Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A funny story about life in E3

It's not unusual to be walking the streets of Mile End and smell someone smoking a spliff (and I've just given my Aunt a heartattack...). It's more unusual to identify the smell before 9am. My friend told me about such an experience last week and it made me laugh so much that I thought I'd share it.

A few weeks ago, she left her flat and was walking down the road towards the station. Ahead of her by about 10m was a young man, aged between 20 and 30. She could only see the back of him so it was hard to pin down an age. He was dressed relatively smartly, walking along, smoking a spliff.

Fair enough, she thought, some people enjoy a smoke in the mornings. Maybe he works nights and is on his way home. Whatever.

At the end of the road is an all boys school. Lining up along the street outside the school were a class of young boys in their school uniforms. As they got closer, she wondered what he was going to do with the spliff.

Sure enough, as they got within 20m of the boys, the young man stubbed it out. She thought he was being respectful and not smoking in front of children.

Then he approached the boys.

'Morning class, so who's ready for a day at the Natural History Museum?' he asked his pupils.

My friend's mouth dropped as she continued her walk to the station, past the excited class of school children. Just another day in Bow.

My Big Fat Gypsy dichotomy

Those of you in the UK can't have missed the current Channel 4 programme 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding', a series of five documentaries examining traveller life and culture. Following a one-off show last year which proved massively popular, the series takes more of an in-depth look at the births, marriages and deaths of a highly secretive community. It focuses on the wedding ceremonies of a number of very young traveller women; following them as they plan their weddings, buy their phenomenally extravagant dresses and leave the family home for the first time.

I think the programme makers are intending the series to provoke debates about a group of people who undoubtedly have suffered persecution in various forms for centuries, and last night's episode gave a superficial cursory glance at a community facing legal challenges and issues around land ownership, eviction and homelessness. However, let's not beat around the bush here, all that anyone is really talking about are the dresses and the dancing.

Enough has been written about the wedding dresses and custom to have the biggest, most outlandish wedding dress that money can buy. You can read the usual bile from the Daily Mail here. There will be, I'm sure, many people who just watch the programme for this titillation and the opportunity to gawp at the traditions which are unfamiliar to the majority. (I also think we'd be even more critical if the cost of these dresses was revealed).

What particularly sits uncomfortably with me is the sexualisation of the young girls, and this is what I refer to when I mention the dancing. The 6 year olds emulating Beyonce and Rihanna's bumping and grinding are not dissuaded from doing so, because that's the way that you attract a husband and therefore secure a future for yourself and the traveller way of life.

The problem I have is that it is a false dichotomy to talk about the sexualisation of these girls and young women, because the girls interviewed for the programme were very clear: there is no sexual activity before marriage at all. Being seen on your own with a young man is enough to provoke exclusion from the community.

And that's the crux of the problem; it would appear to me that the Great British public aren't sure what to make of this group of young women who dress and act in a highly sexual manner, but have no sexual activity at all. I've heard comments in my office which have ranged from 'Why do they dress their little girls up like slags?' to 'They all just look a bit dirty'. But in the same breath the girls have been praised for their purity, for want of a better word.

It upsets me that traveller girls are expected to leave school from the age of 11 to help clean the house and when they have no ambitions other than to secure a husband. The courtship tradition of 'grabbing' does appear to be an odd and violent way to show interest in a woman. And issues around the legality of settled sites, taxation and support services have yet to really be examined. Next week's episode focuses exclusively on women and their role in the community, and I'm sure I'll have a more informed opinion then. I'm enjoying watching the series as it's examining a community and customs that I know nothing about, but it does upset me. Hope this goes a little way to explain why.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Farewell to The Gaff and all who sailed in her

This Sunday saw the final trading night of The Gaff, a small music venue on Holloway Road. As with many of London's small venues they were living hand to mouth, and when the landlord was offered a more permanent future, in the shape of an offer from the Costa Coffee chain, he 'jumped at the chance' according to one member of staff I spoke to.

The Gaff was open for less than three years and had recently started gaining momentum in terms of audience number and frequency of gigs. Yes the toilets leaked. Yes it wasn't the easiest place in the world to get home from. Yes the handstamps didn't wash off for days, even with strong soap. But it was the venue of choice for many of the London punk, skin and rockabilly scene, and without it we're back to our other spiritual home of the 12Bar or paying extortionate entry and drink prices at places like the Underworld (which has an even bigger problem with their sewer system!).

So farewell then to The Gaff. I celebrated birthdays there, I organised a benefit for Strummerville there, I got on stage and sang with The Grit there. I've been pegged, I've danced and I've loved it. Thanks to all the staff for making those nights memorable. To all my mates and the rest of Team Special, I'm glad we saw it off in style...

Votes for prisoners: tough shadow ministerial soundbites don't help

This weekend I had a piece published on Labour Uncut, and following the comments on Facebook, I thought I'd post the link here as well:

The philosophical arguments around prisoner voting have recently been discussed by the excellent Martin Kettle in the Guardian, so all you fans of John Locke might have something to say on this article...

Whilst I'm still refining my view on the issue of prisoner voting rights, the reality is that the franchise will have to be given to at least some of the 83, 780 men, women and children in our prisons, otherwise the government will be facing a damages claim of millions in a time of economic austerity. And with today's 'double-dip' announcement, they know this is something they can no longer afford to put off.