rot had begun to show even earlier with the crisis in the NHS evident following cut after cut of cradle-to-grave services and a lack of dentists, nurses, paramedics and theatre staff resulting in lengthening waiting lists for the little that was still free for all. And it could only get worse given the government's inaccurate predicted rise in 'home grown' medics (required to carry their passports, in addition to their stethoscopes, to prove it) to replace those who after years of healing Britain's sick and ailing had been rudely dismissed. There were similar staff shortages in the tourist and catering industries and in farming. In one way this was fortuitous as people of all ages needed to work extra hours in extra jobs to ensure they had more than a zero hour working week.

The constant smearing of the opposition who challenged the hollow claims of those who shouted such things as - 'we can help the poor', 'we are NOT the nasty party', 'we know what we are doing' - only resulted in entrenching racism, sexism and other such bigoted and discriminatory views. The time wasted challenging the attacks and the prejudice gave those in power the space to become even more powerful. The result was longer food bank queues, greater levels of homelessness, benefit cuts and increasingly bizarre taxes which led to some elderly people having to leave the homes in which they had lived at least half a lifetime. Unsurprisingly levels of mental ill-health soared, not least amongst children whose lives lacked creative play and artistic opportunity as their timetables were packed full of tests and other measures for selection. Fewer and fewer benefited from further and higher education the costs of which were out of the reach of most. Just as well perhaps as academics, like other public sector workers, spent more time on justifying their national identity and their roles than in doing their jobs.

For the richest 1% life hadn't changed that much. The denial of the minority to accept the reality of life for the rest was evident in their 'let them eat scones' response to reports of Breadline Britain, proclaimed with no sense of irony.

Alongside all of this the ban on jam making and tasting was one example of the establishment's fear of the simple pleasures in life. First such experiences were ridiculed, soon they were outlawed. Yet, where there are rules there is resistance.  And so, over time, in all communities across the now sad and isolated small island, more and more people came together to chop and to boil fruit, to bottle produce and to savour the fruity creations. No one was left out if they didn't wish to be with sugar full and free varieties in all the glorious flavours imaginable. In this way hope was once again nurtured and shared.


Friday 30 September 2016

Let's Talk | Communication, Community, Creativity

I find it particularly interesting that these two articles, both appearing in The Guardian were published this week within a couple of days of each other:

Life is richer when we talk to strangers (David Ferguson) complete with a photograph of commuters in a packed tube/subway train

Author Kio Stark’s new book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You is about her seven-year personal study of her interactions with strangers in New York City. She believes that reaching across the gulf of silence that normally stands between ourselves and the people we encounter on a daily basis is not just essential, but transformative.
. . .  Stark said: “When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life – and theirs.”

'Tube-Chat' campaign promotes horror amongst London commuters (Jamie Grierson)

Badges from mystery source encouraging passengers to talk elicit calls for ‘do not disturb’ signs – but not everyone is against. . .

I have lots I want to write about at the moment. In fact I have several part completed pieces on such topics as hope, fear and (party) politics; the non/motherhood debate and its particular twist this summer; various isms (not least ageism here); media bias and so on and so on. But last night I slept better than I have for many nights, today the sun is shining and I had scrambled egg sandwiches for lunch (my comfort food of choice). I feel sure the significant discomfort and distress (see previous post) I've felt over the past weeks will return but for now I'm feeling a little positivity and have decided to make the most of it. Hence this blog entry on the importance, and joy, of talk and other forms of communication.

First a couple of personal tube tales. I lived in Wimbledon and Walthamstow for a few years in my twenties and for some of this time travelled to and from work on the London underground, I remember these journeys as solitary ones. I'd meet the same people day in, day out but never went beyond a nod or a smile with anyone. One memorable morning I was sent home from work feeling poorly and whilst on the journey I began to feel much worse. Knowing I was going to throw up I left the tube train at a stop before mine and made my way as close to the end of the platform as I could before losing much of my stomach contents. Unfortunately for me there was a blockage on the line and instead of promptly leaving the train  remained in the station for several minutes during which, after extensive vomiting, I leaned against the wall and shivered. No one, either on the platform or from the tube train, came to help me. I got home eventually and recovered in bed over a couple of days. I travel to and through London a lot at the moment for various work commitments so once again I'm a regular London underground user. A few months ago whilst approaching a short set of stairs at Kings Cross complete with pack-pack and small wheelie case I was approached by a man saying 'Hi, let me carry your case'. I smiled and said 'It's OK thanks, I can manage'. 'No, let me', he replied 'It will be my good deed for the day.' I gave him my bag. I hope he felt pleased with our encounter, I did.

Although I have spent all my working life in people-focused jobs, much of which involves me standing up in front of people and talking I am in fact rather shy. I find conferences where I know no one scary and when teaching big groups find the first encounters hard going. I prefer evenings with friends in small groups to big parties.  I'm not alone I know.  And yet, I enjoy brief communications with  acquaintances and strangers. One of the many good things about moving back (a few years ago) to the small seaside town I grew up in is how hard it is to walk along the main street or to the beach without meeting someone I'm acquainted with. Maybe an old friend from school, or a more recent acquaintance to share a smile, an hello or an exchange about the weather with. I have a couple of very good friends who always stop to talk to dogs and their owners. I too like dogs (and cats) myself and will sometimes stop to stroke one whilst out. I'm much more likely though, as one friend pointed out to me recently, to chat to children, on the train, in a shop or a cafe. I also quite regularly compliment people - usually women, sometimes men - on something they are wearing and experience pleasure when strangers do the same to me.

Much of our communication takes place online nowadays and this of course has both positive and negative consequences which has been starkly highlighted during this summer's Labour leadership election. But, but, my good mood in mind, I'm trying to focus more on the positive here. In the last few years I have become concerned in my academic work in how to present research and scholarly messages in different ways (beyond the traditional academic article or report). So, I am interested in, and attempt to contribute to, the creative telling of academic 'findings' in different ways - through songs, fiction, theatre - and in different outlets - in blogs and non-academic publications. The numerous songs, poems, videos and blog entries written and performed in support of Jeremy Corbyn, his team and his policies (put any of these words into Google or YouTube or see this for an example demonstrates that creativity and politics clearly go together also.

And yet, it's still important to talk, even those of us who feel a little shy on occasion. As many, many commentators have said (and written), including over the last few weeks, if the dominant messages we receive are not as we would wish, are not complete or accurate, it is the responsibility of all of us to join with others to challenge these. And not just on paper or online but face-to-face out and about in the world. With this in mind members of my local Labour Party CLP, as part of Labour's Campaign Day: Education not Segregation,  are frequenting  a stall in the centre of town tomorrow. As a fairly new member of the LP I've not been able to attend a meeting as yet (not least due to the summer suspension of meetings) so I'm planning to go along and say 'hello'.

With thanks and apologies to David Bowie I'd like to end this post with a song - just substitute 'dance' with 'talk' and off you go.