Somehow I managed to miss this one.  A whole series went out without it coming to my attention, and even when ‘Born to be Wed’ was on I was off Twitter and although I caught a couple of comments about gypsies I didn’t really put two and two together.  This time however, I came on to Twitter early enough in the evening that I spotted this:

which had been re-tweeted by a friend.

This is where I should have stopped.  But I didn’t, I stupidly wanted to know what was going on even though I knew it would make me angry.  So I found the hash tag and I clicked on it.  It made me angry.  Very very angry.  When I calmed down a bit I decided that I should probably find the program and watch it so I knew what I was getting angry about.  Last Wednesday I did so.  Funnily enough I did not laugh, maybe I’m too serious; I just didn’t find it funny.  This is a program about weddings and weddings are, by their very nature, things that people go a bit crazy over; there have been other programs about weddings, I didn’t watch them either.

**

In the opening sequence the voice-over claims that the documentary team have gained unprecedented access to the traveller community.  I have no doubt that this is true; however, what they’ve done with their unprecedented access is not unprecedented.  The team wanted to create ‘good television’ and I suppose they have done that.  I have no idea what the viewing figures are but there seems to be a fair amount of Twitter chatter around each transmission.  The problem with ‘good television’ is that it inevitably shows the worst of any community.  Things going right, or things which show that minority communities are ‘normal’, are apparently not ‘good television’.  In the twitter commentary I spotted at least one person describing this episode as ‘train wreck television’ which is odd as nothing actually went wrong apart from the destruction of the Hove Field site.  I don’t know what series one was like, but if this particular episode of series two was anything to go by what the producers have done with their unprecedented access is reinforce stereotypes, which will possibly force the traveller community to be even more secretive and the static community even more determined not to let them settle in ‘their backyards’.

The voice-over and the interviewer focus throughout on the differences between the traveller community and the static community, the questions put were often divisive, encouraging argument and bad feeling.  This was particularly true of questions put to the couple whose wedding was being covered: with Sam and Pat (one of whom is a traveller, the other not) being repeatedly asked about the difficulties they would face.  However, they have known each other since they were children, with Sam describing Pat as her best friend, and Sam knows a lot about the traveller community that she will be joining.  Despite Channel 4 stating on their website that “Romany gypsy Pat faces criticism for marrying a non-gypsy” there was little evidence of this in the program itself, apart from in the voice-over where every time Sam was introduced she was prefaced with the phrase ‘non-gypsy’.  The interviewer also made a big deal about the purchase of a caravan, pushing Sam to the point where, having already said ‘I won’t care if I lives in a bin as long as I can be with you’ she ended up getting irritated with him.  The interviewer just didn’t seem to be able to comprehend the concept that she knew what she was getting herself into.  He continued to push the line about a caravan not being the same as a house, even after he misunderstood her comment about bunks, and asked if she meant ‘bunk beds?’.  She then explained that this meant benches (actually the two are often the same thing at different times).  The interviewer also asked questions which caused the traveller girls to vocalise some of the stereotypes that they hold about the static community.  Including that they consider gorga to be rude, commenting in particular about swearing in front of their mam’s and about not caring who’s around them.  Sam has clearly heard it all before and asked them not to have a go at her culture, they stop – having explained that they didn’t mean Sam, that she’s been in the family for years and knows how to behave – but the interviewer keeps asking questions until she is forced to ask him to stop as well.

There were two sets of first communions shown.  The first (an all traveller communion of eight year olds organised by their grandmother Mary Doll) included some who were wearing traditional white dresses with many layered skirts, as well as some who were wearing slinkier lycra style dresses; the second (organised by their mother Margaret) was of two six year olds.  The six year olds were receiving their first communion early as the site they live on, Dale Farm, is threatened with eviction and if the travellers are evicted they will have to split up.  Communions in the traveller community are a large family event including big parties and are described as a rehearsal for the girls’ wedding days – it is important to Margaret that her daughters get to experience a traditional traveller communion, so they are receiving it early.  The communions themselves were barely mentioned in the Twitter commentary (though I did note one commenter who questioned if they understood what the holy communion really meant – I wish to point out to this person that pilgrims are travellers), however the dancing and the makeup was.  Firstly, the makeup: this is a big deal to these children and they will get dressed up for it as would any one for such an event – these girls do not wear makeup every day, cut them some slack.  There were lots of derogatory comments about the decision to give a six year old a spray tan for the event, in what way has this done her ANY harm?  The damage to her hips came from the dress not the tan, and her mother had been trying to persuade her to take it off sooner so that that didn’t happen.  Have you ever tried reasoning with a determined six year old?  She wasn’t sitting under sun lamps cooking her skin for goodness sake.  It’s just a spray tan.  I’ve seen six year olds belonging to the static community wandering around wearing equally revealing outfits and makeup on the streets.  These girls went to church and then had a party.  Secondly, the dancing: the interviewer asked the children where they’d learnt to dance like that and their response was ‘television’.  Yes, that’s right, ‘television’.  Which last time I checked was available to those in the static community as well.  Also remember context, ladies and gentlemen; these children are dancing at family events where they’re being looked after.  It’s only because of the cameras that you can watch them at all.  The way they were dressed was provocative and yes, they’re underage, but many from the static community dress older than they are as well.  Jenny McArdle former editor of Voice of the Traveller puts the style into context:

Most people are familiar with the very distinct fashion of a young Traveller girl; fake tan, hooped earrings, short skirts and belly tops adorn many a Traveller teenager. Some may say their dress is provocative but it’s very much a case of ‘look but don’t touch’. These ladies are proud of their bodies and comfortable in themselves and see no reason to stay covered up, they’re looking out for a husband and want to look their best. However many will admit that they marry as teenagers to get more freedom, desperate to move out of the family home and escape the strict influence of their parents.

Regardless of whether or not this program is good television it is certainly prejudiced.  A fact which is clear from the language used on the Channel 4 website; I found the above quote by clicking the link pictured on the right.  The use of the term ‘these people’ here states the position of the writer without actually breaking any laws.  Sadly, this is the norm, those of us who live itinerant lifestyles get used to it.  We learn who will be accepting and who will not, as Margaret (the mother of the two six year olds and a Dale Farm resident) states when asked.  Different does not mean inferior, just unfamiliar, and racism is racism.  How do we deal with it?  Where possible I get to know people before I let on that I live on a boat (which is really the acceptable end of the traveller world).  Sad isn’t it?  This is the 21st century and I have to pretend I’m something I’m not, in order not to be looked down on.  I don’t want to live in a house.  If you chopped me in half you’d find ‘traveller’ written all the way through me; if it weren’t a boat it would be a trailer, or a tipi.  For the moment I can still move, unlike most of the land based travellers, I can pitch up somewhere for a few months, a year or so and move on.  But it’s getting harder, maybe soon it’ll be me saying “our travelling life is over” as Mary Doll did.

**

Another couple of comments that made me cross were around money: how much do gypsy’s earn? And, how much tax do they pay?  The answer to the tax question is obvious to anyone with half a brain.  If they’re employed, tax is deducted at source, so the same amount relative to earnings as anyone else.  Self-employment is a bit different, and the answer there as in the static community depends not only on the amount earned but also the quality of the accountant and the record keeping.  OK so now we’ve got that one out of the way, the answer to why travellers appear to have so much money is two-fold:

FIRSTLY: This program focuses on special events: weddings, first communions etc. In other words, occasions where there is always going to be a lot of money flying around.  A quick google search will give you an average UK wedding cost of anywhere between £11000 and £21000 depending on the site being looked at; I’m not quite sure why people appear surprised that there’s a lot of money flying around at a wedding.  Remember the travellers being shown are Catholic, there’s no divorce and barring death they’re not going to do this again.  Why not splash out?

SECONDLY: This one is, I’m afraid, going to make you angry but bear with me.  If you live in bricks and mortar you waste money.  Remember, I’ve lived in a house.

  • Houses, even flats, are bigger than trailers therefore you have a larger space to heat therefore you spend more money heating it.
  • Electronic goods – you don’t need three televisions in a trailer and none of them need to be 100 and whatever inches, ditto sound systems, games consoles etc.  I’m not saying travellers don’t have these things, merely that we don’t have so many.
  • Fridges encourage people to buy more food than they can eat, which then goes off and gets thrown away.  I’m not saying this never happens to travellers but you soon get sick of throwing stuff away and buy less, but more frequently.  Fridges in trailers are in general smaller than those in houses as well, so the amount of food you can buy is governed by the space available.
  • Clothes – I’ve lost count of the number of lifestyle programs that go through women’s wardrobes and demonstrate that they only actually wear a fraction of the clothes they own.  Why do you need twenty pairs of identical black trousers?  I own, in total, eight pairs of trousers.  Two are smart, five everyday and one is for painting.  That’s it.  It’s a space thing.  Every item of clothing I buy has to be justified in terms of both need and space.  Go on, count your clothes.
  • Impulse purchases – William Morris said have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.  We all have a little bit of tat in our lives, shoved at the back of cupboards, forgotten about.  Every new thing you bring in to a boat or a trailer has to have a space.  So if your cupboards are full something else has to go which leads to quite a lot of agonising over need.

Of course, not everyone who lives in bricks and mortar will have all of these ‘problems’ but in an age of disposable stuff it’s likely that at least some of the above apply to pretty much everyone who is static, as well as some travellers.  Add on to that that fuel bills are likely to be lower, as every amp or joule of energy is accounted for, and that’s quite a lot of savings that can be made just by giving up the static lifestyle.

**

The episode ended with an event that few people picked up on: the horror of what happened at the Hove Field site; it was here that the program’s claim of unprecedented access to the traveller community really broke down.  Their unprecedented access appeared, in this instance, to mean they could interview two people.  One, a 25 year old woman, watching helpless as her home and those of her friends and family were destroyed by diggers because apparently another way couldn’t be found; who intervened when thugs trying to remove an elderly local woman protesting about the eviction hurt her in the process, while the police on site turned a blind eye.  The other, her 12 year old cousin, whose pitch was currently safe but who watched from the top of the joining wall and talked a lot of sense.  I understand the importance of narrative development and getting to know characters within the community, so maybe Cutting Edge are trying to be too broad here.  If they feel they can only develop one or two characters per site (there are over 1000 travellers living on the Dale Farm site) then maybe they should have focused their attentions on one or two sites and got to know the residents better, rather than jumping about all over the country giving surface glances of one or two individual’s lives.

According to the voice-over up to 90% of planning requests for traveller sites are turned down, something which is not surprising but is saddening.  (I’m not sure how well this is backed up by statistical analysis: of the 76 pitch developments requiring planning permission decisions between July and September 2010 41% were approved.  What the statistics don’t tell me is how many of these were appeal decisions, how long each group has been fighting for approval or what dent this has made in the huge mismatch between pitch provision and number of traveller families requiring pitches.  With something like this, the numbers are well hidden and I don’t have the time right now to do an FOI request to get to the bottom of it.)  What I do know is that without planning permission travellers only have the right to remain on their own land for up to 28 days per calendar year, and it seems to be accepted by most support groups including Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) that “The most likely outcome will be that your [planning] application will fail. You must expect this and expect to have to appeal against the decision.”  When applying for planning permission you also have to prove that you have ‘Gypsy status’ which appears quite difficult to do as it’s getting harder and harder to actually travel any more:

In planning law, anyone is a Gypsy if they travel for work. In other words, if they do seasonal work on farms, travel to fairs to trade, and things like that. It is useful to show that you come from a Traveller background (that your grandparents and parents were Travellers and live a Traveller life) and that you still travel yourself. This can just mean that you go travelling to see family or to weddings and funerals and to fairs throughout the year. But you must show that you do still travel, even if it is not as much as your parents or grandparents might have. (from FFT: Planning Permission).

I can think of places in the country where there are no suitable pitches for either trailers or boats, and where there is no chance of being able to develop some.

Do you still think it’s funny?

**

See also: assumptions

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The bubble

Posted: January 25, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags:

I watch helpless
as the flames of financial ruin
engulf my derelict life.
No amount of underpinning
will stabilise this degredation.
My life was built on dunes.

(c) ab errant

All rights reserved.

Frequently Asked Questions

Posted: December 24, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Generally when people find out I live on a boat there are a few questions I get asked.  So often in fact that I thought I’d write this.  Coming in at number one is:

Isn’t it cold in the winter?

I usually answer this with no, but yes actually it can be.  It’s cold in the morning when the fire’s not going properly and obviously the colder it is outside the colder it’s likely to be inside. Something which is pretty much true of houses too – think about it, unless you have extremely good insulation your central heating has to work harder to maintain the temperature inside your house when the temperature outside is lower.  And, like houses, there is a great deal of variation between boats.  I live on an old, poorly insulated one, so my fire has to work pretty damn hard in order to keep the place warm.  A lot of the energy I use is wasted, and as a result I don’t bother to try and heat the whole of the boat, I just reduce the space I spend most of my time in.  Newer boats tend to be better insulated and have back boilers on their solid fuel stoves (a bit like a radiator) which move the heat around the boat more effectively.  A revelation for anyone who lives on a particularly cold boat is something called an ecofan which dramatically improves the area it’s possible to be in without using ANY power or extra fuel. Mine’s old and battered (it’s been knocked off the fire so many times now I’ve lost count) and has a permanent rattle despite my best efforts at reshaping the blades, however it’s still going strong; like Tilley hats they are damn near indestructible.

The alternative to a solid fuel stove is a diesel fired one.  I don’t know much about them other than they are noisy.  If you hire a boat this is the kind of heating you are likely to have.  I suspect they are simpler to use than solid fuel stoves; as anyone who’s ever used one will tell you there’s a ‘knack’ to getting and keeping a fire going and not all stoves respond to the same tricks.  Some live-aboards love diesel heaters, some hate them (one I met recently had bought one, used it for a while and has since taken it out).

What do you do about, you know, toilets?

There are two solutions to sewage (actually three but one of them is illegal on inland waterways craft) both of which involve some kind of holding tank.  The first and simplest is a cassette toilet like you’d get in a caravan – sounds nasty but actually isn’t.  Put plenty of ‘chemical’ in there (DO NOT put bleach in with your toilet chemical, as a friend of mine discovered, this WILL result in an exploding chemical toilet) and don’t think too much about it.  There are regular emptying points around the system, however it is worth having a spare cassette as it will almost invariably fill up at the most inopportune moment and (in the winter) there’s always the possibility of being iced in.  Solution number two (which I’m not a great fan of but some people swear by) is a ‘pump out’.  The toilet looks a whole lot more like the one you’d have in a house and the effluent is secured out of sight below the floor.  Most boatyards and some British Waterways (BW) service points have pump out equipment, however unlike cassettes, which are free to empty at BW facilities, there will be a charge for this.  It’s a matter of personal taste when building a boat which is put in.  Most hire boats have pump-out toilets to avoid hirers having to deal with effluent, this is sensible for a variety of reasons not least that full cassettes are heavy and the chemical put in them is toxic.

BW Waterpoint

For the sake of completeness the third solution is a macerator or ‘sea-toilet’; these are perfectly legal on yachts but not on inland waterways craft with one exception.  Not all live-aboards do so on boats that are capable of moving.  Static houseboats can have macerators which are connected to the mains drains in the same way a house would be.  The macerator is there merely to make sure the sewage can fit through the narrow pipe.  Those I have talked to who live with this system find that while it works well most of the time, when it goes wrong it does so properly and leaves them without a functioning toilet.  Depending on the facilities available at their mooring this either means using a central toilet or going to stay with someone who has a house.

What about water?

Every boat has a water tank which is filled using a combination of a hose and one of the many BW taps which are scattered around the network and paid for via a boat’s cruising licence.

What do you do with your rubbish?

BW supply bins at regular intervals around the network.  Better service points also have recycling facilities which tend to be relatively well used.  There are some waste products which cannot be left at these points, for example used oil and batteries have to go to local municipal facilities; however, when you buy new batteries boatyards will take away your old ones for recycling so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.  BW also provide litter bins in certain areas (usually around towns and cities), these are NOT to be used for boaters domestic waste and anyone caught misusing them in this way is generally in quite a lot of trouble, often from other boaters.  This is our life; we don’t want a minority of idiots ruining it for us.

Where does your electricity come from?

I can’t quite believe we still get asked this one, as a large number of live-aboard boaters now have wind-turbines and/or solar panels and it’s quite hard not to spot these; however we do.  So, solar and wind generation aside, most boats use their engines or a petrol generator to create power which is stored in batteries.  These are, yes, you guessed it, a bit like the one in your car, just more of them fastened together.  So now you know.

Everything inside the boat will run on 12v, or occasionally 24v dc, unless the boat has a very large bank of batteries and runs an inverter which converts the stored energy to 230v ac.  A surprising amount of everyday stuff doesn’t actually require 230v in order to function anyway, and mains chargers/leads often step the voltage down, which means that things like mobile phones and even laptops can be run directly from a 12v supply.  You know the charger you have in your car to put a bit of power in your phone/laptop while you’re out and about?  Yeah, one of those.  Increased interest in being able to use things like computers, phones and televisions in cars has actually been a great thing for those of us who live on boats as it’s brought the prices down quite dramatically.

How often do you have to move?

BW Patrol Notice

This is a difficult one; it depends where you moor in the first place. The assumption is that you can stay for a maximum of 14 days unless there are signs stating otherwise (some are 7 days, some 72, 48 or for very popular places even 24 hours).  In the winter however, it is possible to purchase a winter mooring which allows you to stay in the same place for 5 months.  If someone’s been on a mooring for a while and has a mooring licence which expires in March (BW mooring licences have a large coloured M in the middle of them) and hasn’t been issued with a patrol notice from BW, then they probably have a winter mooring for that location.  BW mark winter mooring sites with temporary notices as well, however these are often removed, so a lack of BW notices doesn’t mean a winter mooring isn’t available in that location.  If you want to check, I’m sure either a BW employee or a call to their head office will answer your question.  That said, not everyone who ‘overstays’ is on a winter mooring and not everyone who has a winter mooring will put their licence up.  Strange but true.

How much does it cost to buy a boat?

How long’s a piece of string?  It really depends what you’re looking for and whether it’s new/second-hand and how much work you want to put into it.  I wouldn’t pay less than £15,000 unless you really know your stuff. Always get a survey done on a second hand boat and check out whether there’s any debt connected to it (the debt belongs to the boat not the owner).  The boat should have a current cruising licence and a Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (BSC); don’t forget to find out when they’re due for renewal.  It’s also important to know whether any work’s been done on the gas and electricity systems since the last check – remember gas can kill you and electricity can cause fires; water is not so much of a problem, however if you do spring a leak things will get wet so it would be a good plan to give it a once over for glaring problems.  Do your research: buy a couple of waterways magazines such as Waterways World or Canal Boat and take a look at reputable websites and forums.  And, unless you are actually planning to cruise the whole system or at least a significant proportion of it, for goodness’ sakes FIND A MOORING!

Cost of living – or is it expensive living on a boat?

This is usually a selection of questions that people ask one after another.  Like living in a house there are both ‘fixed’ (licences) and ‘variable’ (consumables and temporary licences) costs.

Licences:

  • cruising licence which is payable annually and dependent on the length of the boat and where you intend to use it.  There are three main categories – river only (which covers BW controlled rivers), canal and river (sometimes known as a standard licence) and gold (which covers both BW and Environment Agency (EA) water such as the Thames).  There are temporary licences available for short periods spent on EA waters and it is possible to buy an annual EA licence for boats permanently on EA water.
  • mooring licence: BW mooring licences are usually dependent on the length of the boat, however private moorings may have different structures (charging more for wider boats or in some cases just a flat rate berth cost).  Not everywhere has an annual charge for a mooring, some charge on a monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual basis.

Consumables:

  • Gas: how much gas you use will depend what you use it for – sound obvious?  Well, yes it is.  Boats can have gas cookers, gas fridges and gas water heating; not all boats will have all of the above and some may have both gas cookers and a solid fuel stove with an oven for winter cooking – you really, really wouldn’t want to use a solid fuel oven in the height of summer.  Water heating may be via a calorifier with heat coming from either and/or both the engine and solid fuel stove.  I use about 13.5kg of gas a month – my cooking, water heating and fridge are all powered by gas.
  • Diesel: if you have a diesel powered stove you will use more than if you don’t.  Either way you are entitled to declare a proportion of your fuel for ‘domestic purposes’ (often referred to as ‘heating’) this is the proportion of your fuel on which you will pay VAT at the reduced rate.  The rest of your fuel must be declared for propulsion (unless you are incapable of movement); this portion is subject to both VAT at the reduced rate and fuel duty.  The proportions will vary depending on your circumstances and are subject to a declaration at point of purchase, or annually if always purchased from the same location and your requirements are unlikely to change.  Prior to 01 November 2008 there was no duty due on red diesel for use by pleasure craft, this is no longer the case so while it may seem sensible to purchase your fuel on the black market it is an extremely bad idea.  As ever when VAT or duty are involved this is a very complicated area and the Residential Boat Owners Association do a far better job of explaining it than I do, if you are still confused it’s worth contacting HM Revenue and Customs for clarification.  THIS DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL OR TAX ADVICE.
  • Coal: I use somewhere between eight and ten 25kg bags of anthracite a month depending on how cold it is outside.  When possible I supplement this with wood.  There appears to be some confusion around the use of smoke-free fuels (such as anthracite) on boats.  Boats themselves are not exempt from the Clean Air Act however many appliances are.  Each country within the UK has different regulations and DEFRA publishes lists of the appliances which are exempt: the majority of solid fuel stoves used for heating boats appear to be included.  Please, check these lists before arguing that the Clean Air Act doesn’t apply to you.  However, traditional coal, like wood, tends to burns very hot and very quickly so it’s harder to keep a fire in over night with this type of fuel.  If you don’t mind getting up to a freezing boat in the morning go right ahead – personally I use a smoke-free coal and wake up to a merely chilly boat.
  • Post Box: unless you are lucky enough to have friends/family who are prepared to take post in for you or you aren’t planning to live on your boat full time and therefore have a house you can use to send post to, you’re going to need a post-box.  If you are moving a lot poste restante can be used along your route, however it is only available for 3 months in any one town and PO Boxes are only available to people who have a physical address in the area (PO Box Terms and Conditions pdf).  There are several companies such as Mail Boxes Etc which will allow you to take a box for a month, a quarter, 6 months or annually – charges are usually payable in advance and there’s often a surcharge for receiving parcels.  Even if you don’t get much post it’s worth it for the safety, and the fact you can give an address in the area which side steps the issue of you being a ‘traveller’.  If you live on a residential mooring this won’t be an issue as your mooring will have an address.

How do you claim benefits?

It may be the area I now live in but I’ve been asked this one a couple of times.  I don’t, I work for a living.  Some live-aboards do, and I’m sorry I have no idea how they manage it – it’s hard enough persuading the benefits agency that you need them when you live in a house, so it must be damn near impossible for those who do need to claim disability or state pensions who live on boats.

Do you pay income tax/council tax?

Er yes.  Everyone pays income tax and National Insurance when they’re working and have earned above the personal limit (currently £6,475) – further detail available from HMRC: Income Tax Rates and Allowances.  I am not an accountant – just capable of reading.

Council tax: I thought I knew the answer to this one, however the more I look at it the more I realise I haven’t got a clue and, as I don’t have all year to become a specialist I am not even going to attempt to answer it.  I am not resident on a mooring which either has residential planning permission or which would not justifiably be refused it if it were applied for and, as I have already stated I am not an accountant, nor do I work for HMRC.  So, if you’re interested, details of how council tax is applied to both moorings and caravan pitches, is available from the Valuation Office Agency: VOA Council Tax Manual – Practice Note 7: Application of Council Tax to Caravan Pitches and Moorings.

And finally:

Isn’t it romantic?

Yes, if you think hauling your own effluent around, and running out of water in the middle of a shower is romantic.  Yes, in the summer, sitting on the back deck with a glass of wine does seem quite appealing; I’ve even been known to do it.  Yes, if I dislike my neighbours I can just move.  Yes, I do have a freedom that isn’t truly available to those who live in houses.  It’s also hard, physical work, can be cold and I wouldn’t swap it for the best appointed house in the world.  Not even for the largest bath you can find.  Oh and any relationship which can survive living on a boat, is a relationship designed to last.

Until a few years ago I used to refer to myself as a liberal feminist. Most people missed the liberal bit of the phrase, possibly due to lack of understanding that there could be more than one kind of feminist, and focused on the second word. Their reactions tended to fall broadly into two categories: “You can’t be a feminist you’re wearing a skirt.” Or “Oh, you’re a lesbian then.” Clearly neither of these statements is true of all feminists. No, I would respond, I’m a LIBERAL feminist, I believe in equality and anyway feminists come in all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations. Eventually I got so bored of explaining to people that feminism didn’t have to mean lesbian, bra-burning, man-hating, the-world-would-be-better-as-a-matriarchy-with-men-as-the-minority, dungaree-wearing (I like dungarees), anything-a-man-can-do-a-woman-can-do-better, men-are-the-root-of-all-evil philosophy that I stopped using the word. It was easier. And that’s the problem; many people believe in equality and feminist principles but don’t know what to call themselves because they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as the extremist minority. Broad strokes are easy, you can put someone in a box and say fine I understand that person now (all cyclists jump red lights, all ‘travellers’ are thieves etc. etc.).

I actually have a second issue with the use of the term feminist (even when it’s qualified) to describe someone who believes in equality and it’s a purely linguistic one. Feminism as a term suggests that it focuses on women in the same way that the relatively recently coined term masculinism [1] suggests a focus on men. While the discourses suggest that both women and men should be equal, by using gendered terms we are perpetuating the gender dichotomy. So where does that leave us? Queer theory seems like a good middle ground; its name suggests gender neutrality but not sadly neutrality over sexual orientation. For better or worse queer theory is tied up (at least in the minds of the general public) with the notion of same-sex relationships. All of these discourses contain aspects of how I feel about the world and what I believe about freedom and equality but none of them defines me.

To me, equality means everyone having the freedom to be who and what they are – within reason, if what they are is the kind of person who wants to have sex with pre-pubescent humans then they need to exercise a whole lot of restraint, thank you. Is that prudish of me? No, because with freedom comes responsibilities, and one of those responsibilities is not to force your world view on others, particularly others who cannot make an informed choice about it – that includes children, adults deemed to be without capacity, anyone inebriated and animals. However, within these limitations adults should be free to be who and what they like. If they wish to have group sex, same-sex sex, paid for sex (again with reasonable limitations: no under-age prostitutes, trafficked prostitutes or any prostitute under duress and prostitutes unable to make an informed choice about what they are doing such as those who are addicted to drugs), or even merely masturbate then they should be allowed to.

The same applies to issues of gender: if a man wants to wear a skirt or a dress, why not? After all, women wear trousers. If a woman wishes to live as a man, or vice versa, why not? Come to that if some people want to walk around naked (even in the middle of winter) then why shouldn’t they? [2] Let’s face it anyone coming across a nudist in the middle of winter is more likely to shiver than actually be able to see anything to get upset about (especially if the nudist is male). Careers shouldn’t be gendered either. Why shouldn’t a woman be a builder, a mechanic, a plumber, a footballer – those who argue they shouldn’t have been failed by the feminist project. But how about a man being a nursery worker, or a full time parent or a beautician if they so wish? Because we fear: culturally we are convinced that men who want to work with children are paedophiles even though a quick search of the news will tell you that women abuse children too [3]. We fear a man waxing a woman’s pubic area would get an erection at best, or rape their clients at worst. This continued gendering of careers is patently ridiculous: a gay man working as a beautician clearly has no interest in having a sexual relationship of any kind with a female client, and most bisexual/straight men manage to keep themselves under control most of the time. I am by no means belittling the impact of rape here; merely pointing out that not every man is a rapist.

There are some ‘gendered’ activities such as cooking and hairdressing where the boundaries are quite comfortably blurred at the top end of the profession. For example most of the top chefs in the UK are male – only 2 of the 18 ‘celebrity chefs’ listed on caterersearch.com are female and all four of the UK 3 Michelin star rated restaurants are headed by men: Gordon Ramsey, Alain Roux, Heston Blumenthal and Alain Ducasse [4]. Men do not become beauticians at least partially because of the fear of being perceived to be a pervert, yet most gynaecologists are in my experience [5] male, and gynaecology also involves a lot of time spent working with females’ lower abdomens. Sewing is also traditionally a female preserve yet both genders are well represented in the industry (I suspect there are slightly fewer men than women overall), knitting is historically a male activity and I know several men of my parents’ generation who were taught to knit at boys’ schools as part of the curriculum. Which brings us to hairdressing; this is tied up in even further knots than cooking and sewing as it is often perceived as a career only suitable, not just for women, but a certain type of woman. However a quick count of the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame reveals that there are 30 men, 3 couples (one male one female), one team and only 6 women (possibly 7 or maybe 31 men – there is one androgynous name) who have won the same award three times [6]. I have had my hair cut by a variety of professionals over the years, only one of whom fitted the rather silly stereotype. I also incidentally know several extremely successful female boat-builders, systems administrators, accountants, a dry-stone wall builder (one of the few left in the country) etc. These examples are merely illustrative and yes, women are more likely to get pregnant [7] and need time off than men – that’s a biological thing not a cultural one – but that shouldn’t stop them doing whatever they wish with their lives around that time. Why shouldn’t their partner (male or female) be the primary carer?

The gender binary, heteronormativity and monogamy have a good evolutionary basis. It takes a man and a woman to perpetuate the species and monogamy is as good a way as any of keeping the gene pool ‘clean’. When pregnancy is a natural outcome of sex it doesn’t make sense to put women in danger – after all a species can be repopulated with fewer males than females – hence the staying at home. But, and this is a big but, that’s not the world we live in any more. We shouldn’t particularly want the species to continue growing – the world is overpopulated as it is [8]. The contraceptive pill and the condom have freed people to have as much sex as they like with whoever they like without (when used properly) the risk of a) pregnancy or b) STIs (genital crabs are an exception to this rule and I’m sure everyone knows by now that herpes simplex can be passed on when a person has an active sore [9]). So let’s teach everyone to use contraceptives safely and move on, huh?

If you’ve stayed with me this long you’re probably not going to ask this question but it needs answering anyway. Aren’t we freer and more equal than we’ve ever been before? Well yes if equality means that more personal grooming products are being marketed to men than ever before [10]. That currently, according to beat (beating eating disorders) approximately 10% of people with an eating disorder are male and approximately 20% of those identify as gay [11] and the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that this number is increasing [12]. At the same time news reporting, documentaries and a visit to almost any city centre on a Friday or Saturday night would have us believe that ‘binge drinking’ (defined variously as the consumption of 6 or more units on a single day for women and 8 or more on a single day for men, or sometimes subjectively as feeling very drunk) is getting more prevalent, and that more young women than ever before are out on our streets drinking like the boys. Statistically this is quite hard to prove. Most of these drinkers do not require medical treatment and proportionally few of them are arrested, so all the statistics are based on self-reporting which does not allow for lying, lack of awareness of the amount drunk or the intention to get drunk [13]. So in all these things we are more equal than we were before. Naturally capitalism is going to jump on the band wagon of equality if it means more product can be shifted. Whether that’s alcoholic drinks or personal grooming product really doesn’t matter to the principle, and the suggested increase in males with eating disorders is a logical result of increased exposure to images of physically ‘perfect’ Photoshopped (or possibly GIMPed) men that are being presented alongside the impossibly perfect women we’re used to seeing in magazines, newspapers and advertising.

Despite the ‘progress’ we have made in some areas women still earned on average 20.2% per hour less than men [14] in 2009. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission ‘[w]ithin dual parent families, only eight percent of men report that they have the primary responsibility for childcare’ [15] and, while 31% of men state they share responsibility for childcare only 14% of women agree [16]. Only 22% of the members of the House of Commons are female [17] and 21% of the House of Lords [18]. Only 19 MPs [19] are openly lesbian, gay or bi-sexual (LGB) and to the best of my knowledge we have NO transsexual MPs (maybe that’s how it should be – I’m interested but I don’t by any stretch of the imagination NEED to know, after all a person is a person – whether I like that person is a different matter). So clearly we still need a movement for equality, everyone’s equality.

Increasingly I’m seeing and hearing people using the word feminism in a positive sense, both online and offline, so having gone out of fashion it is being reclaimed for the cause of equality. There is a rich history of this being done; some young black men call each other ‘nigger’, though heaven help a person lacking in melatonin if they try it, and for good reason. Meaning is merely an agreement between people, often one propped up by the institution that is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and similar (it is interesting to note that meanings have changed enough to warrant a comprehensive revision of the OED, which has already been supplemented twice [20]). To pick a few re-used words at random: cool, sick and bad are all used to suggest things which are colloquially good but previously meant (if you’ll excuse the use of synonyms) chilly, ill and the opposite of good. Spastic is a medical term [21], which became an insult to be yelled at anyone even vaguely different to the yeller, causing a rebrand of The Spastics Society to Scope in 1994 [22]. Other words have developed an ambiguity of meaning through overuse: manic, starving and depressed for example. They have come to mean busy, hungry and sad respectively but used to, and some would argue more correctly mean [23]: a mental state in which ones thoughts are moving very quickly (usually accompanied by very rapid speech, failing to sleep and a haemorrhaging bank account), a physical state in which one’s body is lacking in nutrition and is transforming muscle into energy, and a mental state lasting for several months in which the sufferer cannot function. As society changes so the way we use language changes and what is ‘acceptable language’ changes.

Despite these laudable attempts to reclaim the word, I think the problem is more complex and that a new word would be helpful. Not only has the word ‘feminism’ become associated in recent years mainly with the radical fringes of the movement (restricting the number of young people who are prepared to describe themselves as feminists – if you dig deeper you’ll find most of them are actually proponents of equality), it is also a word steeped in the very gender binary it was trying to reduce. So what am I? I’m not a feminist after all.

**

Incidentally equality means that trans people shouldn’t have to go stealth as well, see Un-average girl for some explanation of the unexpected difficulties trans people come across when stealth – for example not having had a childhood that matches their adult persona. Having gone for example to an all boys/girls school when in their adult life they are female/male – how is this approached? Does being stealth increase stigma or would telling others put trans people in danger? My personal feeling is that like homosexuality it should be nothing to be ashamed of, equally I’ve been forced to put my 5’ 5’’ size 8 frame between prejudiced idiots and trans friends and go “come on then if you think you’re hard enough”. It shouldn’t have to be like that.

**

[1] There are, somewhat confusingly, two groups of masculinists. One group believe men are equally constrained by societal norms relating to gender politics and wish to free them so we can move to a more equal society, the other are using the term in an attempt to re-establish outdated gender norms. In this instance I am referring to the former.

[2] Actually I can think of several very good reasons why not to walk around naked in the middle of winter not least the risk of hypothermia and severe frostbite, but these are based on biology not an inherent fear of nudity.

[3] Most recently Vanessa George, Angela Allen and Tracy Lyons have admitted sexual abuse of children see BBC News’ Timeline: Vanessa George Abuse

[4] See Michelin stars released by the new Michelin Guide and explore by topic under ‘People’.

[5] Of the roughly 20 gynaecologists my friends and I have met only three were female (this is NOT scientific). If anyone knows what the statistics actually are I’d be very interested.

[6] British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame

[7] This sentence left intentionally incorrect for comedy purposes.

[8] According to the United Nations World Population Prospects 2008, there will be 9 Billion human beings on the planet by August 2045.

[9] Information about sexual activities and risk is available from this NHS Choices page. The FPA tend to focus on heterosexual congress however they do have information about how to use a condom correctly: Condoms (male and female): your guide

[10] Even with the assistance of a chartered accountant I can find no evidence to back up claims that women’s and men’s razors have VAT applied differently. I am told that the assumption when reading VAT notices is that if it’s not specifically mentioned as being: a) outside the scope, b) zero rated, c) exempt or d) subject to reduced rate VAT (INPO) then VAT is applicable at the standard rate (currently 17.5% to be raised to 20% on 4th January 2011). VAT can be thoroughly investigated via HM Revenue and Customs: VAT. If you have evidence to the contrary please let me know. I did discover that VAT is payable on contraceptives (with the exception of those prescribed by a medical practitioner which are zero rated and those fitted, injected or implanted by a health professional which are exempt) details can be found here) and sanitary protection. Both have VAT applied at the reduced rate, however the latter did have VAT applied at the standard rate until 1st January 2001 (details can be found here).

[11] beat: Men get eating disorders too

[12] RCPsych: Eating Disorders

[13] A selection of statistics on Binge Drinking are presented by the Institute for Alcohol Studies in its factsheet Binge Drinking – Nature, prevalence and causes, they also produce an interesting factsheet specifically on Women and Alcohol. The Institute for Alcohol Studies produce a wide range of factsheets available here

[14] Details of the gender pay gap are available from: Office for National Statistics: Labour Market: Gender Pay Gap. If you’d like less dry analysis, more detail and more discussion of the implications try: Fawcett Society: Campaigns: Equal Pay – The Facts. (I happen to find the ONS fascinating, however I am aware that I have geeky tendencies.)

[15] Ellison, G; Barker, A and Kulasuriya, T. 2009. Work and care: a study of modern parents Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission p. 35 (available online here).

[16] Ellison, G; Barker, A and Kulasuriya, T. 2009. Work and care: a study of modern parents Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission p. 35.

[17] Numbers obtained by visiting the parliament website: Lists of MPs and searching by gender.

[18] Numbers obtained by visiting the parliament website: Lists of Members of the House of Lords and searching by gender.

[19] Both the Conservative Party and Labour have 8 openly LGB mps each, the Liberal Democrats have 3. Further information can be obtained from the Lesbian and Gay Foundation: 2010 Election sees rise in lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs.

[20] Information about the history of the OED and the updating process can be found on the Oxford English Dictionary Website: History of the Oxford English Dictionary.

[21] Spastic hemiplegia and spastic diplegia are symptoms of cerebral palsy listed on the NHS Choices Website: Cerebral palsy – Symptoms page

[22] Information about the re-launch of The Spastics Society as Scope can be found in this pdf. This paragraph on p18 under the heading ‘Corporate Identity Outcomes’ focuses on the potential for legitimising a term in a negative way even when the intention is positive:

One other outcome is apparent (although has yet to be tested objectively through research) and that is the use of the word ‘spastic’ as a term of abuse has noticeably declined. The removal of the legitimising effect and prominence of the word in our former name must surely have contributed to this shift.

[23] These are neither dictionary, nor medical definitions. They merely express a feeling for the words meanings.

You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based. [1]

OK hands up if you’ve ever said or done something stupid. Told a joke you regret, maybe? Got drunk and told your boss what you think of them? Threatened to ‘kill’ someone if they don’t stop, say, kicking the back of your seat during a performance or have upset one of your friends? I know I’ve done it. The thing is most of us don’t mean it. They’re just words, words said in anger and later regretted. If like me, you said these words in the privacy of your own home or to your friends you can apologise for them and take the purely personal consequences. A joke could cause you to lose your job: telling your boss what you think of them almost certainly will but you could ‘just’ get a reprimand and the world will carry on as before; making inappropriate jokes in front of customers/clients/electorate would also probably be a sacking offence (and, yes, that does include public forums such as social networking sites and blogs). You could lose a friend for telling them what you really think and I’m sure social networking, with its illusion of privacy and nasty habit of making your views public knowledge, has terminated several friendships. Social networking sites have probably started many friendships as well (I have at least two new friends as a result of my Twitter presence).

So, you make the stupid joke in the ‘privacy’ of your twitter feed. Unless you have ‘protected’ your tweets it is now available for anyone to see on the public feed AND anyone searching the site for key-words you used. If you also used a hash-tag, it will appear in the feed of anyone currently following that too, and anyone searching for information about something that someone else said using that tag. This is where the problems start occurring, because you didn’t think that joke through and now you regret it. If you’re lucky no one will have noticed, you might have lost some followers or be flamed as a result, and you may have to apologise. Which you do, and think nothing more of it. Remember it was a joke, dark humour admittedly, but now you’ve been arrested because your joke is seen as a threat. This has happened at least twice so far: on 06 January 2010, Paul Chambers was arrested under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and on 10 November 2010, Gareth Compton was arrested under Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003. There are several important differences between the two cases but also several parallels. Both have been arrested as a direct result of throw-away comments on their Twitter sites.

**

PAUL CHAMBERS:

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

This has been widely reported in the media and popping up all over Twitter accompanied by the hash-tag ‘#IamSpartacus’[2] since his appeal was denied. The history and sequence of events in this case has been extremely well documented on David Allen Green’s personal blog.

At the point Chambers sent it he was a trainee accountant, he was arrested in his place of work and has subsequently lost his job. He will struggle to find anyone to complete his training contract and if he does by some miracle manage to find someone willing to complete his training now that he has a conviction under section 127 of the Communication Act 2003, he will almost certainly never work for any of the larger corporations or banks.

GARETH COMPTON

Won’t someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death. I won’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really. #R5L [3]

After the twitter outcry he sent the following by way of apology:

I did not ‘call’ for the stoning of anybody, I made an ill-conceived attempt at humour in response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown saying on Radio 5

Live this morning, that no politician had the right to comment on human rights abuses, even the stoning of women in Iran. I apologise for

any offence caused. It was wholly unintentional. [4]

At the point he sent it he was a Conservative Councillor for Erdington in Birmingham. He has been ‘indefinitely’ suspended by the Conservative party and there are calls from Unison West Midlands region [5] for him to step down as a result of his tweet. These are the personal consequences he could potentially have suffered if he hadn’t announced it in a public forum but had been overheard. Because he chose to tweet his joke complaints have been made and he was reported to the police. From there I’m struggling to find any official confirmation, however, it has been widely reported that he was arrested and later bailed. The circumstances of his arrest (where he was etc) have not been made public.

**

Both of these ‘jokes’ have long since ceased being funny, if indeed they ever were. But I am not debating the stupidity of tweeting wry thoughts. I’m sure I’ve done it myself. Putting this kind of thing onto a social networking site seems very safe when you do it. Of course there is the risk of trolls (the internet kind rather than the ‘lives beneath goat crossing bridges’ [6] kind) but any sort of social interaction (especially social interaction with strangers) opens one up to the risk of being insulted.

There are to my mind some important differences between the two cases.

Firstly there’s the difference in status between the two: Chambers was an unknown (he’s now infamous), Compton an elected representative.

The outcry in Chambers’ case was about his arrest; in Compton’s it was, initially at least, about the tweet itself.

Paul Chambers’ has resulted in a conviction and a long, expensive appeal process. It is, as yet, unclear whether Compton will be prosecuted [7].

**

Neither of these men should have had the full weight of the law come crashing down on them; it is not the job of the courts to deem what is and is not funny, at least I don’t think it is, I was rather under the impression that criminal proceedings were to keep us safe, all of us, including the wrongly accused. And neither of them would have if they’d made the jokes to their friends rather than the world at large. The ‘#R5L’ on the end of Compton’s tweet made it clear that he was responding to the radio program; it was a stupid, thoughtless and extremely unfunny thing to say but he did not intend any actual threat against Yasmin Alibhai-Brown AND he apologised (the apology was considered glib by some, though I can find nothing particularly ‘glib’ about the words he used) when he realised people had taken offence to his ‘joke’. Alibhai-Brown has enough genuine threats against her life without people making idle ones and frankly, dark humour or not, stoning someone to death is not funny. I personally do not want someone who thinks it’s appropriate to make such jokes in a position of power. That’s just not the behaviour I expect from my elected representatives – I know that makes me an idealist and I don’t care. Alibhai-Brown also responded in anger to the tweet telling The Guardian she would be going to the police, though she has reportedly subsequently announced that she does not want him to face charges. [8]

Chambers’ tweet included an apparent bomb threat in a time of considerable fear about bombs. Once a member of Robin Hood Airport staff had found the tweet they were duty bound to report it, which they did. From that point, there was a chain to be followed whereby the ‘threat’ was passed on and assessed. Chambers was also arrested and questioned – which is where it should have ended. It didn’t and it seems unlikely that Compton’s case will end there either.

**

So, to answer those who asked: yes, I will be defending Compton as voraciously as I have been defending Chambers (which I will admit is not very). I do not want to live in a world where people are prosecuted for ill conceived attempts at humour, because it’s a short step from there to living in a world where any attempts at humour are likely to be subject to legal action, where one cannot criticise anyone even when their opinions are repugnant to you.

I found Compton’s tweet repugnant, and, had his account not disappeared I would probably have told him so. But I don’t want tax payers money spent on his prosecution – that won’t change his mind. Instead I want to convince him that I am right and he is wrong. Using words. Because words are powerful, and they don’t cost much. There will be consequences to his actions, that’s as it should be – as Sir Terry Pratchett so wonderfully put it: ‘no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences’. [1]

[1] Pratchett, T. 2004. Going Postal. London: Corgi. p. 25

[2] Some people have been playing with the original tweet, changing the words, word order or airport named. According to ‘cripesonfriday’ Heathrow Airport have reported these threats to the police (as they are required to). It will be interesting to see where this new episode leads.

[3] there is a screen dump of the original tweet at the top of this Birmingham Post article, and also at the top of this blog post by Andrew Reeves.

[4] there is a screen dump of Compton’s feed at the end ofthis Daily Mail article.

[5] Unison West Midlands region’s statement can be found on their website.

[6] As Marcus Brigstocke charmingly put it on Twitter.

[7] As David Allen Green explained in a conversation with Dave Gorman on Twitter and I discovered during a domestic violence case there isn’t an elective element to the decision to prosecute in a criminal case. I don’t know whether the fact that the initial complaint did not come from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown will prove to be important.

[8] her position is reported in the Birmingham Mail and has been rumoured on the Twitter site itself though I cannot find any other reference to this aspect of the case – it appears to have gone unreported in traditional national media. If anyone does know of other sources for this information please send me a link, thank you.

Assumptions

Posted: November 6, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

I am other.

I am white, well-educated, middle class and other. 4% of the population of the England and Wales are similar to me according to the 2001 census [1] (which is somewhat out of date; however, if I wait for the 2011 results to post this the moment will definitely have passed). There are always variations in any externally imposed grouping however, so my statement that I am other may seem a bit odd. Surely everyone is different in some way or other? Yes, they are and that is why I am writing this.

You see, what I have missed from my social précis is that I am a traveller. I live on a boat, a narrowboat to be precise, and a rather scruffy one at that. I’ll answer all the usual questions about the practicality of living on a boat later. For now it’s enough to know that I do.

Prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes, against all groups and sub-groups, and frankly I’m a bit sick of it. Some of my friends fight prejudice every day, some of them are in danger if they go to certain places or walk home on a dark night. I am not one of them and I am lucky. I have chosen to live the way I do. Some of my friends are not so lucky, they’re gay, or transgender, or disabled, or Muslim, or Jewish, or black. And, sad to say, there are some places where all of these things still matter. What matters to me is that I love them for who they are, and I enjoy spending time with them. Prejudice is an ugly word and I don’t bring it up lightly, in fact I wouldn’t bring it up at all if I hadn’t just come across some assumptions that bordered it.

So, the point of my starting this: some things that are not necessarily true about travellers:

  1. Just because I live on a boat does not mean that I am unskilled. I have been a manager/senior member of staff in a variety of different sectors. I have also done my fair share of unskilled work – even students and writers in their turrets have to eat/pay the bills. If I’m on a winter mooring I’m not going to doss for the whole time. If I do that I won’t be able to afford to eat and neither will my dogs, which is probably more to the point.
  2. I am not claiming benefits. When you move around a lot it’s very difficult to claim benefits – what with not having an address. I am a traveller, not a bum. I choose not to live in a house; that doesn’t mean I’m a drop out and I don’t pay my way. There are quite a few retired people living on the water, cruising from place to place; their boats are usually shinier than mine – would you assume they hadn’t paid their way?
  3. I do not necessarily have an alcohol problem, abuse/use drugs or have severe mental health issues. Someone who goes out every Friday night and drinks themselves into a stupor has an alcohol problem, as does someone who drinks a bottle of wine a night every night and the person who drinks vodka for breakfast – I bet you know at least one person with an alcohol problem, whether or not you know it. And they probably live in a house, possibly a nice house, in a nice area and have a full-time job and don’t really seem to have a problem. So, drugs. I know quite a lot about drugs as it happens; I used to be a youth worker. That means I know what can happen to you if you take them. And frankly if I don’t know what’s in it, then no thank you. Which leaves mental distress. According to Mind’s website [2] the ONS estimates 1 in 6 people will suffer mental distress at any one time, though the more commonly quoted study suggests 1 in 4. Either way that means someone in your life, someone close to you, will suffer from some form of mental distress at some point. Does that make them any less of a person? Several famous people have ‘come out’ as having or having had mental health issues: Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Gok Wan to name three[3]. Since 1 in 6 people don’t live on boats it’s not that likely that I have a mental health problem is it? Having said that, as a proportion there probably are more people living on the water who have some or all of these issues, just remember not everyone who chooses to live this way does.
  4. I am not a hippy. I do burn the odd joss stick, I travel mostly by bicycle or on foot, I’m an ecotarian [4] (one of many labels for my lifestyle choices) and my choice of abode may be a little less than orthodox. This does not make me a hippy. I’m not entirely sure what would make me a hippy but I’m fairly sure I’m not one. Joss sticks are very common in certain cultures but that doesn’t make everyone who lives on, say, the Indian sub-continent, a hippy. Hundreds of people travel by bike, usually in or around cities and most probably don’t cover the distance I do but again this doesn’t make me a hippy (I can feel a post about cyclists coming on in the near future too). So why the ecotarian? I like vegetables; it’s better for the planet and is an extremely healthy diet. I don’t eat meat substitute, I just eat less of it (I can’t remember the last time I ate meat actually but that’s a different story). As for the boat: I like it and living this way is my choice.
  5. This one’s closely related to two: just because I’m scruffy doesn’t mean I’m poor. Actually currently I am poor, but that’s because I’m an unknown writer rather than because I’m too lazy to work. My clothes are quite often dirty; there is a reason, and if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know what I’m about to say. I live on a boat and canal banks are muddy. I also have dogs, and dog walks are muddy. I’m not dirty all the time; quite a lot of the time you’d never know but if you meet me on the tow path or out with my dogs I’m likely to look quite scruffy. Yes, my dog walking jacket has a hole in it. It’s an old jacket; I use it for dog walking because it’s an old jacket. I bet some of you have gardening clothes, people don’t often see you in your gardening clothes because your garden is your space. My deck is my space, it’s just that you can see my space. I don’t sunbathe naked on my back deck but I do fill my coal scuttle there. This is a dirty job so I’m hardly going to do it in a suit now am I?
  6. For any other boaters reading this: I have a current cruising licence and I’m looking for a mooring. The one I was going to take turned out not to be what I’d been told. Any other questions? Not all live-aboards object to paying to use the water just as not all holiday boaters are happy about it.

It may seem like I’m making a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill here. The prejudice those of us who choose to live on the water suffer may appear to be really quite minor. But the truth is that prejudice is prejudice. It’s not OK to be rude or patronising to me because I choose not to live in a house, I used to and I may do again one day. That’s my choice and I would really appreciate it if you would respect my choice. I respect yours. You may think that my priorities are screwed. I’m sorry that I don’t think owning a 50 inch flat screen HD television and an SUV are the be all and end all of life. You may not either. You may only buy fair trade and organic; I’ve got news for you – I buy local, fair-trade, organic. I’m like you, some of you anyway, I’m not any-woman and neither are you.

[1] Census information available from Office for National Statistics: Neighbourhood Statistics. Percentage of the population calculated in terms of ethnicity, approximate social grade and qualifications.
[2] These statistics and many more besides are available from Mind.org.uk
[3] All three have pledged to help end discrimination against those suffering mental illness on time-to-change.org.uk. Gok Wan has talked about the effects of bullying and having anorexia nervosa in his autobiography Through Thick and Thin (Amazon.co.uk link)
[4] I first came across the term ecotarian in Andy Atkins’ Guardian article: Debate on meat eating does not cut the mustard