Thursday 28 September 2017

P/political Creativities (2) | stand(ing) up for Labour

Brighton 2017, pre-conference rally: music, Corbyn and more
The criticisms of Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn continue to be confused. The labour leader is, for example, at one and the same time too popular ('it's just a creepy cult') and not popular enough ('doesn't appeal beyond his adoring fans'). One way to look at, and challenge, such critique is through a focus on creativity. That the Labour Party Conference 2017, and many of its fringe events, has a more energetic feel than ever before few dispute but the atmosphere this promotes is still devalued, scorned even, by some. 

Any yet, even those who dismiss the growing momentum (pun intended) as noise and distraction from real political concerns attempt to copy it. Enter 'Tory Glastonbury' with the Conservative MP George Freeman asking 'why is it the left who have all the fun in politics? The event - The Big Tent Ideas Festival - took place last week and was agreed by all, including the main organiser to be a flop with 'too many men and not enough music

Conversely, The World Transformed, backed by Momentum, and a significant part of the Labour Party Conference Fringe, represents, many suggest, both a response to a cultural shift in politics and an engine for further change via the doorstep, the internet and beyond...

Two years ago, at his first conference as leader, Mr Cobyn said ' don't have to live without power and hope. Things can and will change.' This year, referring to Labour's GE 2017 campaign he added '...we offered an antidote to apathy and despair. Now Labour can and will deliver a Britain for the many not the few'. During the election the Conservatives focused on the so-called strength and stability (!) of Theresa May (although a little less so as the campaign continued and this proved to be a bad call). Ironically, given the critique of the so-called Corbyn personality cult whilst Mrs May talked of 'I' and 'me' Mr Corbyn's focus was, and is, 'us' and 'you'.  During his 2017 conference speak Jeremy Corbyn spoke of the two stars of the election campaign: the manifesto (full of policies that polls increasingly show that most people support) and all those members, activists and politicians who worked hard to canvass (in various ways) support for said manifesto. 

So what's this got to do with creativity? Well; as Annette Blum writes in an article focusing on the relationship between creativity and activism:  

Artistic projects of all kinds are so much a part of the fabric of our society/culture and continue to be tremendously inspirational, carrying a strong message and having the ability to resonate with large audiences no matter what the medium. 

Blum continues: 

The intersection of arts and political activism are two fields defined by a shared focus of creating engagement that shifts boundaries, changes relationships and creates new paradigms. Both activist and artist work in the challenges of the unknown and the unpredictable, never truly able to determine the outcome and forever questioning if there is more to be done. This experimentation also forms the essence of what can be the engine of success and motivation towards true change whether we are immersed in a specific social cause or a global peace movement, composing an original score, sharing a story by means of carving a sculpture, or using performance to highlight a critical message. 

I especially love this next sentence: 

Whatever our chosen palette, the practice of understanding the importance of our own creative engagement is a source of potential change on its own, and a space where valuable insight can be found through reflection and sharing.

I'll write more about that, and about political debates on creative opportunities for all, or not, another day ... For now though I'm focusing (if only briefly) on how artists off all types are using their talents to represent and support the Left. If for a while, as some suggest, the positive relationship between left leaning politics and art(ists) became a little shaky this is certainly not the case now. See this from 2016: 

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about the Jeremy Corbyn tour - known as #JC4PM - which the media has failed to cover. I wanted people to know about the existence of the tour but I also wanted to alert people to the fact that none of the newspapers I contacted were interested in reporting it. Journalist after journalist told me that the story was 'not newsworthy'.

The #JC4PM tour was drawn up in the same spirit as the rallies that were organised by local activists during Jeremy Corbyn's [2015] leadership campaign. It was spontaneous. Comedians, musicians, poets and political activists were all enthusiastic about putting on big shows to show solidarity with Corbyn and to rally the troops in the same way as he had last summer. We were not asked to do this by the Labour Party - or even by Jeremy Corbyn's office. It was something we drew up together.

[Stand Up for Labour/#JC4PM tour are currently crowdfunding to enable further tours. Here is the link]

It would, of course, be hard for the media to ignore such support for the Labour Party and the Labour Party leader now and added to this is the involvement of many more than just a famous few in an energetic mix of politics and practice: or praxis as we might call it: 

Thousands of people descended on Brighton at the weekend for the World Transformed (TWT), Momentum's alternative fringe festival that ran alongside the official Labour party conference. 

Events were scheduled to span four days in nine venues including bars and clubs. They included panel discussions on topics ranging from the importance of the arts to BAME representation, workshops on how to make viral videos or win a marginal seat, late-night gigs and DJ sets, film screenings during a session called 'revolution and chill', a pub quiz hosted by Ed Miliband, and live interviews with special guests in the style of Channel 4's TFI Friday....

The venues were filled with political graffiti and exhibitions to embolden critical thinking. Many visitors spoke with renewed confidence in modern politics and the power of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour to transform democracy as we know it. The mood was festive. .

Conference over there is more to come. In just a few days, alongside the 2017 Conservative Party Conference the Take Back Manchester Festival 2017 will include cultural events, comedy, music and public meetings, in addition to demonstrations and rallies. For more detail see

This event on the 4th October looks especially interesting: 

11:45 - 15:00: Wall Of Sound Around The Conference Centre
Theresa May: Human Catastrophe 

Organised with Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts
Protest during Theresa May's speech - bring pots, pans, drums, whistles and megaphones!
Assemble: Outside Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount St, Manchester M2 5NS

To extend a well-know song title 'If I can't dance, sing, laugh, paint, play pots and pans etc, and so on .... I don't want to be part of your revolution.' 

Wednesday 20 September 2017

P/political Creativities (1) | playing with words

In my next few blog entries I have decided to explore the relationship between politics and creativity, with reference to my own imaginings and those of others. Here, I begin with a focus on words.

I have been reading and writing all of my life. My parents were both bookworms and I, like them, love to read and also enjoy talking to others about the stories, poems, news and nonfiction I devour; both on paper and increasing also online. The first present I bought my late husband John was a novel, which I know he appreciated, since he almost always had a book in his pocket or backpack. One of the first ever poems I penned – I Hate Mushrooms – (incidentally I love them now), when I was eight years old, was written after a tantrum and a falling out with an adult friend. This working through feelings aspect to my writing continued into adulthood. My first marriage broke up four months before my degree finals and I fumed and cried and read and wrote. Similarly, whilst supporting my second husband (John) through several years of physical and mental ill-health I also managed to write (and to publish) academic pieces whilst working full-time as a university lecturer (although I acknowledge that during this time my life was full-up of paid and home based work to an extent that was not that good for my own mental and physical wellbeing). 

It wasn’t until after John died in 2010 that I began to explore with different genres, starting with fiction writing. This experimentation continued, indeed accelerated, in 2012 following my mum Dorothy’s death and at this time I also began to write some pieces of short (and not so short) memoir.

One of the many things I would ask my dad if he was here now would be whether it was the issues and experiences which troubled him that stimulated his own writing (he published a number of short stories in the 1960's and 1970's, completed an approximately 60 thousand word memoir, a children’s novel and made notes for several other projects). Re-reading his writings and his jottings I think so. This has always been the case for me too and my academic work (and I would suggest all academic work whether acknowledged or not) has always been political, influenced as it is by my own interests, experiences, values and so on. So too with my other writings. For example see the following two pieces posted previously on ABCtales. The first is a short story I felt the need to write following a news item during the last football world cup and the second a more recent snippet of memoir focusing on what John shared with me about his experience of schooling: 

Random Acts is the title a short story that I submitted to twenty4stories; a creative project in response the Grenfell Tower tragedy (for more detail and my story see This piece then was written in response to a political event: 

My first, what could be called P/political opinion piece. was written and posted on this blog, in July 2016. This I wrote following my frustration at some of the the representations of politicians on both sides of 'the house': 
Quite a bit of my writing since has focused on happenings in Westminster, the consequences of the political decisions that are taken there and the ways in which all of this is reported (via mainstream and other medias). My writings are a mixture of research, personal and academic auto/biographical reflection with examples of ‘fiction’ drawing on as much ‘fact’ as more traditionally presented political writings. I hope that at least some of those that read my work find it interesting, useful, helpful. But even if not what these pieces have in common is that they makes me feel better. Karen Dempsey describes expressive or therapeutic as:

… the process of letting your thoughts and feelings flood onto the page, without stopping to censor, judge or perfect. It’s a free-flow process that allows the thoughts and feelings to pour out, like water from a tap.

The power of expressive writing is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can write from the heart without worrying about spelling, punctuation or grammar. No one is leaning over your shoulder and tutting. No one ever has to read it apart from yourself. There is a freedom that comes with releasing your feelings onto the page.

This is just one example of the myriad of suggestions related to writing for wellbeing. Personally I do not find expressive writing particularity helpful. Rather, I enjoy, and get comfort from, researching and re-working (several times) my ideas, thoughts and feelings.  Recently I read an article that focused on an interview with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in which he said.

“I can’t understand why I’m almost 60, and I’m still fucking angry. Everyone told me I was going to be mellow by now. I’ve got a house, I grow my own vegetables, and I’m still angry.”

Me too Benjamin, me too …. The piece continues:

Zephaniah has been vocal about the treatment of the residents of Grenfell Tower, and criticised Kensington and Chelsea council for ignoring their plight in the aftermath of the fire. “What happened is a symbol of a divided Britain,” he says. “These people were abandoned for days, absolutely abandoned, at a time when they needed help the most.” 

In Zephaniah’s view, everything is political….

“One of the things I’m really good at,” he says, “is talking about politics and ideas to people who are not interested in it for one reason or another. They don’t think it’s for them, but usually I can explain why it is.” He says his poetry performs the same function. “I said something once that still stands: I started writing poetry because I don’t like poetry. Of course I liked using words, but I wanted to change the image of poetry. I wanted to bring it to life and talk about now and what was happening to us.”

I make no claims, how could I, to be as creative, or have even a smidgen of Zephaniah's influence, but like him I like words and attempt to use them in my writing to ‘talk about now and what [is] happening to us’. And as I’ve already stated writing in this way helps me to cope with the distress and anger I feel living in a society and a world so full of injustice and inequality. It also helps me to better understand things that concern me and my reactions to them. For me then writing is: 

... a method of inquiry, a way of finding out about yourself and your topic. Although we usually think about writing as a mode of “telling” about the social world.... Writing is also a way of “knowing” – a method of discovery and analysis. By writing in different ways, we discover new aspects of our topic and our relationship to it. Form and content are inseparable. (Richardson, Laurel (1994) ‘Writing: a method of inquiry’ in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln      (eds.) A Handbook of Qualitative Research 1st Edition Thousand Oaks: Sage p.515).

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote recently that highlights just some of my (and I know many others) feelings surrounding current political 'concerns':

During the summer of 2017 I also started to write to national and local newspapers about various issues that have particularly incensed me. I have had some small success. Those that are not accepted for publication I recycle elsewhere. See for example this one I wrote with The Independent in mind:

This past weekend I sent the following to guardian.letters following an article written by Nick Cohen (you can find it if you like but I’m not going to provide the link). It sums up, I think, some of my frustrations (in this case with the so-called Left supporting mainstream media), and the value, as suggested here, of playing with words in response:

Reading any Nick Cohen article that makes reference to the leadership of the Labour Party is like playing a game of masochism bingo. It’s bad for my blood pressure and my overall sense of wellbeing.  According to Cohen I am - at least -  a member of the hard and far left; an infantile cult member; part of the disaffected, left-behind middle class; a swallower of bullshit and a fucking fool. I appreciate the advice not to read. I accept that in writing this letter I am adding to the attention given to a man who it is best to ignore; not because of his differing opinions but because of the impossibility of debate with one for whom insult and attack seems to be the only form of defence and critique. But, writing soothes my nerves somewhat. Somehow I don’t think it does the same for Mr Cohen. 

Saturday 9 September 2017

An Open Letter to Mums4Corbyn | some political and personal concerns

Dear Mums4Corbyn

First, I apologise for the length of what follows but I would be extremely grateful if you could find the time to read this letter.

As a feminist sociologist I have been researching and writing about the reproductive experience, identity and rights of and for girls and women, and to a lesser extent, of and for boys and men, for 28 years. My interest is in the experience and identity of those who mother/parent and those who do not. Amongst other things I have undertaken research in the areas of infertility and involuntary childlessness; teenage pregnancy and young parenthood; experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood for women living with long term health conditions; stay-at-home and working mothers; nonmothers as a resource for care in institutions such as higher education and prisons. So, I have researched and written about mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers (those who mother in what some define as ‘inappropriate’ social, material, sexual circumstances), within which I have been keen to reflect on the differences between the institution of motherhood and the experience of mothering. In a recent publication, in a summary of some of my, and others’, work, I wrote: 

·         Motherhood is lauded as inevitable and desirable for all BUT only if achieved in the so-called RIGHT social and material circumstances. It is very easy for one’s ‘choices’ to be labelled as inappropriate and for one’s identity as mother or not to be frowned upon. For example, teenaged mothers are often labelled irresponsible and those who seek technological help to conceive may be accused of ‘playing God’. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy of motherhood in that biological motherhood is often defined (in relation to social motherhood) as ‘real’ and ‘natural’. Thus, just as it is possible to be other than mother it is also possible to be an other mother.

·         The experience of mothering is often more complicated than the promise and mothering is portrayed as instinctual to women yet mothers are bombarded by ‘expert’ views and cautions. Mothers are expected to put their children before themselves, to engage in ‘intensive mothering’ (Hays 1998) and yet, if not careful, may be accused of psychologically damaging their children through and over-involvement in their lives and engaging in ‘helicopter’ parenting (LeMoyne and Buchanan 2011). Women who do not mother children are often thought to have no interest in or understanding of them despite the various ways that women can have connections to and with children. This is ironic given that all women – whether mother or not – are expected to display the feminine characteristics associated with mothering: not least that of caring and nurturing.

·         Nonmothers - either ‘voluntary’ or ‘involuntary’ (and … positioning as either is often not so simple as is suggested) – are often stereotyped as one-dimensional – as selfish or desperate. In reality, just as the experience of mothering can lead to feelings of ambivalence non/mothers can experience ambivalence also.

Thus, the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives, whether mother or not, and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other mother or nonmother. 
(Letherby, G. (2017) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): Telling Academic and Personal Stories of Mothers and Others’ in G. Rye, V. Browne, A. Giorgio, E. Jeremiah and A. L. Six (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: interdisciplinary perspectives from Europe London: Routledge p.245-246).

Along with the political social, emotional and sometimes medical experience of mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers I am interested in the cultural representations of mothers and others. It has long been the case that, despite complexity of experience, cultural depictions of women who do not mother children or who mother children within relationships or in situations viewed by some as different, inappropriate and/or even as ‘unreal’, draw on oversimplified caricatures. Alongside this mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers have always been labelled, by the media, as well as through political and medical discourses as deserving or undeserving. With this in mind I have been struck recently by a continuation of these discourses and an, arguably, more sinister development with non and other mothers being represented as a danger to themselves and to others. I have written about this, and other issues related to reproductive rights, experiences and identities here

Within my academic work, and in other writings, I reflect on my own identity and experience as a (biologically) childless woman. A brief history: thirty years ago, in my mid/late-twenties, my central aim was to be a mother and I felt that I was only half a woman without a child. Any doubts or ambivalences I had about becoming a mother I denied. Now I feel very different. I no longer feel a lesser woman (or less than adult) for not mothering my ‘own’ children. I am also able to accept the equivocal nature of my desires - that is, a part of me enjoys the freedom that I have had and have because of my biologically childless state. I also appreciate first hand some of the pleasures and pains of caring for children on a daily basis as my late husband’s two sons lived with us full-time for more than ten years. If I had become a biological mother I know that I would have felt opposing emotions in relation to that experience also. A miscarriage, returning to higher education and the relationships this entails – as teacher, mentor and friend -  plus the relationships that I have developed with some of my younger friends and with the children (and grandchildren) of close friends have all affected my personal development. Also significant was the mothering I received (until the death of my mother in 2012) and I credit my mother’s influence in much that I do.  And yet, every day I am reminded (if only fleetingly), by friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, that I am different, excluded even. A link here to piece in which I write more on these issues:

Having decided to step down from a full-time position to work freelance I am able to spend more time in voluntary activities and political activism. Having joined the Labour Party to support the current leader and the left-wing agenda he and others promote I have become involved in canvassing, protesting on the street and online and in political writing (including letters to newspapers, publishing on my own blog and contributing to the social media presence of my CLP). Two of the issues that have especially concerned me in the last few months are school summer holiday hunger and the response of politicians and others to the Grenfell Tower tragedy (see for links to writings on this). I appreciate that such involvement might be more difficult, not least in terms of organization as well as time, for friends with children and grandchildren. I strongly believe that the (small amount) of political work I do is motivated by the need for a better world for all, now and in the future. Many of my concerns then are for all ‘our’ children, their life chances and choices. With all this in mind I was disappointed (and hurt) for my difference to be highlighted yet again when I read of the launch of Mums4Corbyn at The World Transformed event organized by Momentum (of which I am also a member) which takes place alongside the Labour Party Conference this month. From what I can see of planned events many of the issues considered are those that affect all women, mother or not, and shared concerns were part of my pitch to write a piece for the New Socialist who are publishing a series of articles focusing on the contemporary politics of motherhood in support of the initiative. Thus:

My concern is with the political significance of all women whether mothers, nonmothers or other-mothers (women whose mother status is considered lesser, even ‘unreal’). This is important because the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other-mother or nonmother. Feminism can be criticized for focusing on motherhood at the expense of a consideration of sisterhood. Yet any (political) understanding of motherhood and mothering needs to embrace the experience of nonmothers and other-mothers. It is only through such holistic reflection on our similarities and our differences that as sisters together we can challenge that which divides us and holds us back and celebrate our ‘collective and communal relations’ which will enable to us work together for ‘transformative change’.

I appreciate, of course, the particular challenges and inequalities that mothers face but I maintain that we can more effectively work on this together as, in with reference to this issue, as in many others, we do indeed have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’ (Jo Cox MP).

Sadly, the editors felt that my piece did not ‘quite match’ their intended agenda. Which in turn feels, to me, a further denial of the relevance of the very many of us who have an identity and experiences defined by society as lesser. I admit that this time around my pride was hurt too. My first response was to write about how I felt: .This was followed a few days later by a letter to the New Socialist, not dissimilar from the one I write here, to which I have not as yet had a reply. I appreciate that my response to Mums4Corbyn and to the rejection by the New Socialist is personal as well as political, as indeed everything in life is. I write this letter with reference to my own experience and feelings and those of the very many women I have spoken to and whose life-choices and chances I have represented in my previous writings. I do appreciate and support all that both the group and the publication is trying to do. And yet, I have to ask you, as I did the editors of the New Socialist, to please reflect on the issues I have raised here and to perhaps think again about the message that Mums4Corbyn gives.

Yours in solidarity


(Gayle Letherby)