#ThisisLondon

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Been feeling very unsettled since I heard the news about Westminster. It brought back memories of being in Central London on 7/7. Thankful to not be in the centre of it, but a feeling of helplessness and depression was setting in.
So I was coming out of Streatham station on my way home last night, and saw this little old lady struggling with these humungous bags. Really, she was just shuffling along, barely able to carry them. I walked just past her, and then thought ‘F**k it!’ and asked her if she wanted a hand home with them. She was walking to the bus stop across Streatham High Road – literally a 2 minute walk for me, but it took 10 mins + to get her there. We chatted, she told me about seeing Peter O’Toole as Hamlet in the Bristol Old Vic prior to Lawrence of Arabia fame, and I left her at the bus stop with her shopping happy as a pig in sh*te, and with a lighter heart.
Now I’m not telling y’all this as an attempt to garner praise – honestly, please don’t. I probably got more unwittingly out of this gesture than she did, in a way. I’m writing this because it’s not possible for all of us to be part of the police force or emergency services or NHS – and they are all brilliant btw. But it is possible for us to be a mini-hero in someone else’s world, be that standing up for someone if they’re at the receiving end of abuse, helping an elderly person with their shopping or even offering someone a reassuring smile. I remember the first time getting back on the Tube after 7/7 and realising we had the choice to retreat into ourselves or to reach out. Even offering someone a smile can be powerful in the aftermath of something like this. While remaining safe and informed and discerning it is also possible to be open and kind to ourselves and each other – and light. Be light. Be the light. In your own and other people’s worlds. #ThisisLondon, after all.

The weakness of supremacy

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‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’

This quote by Emma Lazarus came to me tonight, after watching an utterly devastating clip on YouTube about the  Tuam babies . Those of you who read my blog will probably be aware of my feelings about the Catholic Church in Ireland – a vile, patriarchal, inherently corrupt and venal institution which should never have gained the place that it did (and among people of a certain age and mentality, still does). But an institution in itself does not have the power to wield authority – and what is becoming clearer, with the uncovering of each scandal, is this:

  1. Power and status was roundly abused by priests and nuns, the self-proclaimed representatives of Christ on earth.
  2. They were aided in this by the State, and, it seems, both profited by the incarceration and slavery of women and children for over 200 years.
  3. The feminist rebels of 1916 and the promise of gender equality for which they fought were roundly dismissed.
  4. In order for these places of slavery to have flourished, there had to have been collusion from the general public.
  5. In line with all patriarchies everywhere, and all countries dominated by religion, there was an unhealthy obsession and stereotyping of women into either Madonna or whore categories.

The first point is self-evident. It doesn’t need me to point out the sexual and physical abuse of women and children – this has been well-documented. The second point is perhaps less well-discussed, but a point that niggles at me on this score is: who profited? Because all that money made from slave labour, the selling of children to wealthy Americans etc, had to have made somebody (or somebodies) rich. Yes, the State is compensating these women. Notably the Church has yet to do this. One wonders, in austerity-stricken Ireland, what deals have been struck behind closed doors that the direct perpetrators of these crimes have virtually, bar receding power and reputation, gotten off scot-free.

What interests me most are points 3-5, because all of them have one thing in common: Patriarchy. This is not necessarily particular to Ireland, though Ireland serves as a relatively recent example of the betrayal of the promise of gender equality, and how, when women have served their purpose in fighting on the frontlines, they are pushed to being a footnote in history.

Men I’ve spoken to about this have normally come back with ‘But the nuns were just as bad’. Yes – behaviour-wise, they almost were (though there doesn’t seem to have been the widespread rape of children that was a feature of their male counterparts). But they were also operating under a system devised by men, for men. For a lone woman to go up against that could be fatal. We saw that all too clearly with the Gay Byrne interview with Annie Murphy, where she was cast as the evil seductress bent on taking down a poor fallen man of God. From my own conversations with an elderly relative, who was a young woman in the 1950s, people knew what was going on – but as young girls/women, they were terrified to speak up for fear of being sent to the laundries themselves.

So let’s take this argument back to where it should lie: at the feet of men. At the feet of the men to whom female sexuality was and is an affront, something to be controlled, not encouraged. At the feet of politicians and the priesthood, who wielded the bulk of power and privilege. At the feet of fathers, brothers, male relatives who saw their daughters and female siblings as less than equal, deserving of slavery.

And this is an argument that still dogs the Irish psyche. We can afford marriage equality to all (marriage essentially being a conservative, approved institution, and Ireland being a conservative society at heart), but we cannot yet afford women equality. Either in the workplace, in the public spaces (which is what #WakingtheFeminists was about – the irony of women having to fight to be heard in a space which was championed by Countess Markievicz!), or, most humiliating of all, over their own bodies.

I would have more tolerance for the pro-life brigade if, in the interests of absolute consistency, they condemned every male masturbatory act as an act of murder and picketed every man’s bedroom and sperm donor clinic. To paraphrase Monty Python, by the argument the pro-lifers make, why isn’t every sperm sacred? Again, there will be those who say (rightly) that there are prominent female ‘pro-lifers’ who also, in the mode of Kelly-Anne Conway, see themselves as both ‘pro-life’ and an ‘individual feminist’. Ladies: there is no such thing. You can be one, but not both. Because your brand of ‘individualistic feminism’ takes away choice from other women – and that’s not feminism, that’s patriarchal brainwashing, and pandering to male fears about losing their supremacy in the world. In Ireland, to realise the Proclamation in full, it is absolutely vital that the 8th Amendment is repealed. Worldwide, (and again, it’s interesting to note that this backlash against women’s rights is not just confined to Ireland, but worldwide) it is vital that women’s reproductive options are defended against a worldwide resurgence of male supremacy.

The issue of supremacy is an interesting one. Here are my thoughts on it – be it along race or gender lines. Supremacy is weakness. It is weakness because it explicitly needs structures in place to give its beneficiaries an unfair advantage over another group. And we have reached a tipping point where, as women fighting to maintain rights hard-won, and move towards a more equal world (which benefits everyone), we don’t want to do it alone. We can – that has what the last 100 years of suffrage has been about – but in order to make real steps forward, it requires men to yield the supremacy in power and privilege that has rendered our world weaker. So this International Women’s Day, it is up to men not only to notice what life would be like without women, but also how much better it might feel to not rely on an unfair advantage. I wonder if men as a group are that fair-minded – history and evidence would point to the contrary. Yet I remain hopeful.

 

 

An evil most ordinary

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In 2004, I was touring Germany with ‘Death of a Salesman’. During the course of the run, I had the good fortune to bump into an old friend in Munich, who happened to be in the audience. As it happened, he lived in the town of Dachau, and since I’d long had an interest in the Third Reich and their Final Solution, we arranged for him to be my tour guide in the former concentration camp.

 

It’s very hard to describe how I felt when seeing the notorious camp. People always say that birds no longer sing at these sites; and for me, on that day, it was true. There was, for me, a sort of numbness that took over, as my brain tried to process what my eyes were seeing. One could say so many things, but what would be the point? The banality of evil hung like a cold, damp cloud in the air.

 

After the visit, during which we spoke little, my friend broke the silence. ‘If I’d lived then, I would have been part of the Resistance’. I just looked at him and said ‘How do you know?’ He insisted he would have, but the more I saw of Germany, the more I visited its museums, the more I saw the many memorials there are to the genocide of WW2, the more certain I grew that this was not a decision to be made until one was in the situation.

 

Even more than over 70 years ago, Westerners are primed to see themselves as the ‘good guys’. We can possibly blame this on the stories we tell ourselves, either verbally or through our media. Never more has this been apparent to me than in the language used post-9/11 by Bush and Blair: Bush’s comment that he took his advice from God to justify ‘shock and awe’; Blair’s constant assertion, through policy and spin, that Islam was ‘incompatible’ with the West. Not so incompatible that it was beneath him to personally profit from this seeming incompatibility.

 

The narrative of the ‘good’ Muslim versus the ‘terrorist’ Muslim took root. We had a Muslim senior politician resign in Baroness Warsi, because of rampant anti-Islam policy in her cabinet under David Cameron. Islamophobia, even in so-called liberal circles, became rife. Atheists like Sam Harris, who is clearly Islamophobic, have become worshipped (in an ironic turn of events, for those who profess a dislike of cults, neo-atheism seems to me to be cultish in the extreme) by legions of followers. Crusader-style language has been employed, with little prevarication, in our newspapers and by our politicians. Extra restrictions through the reintroduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act have been placed on Muslims, but what of it? The vast majority of society has, directly and/or indirectly, been drip-fed the fallacy of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy. And now we’re here.

 

I’ve been, in my posts on social media, been talking about the dangers of the rise of white supremacy for most of the past decade. It has been pretty obvious to me that once one goes down the road of ‘otherising’ a community (as was done to the Irish in the 1970s), it is a slippery slope. A documentary that made an impression on me was ‘5 Steps to Tyranny’, an old BBC Panorama programme that a kind soul has uploaded to YouTube. For anyone looking to acquire a basic understanding of how psychologically human beings are primed to be seduced by tyrants, it’s worth a viewing.

 

I also recommend ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, a book that made a huge impression on me in my twenties. Having re-read it recently, I noted with some amusement and a little shock something that had escaped me on my initial reading of it. That the Jews in the concentration camps, as starved and reduced as they were, still held a certain contempt for those deemed lower than them. One of the groups listed was ‘Moslems’. Frankl also noted that survivors either went on to do great good in the world as a result of their experiences, or bullies. The element involved was choice.

 

One of my lifelong obsessions that led to an interest in the Holocaust is human nature. The potential of human beings. Their capability for greatness or destructiveness. Having observed the rise of white supremacy so consciously, I must confess a personal interest. Two of my nieces are Muslim.

 

Something happens to you when you see a next generation of your flesh and blood come into the world. You want the world to be a better place for them. My brother converted to Islam around 2002. He married a Moroccan Muslima. My two Muslim nieces are a light in my life, my mother’s life, my brother their uncle’s life. But I cannot remember a time since they were born that I did not fear for them, based on their religion and the acceptable onslaught of everyday prejudice.

 

One story that illustrates how far this prejudice can spiral out of control. My brother and his wife, now resident in the UK, had neighbours who went on holiday to Spain. Another neighbour, out of prejudice, hadn’t seen said neighbours for some time. She called the police, claiming that my brother and wife had murdered them. They were brought to the local police station and interrogated until the police located the holidaying couple. This happened only a couple of years ago.

 

The rise of neo-fascists and their advisers and followers is no accident. On one level, it speaks to the ability of sociopaths (which I believe Farage, Trump et al to be) to easily manipulate our worst natures. It speaks to political ignorance, which even many of my university-educated British friends have hitherto worn as a badge of honour, and are now desperately scrambling to understand how what has happened, could have happened. It speaks to an ignorance by white people of the difference between equality being in law, and in practice. It speaks to a childish quality of following the herd and of blaming the other for our own lives’ ills. That childish quality was also in evidence during the Brexit vote, when people blamed immigrants for a lack in their own lives, without taking into account that the UK had opted out, voluntarily, of taking control of migration when given the chance by the EU. The fact that obvious economic lies were swallowed (the £350m savings on the NHS being only one of many lies, or should I say #alternativefacts spewed like so much rancid spume by the Leavers) shows how ripe the UK was for being overtaken by white supremacists dressed in wolf’s tweeds like Farage. The acceptable face of racism, succeeding where Mosley and his Blackshirts couldn’t, in dressing up fascism in a hail-fellow-well-met bon viveur façade. Repugnant, but effective.

 

Being so easily fooled by the white supremacist in our own backyard, and the Crusader-like views by mainstream politicians and media that led to his success, is it any wonder that we are witnessing a Muslim ‘ban’ in the USA, the supposed torchbearer of Freedom and Democracy Inc? Is it a ruse by Trump & Co to turn it into a profitable war, thus giving a boost to munitions, big Pharma, oil and consequently the banks? (If it is, I suggest all GOP politicians, including Trump,  and any collaborators be forced to conscript their own offspring first, as a sign of good faith). In this political atmosphere of night-time raids and smoke and mirrors, it is hard to tell.

 

What is clear is this: we now are all faced with a choice. Resist or collaborate. There are no other options available. We will have the answer to that generations-old question. And as we judged others over 70 years ago, so will we too be judged.

Nasty women

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I’m really so sad I couldn’t go to the #WomensMarch today. So I’ve finally bit the bullet and became a fully paid up member of the Women’s Equality Party UK. Essentially, because I believe women’s equality (or more correctly, equity, because equality assumes there is a level playing field according to need, which there is not) to be the key issue underlining a number of other issues worldwide. I’ve always shied away from being part of a group, as I’m not really comfortable in that dynamic. But it just seems with all that’s happened over the last year that I need to do more on a personal level.

Here’s why I think everyone should support female equality (science bit coming up). Women in the UK are 51.7% of the population. Statistics show that there are inequalities across the board in a patriarchal society (which the UK is), in terms of opportunity, career advancement, pay equality etc. When we look at some other minority/oppressed groups across the board in the UK specifically (according to the most recent census, so may veer around this area, but not too much away from it) the figures are as follows:

Black British/African/Carribean: 3%
Immigrants: 13%
LGBTQ: 1.7%
Muslim: 4.5%
Transgender: 0.4%
Disabled: 19%

Now let me pose a question. If patriarchal structures and those who benefit from them have no ideological qualms about oppressing more than half the population who happen to be female – how much less do you think they care about the oppression of groups significantly fewer in percentage and number? Logically, therefore, it is crucial that women’s equity be supported, and come to fruition. Otherwise, we will end up in an endless cycle of Dubya, Dubyer, and Dubyest (we may think there is no worse than Trump at this juncture, but he is making the Dubya years seem moderate by comparison).

Trump is the logical conclusion of centuries of toxic masculinity run amok – time to stop that sh*t now, put it on the eternal naughty step, and aim for a fairer, more representative, more equal, more emotionally intelligent, more sustainable society. As it happens, half of the world’s potential is and has been severely under-utilized. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then patriarchy is the sewage on which the proponents of said madness (currently the white male supremacists) thrive.

Am I saying women could be better? Not necessarily or unnecessarily. Who knows – it’s a theory largely untested. But I do think its time has come and is long overdue.

Even if it is not entirely altruistic, and you’re not entirely comfortable with the idea of female equality (although, to be quite frank, if that is the case, one would do well to question how much patriarchal conditioning forms that stance), if you’re a member of any of the groups above, statistically speaking it is in your best interests to support it. Because once the battle for 51.7% of the population is one, other battles will be harder to ignore. And we are stronger together.

And even if your only motivation is to p*ss off Donald ‘P*ssPOTUS’ Trump, supporting women should do it. You might even want to become a member of The Women’s Equality Party. Check it out. See what you think. Originated in the UK, but I believe this is a party that could potentially, like the Green Party before it, go worldwide and be a force for political change in the world. A march is important, but is just a first step. The key to change is meaningful power. And one thing is certain. Women sure as hell can’t leave all of the responsibility for their bodies, their lives, the earth and its inhabitants up to men. Not while men like Donald Trump have their itchy trigger finger of those tiny wandering hands anywhere near a red button. Be it Twitter,nuclear or a clitoris.

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free. ” – Emma Lazarus (1849-1877)

HOW TO TAKE THE POSITIVE FROM TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY

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I know. You’re scared. I’m scared too. I’ve had an uneasy feeling about the two dominant WASP-y countries since at least June 23rd. This transmuted into sheer terror when a KKK-lover, through the trick of the electoral college, ascended to #PEETUS (I know, I know.There should be an O – though maybe not a wooden one 😉 But the first three letters is what he is in my head now and forever more).
There were a Seth Myers and an SNL sketch around the time he was elected that rang true though. Liberal white people have had the first taste of what it has been to be someone of colour/an immigrant/a Muslim in the US and UK for at least 15 years. This modern fear and paranoia of the other wasn’t created by Trump. This was created by George W. Bush and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. An evangelical white Christian who took his instructions from God and a wannabe Catholic (at the time) eager to prove his zealotry. Both of whom implemented anti-Muslim profiling and the horror threat that is Guantanamo.
If we go back further and we look at the inherent inequality in deregulation, free market capitalism and the rise of the cult of the individual, we can see that we afford the likes of Farage and Trump too much credit and power. They didn’t create those conditions – they have just used and exploited them. And it is true that when situations don’t directly affect us, we mostly have, as white liberals in Western societies with the relative comfort of life that entails, to quote Milton, preferred ‘Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty’.
Because here’s the thing. For some political elite (and I’m not just talking Trump here, again, it affords him too much power, and while he’s proven himself all too happy to take as much power as he can, let’s not attribute more to him than he is about to have), the democracy experiment has gone way too far. We must remember that in its original concept, it was a methodology whereby patrician male Greeks decided the fate of their fellow citizens. What we have now has transmuted far beyond their expectations, and what we have now is a model that doesn’t sit comfortably with most of the ruling elite – both Left and Right. The Neo-Liberal experiment alone would attest to that.
Until conditions are made unbearable for us, we do prefer to wear our bondage with ease. Many women have expressed their fear at a Handmaid’s Tale-esque looming dystopia. I’ve heard of harassment of black friends in NYC, supposedly the ‘great melting-pot’. But racism and misogyny, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric is not a new thing – a whole political party was born out of the latter in the UK, for goodness sake. This did not just ‘happen’. Its growth is down to factors that lie way beyond Trump and Farage’s collective abilities, in austerity policies, a placating of the public, especially the middle-class, educated public at the expense of blue collar workers who are seeing the world they expected to grow old in – the miners, the unskilled labourers – move beyond their reach with no alternative offered in its stead. It does not excuse the alignment with racists, misogynists and bigots. But it does explain it. And, in a sense, one can understand the outrage of having been conned.
But why any positivity over Trump’s election and ascendancy to (piss)POTUS? Well – here’s the thing. There are many people both sides of the Atlantic whose bondage is no longer bearable. I’ve seen more calls to resistance in a few short months than I’ve seen in a whole lifetime of political observance. I’ve finally seen the penny drop with many of my white liberal friends that, hey, things haven’t been so great over the last decade and a half with their Muslim and black friends (although the penny hasn’t quite dropped about who instigated this in the UK – but for sure, it escalated under a Tory party so right-wing and power-crazed that they have literally thrashed their Great Leader Thatcher’s legacy in that she was strongly pro the single market. Oh the irony of ironies).
And the reality is – there hasn’t been such an opportunity for positive change since 1945. I’m not talking change you want to bereave in, hope that doesn’t quite fulfil its overblown promises. I’m talking real, structural, lasting change. We have exciting ideas like universal income that need to be robustly discussed. We have the realisation and the evidence of the gender and race pay gaps, and for what feels like the first time in my lifetime, a possibility to address this (despite the best efforts of the Breitbart fanboys). Unoccupied buildings are being taken over in Dublin and Manchester as the conviction that everyone deserves at least one home, and that there is an immorality to empty buildings when people are dying on our streets. We know our planet has finite resources, despite the climate change deniers, and that there is a better, kinder way forward.
And I’m not going to lie or disseminate here – change is not easy. Having been through a period of huge change myself over the last few years, where I’ve narrowly escaped bankruptcy, had a nervous breakdown, become a yoga teacher (not related necessarily, but the latter has helped enormously!), been through harassment and effectively eviction by my ex-landlord, made some of the greatest strides forward in my career as an artist to date, being able to work more than ever in my chosen path, and now, feeling stronger than ever having been forged in the fire of change – I know that change isn’t easy. And, despite how awful at times that change was – horrible, foetal position inducing, exhausting, energetically debilitating – I am immensely grateful for it. The Gráinne of 2017 is a better, stronger, 2.0 version of the Gráinne 2008 model. There is a strength in being made vulnerable that cannot be emulated by a show of strength. I made it out the other side of my fears and despair with the help, love and support of some tremendous friends, my tribe, my community.
I cite my own experience as maybe a glimmer of a way forward and an insight into how change works. (Or as the saying goes ‘Everyone wants change, but no one wants to change’). If the last 40 years has been defined by the rise of the cult of the individual, we have the choice to strenuously exercise our liberty and work together for our common good. That’s our human choice.
We can give in to our worst nightmare, our inner demons, and I’ll be honest here – on the sexual assault, misogynistic bullying front, Trump certainly triggers a lot of mine. Or we can look at him in his emperor’s clothes, his all-together, and know that he is weak. His whole concept of some sort of white male supremacy is weak – because the whole notion of supremacy of one human being over another is weak. Weakness of intellect. Weakness of natural ability. Supremacy indicates: I can’t make it on my own/as a group without some unfair advantage over other individuals based on sex/race/sexual preference etc. Supremacy indicates: I can only thrive by the oppression of others. Supremacy indicates: I can’t see the humanity in those weaker than me in privilege – the poor, the sick, the disabled – because they reflect back my own weakness, my own vulnerability, my own human frailty – and I DON’T LIKE THAT (capitals inspired by #Trumptweets). Supremacy, ergo, is the ultimate display of weakness.
Or we can access our brightest angels and look around at our community, our diverse, rich, colourful communities, and we can decide right now that there is room for everyone to live and everyone to grow and reach their potential. But we have to realise that choosing our better angels of hope is not a choice for wimps. It requires action. While the marches on the 21st January are great and necessary, as the first step in dissent – it is but a first step. Write to your Senator/MP. Call them. Question why, here in the UK, in the 6th richest country which extolls the virtue of service to country, a third of all homeless are ex-military. Question why there are tax loopholes for those who could most afford to pay their taxes. Inequality of income is widening, and is not unconnected to the rise in homelessness, to the 2.5 million children living below the poverty line, to the easily manipulated anger at political elites (sometimes justifiable), which has led to #Trump, #Farage and their ilk. Question why the soon-to-be 45th President of the United States has yet to release details of his taxes. Question why there is not a psychological test necessary to deem fitness for office. (One of the things that I’ve experienced which ran counter to all of my beliefs until I was directly confronted with it, is that sociopaths walk among us – and we need to begin to understand as a society how to deal with them and integrate them in ways that are least harmful to the majority). Reach out to your community. Join action groups that advocate causes that are meaningful to you. Even if it is just one good deed per day – giving up that seat, talking to that elderly person, giving a compliment where it is least expected – do it. One deed a day per person is 365 good deeds in this naughty world. One good deed a day per person in the UK would add up to approximately 21,900,000,000 good deeds in a year (#maths). Positive action done incrementally and collectively can make change. Sand is the result of waves eroding rocks with millions of beats – and as I’ve just found out through my good friend Google, sand can also re-form into rock over millions of years. Our choice is to catch the wave and turn the tide before hardness sets in. John Lewis, the great civil rights activist and politician, said the other day to always choose love. And, given his experiences and age, forged by Circumstance and Time, I feel that is advice worth heeding.
Dear reader, I’m blathering on because, like you, I feel the trepidation. I’m awake and writing this because of that trepidation. I can admit that looking at that embodiment of angry, toxic orange-white supremacist masculinity on the TV/computer screen has simultaneously enraged and paralysed me. It’s triggered memories that I had consigned to the dustbins of experience. Not just because of him, but because of the legions of angry, toxic white supremacists who feel vindicated and emboldened by him. It’s caused me hours and days of questioning the very nature of humankind, that we can return cyclically to this sort of nasty political climate, despite the lessons of history. I know essentially I’m preaching to the choir. Like you, I feel the need to express what I’m feeling on this – and I am feeling a lot. It feels that the last 6 months have been so full of feelings and global emotion that it’s implosive. And, as they used to say about farting, but now which seems to be an apt description of Theresa May’s #Brexit policy – better out than in. But, just to reiterate: where there is life, there is hope. Where there is a human, there is a choice. And, if the last 40 years and six+ months and the late Jo Cox have taught us – we are better together. We are better when we work together. For our common and equally uncommon good.

Suits you, sir….

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Before Christmas, I was headed to Newcastle to record an audiobook. It’s a journey I often make, though normally I’ve purchased a ticket in advance. It being a pretty hectic time for me, I hadn’t managed to do so on this occasion. I got to King’s Cross around 8.30am, and rather than queue for a teller, I decided to go the self-service route. I was completely flabbergasted to find that there was not one ticket under £200.

Now let me preface this by saying – I ultimately don’t pay for my tickets when doing audiobook narration. That’s in the hands of the publishing company I work for. Still, an extra £80+ for a ticket, dependent on when you purchase it, is not good business practice to me. I queued for a teller who explained that I needed to wait till after 9am to purchase a ticket for the same journey at a lower cost. This option was not given at that time, and, unless one was intimately well-versed in the vagaries and variances of the British railway system, this is not something that, let’s say, a traveller to these fair isles would necessarily know.

I have no patience with this, for a number of reasons. Personally, I’ve had a history of terrible customer service from Virgin Trains, who run this particular route. There was a point in time where, on a Saturday, I took their trains from Euston to Milton Keynes, and, completely dependent on the customer service representative, I would be queried about my ticket (which I normally purchased from Boundary Zone 3). Sometimes I was refused admittance, as I didn’t have a receipt with it stating that I’d a weekly Oyster card. (For a train service to operate in Central London and not to be able to check Oyster cards I would say is particularly remiss). On more than one occasion, their representatives were rude to aggressive. I complained multiple times to Virgin before deciding to travel with their slower, but politer competitors, London Midland. They might not get me there as quickly; but the journey was unfailingly less stressful.

So, going back to my pre-Xmas Newcastle excursion – I tweeted Virgin. They tweeted back telling me I should have booked earlier. I tweeted back that anyone who didn’t know the system would have unwittingly booked at the higher price and that this was unfair. And that given UK rail fares are up to 6 times more than their European counterparts for similar journeys, completely immoral. I didn’t receive any tweets after that.

A couple of weeks ago, I came to Norbury station at 11.05am to see a noticeboard that said 10.38 for the next train. On impulse, and being under time constraints, I looked for someone to query. Upon being told by the ticket office that one had to phone the central call centre in Croydon, I did so. I explained to the customer service representative there that people had been waiting a half-hour to know when their next train would be there; that there had been no announcement; and, to paraphrase the Daily Mash, it wasn’t on that Southern ran their timetable like an avant-garde poem. He then apologised, as is the custom for customer service representatives. I told him that I didn’t want his apology, as it was not necessary coming from him; but I did want him to pass on my comments to his bosses at Southern Rail.

Here’s the thing. In one of my many job incarnations as a performer, I used to coach security officers in their NVQ Level 2 in Customer Service, mainly at the Home Office and Cabinet Office. If I didn’t quite write the book on customer service, I know the man who did; and so being ‘handled’ like this doesn’t quite wash with me. Rather than being taken in the spirit that one gives the consumer the best possible experience, it seems to me that ‘customer service’ has become a way of silencing consumers’ legitimate complaints in the UK. In one of the customer service jobs I’ve held, people talked ad nauseam about ‘objection handling’ rather than working towards there not being an objection to handle in the first place. In the case of trains, customer service representatives are put out on the frontline, on their minimum wage hourly rate, rather than those at the top of the top of the pecking order being held to account to provide a service that reflects the UK’s over-inflated train prices. The statistics also uphold this: UK train prices are 6 times European ticket prices. Southern Rail made £100m in profit last year. According to ASLEF, Virgin Trains made £51m in profit last year, while being subsidised by the public. Train fares have risen by 25% in the last 6 years while wages have remained below their 2008 levels, according to Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary.

Why is this happening? While discussing this with an older friend, she summed it up like this: ‘Passengers have little power, but high interest. Employees have little power, but equally high interest in providing a good service. The bosses of the various rail companies have high power, but in truth, low interest in providing a good, affordable service. The same can be said of shareholders. Ultimately the main priority of the train bosses is to satisfy their shareholders, and their own pockets, not to listen to customers or their employees’.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this. There will not be a better, more affordable service on the rail networks in the UK unless it is the interests of the rail bosses to do so. On Friday last week I was passing through Clapham Junction and a digitised sign board had been erected by Southern. It stated that there would be cancellations because the unions were forbidding their members to work overtime (or words to that effect) and were going on strike. I went to have a word with one of the station managers, to voice my objections on the grounds that (a) workers still have the right to strike in this country (b) to strike is always a last resort, given the financial implications and (c) workers still have the right to refuse overtime – on grounds of safety may be a reason, but even if there is no reason – so what? That is their choice. The issue here, furthermore, is not that workers won’t work overtime, but that bosses are refusing to be realistic with their shareholders about the long-term implications of buying shares in a rail network that needs heavy investment, both structurally and in terms of personnel. Again, rather than shoot the messenger, I asked him to pass on my message.

The bottom line is: something has to change. The government refuses to listen to those who are on the frontline (quelle surprise!), and there is little as a consumer one can do to take action except this:

1. Complain. And to the right people. Ultimately it is not in the best interests of an employee to strike, so if a consensus has been reached that striking is the only option, then we have to accept that decision has not been reached lightly.

2. A company can withstand a certain amount of negative publicity – that’s what PR companies are for. But in the case of highlighting causes/inequities, social media is key. Name and shame.

3. Apply for refunds for every single journey delayed. It’s incredible how quickly a company can change their working practices if their profit margins are affected.

Ultimately something has to change – so why not for the greater good?

 

 

My Citizens’ Assembly submission for #Repealthe8th

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Why it is essential to the concept of the Irish Republic that we repeal the 8th

 

It is 100 years since the Easter Rising. An Easter Rising in which women fought, and sacrificed their lives to, the ideal of a nation that ‘….guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally..’. Where the women of the nation have been concerned, however, the idea of civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities have been denied, and, through an unholy alliance of Church and State, betrayed.

It is essential that we no longer betray our forebears who sacrificed so much on our behalf. The suffragettes who risked life and limb, and who had the added burden of not just being revolutionaries on behalf of their fellow citizens, but on behalf of their fellow female citizens. Helena Molony, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Rose McNamara and Elizabeth Farrell, Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell are names all but unknown now – yet the role that these brave women played in altering the course of Irish history needs to be honoured.

There needs to be reparation for the sins of the past, in particular the sins of the State in colluding with the Church to imprison and enslave generations of Irish women in the Magdalen Laundries. There needs to be reparation for the toxicity of a State that held the rights of its male citizens as paramount and sacrificed its women at their altar. There needs to be reparation for the lack of care given to the women who were unjustly denied abortions: Miss X. Savita Halappanavar. The endangered, unnamed migrant woman in 2014 denied an abortion by our courts. All the unnamed women who, for reasons of their own (which should be their citizens’ right to decide) have had to make the lonely trip to England. Oh the irony that their former colonial masters can provide the medical procedure that their own supposed Free State will not. What a bitter pill to swallow, on top of all the other bitter pills women have endured since the beginning of our nation once again. Same oppression, different master. In modern Ireland, the possession of the Y chromosome is paramount.

Towhit: either all of our citizens are free and autonomous, or none are. For anyone who considers themselves an Irish citizen, true to the values of the Proclamation, no matter one’s personal or religious beliefs, this is the crucial point to understand. To believe otherwise is to dishonor the very tenets upon which the Irish State was created. To believe otherwise is to betray those brave men and women who sacrificed their very lives on our behalves. To believe otherwise is but to ape the tactics of British rule, by which we were but second-class citizens in our own country. It is time to elevate women to first-class citizenship, whereby they have that most basic of human rights: complete bodily autonomy. Let’s finally do the right thing and be a shining example of transformation in the world. #Repealthe8th