Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"Britain is Open for Business" (part 2)

Continuing on from part 1


Britain is open for business.” this is a phrase that comes up again and again in the media, either as a cliché from journalists or a direct soundbite from an MP. It is usually linked to economic reports that show growth in the UK economy, or a piece of legislation that makes international trade easier (or less regulated) is going ahead. The emphasis is that the UK is a company and that that company is profitable. ...
This is where I start to really stretch the metaphor. I want you to picture an actual physical marketplace: perhaps your town has an indoor market or a weekly produce market. I'll be keeping St George's Market in Belfast in mind throughout this. Now lets start thinking about what makes a good market and how that applies to national economics. Just trust me and go along for the ride.

Safe and secure

A good market is somewhere where stall holders can leave their merchandise overnight and be relatively confident that it will still be there in the morning. During trading they don't expect to experience much in the way of stock loss, or other significant crime. They know that, should something be stolen or they are assaulted or any other crime is committed that market staff and security will help deal with the issue appropriately.
The same goes for people visiting a market. They don't want to be mugged, or pick-pocketed. They don't want to be harassed or assaulted. They don't want to have a stall-holder overcharge them, refuse to give them change or steal their bank details (it's 2015, markets have card readers). Should anything happen we want to be sure that security or the police are involved, that our complaints are listened to with care and diligence and that appropriate measures will be taken. In the case of a stall-holder committing a crime against a customer that may be a criminal charge but it may also include a ban on future trading.
The UK market place has a police force, a criminal justice system and a legislature that includes dozens of regulating bodies, especially when you start taking in to account local authorities. Now I was raised to be fairly pro police and I have to say, by and by that confidence remains. I am aware however, that for certain groups of people and for certain crimes, policing and justice aren't always carried out fairly. Young black men for example are more likely to be stopped and searched than any other group. In fact racism in the UK criminal system is well reported and documented if you want to go and read about it. In more recent years this has extended to Asian men, and people who are not UK nationals. There are also certain crimes which are not treated with the sensitivity or even handedness they should be: rape and sexual assault have some shocking statistics regarding how many cases are taken to trial, how many end in prosecution and the length of prison sentences handed down. Rape is also one of the few crimes were the burden of proof falls so heavily on the shoulders of the victims and there is an uphill struggle to even convince police that a crime has been committed. Policing and justice is clearly not as fair and even as it could be.
Then there are other parts of the legislature: banking regulation, taxation, welfare and social security, wage and employment law, immigration law (relating to the above section on diversity) which are skewed to benefit a very small percentage of the population and to cripple the rest. To shun, marginalise, refuse to help and at times actively hurt large parts of your market in order to benefit a small few. Is that actually leading to a successful market or is that leading to a market which can't be sustained whilst a few stallholders walk away smiling (with the credit card details of their unrepresented customers).

Friday, 1 May 2015

“Britain is Open For Business” (part 1)

In which I stretch a metaphor as far as possible.


 “Britain is open for business.” this is a phrase that comes up again and again in the media, either as a cliché from journalists or a direct soundbite from an MP. It is usually linked to economic reports that show growth in the UK economy, or a piece of legislation that makes international trade easier (or less regulated) is going ahead. The emphasis is that the UK is a company and that that company is profitable.

I have issues with this premise and consequently, every time that hackneyed line is rolled out I find myself on the phone ranting to somebody, usually my poor beleaguered father. In my opinion, expecting a country, even a western capitalist country like the UK, to function as a business is fundamentally wrong. It is this drive for profit, for pleasing investors and stakeholders and putting coffers ahead of people that leads to spending cuts, service cuts, privatisation, right wing and socially conservative rhetoric. When your key measure of success is how “healthy” the bank balance is, all sorts of other markers will be ignored.
“Britain Open for Business” means that we treat the country as a business and the populace as workers with no real function other than to serve the profit of the country. If the profit margins are not big enough then the workers, us, the citizens, will be sacrificed as cuts are made in the name of efficiency.
But is profit, economic growth and a national bank balance really the best or only way of measuring the success of a nation? In short, no it isn't. So let's examine this metaphor.

Being open for business, a nation trading as a company is based in free market economics, the very backbone of western capitalist government. It is nice and neat to think about the country as a single business entity that opens its doors, trades and then balances the books at the end of the day. However, that's not how a market works. Not a money market, not the stock market, not a traditional farmer's market. It's also not how the country works. Whatever the size and scope of a market there are many different elements that can dictate its success or failure. If a CEO or board member of a FTSE company is exposed in a drug scandal, the company’s shares will take a knock and the whole balance of trading on the stock market might shift. Yet recreational cocaine use has little to do with product quality or unit sales?
So instead of thinking in terms of a country as a single business, why not think of it in terms of the market as a whole being ready for business. The UK itself is a marketplace, and actually, that's what economists really mean when they make this statement. The UK as a place were other countries and international companies can feel confident trading. Where people and their businesses will be happy to spend their money and in doing so will enrich the UK.

This is where I start to really stretch the metaphor. I want you to picture an actual physical marketplace: perhaps your town has an indoor market or a weekly produce market. I'll be keeping St George's Market in Belfast in mind throughout this. Now lets start thinking about what makes a good market and how that applies to national economics. Just trust me and go along for the ride.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Let's Ditch the Boy/girlfriend

I was asked today if I had a boyfriend. I answered no. I would have answered no regardless of my relationship status the reason being, quite simply, that I can't abide the term. Following a long term relationship I vowed that I would never have a boyfriend or conversely be somebodies 'girlfriend' again. This wasn't a vow to singledom, a bitter casting off of relationships, this was simply that I had the opportunity to start fresh with how I approached and understood relationships. Part of that was eschewing the X-friend terminology. It's a term I have loathed for years and I am determined not to fall into the easy habits of using it again. Let me talk you through why.

Girls and boys or men and women

First and foremost, I find it to be infantising. I'm not a girl any more; I'm an adult, a woman. The people I choose to have relationships with are also adults. Our relationships are adult. I don't want to have a romantic or sexual relationship with a child, with a little boy or a little girl. I want to have a relationship with a peer. Yes ages may vary, and maturity isn't necessary defined by the chronological age of a person, but I still want to be confident that I can describe my relationship as an adult one. A relationship without boys or girls.

Just 'girls' and 'boys'?

You can have a girlfriend and you can have a boyfriend. What about if you are a person who is gender queer, gender neutral or intersex? What if you are in a relationship with somebody who doesn't fit neatly into that gender binary. When common terminology like girlfriend and boyfriend is used it excludes a whole host of people and their relationships.
“This is my genderqueerfriend.” doesn't quite roll of the tongue, and gives the impression that it is an asexual, aromantic relationship. You know, a friendship.

The “friends” thing

The X-friend terminology carries with it the implication that you can only be friends with somebody of the 'opposite' gender if you are also in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with them. This reinforces stereotypes that men and women, or girls and boys, are different, two discreet groups that are to different to mingle freely.
You will occasionally hear 'girlfriend' being applied to platonic female/female friendships (a generally American usage I believe); I don't think I have ever heard boyfriend being applied to a male/male platonic relationship. Likewise who would use boy/girlfriend to apply to a platonic hetero relationship? Further confusion comes when we realise that this also relies on heteronormative preconceptions of relationships which may vary by culture; a man referring to a boyfriend is almost certainly going to be considered in a homosexual relationship where as a woman referring to her girlfriend may be in a homosexual romantic relationship or a platonic friendship depending on the prevailing culture.


Non-traditional relationship structures

The standard relationship structure in the UK is one of long term monogamy; for many individuals though, that simply isn't the structure that works for them. Polyamory, open relationships and other forms of non-monogamy are becoming increasingly accepted and explored relationship structures as people try and find away of having relationships that satisfies their needs and doesn't end in divorce or long periods of uncomfortable compromise. Girl/boyfriend are terms that have been around for over a century and have almost exclusively (especially in the latter half of the 20th C) been used to refer to ones monogamous romantic partner. As soon as you move away from that two person relationship dynamic, language becomes even more complex. The term isn't easily or comfortably applied to some romantic and/or sexual partners without considering how you label all individuals in the arrangement. If you have different types of relationship with different people, a single term might not fit all yet you risk alienating or hurting individuals by applying the term to one and not to another. This is multiplied when the public perception of a word carries significance that is at odds to your own personal situation.

[Of course a majority of people are perfectly happy with long term monogamy, have no qualms about making it work and have no need or desire to explore other formats. That's cool, I'm just looking at other groups for this particular point.]

Alternative language

This is where I fall apart somewhat: trying to find a suitable alternative for a word firmly lodged in my and other's lexicon.
Partner – it is delightfully gender neutral, contains more gravitas than boy/girlfriend, and is reasonably malleable to fit different situations. The problem is I find it a little to serious and stolid, not really suiting more casual relationships and flirtations. It still has the baggage of long term monogamy attached which doesn't suit all. It's just a little too business like and formal for my tastes.
Lover – A term that makes me cringe somewhat with it's kitschy undertones and suggestion of illicit boardroom affairs. But it is gender neutral and is free from the bounds of traditional relationship structures and less heavy and demanding than 'partner'. That means of course that it's less heavy and demanding than partner, perhaps not feeling right for a more committed relationship.
Paramour – Bizarrely I find this less kitschy than lover, though it still has many of the same pros and cons. It is somewhat sweater than lover, and for me doesn't have the association with an illicit affair.
Beau – My main issue with this is that I never really know how to pronounce it. It is a term I am most familiar with being applied to younger people, and thus risks becoming slightly more childish, not categorised as a 'real' relationship. That being said it is pleasingly neutral (though I believe is intended to refer to a male partner) with an affection that is lacking from love and partner.

That's it, those are the only alternatives I can think of and none are quite satisfactory. I'm wary of creating entirely new words. Yes I understand that that's how language develops but the intentionally created word often seems trite and forced – compersion a word created by the poly community to cover the pleasure you take in one of your partners enjoying another relationship is an example of this; lovely definition, yet the word leaves me utterly cold.
The other question to ask is do we need these labels and terms at all, can the ubiquitous boy/girlfriend be ditched in a mass slewing of definitions, labels and terms. Well maybe, perhaps we can focus more on describing the individual and the personal nature of the relationship and try not to fit into the boxes defined by particular words. The fact remains however, that sometimes we want an easy, simple and compact word or phrase for ease of communication and that those words can be a part of the relationship itself.

I am loathe to produce a piece that complains about an issue without offering a viable solution but the fact remains that as of yet, I don't have one. All I am sure of is that I don't want to be your girlfriend.

Friday, 28 November 2014

''The Beautiful Game' - guest post by Mark Tynan

Today I have a guest post from Mark Tynan. Inspired by an editorial in the guardian last week (Nov. 18th) Mark wrote a reply, a 202 word scathing assessment of professional football, the UK banking system and our favourite former PM.

The Guardian decided not to print. I felt (with Mark's permission) that it really should be read by more than three people.


The Guardian chooses to make professional football the subject of an editorial
My observation is that that status is ill-deserved. To adopt a phrase used by she-who-shall-not be-named, why give football, in its modern guise, the 'oxygen of publicity'? No longer a game nor a sport, football is now just a business.
The editorial makes no mention of 'the beautiful game', there is no mention of players, their ball-skills inspiring a new generation of would-be international stars. No, the stand-out words and phrases are 'lawyers', 'corruption','large debt' and 'global farce'.
How sorry is it that our 'national game' now has more in common with banking than actual sport, a situation, I feel, which was summed-up last year by a club waiting overnight to make the announcement of the sacking of its manager, a Mr Moyes I believe, until the opening of the New York Stock Exchange?!
'Global farce' is an understatement. Football, mired in greed and corruption, and burdened with a generation of professional players who are better actors than they are footballers, has become a laughing-stock. Cricket and Rugby Union take heed! Down that road, evil lies!

Sincerely
Mark Tynan

The observant of you will notice that the author of this an I share a surname. Mark is indeed father though I think any bias I have toward is writing is outweighed by the quality.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Thought Bubble Part 2: Accessibility

The previous post gave a summary of how thought bubble was supportive of different genders and age groups and gave a generally welcoming atmosphere. I thought that, in order to be complete, I should address a few of the other areas mentioned namely, accessibility for people with physical, developmental or neurological disabilities.

I have some physical disabilities and on tough days walk with as stick. I had my stick with me on the day and found accessibility for me was very good. Each of the main rooms had level access or gentle ramps to get in to them and had no steps once inside. The greeting room (where you paid, picked up your wristband, maps and program) had a number of steps at the front which surprised me a little but, I later realised (by seeing a woman zoom past me on her motorised chair) that there was also a gentle ramp up to the entrance so it was accessible to people in wheelchairs and those who can't navigate steps. This was excellent. I noted that there were actually a number of people using canes, crutches or in wheelchairs, both of the powered variety and self propelled. At no point did I see any of these people struggling to navigate the convention though I can not personally attest to how easy it was for people in chairs to reach the tables and exhibitors. The aisles were wide enough to pass down easily and without me feeling like I was an obstruction, though the sheer volume of people did mean I got jostled or my stick knocked a few times. I don't think that could really be fixed without having absolutely enormous spaces between things. I was happy to deal with the odd jostle though it might be a difficultly for other people. 

These little spaces between tables (carefully marked with an x) were great for standing out of the way.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Rediscovering Comics

and a review of Thought Bubble


Two weeks ago I went to Thought Bubble: Leeds' dedicated comic convention and part of a bigger festival of comic art and writing. I had been to comic conventions before: great jumbles of artists, stands, merchandise, games and anime. To be quite frank I hadn't enjoyed these experiences. The halls were too busy and without focus; I felt like a outsider, not knowledgeable enough about comics anime or games; I was older than the other clientèle, female, and not cosplaying. It was a world that was difficult for me to access.

Thought Bubble Annie Wu
Illustration by Annie Wu used with permission.

 Thought Bubble, I was told, was different. For starters, rather than the mishmash of everything from games to anime with comics thrown in there in the middle Thought Bubble was about comics and only about comics. OK it covered all aspects of this media from self published zines to big publishing houses and graphic novels but the core was still the telling of stories through printed art and words. There was only going to be the one subculture for me to deal with.
More than that, they said, Thought Bubble was, from day one, designed to be inclusive; accessible to anybody regardless of gender, age, ability or disability, whether they were life long fans of comics or turning the page for the first time. This was the real charm: a comic con that I could go to and feel safe and not excluded. I was impressed that a con would be organised in this manner, that the managers and staff that ran it went in to it with conscious aim of not discriminating against, in fact actively supporting, many groups of people.
I was told of policy regarding sexism and gender issues – those comic artists who were overtly discriminatory in their drawings or views simply weren't invited. Booth girls weren't a feature. People who used discriminatory language would be asked to leave. The organisers made sure to provide facilities for people with physical or neurological disabilities including quiet areas, gender neutral toilets and easy access to event halls. This sounded incredible but I was dubious about how it actually worked in practice.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Beauty Vs Chronic Illness

I was shown a video a few days ago called "Letting Beauty Speak'. It is produced by Cross Fit International and it wants to redefine beauty. The definition the video highlighted brought me to tears. It was an unexpected yet quite profound reaction and it is something I want to address.



Let me get this stated right now:

I like Cross Fit. I have no problem with CrossFit or with those people who do it (in general). I like the enthusiastic approach to being fit and healthy. I love seeing my friends so happy when then have achieved something new. I also think that 'organisations' and communities like Cross Fit are really good in supporting and encouraging people more than just a call to go to the gym. Many people thrive with that sort of communal approach to achieving a goal.
So, are with clear, I have no problem with Cross Fit.

Back to the core of this post: why a video redefining beauty that explicitly pushed against the usual media standards of beauty left me distressed. You may not care about my distress itself, but I would hope you care about questioning the media definition of beauty.
When I saw the title of the video I was keen to watch. I am very pro health and fitness, and even more supportive of things that de-construct media-pedalled 'traditional' concept of beauty and attractiveness; I wanted to see how a group of people I respect viewed beauty. I wanted to know their answer to the question ''what is beauty?''.