Posts Tagged ‘society’

The Casual Vacancy

The review below is of The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. I reviewed it on Goodreads on 11th October.

I’m not sure whether the format was designed to make me think of a Jilly Cooper novel, with all these characters introduced, and a mix of upper-class twits, well-meaning social workers, and rough-but-golden-hearted working class heroes, but that was the echo that haunted me throughout.

The concept of a pervasive Parish Council in an English town is quite foreign to me, having grown up in a Scottish city, and although unfamiliarity of location isn’t usually a barrier to enjoyment of a novel, I didn’t feel like I connected much to Pagford.

The Casual Vacancy is a commentary on social values which isn’t original, but still has a place. The self-satisfied Pagfordians – particularly the Mollisons (who are implicitly raging Tories) – are almost comedy villains, while the Weedons are caricatures of every right-winger’s bête-noir. Such extremes aren’t unknown, but felt a little contrived for the sake of the story. Yet they each have a purpose in this tale, which bowled along nicely and started to wiggle its way into my brain. The denouement surprised me and actually changed how I felt about the whole story; the absence of any neatly tied loose ends felt authentic and encouraged me to examine my prejudices towards the characters.

Overall it was well-written, and some techniques – such as the extended sections in parenthesis which extended our understanding of a character’s thoughts or background – were unusual enough to give a fresh feel to the novel. Recommended to others – but you should have no expectations as you pick up the book. Harry Potter it is NOT – but it is no poorer for that.


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This post is written to reflect some of the themes of Parenting Across Scotland, a charity partnership supporting parents. Their conference takes place on October 3rd. Follow #PAS12 on Twitter.


On Sunday, as normal, my family was at our church. We have two services on a Sunday morning: one at 10 o’clock which is a quiet, contemplative service and includes communion, and a second service at 11.30, which tends to be busier, louder, and more family-focused. As a family, we try to attend both services, for several reasons – they serve different purposes, touch us in different ways, are beneficial to us in different areas of our faith. Not to mention that I have responsibilities in youth work during the second service, and so am rarely in the main church service during that period.

We love our church – it is a source of real encouragement to us in our faith, we have close friends there, and the church family is flawed but loves Jesus and puts him first, which I believe is the best any of us can be as Christians. The incident which prompted this blog post happened here at our church, which means everything and nothing – it could have happened anywhere.

My daughter, who is just short of four months old, was quite fussy on Sunday morning. She needed to sleep, and wasn’t for dropping off, so I took her out of the main hall and paced with her in the vestibule at the back of the church. She cried on and off – girning cries, not hysterical screams. In between her cries she settled into me and I was able to catch some of the thoughts, prayers, bible passages that made up that service. It wasn’t perfect but I felt I was at least taking a small part in the proceedings.

In the time inbetween the services, while my daughter dropped off to sleep in the sling, I was approached by an older gentleman who asked if he could speak to me “without me taking offence”. As I had been told upfront how I should be reacting to the chat, my back was already up, but basically he was ‘letting me know’ that being out in the vestibule didn’t muffle my baby’s cries at all, and that perhaps I could consider using the lounge during the service. I thanked him through gritted teeth for his advice and let him move on.

It seems like such a small thing, and yet in the days since it happened I keep coming back to it and dwelling on his words, and what they mean, both for me as a parent and for society as a whole. As I say, the fact that it happened at church is almost irrelevant; it could have been a coffee shop or a post office queue. Nor do I bear malice now to the gentleman himself who spoke to me – it was something he felt he had to say, and at least he spoke to me personally rather than grumbling behind my back.

How DO we as a society integrate children and parents into our day to day activities? The gentleman had a point; he was perhaps distracted by my daughter’s cries and found it took him away from his contemplations. If he spoke to me, then it is a certainty that there are others who felt the same but did not want to approach me. This is a time that is important to them, for their own reasons. Why should my desire to be part of the service, as one person – parent or not – trump the needs or comfort of umpteen others?

And yet. And yet. It would of course be easier for us as a family not to attend that service. Getting us all out with necessary accoutrements by 9.30am every Sunday morning is no mean feat. We go because it is important to us, to show our children that it is important to us. That we attend church not out of a sense of duty but of joy, to spend time glorifying our God and meeting with our church family. My son at 3 attends the creche where he plays for an hour, but my daughter is far too little for me to leave her yet, even if she would take milk from anyone but me. We tell our children that they are loved and accepted, not only by our Saviour, but by the others who attend our church.

Children cry. They fuss, they run, they smear chocolate on things. They are not always easy people to like – unless they are our own in which case we love them always, like them most of the time, and want to throw them out of a window only occasionally. Like it or not, they are the future. A church, in common with any organisation, will not grow and fulfil its purpose unless there is new life to continue it.

Should I not take my daughter back to that service until she is old enough to stay in creche and/or keep quiet when appropriate? This would of course also mean my taking no part in that service, as it is open and participatory, and the audio feed sent to the lounge does not pick up anything said from within the congregation. It would also mean that I am not able to take part in communion until some unspecified point in the future.

As a society we still prefer children to occupy their proper place. Absolutely they need boundaries, guidance and rules. They also need love and acceptance. To a certain extent there are two issues here – how we deal with children and how we deal with parents, but the two are of course inextricably linked. I understand how irritating and noisy children can be – believe me – but we can’t continue to expect them to be anything other than children.

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No More Page 3

Unless you’re living under a particularly misogynistic rock, you may well have heard in recent days about a campaign called No More Page 3. It will come as no surprise that I wholeheartedly support the aims of the campaign, which can be found here (follow on Twitter here). Please do sign the petition.

An article in El Pais today explains more of the background and gives a European point of view – original article here. I engaged my rusty linguistics brain and made a decent fist of translating the article, as below. Any thoughts or opinions on either the campaign or my distinctly average translation skills are welcome!


No more ‘Topless Girls’ in the Newspaper

One day in July, Lucy-Anne Holmes, an English woman in her thirties, saw The Sun, a Rupert Murdoch tabloid paper which is also the biggest-selling daily paper in Britain. The Sun on the day in question carried an article on the athlete Jessica Ennis, who had become a national Olympic heroine. Arriving at Page 3, Holmes was surprised; no sign of the classic topless girl which The Sun has carried for 42 years on its third page. “I thought the page had changed during the Olympic Games, or perhaps that the newspaper had decided to suspend the publication of the page as a sign of respect to so many visiting cultures during this period,” she says. But no. She arrived at Page 13, and here it was: a young woman in briefs, with her name, her marital status and her home town, as per usual. “I felt incredibly sad,” she relates. “Here was the largest photo of a woman in the entire paper, bigger than any of those of Jessica Ennis. And so it has been for more than four decades. I could not stop thinking that this picture of a woman, shown as a sexual object, was repeated day in, day out, in a family newspaper.”

From that point on, Holmes, who is an actress and the author of a book entitled The (Im)Perfect Girlfriend, began to write letters to the editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan. Letters which, predictably, received no response and had little effect. But about three weeks ago, she decided to send her campaign viral. She recorded a video and uploaded it to YouTube, opened one account on Twitter and another on Facebook called No More Page 3, and organised a petition on the change.org site. The majority of signatures have been accompanied by messages such as “Page 3 is the main way in which women are objectified in Britain. It’s there, on the kitchen table, on the couch. Young boys seeing this paper learn that women are there to serve their sexual needs and women believe that this is their purpose.” Holmes identifies with these messages and talks of the challenges of adolescence, when they hear their peers talking about Page 3. “Until I was about 35 I didn’t realise the amount of hate I directed towards that part of my body. Since I was young I had seen these photos and thought: wow, my boobs are nothing like these girls’.”

The more followers the campaign gets, the greater the media attention it has generated, and there are those who think that this time might finally be the last time. In 1987, the Labour MP Clare Short raised a question in Parliament and failed, due to lukewarm support from within her own Party, but, more than anything, due to the deplorable performance of the Tories, who made sure they interrupted and ridiculed her during her speech in the House of Commons. However it was this campaign of ridicule that she was subjected to in The Sun newspaper itself, which baptised her Crazy Clare and Killjoy Clare, and spent months talking of “jealous” people, who must feel let down by their own imperfect bodies. When, some years later, Short resumed her campaign, the Murdoch newspaper even sent a gang of Page 3 girls to her house, like bailiffs chasing a debt.

Holmes is not put off by such history. “I’m not appealing to the government. I’m offering a platform so that people who believe that these images are harmful can speak directly to The Sun and its advertisers. If the government begins talking about this it will only be when public opinion has become so strong that to talk about it will win them votes. I also believe that social media is a great advantage. If in the end we achieve something, it will be in large part thanks to Twitter,” she says, while she asks that campaigning be “fun and creative”, not furious.

The question of advertisers is not a small one. Between the 29th October and 4th November, the campaign has mooted a boycott of the main brands, such as the supermarkets Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsburys, who are amongst the main advertisers in The Sun.

The paper’s editor, Dominic Mohan, defended the controversial Page 3 this year at the Leveson enquiry which is looking into illegal phone hacking. “Page 3 is a British institution, with 42 years of history celebrating natural beauty”. Another protagonist of this media scandal, Rebekah Brooks, had the opportunity to end Page 3 during her decade-long time as first female editor of The Sun. But far from binning the section, Brooks strengthened it. On her first day in charge, she laughed at the critics by placing a semi-nude model on Page 3 with the caption, “Rebekah, from Wapping”, the birthplace of Brooks herself.

But the precedents are not all discouraging. The German equivalent of The Sun, the tabloid Bild, spent 28 years putting nude soft-porn models on the front cover, no less. But last March the paper, which was the biggest selling in Europe, buried the custom. “It’s a small step for women but a big step for Bild and for all the men in Germany,” wrote the editor in his editorial, in which he explained that the decision was taken on Mothers’ Day, when more than 300 female employees of the paper enjoyed a day off and so the paper was made solely for men.


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To seek to explain

Ed Miliband said today that “to seek to explain is not to seek to excuse”. This is more or less what I was getting at in my post earlier this week. There can be no excusing the criminal behaviour, the rioting, the looting, and the terror inflicted in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and several other cities this week. I do not for a second think that those walking out of shops with expensive brand-name trainers, large TVs, iPads, and mobile phones were making a valid political statement or directly expressing their anger about the government cuts.

However. Those who see their future as hopeful and positive do not tend to engage in the kind of destruction and violence we saw.

Saying “well, I grew up poor / without expensive trainers / on a council estate and I never…” is obtuse, and fails to address the wider issue. There have always been ‘bad apples’ – indeed, mass civil disobedience is not new:

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”
Plato, 4th Century BC

So the problem is nothing new, and almost certainly nothing to do with our society’s move away from smacking as a generally accepted form of punishment, or any other imagined failing of our ‘soft’ parenting. What we need to explore is how we tackle the causes of the discontent. I don’t have the answers, by the way – and I don’t trust anyone who says they have a straightforward five-point plan to tackle it.

I do know I want to be part of the debate, and part of the solution. That seems to me an awful lot more useful than devising elaborate punishments and eye-for-an-eye retributions – which will do more to punish the children and families of the rioters than anything else.

“those who feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by wanton violence” – these are the lost of our society. They are not excused, but they must be understood.

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