Nadine Dorries. Those two words make me want to tear my hair out. I know I’ve harped on about her quite a lot but if she shut her vile, hypocritical, Bible-bashing gob, maybe I could stop wanting to break things every time I hear her name.
Now Dorries is claiming that she has never met a gay couple that wants to get married, and because of this, the equal marriage policy should be ditched. So, can we then assume that she has met every gay couple in the country? And how about gay singles: do they not want to get married eventually either? Apparently only heterosexual people want to get married.
According to Dorries, “Gay marriage is a policy which has been pursued by the metro elite gay activists and needs to be put into the same bin […] Gay couples are no different from heterosexual couples and yet this policy transforms them into political agitators who have set themselves against the church and community.” She is essentially blaming gay activists who are campaigning for equal marriage for attacks on the gay community, both verbal and physical. She is blaming every gay person who has been rejected by adoption panels – they’re unhappy because they are gay. Every gay person who has been abused in the street by small-minded, pig-ignorant, small-c conservatives, every gay person who has ended up in a hospital bed or, worse, a mortuary, having been beaten or knifed; it’s their fault because they’re gay. Gays are too vocal and that is why bad things happen to them. She is, essentially, blaming every minority out there for the extreme inequality which is propelled by the press and religious institutions in this country.
Gay people who are campaigning for equal marriage are setting themselves up against the Church. Does it matter? The state and the church are SEPARATE in this country!
And who is Dorries to claim to promote and protect Christianity and the “institution of marriage” when she divorced in 2007 and then had an affair with a married man?!
After all, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t adultery verboten? I’m pretty sure God would be less than pleased that she has torn families apart.
So, I’ve chuntered on about gay campaigners quite a bit. But what about straight people who are campaigning for equal marriage? Me, for instance. I’m a straight girl, campaigning for gay people’s right to get married. Am I setting myself up against the church and the state? Am I inviting homophobic thugs to attack me? I have thought about what it would be like to get married, where it would happen, what I would wear. I’ve thought about the perfect man who I will spend the rest of my life with and have a family with. I’m pretty sure every person in this country – gay, straight, bisexual, undecided – has thought about it at least once. Everyone should have the right to turn those dreams into a reality. Equal marriage would have no impact on the church whatsoever. A gay, married couple will not have an impact on “the wider community”. A marriage is between two people, not the world and its mistress (and yes, Mad Nad, the mistress is you.)
But according to Dorries, everyone should just shut up, stop moaning, and conform to a white, heterosexual, middle-class image because complaining about problems is bad and we should all look like we live in a happy, fuzzy, old England world, untainted by sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, so that the rest of the world can continue to think of Great Britain as a postcard. So that we look like a bunch of God-fearing, unemotional, stiff-upper-lipped drones. Well. Tell you what, Dorries, why don’t you fuck off to an abandoned island somewhere far away and set up your Brave New World of indoctrinated, drugged up, “happy” drones? This is no longer a case of “Should Dorries be disciplined?” it’s a case of “Should a mute button be implanted on her so that we no longer have to listen to the cascade of nonsense that drips out of this batshit crazy woman’s mouth?”
And in case you’re wondering, the answer is “yes. Of course. Has that not happened yet? Why has that not happened yet?”
One of my favourite pastimes is finding reasons to dislike Nadine Dorries. Luckily for me, the woman never fails to give me ammunition: so you can imagine my glee this morning at finding out she has been slagging Cameron and Osborne off to the Beeb. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find both of them to be despicable, slimy creatures and almost agree with what Dorries said (SHOCK! HORROR!) but let’s be real, Nadine, should you really be taking jabs at your party leader like that in such a public way?
Let’s take a step back and look at the situation and what it really means. Forget that we are talking about the Conservatives, forget that the topic of this interview was Cameron and Osborne; hell, forget that the interviewee is an insane, right-wing, anti-feminist, anti-abortionist who would like to see women’s rights controlled by the state. For the sake of objectivity, let’s call the governing party the Nutters, and refer to Cameron, Osborne, and Dorries as X, Y, and Z, respectively.
For any large party which is in and out of power, to look (and actually be) united is vital. You cannot expect the electorate to want to vote for you if you can’t keep your party, your MPs and your supporters together. For a leader to make it to Number 10, he or she needs support, first and foremost, from his or her party. For an MP to criticise the leader of their party whilst out of government is bad. For an MP to do so while said leader is also the leader of the country, the representative of the UK on an international platform, the face of this country during tough economic or political climes, is disastrous. Yet Z has criticised the leader of the Nutters as well as its economic mastermind (remember, I am not referring to Osborne here, obviously; just any potential Chancellor of the Exchequer). However, this isn’t what made me laugh/cringe the most.
So what exactly did Dorries say about Cameron and Osborne? When prompted by the interviewer (who asked if she thought Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Idiot were just two posh boys who didn’t know the price of milk) she declared:
“Not only are they two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.”
Nadine, you have absolutely no arguments from me on this one. David and George have indeed shown themselves to be selfish, arrogant and uncaring. I do not believe they understand how a family of six living in a two-bed council flat scrapes by week to week, how a severely disabled man who lost the movement from his neck down in a motorcycle crash and is facing having his benefits slashed feels or how civil servants so scared of losing their jobs and working full-time hours on part-time pay feel. Nor do I believe they can really care unless they’ve experienced any of this for themselves.
HOWEVER, while she was speaking, I found myself screaming “POT! KETTLE! BLACK!!!” This is the ARROGANT woman who wrote an article saying that Cameron had texted her to apologise for “humiliating” her in the House of Common; the politician who showed NO REMORSE in declaring that girls (and only girls) should receive abstinence lessons; the idiot who has NO PASSION TO UNDERSTAND THE LIVES OF OTHERS, who felt it was fine to strip abortion centres of their rights to provide counselling to women.
In September of last year, I wrote an article entitled “Should Dorries Be Disciplined?”. The answer to that question, in my opinion, is still a definite and resounding “YES, PLEASE GOD, JUST GET RID OF THE WOMAN!”
I almost feel sorry for Cameron. To quote the great Malcolm Tucker, the woman is an absolute clusterfuck.
“In India, China and many other parts of the world today, girls are killed, aborted and abandoned simply because they are girls. The United Nations estimates as many as 200 million girls are missing in the world today because of this so-called “gendercide”.
This documentary film tells the stories of abandoned and trafficked girls, of women who suffer extreme dowry-related violence, of brave mothers fighting to save their daughters’ lives, and of other mothers who would kill for a son. Global experts and grassroots activists put the stories in context and advocate different paths towards change, while collectively lamenting the lack of any truly effective action against this injustice.” — “It’s A Girl!” (trailer)
And it’s not just happening in the so-called “third world”. It’s happening even in the West. There’s been evidence of same sex abortion happening right here, so it’s not a phenomenon to which we’re somehow ‘immune’. Research produced by Oxford University has shown that at least one hundred girls go “missing” from Indian families in the UK each year; information wasn’t taken from other communities.
Societal effects from selective sex abortion are devastating. Gender bias can broadly affect a society and lead to implications such as lower family rates, simply because there are less women to marry with whom to have children. It can also worsen attitudes towards women and lead to a growing resentment of women. A situation where there is surplus males and an increased mobility of females leads to unmarried men who are prone to violence; the areas within China and India with the highest sex selection rates have experienced crime waves like they have never seen before.
Reasons for this gendercide are varied. Cultural preference and different views of gender play into it hugely, a phenomenon known as ‘son preference’. Son preference is an Indian (and Chinese) patriarchal social model; it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men are seen to be the sole breadwinners and have the responsibility to go with it: looking after parents, providing for the family and carrying on the family name. But dictating that only men can be breadwinners allows for a society as a whole to be inherently male-dominated and closed off to any women who do try to enter the workplace. By having a son, you ensure that you are looked after into old age – an important thing to consider, when India has no social security system. Conversely, when a daughter is born, she will marry out of the family and take a dowry with her – a dowry that not all families can afford.
Some argue, therefore, that eliminating poverty would take care of the gendercide, such as the woman in the trailer above who nervously laughs that she strangled eight of her daughters shortly after birth. Not really: the worst offenders have been shown to be the more affluent middle and upper classes because these people are the ones that have the access to ultrasounds and abortion. Gendercide doesn’t stop because of wealth; it just becomes a whole lot easier. Aborting a child because of its sex is a lot cleaner than killing your daughters at birth, but morally they’re just as bad as each other. Wealth doesn’t stop gendercide.
The Chinese cultural bias towards male children is similar to the Indian bias, but it is exacerbated much more by the One Child Policy than by a traditional culture.
200 million women have been killed because of their gender; and as these nations grow into superpowers, we can only expect for gender inequality to grow and the consequences to be even larger than we ever anticipated unless we act now. Steps have already been introduced in India that makes revealing the sex of the child illegal, but wide-scale corruption in India allows for this information to get out. If the dowry for marriage (which has become illegal in India, without much real effect) is high now, imagine the its going rate in fifteen or twenty years’ time. In the late nineties in China the government allowed for a second child in rural areas where anti-female sentiment was the highest, but this doesn’t account for the fifty million missing girls in China today, an estimate given by the World Health Organisation.
So far, no solution has worked. Combating gendercide takes more than anti-dowry laws; society and culture itself must change to save its daughters.
Gendercide is a crime against girls committed by women because of patriarchal society, anti-female culture and poverty. In India, the biggest factor is the cultural aspect; in China it is poverty. A society has to change innately in order to combat its anti-female bias, from its workplace to its education. Poverty must be lessened and education increased along with widened access for women to the same opportunities offered to men.
Everyone knows Trainspotting, the book that became a film that became a iconic cultural moment in the mid-Nineties. Even if you’ve never read or seen it, I bet the word causes certain associations in your mind: Ewan McGregor, skinny and sweating on the film posters; that orange-on-white text, beloved of student posters; that quote. You know the one. ‘Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.’
So it’s written in the original book, anyway; the film Anglicised it somewhat, but it remains one of the defining quotations of that particular moment. As well as one of the most mis-used.
When I was in high school, the humanities departments put up posters encouraging would-be historians, geographers and so on to take their subject at GCSE. I don’t remember the history department’s poster, but the geography department came up with “Geogspotting”, a concept that’s always stuck in my mind for being so completely out of touch.
Their poster aped the Trainspotting promotional material. ‘Choose wading about in rivers. Choose learning about the world. Choose trips to France. Choose geography,’ the poster somewhat cringeworthily suggested. It was the marketing campaign equivalent of your dad attempting to dance to dubstep.
Since then I’ve seen Trainspotting’s most memorable quote bastardised for everything from election campaigns to student posters (‘Choose beer’. Makes me shudder. And not just because I don’t like beer). But I’ve never seen it used in anything near the right way. And sure, I’m a pedant, but it irritates me to the point of sending me off an incredibly long and impassioned rant. And making me less than popular with anyone else who happens to be around. (Especially if it’s their poster).
See, the thing is, as I’m pretty sure most of us know, that quote isn’t the whole story. It’s got a couple of lines before and after it which are crucial to understanding it. So crucial, in fact, that the purveyors of Geogspotting and Beerspotting and whatever-you-really-want-that-can-be-shortened-to-one-syllable-spotting have completely missed them.
So here we go. In the interests of education and correcting cultural myths, here’s the whole paragraph:
‘Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream…They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.
Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem.’
Basically, then, as we should all be aware, when Renton gives this speech – or, in the book, has these thoughts – they are not intended to be a representation of a life that he wants. If the use of ‘mind-numbing and spirit crushing’ doesn’t give it away, that final ‘choose life’ is immediately followed by ‘Well, ah choose no tae choose life.’ In the film, he adds, ‘I chose something else’ as he injects a syringe full of heroin into his bloodstream. It’s a pretty clear message.
It’s interesting, then, just how far Geogspotting and Beerspotting and what-have-you missed the point. They didn’t just ‘not quite get it’; no, the points they were trying to make are the direct opposite of the quotation they used to make them. In actual fact, what my geography department was telling me, by implication, was ‘Don’t do geography, take heroin!’
(I mean, you know, they probably didn’t realise that. But still)
What I’ve been trying to get round to, in an admittedly long-winded way, is this. Trainspotting has become such a cultural moment that it’s often referenced and appropriated by people who have absolutely no idea what it’s even about, other than ‘that Scottish drug book’.
When I was fifteen, my mother banned me from reading it because ‘it glamorises heroin’. Obviously, I immediately went and bought a copy, because I was fifteen and listened to too much Pete Doherty. When I read it, though, I was so taken aback – not to mention nauseated – that I went back to my mother and demanded to know exactly how it glamorised heroin addiction. This is a book, mind you, which begins with two of its supposed protagonists in the grip of heroin withdrawal: ‘Bad cramps wir beginning tae hit us as we mounted the stairs tae Johnny’s gaff. Ah wis dripping like a saturated sponge, every step bringing another gush fae ma pores. Sick Boy wis probably even worse, but the cunt was beginning no tae exist fir us. Ah wis only aware ay him slouching tae a halt oan the banister in front ay us, because he wis blocking ma route tae Johnny’s and the skag. He wis struggling fir breath, haudin grimly oantay the railing, looking as if he wis gaunnae spew intae the stairwell’. It’s vivid, it’s shocking in places, but it’s never sensationalised; these two misfits in an Edinburgh stairwell are hardly junkie rock-stars playing to a crowd of millions. If anything, Trainspotting does more to de-glamourise heroin addiction than any other depiction in popular culture.
When I pointed this out, though, my mother had a confession to make: she’d never actually read it. Which, I think, is something of a microcosmic view of how this book is received. It’s required reading for quite a few English Literature courses; but it’s still somewhat looked down on as gross, graphic sensationalism by parts of the Establishment. It’s by turns a genuine depiction of a certain unemployed, drug-addicted, barely-coherent sector of society, and an over-exaggerated piece of tabloid journalism. It’s brave, or it’s lurid; affecting or sickening; exhilarating or impossible to read.
The book has been so overtaken by the controversies surrounding it – as, to a lesser extent, has the film – that sometimes it goes rather underappreciated, for all the superlative praise it receives. Because the best things about this book aren’t the scatological scenes we all remember – they’re just the grotesque icing on the cake. The best thing about this book is its portrayal not of heroin addiction but of hopelessness. When you’re talking about Trainspotting, it’s interesting to remember that only about half of its cast are actually heroin addicts, and the book as a whole by no means focuses solely on them. Look at the psychotic Begbie, whose thoughts on heroin he succinctly sums up: ‘Fuckin junkies. A waste ay fuckin space’; or Sick Boy, who kicks his habit as early as page 55 of the book and never goes back to it. It is a book about heroin, yes, but it is not a book only about heroin. It’s a book about escape; a book about despair; a book about making bad choices. It is a book about choosing not to choose life, in all the permutations of that phrase.
It’s also well worth a read, whether or not you’ve seen the film. (If you’re relatively strong of stomach, that is.)
Next Week: About the Death Penalty: Vernon God Little
We marched from Bristo Square to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, where a rally took place. Not all of our supporters marched: as we snaked our way down the Royal Mile, people hung out of their windows to watch, and to wave, and to cheer us on. This march was, I feel, a Good Thing.
It was good to see MPs talking sense, bringing up the arguments of the opposition and defeating them instead of prevaricating, because this is actually what they did. The crowds were asked, Have you ever heard a strong argument against the legalisation of same-sex marriage? Silence. That, we were told, is because there aren’t any. The arguments from our opposition are made of straw.
Marriage is about family our opposition says: this is not true, because it is neither necessary for a successful marriage that it results in having children, nor necessary for the success of parenthood that the parents be married; further, even were this true, we heard and we cheered for, the sexuality of the parents has no bearing on the children. This we know, this we have known for years, but this has yet to be reflected in the law.
Allowing same-sex marriage will redefine marriage: of course it will, but not for the worse. Just as the introduction of laws allowing women to own their own property following marriage redefined marriage for the better. Marriage needs to be redefined to reflect the society within which it takes place, or we’d still have child-brides. It has not had one uniform definition over time, and certainly in the UK it has moved from a contract joining two families for mutual benefits to one joining two lovers, any two lovers. We should allow the sex of those lovers to be no more barrier than we do the lack of financial gain in some arrangements. This we know, this we have known for years, but this too has yet to be reflected in the law.
It was good to see a religious representative (Marilyn Jackson, of the Humanist Society of Scotland) stand up and argue for her right, for the right of all religions, to perform marriage ceremonies, not just blessings, for religious same-sex couples. If this is something that churches want to do, then who is benefitted by outlawing it? And certainly there is something wrong in a nation where two atheists can stand up in a church and swear to love one another in front of a God who they don’t believe in, when two people who love each other just as much, and who believe in that God, are unable to do so. Or even in a country where an atheist same-sex couple doesn’t have the same right to stand up in church as an atheist straight couple.
It was good to see over a thousand people who care enough about equality of marriage to show it, to make an effort for it, to act for it. Because this is important, and the fact that it is important is something that needs to be shown, needs to have efforts made for it, needs to be acted for. We have to make it clear that we have no intention of giving up, whether it takes months or years for same-sex couples to be given equal rights.
We need to show our opposition that this is no fad, this is no whim, this is not some phase we as a nation are going through. This is something that we know is right, and something we will not stop fighting for.
We will continue to fight for equality with more marches, more petitions, more letters to our politicians, and with more votes for those who will support us instead of take steps and leaps backwards. We will continue to speak up and we will never give up.
Marriage equality has the support of the majority of the Scottish people. It has the support of MSPs and at least some support from religious believers who want the power to carry out the ceremonies. We will find out this spring if it has the support of the Scottish government. But of course, this doesn’t end there.
We have come a long way since 1967, when homosexuality was decriminalised in the United Kingdom, to the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005. Let’s add more dates to this path, let’s add more victories, just as over the years we have added more and more support to the fight. And let’s give our support to those fighting in the rest of the UK, and outside it, to the countries where homosexuality is still outlawed, to the countries where relationships are not recognised by the law, to the countries where discrimination is permitted or encouraged.
So, it might be a few days late, but still: happy Valentine’s Day, Scotland, and happy Valentine’s Day, Britain, and happy Valentine’s Day world, if you’re reading. This year, join this fight, and do something for love that will last.
Looking for practical and expert advice for your student problems?
Well, er…look further, because we’re just asking a philosopher.
My flatmate wants to go out and get drunk all the time, but I want to stay in and concentrate on uni work. What should I do?
– Hardworking, Plymouth
Well, Hardworking, you will be greatly relieved to hear that your position is supported by one of the great proponents of utilitarianism.
John Stuart Mill famously said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (Utilitarianism: 1863).
Tell your flatmate this. Make it absolutely clear that he is the pig and the fool. I have yet to meet a single person who won’t change their habits after hearing that a dead philosopher disapproves of them.
I want to go out all the time and get drunk, but my flatmate wants to stay in and do uni work. What should I do?
– Bored and Sober, Plymouth
Well, Bored and Sober, you will be greatly relieved to hear that your position is supported by one of the great proponents of utilitarianism.
Jeremy Bentham famously said of utilitarianism that its, “fundamental axiom … [is] it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” (A Fragment of Government: 1776).
Tell your flatmate this. Make it absolutely clear that a greater happiness for a greater number will result from your both going out. I have yet to meet a single person who won’t change their habits after hearing that a dead philosopher disapproves of them.
Got a problem our friendly Philosopher can solve? Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Please note: all emails must be kept strictly Platonic.
I fall into the latter category – here’s why…
(1) It now costs me almost £3 to get home to Islington on the tube from some of my friends’ houses. After a night out when I have little money left, this is rather upsetting. Why does it cost so much? Because Boris Johnson has increased fares. Why? To fund “improvements” to tube and over-ground networks. WHAT IMPROVEMENTS? There are still ridiculous delays, overcrowding and lines being closed at weekends. Not to mention escalators that do not work – after a long night out, I don’t particularly want to walk up a zillion steps!
(2) During the Olympics, cars, buses, and taxis will be re-routed to avoid the area altogether. That’s reeeaaally going to improve London’s already appalling traffic circulation.
(3) Hundreds of thousands of non-Londoners will be flocking to the city. Many know that Londoners (myself included) have a specific way of walking: FAST. Streets will be clogged up by loads of confused people looking at maps RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PAVEMENT.
(4) East London will forever be a crap hole. No matter how much money is pumped into it. (er, as an Islingtonian, I say this with love… not wishing to offend too many people here)
(5) The budget for the Games has more than quadrupled since it was announced that London would be hosting the Olympics in 2005. Considering our economy was in a better state then, how can Jeremy Hunt justify doing this? The public sector and financial services for the most vulnerable are going to hell in a handcart, yet Mr Hunt still refuses to have “austerity Games” because the Games will boost morale.
Well, I’m sure that people being made redundant, bankrupt and homeless will, in fact, feel less depressed about their situations while watching some people passing a stick to each other.
That is, if they have any way of watching them.
(6) Most of the tickets were sold off to large corporations. So most of the “ordinary” Londoners won’t even be able to watch the Games from the stadium. No, they’ll have to watch them on TV as though they were in any other city in the world.
(7) WHY IS THE NEW WESTFIELD CALLED WESTFIELD? IT’S IN EAST LONDON.
So. Yes. Jobs will be created, tourism revenue will go up and builders across the country have been given work fixing up hotels. Yes, worse things are happening in the country, like Tesco seeking permanent employees while only offering expenses and Job-Seekers’ Allowance. But is any lasting good going to come from the Games? Beijing’s “bird nest” stadium has been virtually untouched in the last four years – despite being a work of art in comparison to our stadium. Will this not just turn into a new Millennium Dome? Until it became the O2 Arena it was just used for rubbish expositions and was quickly forgotten by most Londoners…
Anyway, that’s my view on this summer’s over-hyped waste of money. Maybe I’m just soulless. Whatever – I’m comfortable with it.
Last night, Twitter was in uproar after an advert posted on an East Midlands jobseekers’ website offered a permanent position working nights at Tesco. Everything was great, but for one little catch: the position was unpaid.
In fact, to be precise, it offered ‘JSA + Expenses’. Job Seeker’s Allowance, in other words, and a few measly travel expenses.
This is wrong, isn’t it? Working for no money is bad enough, but to be asked to actively compete for the chance to do so…it sends shivers down the spine. It’s as if Tesco backed over, pulled down its trousers and demanded that the poorest and most desperate compete for the chance to kiss its arse.
And the sad thing is that people will. Because we are desperate. We’re living in a climate where there are no jobs and, it’s looking increasingly likely, no chance of any. Yet at the same time we’re living in a climate where to be unemployed is to be a ‘scrounger’, to be somehow fraudulent, to be taking state money from people who really need it. The reality of our collective situation hasn’t set in for many of us yet.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell makes a point which was not only fairly accurate of attitudes at his time, but also scarily prescient of current attitudes, which really haven’t changed that much at all. ‘The middle classes were still talking about “lazy idle loafers on the dole”,’ he writes of the mid-Thirties, ‘and saying that “these men could all find work if they wanted to”, and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves… That was the attitude towards unemployment in those days: it was a disaster which happened to you as an individual and for which you were to blame.’
Sound familiar? It should, because it’s an attitude surprisingly prevalent today. And it’s an attitude actively encouraged by the government. To quote one example of many: in October, Chris Grayling, Minister for Employment, was quoted cheerfully advising people that ‘it’s a great time to apply for one of the tens of thousands of Christmas jobs which are being advertised’ with all the gumption of a high school careers adviser. This news came shortly after the revelation that 80,000 people had applied for just 18,000 temporary Christmas jobs with Royal Mail.
Grayling seems to be implying that the main problem people have with finding employment is a stubborn refusal to get out there and look for jobs. Whilst this might be true of a small minority, it certainly isn’t true of the vast majority of people who are currently on benefits. Just look at the fact that Tesco very nearly got away with advertising a position for ‘JSA + Expenses’. People are desperate enough to work for nothing.
People – most people – want to work, in my experience. It beats sitting around watching Jeremy Kyle repeats and crying into your Weetabix, which can get a bit tedious around about the seventieth consecutive day. It beats the constant drum of worry in the back of your mind and the pit of your stomach about where this week’s money will come from and if you’ll have enough to pay for food. What’s wrong isn’t that people aren’t taking jobs; it’s that there aren’t jobs for people to take. And companies like Tesco are actively exploiting the most vulnerable by encouraging them to apply for jobs like the one that’s caused this outrage.
We need proper regulation to prevent this ever happening again. We need the minimum wage – a desperately important legislation, and one we’ve got for a reason – to be rigorously applied in all cases. We need the government to think about the poorest in society, their desperate daily struggle, rather than the profits of multi-millionaire corporations like Tesco.
We need change.
The book was published in 1999 to great critical acclaim; it won a clutch of prizes, including the Guardian first book award and the James Tait Black prize for fiction. A TV series was made (still available on 4OD, and well worth a watch). Something about Smith’s multi-faceted, warm, funny tableaux of London life at the turn of the century caught the nation’s imagination and tugged at its heartstrings.
At the time, Smith insisted that White Teeth wasn’t a political statement. ‘I wasn’t trying to write about race,’ she said. ‘I was trying to write about the country I live in.’ Yet it can’t be denied that the book was hailed as a watershed moment for multiculturalism. What was it about White Teeth that captured that particular moment in time so perfectly?
The book follows the lives of two London families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, across two generations. For most of the novel, the two families live next door each other in Willesden, an area of north-west London. The Iqbals are from Bangladesh; Archie Jones is from London, and his wife Clara is Jamaican.
It would have been easy, then, for this novel to focus exclusively on the races of its main characters. But Smith doesn’t take the easy way out: what she does with White Teeth is infinitely more interesting and relevant. Race is a backdrop in White Teeth. It’s never forgotten about; indeed, it informs some of the major plot points of the novel; but neither is it the book’s sole focus.
White Teeth is by no means colourblind, but neither does it see things exclusively in black and white – if you’ll excuse a slightly mixed metaphor. Instead it focuses on the grey areas in between, the everyday reality of life for both of these families.
The book’s temporality ought not to be forgotten, either, when discussing its attitudes towards multiculturalism. The main action happens in two sections: the first, concentrating on the first generation of the families – Samad and Alsana as adult immigrants, and Clara having immigrated with her mother as a child – has a very different focus and attitude towards race than the second. For example, reactions to Archie and Clara’s marriage are mixed: Clara’s mother strongly disapproves ‘on grounds of colour rather than of age, and of hearing of [the marriage] promptly ostracized her daughter one morning on the doorstep’.
Similarly, Archie’s employer attempts, through an excruciatingly awkward conversation of which Archie entirely misses the point, to communicate that his ‘attitude is a little strange’: ‘you see the wives don’t like it because, let’s face it, she’s a sort, a real beauty – incredible legs, Archie, I’d like to congratulate you on them legs – and then men, well, the men don’t like it ‘cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s…you know…they don’t know what to make of that at all’.
What’s interesting here, perhaps, isn’t the attitude towards race itself, which is depressing but not entirely unexpected: it is the way in which Smith cleverly buries it in euphemism. Archie’s boss – the significantly named Mr Hero – insists that ‘it’s not that I’m a racialist [...] I’d spit on that Enoch Powell…but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he?’ It’s an attitude that we’ve all seen people articulate, whether in our direction or elsewhere, and in having Archie so totally misunderstand the point of the conversation, Smith manages to skilfully satirise it without ever letting us escape its painful intent.
The second half of the book deals with the children of the two families: Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie, and Samad and Alsana’s twin sons, Magid and Millat. Each of the three children has their own take on the world and their place on it. Again, race isn’t the sole focus of the novel – the growing pains of three teenagers make up a large part of it – but it certainly isn’t brushed under the carpet. Most notably, Samad makes the decision to send one of his young sons to Bangladesh, to be raised ‘traditionally’ by his family in the hope of avoiding ‘corruption’. ‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Smith writes, ‘tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rearely appears sinister.’
The sending away of Magid – chosen over his twin because ‘Magid had the brains, Magid would settle down quicker, learn the language, quicker, and Archie had a vested interest in keeping Millat in the country because he was the best striker Willesden Athletic FC (under fifteens) had seen in decades’ – forms the spine of the book’s second half.
Samad’s plan, of course, fails. Magid does not become ‘for God, not for men…a real Bengali, a proper Muslim’ in the way that Samad
wants him to be. Instead he becomes a scientist, mixed up in controversial research against which Samad is protesting. Meanwhile, Millat joins an extremist Muslim group in the UK – ‘Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation’, or the wonderfully-deflating KEVIN (‘We are aware,’ said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, ‘that we have an acronym problem.’).
Irie, meanwhile, has developed a teenage crush on a whole family, the New Age, middle-class Chalfens, well-meaning but still unable to see beyond her skin colour. ‘She had a nebulous fifteen-year-old’s passion for them, overwhelming, yet with no real direction or object. She just wanted to, well, kind of, merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfishness. The purity of it.’ Both she and Millat are very aware of their racial identities and their heritages; both, too, have problematic relationships with their parents; but they both deal with it in different ways, and this is how Smith really brings her characters to life.
(I don’t want to give away too much about the end of this book, because it’s wonderful and well worth reading, but suffice to say that the Iqbals, Joneses and Chalfens of both generations eventually collide in a hilarious, poignant, tumultuous finale.)
Although Smith might claim that White Teeth isn’t a political novel, then, its political dimensions are pretty glaring, all things considered. But it’s more than simply a polemic – Smith is writing more after the fashion of Dickens than, say, Orwell; what makes this novel great is that it is an exploration of what it’s like to grow up in the last decades of the twentieth century, in a London still finding its multicultural feet. One of the most memorable passages from the novel, for me at least, is this one, which seems to encapsulate everything I’m trying to say:
‘It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.’
Next Week: Drugs and the Modern Working Class: Irvine Welsh and the ‘Trainspotting’ Generation
In 1954 he committed suicide. He was forty-one years old.
Yesterday, news broke that Justice Minister Lord McNally had dismissed an online petition to grant Alan Turing a posthumous pardon. The petition had amassed over twenty-three thousand signatures; but the motion was dismissed in the House of Lords, with McNally saying that it was ‘not considered appropriate’ as Turing was ‘properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence’.
There are many, many things wrong with this.
Firstly – and forgive my lack of law jargon, but this is the product of some judicious googling and seems to be fairly accurate – in the UK, official pardons are completely separate from the miscarriage of justice system; they are about ‘moral innocence’. In other words, they’re totally symbolic – especially in a case like this, in which the pardon would be granted posthumously. Therefore, we might expect, it would make no difference whether or not Turing was ‘properly convicted’; if we claim that he does not deserve to be pardoned, we are making the claim that he was morally guilty. And that implies some interesting things about the value systems of our government.
This is a man, let’s not forget, whose contributions not only to the wider worlds of mathematics and computing but also to the country itself cannot be overestimated. During the Second World War, he played a vital role in decoding German communications from Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. In denying him a pardon, the government are implicitly making the claim that the work he did during his lifetime is somehow less important to his place in history than the sexuality which he did not choose. This is a moral judgement. It is a moral judgement which, apparently, hasn’t changed since the 1950s. And, I hope, you don’t need me to tell you how wrong that is.
Secondly, in 1954, the poor decisions of a UK government killed a man, a man who had worked incredibly hard to save the nation which condemned him. That is a blot on us all; it is a shame that we must all live with. Granting Alan Turing a pardon would not dissolve this shame, no, just as apologising for an action doesn’t automatically solve the problem. But a pardon would act as an apology; it would be a symbolic atonement for the sins committed against not only Turing, but also other gay men, by the British government in the past. It would be a way to officially recognise the wrong decision that was made in 1952. It would be a way to officially recognise how the UK justice system let so many people down.
Thirdly, this is something which the government could easily grant. It costs nothing, after all. Twenty-three thousand people want it to happen. It would be a simple way to strike a symbolic blow for equality. Yet they won’t. However they dress it up, I can’t think of a single way to read it which isn’t as a deliberate and malicious snub. And that worries me. It should worry us all.
Why? It’s simple. If this government won’t make a stand for equality when it costs them nothing to do so, what will happen when a situation arises in which doing the right thing does cost something? Because that day will come, and if we’ve learnt anything today it’s that we can’t trust this government to make the right choice.
Alan Turing died because the nation he had worked so hard to benefit turned its back upon him. The least the nation can do is be ashamed of itself.