Tuesday 21 March 2017

Happiness, Poetry, War and Peace | On writing to The Guardian and other thoughts

Yesterday (20th March) was the International Day of Happiness. But instead of waking with a smile on their faces many Labour Party members and supporters were still reeling from an attack in The Observer (Sunday sister paper of The Guardian) by Nick Cohen (I refuse to add a link; see below). Sadly the onslaught did not stop there as anti-Corbyn media types, ‘celebrities’ and others seemed to find this offensive rant something to celebrate. Equally distressing in many ways was the re-posting of the article by those intending to critique as the more clicks an article gets, the more people visit a site, and the more the publication can charge for advertising. One way and another I saw this particular piece far too many times. Once was more than sufficient. Upset enough to contact The Guardian letters desk this is what I wrote. Apologies for the swear words (mine as well as Cohen’s): 

As a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet team I have, along with similar others, been called many things over the last several months. I am apparently, not least, deluded, stupid, a cult member, out-of-touch, an entryist, a Nazi Stormtrooper, a plotter, an ineffectual protestor, and a thug. Today Nick Cohen (Don’t tell me you weren’t warned about Corbyn Sunday 19th March 2017) has added to the list of insults by calling me a ‘fucking fool’. I note that the submission and publication of all letters to The Guardian are subject to ‘terms and conditions’ that include: ‘You warrant that the content you submit to us is not obscene, threatening, harassing, libellous, deceptive, fraudulent, invasive of another's privacy, offensive, defamatory of any person or otherwise illegal’. I am left wondering why these terms and conditions were not applied to Cohen’s open letter. In sum I feel as if today The Guardian told me to ‘fuck off’. I am happy to oblige.
Gayle Letherby

Given the social media response to Cohen’s tirade I feel pretty sure that there were many more letters on this issue. The Guardian did not include my communication in their daily round up on Monday. In a letter collection entitled ‘Labour Party divisions gather momentum’ there was only one responding to the article (a rather tamer version than mine). The rest focused on the latest panic over the ‘threat of takeover’, even ‘destruction’ of the Labour Party by it seems ‘ordinary people’ like me. Yet, again ‘entryists’, ‘Trots’ and the ‘hard-left’ (I missed these last two labels out of my Guardian letter, but there are so many terms intended to slur it’s hard to remember and to keep up) are to blame according to some, including, Tom Watson MP (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party), Gerald Coyne (who is challenging Len McCluskey for the general secretaryship of Unite the union) and Tony Robinson (the actor). Despite his disingenuous behaviour by the end of the day Watson had become a victim as Sky News reported that he left the weekly PLP meeting ‘visibly shaken’, whilst at the same time informing us that ‘angry Labour MPs rounded on Mr Corbyn’ with no similar concern for his mental or physical reaction. Following, Corbyn’s call for ‘unity’ rather than ‘naval gazing’ I am being deliberately coy in my critique and could go much further, and yet I have to add my voice to others who lament the wasted opportunities to focus on the problems caused and experienced by the Conservative Government. Following a week when:

1.   Zero hours jobs hit record high of 905,000.
2.   Number of Children in Relative Poverty now up 400,000 under the Tories.
3.   Electoral Commission fine the Tories, £70,000 for Electoral Spending Irregularities.
4.   13 Police Forces pass 17 files to the Crown Prosecution Service for Electoral Fraud.
5.   Tories forced into dramatic U-Turn on their budget just 7 days later. (@LabourEoin) . . . AND MORE.

surely the duty of all those who oppose the Tories should be on further highlighting, exposing and challenging the government for what it is and what it is not. 

The 20th March was also the 14th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. An issue largely ignored by the mainstream media. There are two likely reasons for this. First, Jeremy Corbyn’s original passionate condemnation of the war https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bs9NfhnfQLc his continued critique and his more recent apology for it on behalf of the Labour Party.  

Second, the establishment media’s part in misleading the public on this issue as reported by Carlyn Harvey in The Canary https://www.thecanary.co/2017/03/20/uk-media-ignored-todays-big-anniversary-puts-shame-video/ Watch the embedded video for an insight into the media’s role in manufacturing consent and think back to the other news issues I have mentioned here. Reflect too on the reporting today (21st March) of the death of Martin McGuinness. For although tributes concerning his role in the Northern Ireland peace process were given by many including Theresa May, Tim Farron, Nicola Strugeon and Tony Blair the Daily Mail and The Mirror both headline Corbyn’s tribute prompting a raft of wearisome, inaccurate smears naming him as a ‘lover of terrorists’.

Today is World Poetry Day. Here’s my contribution (apologies again):

When people tell you their views,
Based on following mainstream news,

Challenge their trust in so-called facts,
From an increasing number of hacks.

When awareness leads to blues,
Show them other sources to peruse. (FOR EXAMPLE: The Morning StarThe Word, The CanaryEvolve Politicshttps://www.facebook.com/peter.stefanovic.71

To end where I started: despite, the inevitable Hallmark cash-in the International Happiness Day was founded by United Nations advisor, Jayme Illien, in 2012. Recognising that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal the UN General Assembly argues for:  

. . . a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable developmentpoverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples.
In solidarity with this sentiment I have decided to donate the £25 The Guardian did not pay me for my letter to support someone who is working with this aim in mind: SEE https://new-corbynstays.nationbuilder.com/donate

Monday 13 March 2017

#Crisps4Lent | The importance (and power) of protest

Apparently it is important for us to know that the prime minister Theresa May has given up crisps for Lent; which runs this year from the 1st March to the 15th April. This is not the first time that the mainstream media have revealed details about the PMs religious beliefs. In November last year The Independent reported on an interview with her in which she stated:

I suppose there is something in terms of faith.
I am a practising member of the Church of England . . .  that lies behind what I do. 

Anyone who follows parliamentary debate and government decision making and policy development will likely reflect with incredulity on this statement. With specific reference to May's Lent sacrifice I feel sure very many of us agree with Giles Fraser (a Church of England priest, broadcaster and journalist) who argues:

... in our topsy-turvy society where rich people aspire to be pencil-thin and poor people are abused for being fat, giving up crisps or chocolate is usually more about aesthetic self-regard than it is about reminding yourself of your existential fragility. Moreover, in an age when austerity is ideologically imposed on the poor the idea of giving up crisps as being something virtuous cooperates with the rightwing philosophy that austerity is morally advantageous for the poor themselves. 

To add insult to irony Fraser reminds us that a number of others have publicly declared their boycotting of Walker's crisps because of Gary Lineker's support for refugees. He continues:

Lent is a 40-day course in other-centredness - seeking to put others before oneself. . . . It's about recognising our own fundamental vulnerabilities, and being attentive to the vulnerabilities of others, especially those with nothing. So my friendly, priestly, pastoral advice to the prime minister would be to forget about the crisps. Doing without your regular salt-and-vinegar fix won't really bring you closer to God. But changing your mind about the Dubs refugees really will. 

Despite this, a petition signed by approximately 50,000 people and strongly worded advice from a number of charities, last Tuesday (7th March) the Conservative government voted down a plan that would have reversed the closing down of the Dubs Scheme by the government earlier this year. (The Dubs Amendment was designed by Labour peer and former refugee Lord Dubs aimed to help 3,000 of the estimated 90,000 unaccompanied migrant children across Europe). Add to this, in the same week, a budget that will, as has widely been agreed, benefit those that already have much, much more than those that do not; a reported mass deportation of asylum seekers and more and more evidence, despite the PMs denial, suggesting that Surrey council has negotiated a 'sweetheart deal'  in terms of social care funding.

One response to the issues raised here, plus the myriad of others that concern many of us, is to protest. My last bit of writing for this Blog followed the #NHSMarch on the 4th March
http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/whose-nhs-our-nhs-personal-response-to.html. In it I wrote about some of the immediate responses criticising protest as ineffectual, as pointless. Since then there have been many historical and current examples given proving just the opposite. Whether through written or performed pieces (on paper or via social media); through withdrawing labour or refusing to cross picket lines; whether marching in the streets, sitting in buildings and so on and so forth protest can and has made a difference. Such activity not only highlights real concerns and shifts in ideological thinking it brings people together in demonstration for themselves and in support of others, results in raised consciousness and can lead to positive workplace changes and government U-turns. Individual, and group, actions may be one-off protests or may lead to further action and activity and/or be part of something bigger across local, national and global boundaries.

I write this on a day when protesters gave speeches and made noise outside of the Home Office for #OrgreaveJustice; continued the fight to #keeptheguardonthetrain* and are now gathering in Parliament Square for an emergency protest to Defend EU Citizen's Right to Remain (#RightToRemain). Just a couple more examples here, both with one particular anniversary in mind. As the Chancellor Philip Hammond MP delivered his budget speech on the 8th March, which also happened to be International Women's Day, the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign group were just outside the building, listen:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvQYLZkwzmA. And here is a speech by Lyn Brown MP, re-posted by several last week, again with International Women's Day in mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWCecSnHUNo

Protest of all kinds can help the protester to feel involved, to feel useful, to feel empowered and yet it can also lead to increased frustration when there seems to be little, or not enough, change. Part of the concern for many is the feeling of not doing enough. I experience this on almost a daily basis. Around work and other commitments I do what I can: talking, writing, protesting, canvasing. But. . . .

As an agnostic (explanation for this too long, and distracting for here) I don't observe Lent. Although I do applaud the seeking to put others before oneself aspect. Despite much evidence of cruelty and inequality I see enough individuals (from many faiths and none) doing just this (putting others before themselves) to keep me going. This and the camaraderie, support and friendship of others helps a lot.

Protest is a serious business motivated as it is by injustice and protesting often includes emotional, material and physical risk. The last thing I want to do is trivialise such endeavours. But boosted by the evidence that protest can also be fun (watch and listen to the WASPI women again or to the many others who protest through music, comedy, poetry and visual art) I decided last Wednesday that it can also be tasty. Whilst 'talking politics' with a group of friends at work I thought of another small something I can do, another small protest I can make: that every day until the end of Lent I will eat crisps. I began this particular personal protest immediately and shared a packet of cheese flavoured ones with my friend Tracey (I have her permission to post this photo) and I've managed at least a handful of various varieties and types each day since.

At a time when I often feel distressed and overwhelmed by the state we are in this small bit of disruption makes me smile.

Why not join me #Crisps4Lent.

* I have written elsewhere about specific issues affecting the railways, railway workers and passengers see http://www.truroandfalmouthlabour.org/gravy_trains_strikes_tickets_to_ride

Saturday 4 March 2017

'Whose NHS?' 'Our NHS' | A Personal Response to #OurNHS, #OurNHSDemo, #NHSMarch

It's 2 am. I have jet lag. On Thursday/Friday I travelled overnight from Vancouver to London, my trip to Canada prompted by a family bereavement. Friday night I spent in London in a hotel in Tavistock Square and before catching the train home to Cornwall I participated in the #NHSMarch from Tavistock Square to Parliament Square. Last night, as tonight, I was awake until the early hours and this was the view from my window when I woke at 10.15 am on Saturday; preparations for the day had begun.

After a bit of breakfast in a nearby cafe I picked up a placard and joined the growing crowd. I joined in the chants - 'Whose NHS? Our NHS', 'No ifs, No buts, No NHS cuts', and the like - and exchanged smiles and pleasantries with the people around me. The march was an emotional event for me as for many others. I could only agree when I heard a man walking behind me say 'It's great to be surrounded by so many people who obviously feel the same way as I do'. But I couldn't help but feel distressed and horrified that such a demonstration is needed.

By the time I reached Westminster it was nearly 3 pm and worried about missing the last train home I left soon after, sadly missing most of the speeches which I hope to catch up with later today. There were still people pouring into the square as I left. Once on the tube I was confident that I had time to go back to the hotel to pick up my bags and get to Paddington with time to spare.  However, for some reason all the Circle Line trains were stopping at Edgeware Road and exiting the station I decided that a taxi might be my safest bet. I hailed one quickly only to be asked to give it up by a young man assisting an elderly relative. This I did and despite a bit of an axious wait I found another cab and reached Paddington with enough time to get a coffee (having not had anything to drink since morning). My coffee poured there was a bit of confusion with the till and the server turner to me, smiled and said: 'Have it on the house madam'. After a day of mixed emotions I was warmed by this kindness.

I spent much of the journey reading tweets, Facebook posts and articles about the #NHSMarch. I enjoyed the images, clips and personal stories (including some of the sister demonstration in Cornwall) and was horrified, but sadly not surprised, by the deflation of the numbers marching - from hundreds of thousand to tens of thousands - and the attempt at distraction from the event by some (political and media) commentators. In reaction to the 'don't (just) get angry, get active' call and action there has already been some 'what's the point?/there is no point in protest' response. It was one such retort that brought me close to tears on my long journey home. I have two twitter accounts (long story) and on one of them (@gletherby) I came across a tweet from Owen Smith MP in reply to a query about why he had not attended the demonstration alongside other Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Smith's reply was as follows:

Is that how we save it then? With a march? I always thought it was better to win elections and then fund it properly. 

There had already been replies suggesting a) that party unity is needed in order to win elections b) that challenge to government is the job of the opposition, and c) that such a response is dismissive and condescending to those that had taken to the streets or supported the event in other ways. Agreeing with all of this I added:

Still on my way home having left #NHSMarch at 3pm. Appalled and offended by this remark OSMP. 

Which I further clarified a little later:

Left #OurNHSDemo @ 3pm. Should be home 10.30. Appalled and offended by this remark OSMP. 

One of the most powerful aspects of Saturday's demonstration was the camaraderie between all those who attended whether event organiser, politician, union member, healthcare professional, celebrity, journalist, young and not so young and so on and so on. I wish I'd been able to get my phone out quick enough to take a photo of the police officer taking a photo of and for a group of smiling protesters holding their placards high.

Of course we all have multiple identities and 'get involved' for multiple reasons. In my 58 years as girl and woman I have been in hospital overnight, or longer, three times; I have had two minor operations; broken one bone; experienced one miscarriage; had several lots of stitches and visited or spoken with GPs, practice nurses, dentists and pharmacists innumerable other times. As a daughter, a partner, a friend I have been supported by healthcare professionals whilst I was caring for others. As a nursery nurse I worked in a busy postnatal ward in 1979/80. As a sociologist who is interested in (amongst other things) health and illhealth I have, and continue to, teach, supervise and examine (at undergraduate and postgraduate levels) nurses, midwives, occupational therapists, doctors and others. As a researcher I have studied the experience of patients, pregnant women and new parents and healthcare professionals. To be walking with so many others, each with their own experience of and with the NHS, was a privilege. The support for the event - on the streets and in spirit - was a clear demonstration that it is indeed #OurNHS and that in response to 'They say cut back' we are entitled to reply 'We say fight back'.

I have had lots of response to my two tweets including one supportive one that suggested that the real focus should be on the Tories. My reply to this:

Agree - we should ALL be focusing on the Tories.

I'll leave it there. It's past 4.30. I'm going to try to get some sleep now.

Friday 3 March 2017

For Sale, Baby Shoes. . . | Stories: hearing, reading, telling

Yesterday (2nd March) was World Book Day: a worldwide celebration of books and reading, marked in over a 100 countries. In the UK and Ireland the main aim 'is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own'. http://www.worldbookday.com/about/

To mark the day I decided to write a little about what reading (and writing) means to me. My own love of reading was nurtured by my parents. The first book my dad purchased was a hard-backed copy of Treasure Island from the local Woolworth’s for sixpence (2 1/2p). Good at woodwork he made a small bookcase for an end-of-term examination and filled this and many others, many times over (his taste also eclectic) over his life. There weren’t many books in my mum’s childhood home and she told me of how as a new bride she read through my dad’s collection whilst he was working nights at the factory and she remained an avid reader for all of her life.

In his unpublished memoir, writing about his late teenage years my father wrote ‘I was never without a book in my pocket and every spare moment would be used to get through a few more pages’ (Ronald Thornton (unpublished) Memoir of a Life (Journeys and Changes ‘A Chronicle of Events) p15). This is how I remember my late husband John, never without a book, if not reading for work (as a sociology and criminology lecturer), often a crime story of some kind. In my dad’s memoir I read of his pleasure at reading P. G. Woodhouse as a young man but it was John though who introduced me to the written version of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. The day before John died I took a selection of novels into the hospital for him, ‘things are looking up’ he said with a smile.

My own reading taste is eclectic and recently I have become interested (following my father) in different sorts of writing. So, in addition to my sociological academic work in areas as diverse as reproductive disruption, travel and transport, methodology, working and learning in higher education and grief and loss I have begun to write fiction, research-based fiction (or faction as I’ve called it elsewhere), political non-fiction and memoir. These endeavours have led to an interest in writing about writing and like many others I was charmed and inspired by the account of Ernest Hemingway’s invention of the six word story:

. . . the six word story, it’s said came for a ten-dollar bet Hemingway made at a lunch with some other writers that he could write a novel in six words. After penning the famous line on a napkin, he passed it around the table and collected his winnings.

The prize was won for the following: For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn. However:

In fact, it seems that versions of the six-word story appeared long before Hemingway even began to write, at least as early as 1906, when he was only 7, in a newspaper classified section called ‘Terse Tales of the Town,’ which published an item that read, ‘For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office’. . .

Whatever the origins writing to this concise word limit is a disciplining and entertaining way to practice storytelling. Donald Trump has apparently, with reference to his presence on Twitter, described himself as the Ernest Hemmingway of 140 characters, but let's not dwell on that for now. 

Here are a few examples of my own six word stories.

Sad Ones
Hero returns. Left shoe lays dusty.

Just impediment announced. Congregation goes hungry.

Lonely Hearts: egocentric loner seeks similar.

Bloody knickers. Precious family plans dashed.

Silly Ones
Close encounter denied. ET no change.

Zombies sell hugs. Treat or trick?

Dog collar wearer prefers missionary position.

Restless tomb dwellers enjoy weekend haunt.

Political Ones
Publicly washed political linen helps none.

Climate change denier drowning, not waving.

Will of the people? Voter apathy?

Poverty ended. Inequality quashed. Fake news.


The other day I came across a twitter challenge to ‘write a sad story in three words’. One example given – ‘Tory cuts kill’ – prove this is possible.

Writers, I think, get better the more they practice. But reading and listening to the work of others is also an essential, as well as pleasurable, part of the process. Amongst my own storytelling pleasures are talking with others about books, articles, stories we have read and passing on or buying books for others (two close friends of mine refer to part of their young daughter’s book collection as the Gayle Letherby Library). Reading, writing and storytelling (in all its forms) can be both a private and a collective experience. Reading, writing and storytelling is educational, entertaining, challenging and enchanting. Telling stories and hearing them are embodied experiences engaging our senses and our emotions. Just one reason of the need to fight against continued threat to public libraries.
Plymouth City Council has plans to close 10 of the city's 17 libraries

For an example of a campaign see https://www.facebook.com/SavePlymLibraries/

Thursday 2 March 2017

‘Mind Your Language’ | Watching our Ps & Qs OR Cs & Ts in Political Debate

As a teenager and young adult my musical taste was, I liked to think, edgy. So, with my formative years coinciding with the eclectic soundtrack of the 1970s it was Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple for me, rather than Cassidy or the Bay City Rollers. I was 18 when Ian Dury's debut album New Boots and Panties was released on Stiff Records and I was hooked. I enjoyed and sang along to every track but the one I remember most now is Plaistow Patricia, the first line of which goes ‘Arseholes, Bastards, Fucking Cunts and Pricks’. In my late twenties I returned to further and higher education after ten years training and working as a nursery nurse. The sociological and feminist writers, researchers and teachers I encountered during my studies encouraged me to think more critically about the use and power of language. In reflecting on how particular words and phrases are used to scorn at and demean people I think that it is more than just politically correct (an overused term admittedly, but also a phrase often used as an insult in itself) to think carefully before using words that draw on sex, gender and sexuality.

Don’t misunderstand me for I’m not shy of using an oath or two myself and I was encouraged to read recently an article suggesting that swearing, along with untidiness (which I’m also guilty of) is indicative of higher, rather than lower, intelligence http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/intelligent-people-tend-to-be-messy-stay-awake-longer-and-swear-more-a7174256.html. I appreciate too that an outburst of profanity can be both an emotional release and a way of feeling a little more in control when dealing with difficult experiences and responding to upsetting images and stories of life in 2017. But, there is still, I believe, a need to reflect on the insults we resort to.

It has long been argued (seemingly supported given the frequency and vitriolic nature of their use) that the worst, most offensive verbal abuses are those that refer to women’s genitals or to women’s motherhood identity. So calling someone a cunt or a twat, a son-of-a-bitch or a motherfucker are serious signifiers of disrespect. Hearing these, alongside other swear words which derogatorily refer women to animals or to food is part of the everyday sexism that girls and women are subject to. The normalisation of these descriptors though doesn't make them any easier to hear.

Social media - which I greatly appreciate both for its challenge to the mainstream media and the opportunity it provides for broad based discussion, debate and education - adds to the problem. I, and I know I am not alone in this, am dismayed by the possibilities it gives for smears and insults, bullying and intimidation; both from named individuals and those who hide behind anonymity/alternative identities.  Indeed, on many occasions the ease of the action seems to inflame the activity. Sadly, it seems that people from all sides of the political debate; both those on the right and on the left, use Twitter and Facebook and so on, to assault those with whom they do not agree. Even those who are not particularly aggressive or personal in their condemnation of a person, political party, policy or news item often resort to chauvinistic abuse; unfortunately supporting the view that these are just normal, everyday, acceptable insults.  With this in mind I groan when people I admire refer to the minister for health as Jeremy *unt and I shudder when those I don’t combine racism, sizeism, ageism with misogyny to describe or lambaste female, and male, politicians and those that support or challenge their approach, actions and ideas. Recently, on my Facebook feed I was more than heavyhearted to see, on a page very supportive of the Labour leadership, a cartoon meme with Jeremy Corbyn holding a banner complete with the words ‘let’s try not being twats’.  When asked why he doesn't retaliate to the constant barrage of, often extremely personal, attack he receives Corbyn's response is ‘I’m not going to get in the gutter with anyone’. With this in mind it's hardly likely that 'twat' is part of his vocabulary. As with many other issues, I'm with Corbyn on this.

Some people reading this may question my ability to take a joke (that old chestnut) and I realise I am at risk being labelled as one of @piersmorgan’s 'rabid feminists’ (I’ve been called worse). My late husband John, himself a pro-feminist teacher, told me once that he felt he got an easier ride than women colleagues when promoting gender equality as he was seen to have 'no axe to grind'. So for a minute just imagine it's a man writing this piece. . . I strongly support the need to call out the smears and lies, to debate and discuss the potential ways forward. I passionately believe that we need to challenge and to struggle against the inequalities and injustices that evidence suggests are increasing on a daily basis. In doing this, in making our arguments and fighting our cause(s), please can we find alternatives to the longtime, offensive terms that demean and devalue half the population.

Despite, or maybe because of, all the above I am all for reclaiming.  So just as I loved that until just a few months before her death my 90 year old mother-in-law enjoyed lunch out 'with the girls' I appreciate and applaud the banner held high at one of the 700 or so Women’s Marches on the first day of Trump’s presidency that proclaimed 'I'd call him a cunt but he has no warmth or depth.'