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Archive for June 2016

Referendum eve

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I am home to vote, and I am home to vote remain, and I am glad to be here and to participate in this process but I also feel that the result of this referendum is less important than the narratives that have dominated it, and that is what really scares me.

I have enormous amounts of sympathy for those who have genuine, well-thought-out reasons to support Brexit that don’t fit with the dominant narrative. Had there been a strong and coordinated Lexit campaign, it might have swayed me: the EU is by definition a capitalist institution; I am generally in favour of devolution of power down to the lowest possible level; if the discussion around exit had focused on how to better serve the most vulnerable in society, whether British or otherwise, I would have listened. I might have been persuaded.

Instead, the Brexit campaign has coalesced around the cruellest, most selfish, most inward looking aspects of our society. As Billy Bragg said recently, I totally understand that not every Brexiter is racist, but every racist will be voting for Brexit. Those leading the movement have cannily pressed every button, tweaked every dial to ratchet up those aspects of our culture that make me most ashamed. Brexiteers talk about taking our country back, about regaining sovereignty; they hearken back to a gloriously cartoonish and imaginary past. I am normally allergic to anything that smacks of patriotism, but you know what, here are a few things that make me proud to be British: the Kindertransport. The resettlement of 27,000 Asian Ugandans in the 1970s, after they were expelled by Idi Amin. The fact that one of our most beloved Olympians is of Somali origin, and our national dish is chicken tikka masala, and that we have always been a country that looked out, and that welcomed in. The Brexit campaign talks about taking our country back, but actually they’re threatening to take away what I love about this country, what I think makes it great.

Plenty of people have put more time and effort than me into enumerating the reasons why Remain is the sensible choice. Here’s Hugh Hancock on the veracity of both sides of the debate, and here’s Ben Goldacre on reasons to stay, and here’s a crowdsourced map on EU investments in British Infrastructure, and and and. But it’s not about reasons, and it’s not about debate, and it never has been, and that cuts both ways. I’ll admit it: my voting choices are generally based on values and narrative, and that’s what has me actually, literally, sick to the core about this referendum: important as the result is, more horrifying to me is what a result might tell us about the values of the British electorate, and what they see as their dominant narrative. What scares me is less the idea of a Brexit in itself, but what that signifies in terms of the choice of the electorate. The Brexit campaign has been based about racism and xenophobia, and irrespective of whether the majority of people voting for Brexit share those values, a success for Brexit will be a legitimisation of that narrative – a narrative than I’d always thought was marginal and minimal, but which has turned out to be more mainstream and pervasive than I’d feared, running like a faultline through the heart of the UK.

This vote isn’t just about itself; it’s about our idea of our country, what we think it is and what we want it to be in future. Whichever side wins will be seen as a mandate for a particular strain of politics, and anyone who doesn’t see that is naive to the point of utter lunacy. There are ways that the UK could have a progressive policy towards immigrants and the poor and the disabled and the disenfranchised outside of the EU; there are ways that we could have stronger public services and increased redistribution of wealth outside of the EU, but my god, none of these things are on the table. Michael Gove isn’t going to take the imaginary and factually incorrect £350m a week we’ll save from not being members of the EU and use it to sprinkle magical solely-British-staffed hospitals around the country like fairy dust. A vote for Brexit will do nothing but make this country smaller, and meaner, and poorer – not just financially, but socially and culturally and in the ways that really matter.

I’m really, genuinely frightened of what happens after this referendum: what a Leave vote will signal for British politics; what a Remain vote will spark in terms of backlash. The campaign for this referendum has been the most destructive and divisive political process that I have experienced, and I don’t know how to repair the damage that has already been done.

I don’t like telling people how to vote, because I don’t like it when people do it to me. I just hope that when people go to the polls tomorrow they hold in their heads an idea of the country they want this to be, and that they’re open and honest about that means. And I hope that we remain kind to one another in the aftermath.


Written by Jess

June 22, 2016 at 11:16 pm

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Longest day

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It’s been one of those weeks that leaves a person feeling stripped back to raw feeling. Nine days ago, Omar Mateen murdered 49 primarily Latinx people in a gay club in Orlando. Five days ago, Tommy Mair shouted “[put] Britain first” and murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Look: it’s not the death tolls of these acts that horrify the most – though of course they are horrifying. But both of these acts are also stories, and they gather together a sad little collection of ideas about who we are, who we want to be, who we think we are, what matters to us, what and whom we love, what and whom we fear.

An American man of Afghan Muslim origin walked into a gay nightclub with an assault rifle and killed 49 people. A white British man with links to white supremacist groups murdered a serving Member of Parliament. Depending on where you stand, these stories will look different to you, the precise way that the strands are woven together: race and religion, sexuality and gender, mental health – but more than that, about freedom and connection, about individual versus collective rights, about the role of swivel-eyed demagogues in fomenting fear and misery … and about the amount of responsibility we bear for one another.

In the days after Orlando, memes proclaiming that “love always wins” flooded social media, and they made me angry. I am not, by nature, an angry person, and it’s not an emotion that I enjoy, but there was something about this anger that coruscated, that felt sharp and fine and like a tool that could be used for a specific purpose. The exhortations to love felt wrong, this time. I didn’t say anything: I am not particularly queer, myself; I have never experienced, and probably will never experience the gut-level fear that comes from being a core member of a marginalised and widely-hated group, without a cloak of privilege to hide behind – and so if holding up a banner of love was of comfort to my LGBTQI friends, it was not my place to take that away. The murder of Jo Cox, however, felt like something that more mine. That it happened in my country, that it happened, arguably, as part of a political discourse with which I am involved – it felt personal; it still feels personal.

A few days after Orlando, a friend posted a link on Facebook to this story, about a planeload of people expressing their condolences to the grandmother of one of the Orlando victims, as she travelled for the funeral. It made me cry, because of course it did. It made me think, as had a number of different things I’d seen or read in the aftermath oh, look: people are good, after allIt was a comfort. And then I thought: wait a minute. It is easy to be compassionate in the face of an elderly woman’s grief. Only the most pernicious hatred can stand up in the face of that. (Westboro Baptist Church, I am looking at you.) But … do I really believe that this whole planeload of people are flawless LGBTQI allies? I do not. There will be people on that plane who opposed marriage equality because they just weren’t comfortable with the idea of it. There will be people on that plane who use the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative, who laugh at homophobic jokes, who wonder aloud why transgender people don’t just use the bathroom that matches the body they were born with. These are not good people. They’re not bad people, either. They’re just people, like the rest of us.

This is the thing that is hardest to grasp, I think. I don’t believe in evil, and I don’t believe in saints, but even if I did, they couldn’t account for more than the tiniest, skinniest sliver of the world’s population. And so here we are, you and me and the other 7.4 billion of us, according to Wikipedia, wallowing about in a great tepid sea of sometimes-awesome-but-often-a-little-bit terrible. This is not news! We know this already! We are constantly buoying ourselves up and letting ourselves down and buoying ourselves up again. But I wonder if this is one of those things that’s much easier to believe about ourselves than about each other?

Here are some things I know:

  1. When confronted by someone’s pain, most people behave with compassion. See: the grieving grandmother on a flight to Orlando. See: the body of Alan Kurdi. Put a face on an issue and it becomes harder and harder to turn away from it.
  2. We’re becoming more and more polarised. We don’t always adhere to the same lines of demarcation (religion or sexuality or nationality or politics or, simply, out ideas of ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people), but we all draw them. And so it’s harder and harder to find the faces that match the issues that aren’t our own. We’re echo-chambers; we’re mirror spheres; we bounce our own way of looking at the world back and forth between us.

And this is where it comes back to love, perhaps. This is where I was wrong, perhaps, in my initial reaction against love always wins. I had been seeing love as something passive, something inward, something that we lean into, take comfort from, something that draws us together with the people who are already like us. It can be all of those things. But it can also be a tool. It can be a weapon. It can be something we take and craft and use. It can be something flung outward. It can be a firework, it can be a depth charge, it can be something carved into a goddamn mountainside. Love is acceptance, but it’s also wanting things to be better. It’s wanting people to be better, to live up to themselves, to be kind, to reach out. It’s looking for that face in other people, but also being that face itself. It’s about being more human for one another.

Written by Jess

June 21, 2016 at 7:55 pm

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Reading The Raven Cycle in Kampala

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The book(s): The Raven Cycle, Maggie Stiefvater

The place: initially Kampala, though I am now sat in a Schiphol Starbucks clutching a quadruple-shot latte and waiting for my connecting flight to London. 


While reading Richard Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes series, I did a bit of frantic and despairing googling for reviews: frantic because when I love a book I want to connect with people who also love it, and despairing because I need them to love it in exactly the same way and also the moon on a stick etc. It was this googling that led me to Brit Mandelo’s excellent review of The Cold Commands on (spoilers, obv), which led me to decide that Brit Mandelo is evidently a kindred spirit, as far as books go, which led me to this four-part essay on the Raven Cycle (also spoilers, obv, and I cannot exactly recommend this essay as I have only skimmed it myself for that very reason, but it was enough to make me buy all four books). Anyway post-drive-in-traffic-to-Entebbe, post-airport, post-flight, all of which entails a lot of reading time, I am about one-third of the way through the second book and enjoying the series immensely so far – finding the writing quite dramatically improved between the first and the second, also.

I was very interested to read Richard Morgan’s blog post in which he discusses and dissects the issue of gratuity in literature, which contains the killer line: “The simple truth is that we absorb the content of our entertainment rather than the structural underpinnings, and – each to our own tastes – we tend to go looking for entertainment that has the best chance of containing the things we vicariously thrill to.” Obviously nothing I didn’t already know; I have often mentioned – jokingly, and less so – my tendency to outsource my emotions to fiction; I’ve noticed, also, that this year the art that I have been consuming (primarily books and music, but also television) has been more overtly id-driven than is usual, in a way that has me slightly concerned. It’s not that I feel, necessarily, that I am reading Less Good material (and the question of what I mean by good in this context is ever a vexed one), but that my reading choices are driven by impulses that are … less worthy? I don’t know. Probably I am just tired; probably I am increasingly seeking out books that will give me a guaranteed pay-off of some sort, rather than ones that will demand something of me – and it’s true, also, that my reading patterns change when I am on holiday, compared to when I am working.


Meanwhile, there is Orlando, and what can one say about that? I feel a bit … emptied out by horror these days, to be frank, as something unimaginably awful happens and people rehearse the same old tired old arguments to reinforce their own positions. Every time, I think: this, this will be the thing that changes people’s views (about gun control; about LGBTQ rights) and yet every time the positions end up feeling more entrenched. (Mine included, I confess.) What has changed in me, this time around, is that it has clarified my position on calling out homophobia and transphobia where I encounter it; I’ve been remiss in the past, in situations where it could be excused by cultural or religious difference. But I’m done with that now. No culture, no religion justifies hatred; opposition to gay marriage, trans* panic about bathrooms, all of that exists on a spectrum of violence with Pulse nightclub at its bloodier and more violent end – but make no mistake, it’s part of the same social and cultural structure that leaves people dead. If you’re not opposed to homophobia in all its forms, you are part of the problem that ends in this.

Written by Jess

June 14, 2016 at 7:29 am

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Intermission: 2016 reading challenge

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Briefly, painfully briefly in Nairobi. This month is peripatetic even for me.

Spent a bit of time yesterday googling “can a person be addicted to reading” (…yes), and in doing so came across this 2016 reading challenge, which I may try and complete. Obviously it is nearly halfway through 2016 already, so I’m unlikely to hit all the categories, but there are a few that I can claim to have already covered:

  • A book based on a fairy tale: Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi.
  • A YA bestseller: All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven.
  • A book set in your home state (which I’m interpreting as a book set in my home city): A Glasgow Gang Observed, Patrick James.
  • A book set in Europe: any number, but let’s say Fallout, Sadie Jones.
  • A book that’s under 150 pages: hard to tell, as I read mostly on Kindle, but possibly Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin, which was pretty short.
  • A book you can read in a day: any number of KJ Charles books, which I binge-read in a single (extremely long) day while in transit from Freetown to London.
  • A book that’s over 600 pages: again, hard to tell, but Amazon informs me that the US paperback of Richard Morgan’s The Dark Defiles is 600+ pages, so that.
  • A science fiction novel: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut.
  • A book recommended by a family member: Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walters.
  • A book published in 2016: there have been a few, but let’s go with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain.
  • A book with a protagonist who has your occupation: if I consider my occupation to be ‘writer’, then either Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, or Fallout would fit the bill (though their protagonists are playwrights rather than novelists). That feels like a bit of a stretch though.
  • A murder mystery: Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith.
  • A classic from the twentieth century: Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov.
  • A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with: Reef, Romesh Gunesekera.

Written by Jess

June 9, 2016 at 4:25 pm

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Reading ‘Missoula’ in Freetown

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The book: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, John Krakauer

The place: Freetown 


I didn’t deliberately start reading this because of the Stanford rape case that’s all over the media at the moment, but given the circumstances it has been apropos. The whole situation makes me so incandescently angry that I can’t put together anything much beyond incoherent keyboard-smashery, and wiser women than I have weighed in on the subject, primarily, of course, the woman at the centre of the case, who has written the most incisive and brave (and gloriously sarcastic in parts) victim impact statement, that cuts like a knife to the central issues of the case, and effortlessly dismantles all the frantic frothing on the part of those who support her rapist, about his stellar swim times and the bright future that he is being stripped of thanks to his decision to rape someone. There’s something about this particular case that has clarified some of the most pungent aspects of rape culture: that women have a past and men have potential; that drunkenness exonerates men from blame but increases the culpability of the female victim.

I’ve seen at least one article claiming that the victim impact statement had no place in a courtroom, despite the fact that the entire adversarial nature of the criminal justice system is based on the presumption of innocence, that the victim of rape is already at a colossal structural disadvantage in proving her case – and so I’m going to link to my ever-brilliant friend Winnie Lee, who writes about the importance of social media in giving a voice to victims of rape and sexual assault.

UGH RAGE. Quick everyone, look at the pretty sunset. It is calming.

Written by Jess

June 7, 2016 at 4:12 pm

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