Brexit: new racist incidents and Jo Cox. How will history remember this?

I wasn’t going to write a blog about the referendum, as I didn’t feel like I had anything to say that somebody hadn’t already said. However, yesterday I saw a collection of tweets detailing racist attacks across the country since Friday morning, and I now feel like everyone needs to speak out to condemn these acts – even if it’s just in a small way.

I know that racist attacks are not exactly uncommon in this country. I did a Master’s dissertation on second generation Chinese migrants in Britain, and one of the focuses was on racism. So I know people still encounter lazy racist stereotyping and hurtful abuse. What makes these new reports different is not only the number reported in different parts of the country over a short space of time but that the abusers clearly feel the referendum result has legitimated their disgusting opinions. I am not branding all Leave voters with this, I know it is a very small minority and many people voted Leave for what they feel to be sound economic reasons. I don’t understand what EU regulations have done to some British fishermen but I was in Whitstable yesterday and there were several signs out thanking people who had voted Leave. I sincerely hope that if the result does go ahead that they get what they wanted.

Of course, the Leave voters who are now hounding migrants of all kinds across this country are not going to get what they want. They seem to be under an illusion that voting to leave the EU means all migrants in this country need to ‘get out’ – and quickly, as one man was apparently calling for ‘all foreigners to get out in the next 48 hours’. The total lack of information about what would actually happen if we voted to Leave is now being shown in all its alarming starkness. We have no fucking idea, and it doesn’t seem like anybody else does either. Some people were apparently surprised at the sudden drop in the value of the pound, despite it being forecast many times before the referendum. Presumably people will be even more surprised when businesses start to move elsewhere creating job losses, when even those who are still legally allowed to stay choose to leave to get away from racist abuse- with subsequent issues in NHS staffing for a bloody start; when the universities suffer even further as their EU funding and grants get pulled, and so on. Here is the change people so desperately thought they wanted, but for now at least it will be change for the worse.

I understand that many people in the UK feel powerless and wretched with our current state of affairs. While economic hardship has been blamed on immigrants for decades if not centuries, I still blame the media and politicians for exacerbating this belief and somehow making people believe that voting Leave would bring about some magical change in how Britain works. The people here who do not tick the ‘White British’ box on a census are not going to immediately leave, or even slowly leave, or quite probably leave at all (as one Vote Leave authority said at the weekend, that migrant numbers will likely stay the same). And thank fuck they aren’t going to leave. My (Canadian) partner said at the weekend, what would happen in this country if all the immigrants went on strike tomorrow? The hospitals would be screwed, universities would lose half their staff, I would lose two of my own expert colleagues, building, plumbing, and electrical work would decrease, etc. etc. I am tired of being lied to by these politicians, and the media’s ill-considered coverage of their plots and schemes. I believe politicians from all sides need to make announcements now, to explain exactly what voting Leave has meant, and to explain that it will not mean the immediate exodus of our non-white British residents. Brexit campaigners are already saying that the ‘facts’ they have been peddling for months are total horseshit, which many of us knew already having done any research at all – but if you’re desperate and you want change then statistics sound so beautifully plausible. Quite apart from telling us exactly how much money we’re going to save (certainly not £350 million) and what will happen to immigration, something needs to be said immediately to protect people from this awful racist bullying, driven by a belief that this racism has been validated by the election result.

All the time that I was reading these stories, of a Muslim girl being cornered by a group of men in Birmingham while they shouted ‘Out! Out! Out!’, notes put through the letterboxes of Polish residents in Huntingdon mere hours after the result, and so many more, my mind kept returning to Jo Cox. She was in many ways the first victim, and I am devastated by how quickly her death has been forgotten. Farage actually had the unreal shittiness to say that they had won ‘without a single bullet being fired.’ And this was hardly reported as the utter arseholery it was; I only saw it on Sunday night catching up on The Last Leg. I think many of us had a rather distasteful and unspoken hope that her death would cause a rise in awareness, that some people voting Leave would realise what side they were on, a side with someone who was undoubtedly ill but who was also spurred on by the Vote Leave campaign’s repulsive rhetoric to murder someone for wanting to promote equality. Although  I decided not to make studying history a career, years of examining events from the viewpoint of the future makes me wonder how people will study this period in fifty or a hundred years. What will happen? Will these racist incidents increase? Will we get a more right-wing government bent on removing the rights of those who were not born here, and doing even more to stop more people coming here to live and work and share their knowledge? It is already extremely difficult to get leave to stay here, how much worse will it get? Will those who find this all a hideous nightmare leave, removing some bastions of decency and normalcy? Will people looking back see the murder of an MP in broad daylight – and the swift amnesia that followed it in the minds of some – as the beginning of the country’s downfall?

I have read elsewhere a comparison to 1930’s Germany, which I’m glad and not glad someone else made – I thought I was being melodramatic so I’m glad I wasn’t the first, but I’m not glad others share my opinion of how frightening all this is. I haven’t studied the social history of the Nazis, so I don’t know exactly how many people were against Hitler from the beginning. But being in this country while we are slowly dragged to the right makes me think of all those who were sitting in Germany nearly a hundred years ago, with this sick feeling of dread in their stomachs at what they were seeing.

People think London would be a safe place for migrants still, being as it is such a multicultural and inclusive city. Yet there have been reports of racist incidents here too. I am apprehensive, hoping that I don’t see anyone being abused, because I would hope against all hope that I would be one of the ones to step in and stop it. But I know it isn’t as easy as proclaiming ‘YES I WILL DEFEND YOU ALL’. I had an incidence of this just recently. I was on a train with my partner, and we were stopped at a station. A man was standing in the doorway looking out at the platform. He started speaking to somebody we couldn’t see: ‘What are you doing spotting trains? Why don’t you go and do something real with your life? Get a girlfriend! Became a computer whiz! Go to the gym! You’re too young for this! It’s just sad!’ I wanted desperately to say something but the man speaking was several inches taller than me and about twice my body weight. I was frightened of what he would say to me or my partner if we got involved. He was radiating aggression. But I felt so bad for the boy, especially when we pulled out of the station and we saw him, standing pale and sheepish with his camera phone. I regret not putting my head out and saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not hurting anybody, so you just carry on doing exactly what you like. We need more people with passions like you, who follow their interests against the grain. And I know that just because you enjoy trainspotting doesn’t mean you don’t have a girlfriend, or that you’re gifted with a computer, or that you do exercise. There are so many sides to all of us and you don’t need to hide them.’

I wish that the people spouting this frightened abuse at people they don’t know could see beyond something as accidental as skin colour or place of birth. If they got talking to all these ‘vermin’, wouldn’t they find that they share some interests? Most of us can find some side of ourselves that matches with others, and sometimes you have several sides that match and you get on like a house on fire. Or even hardly any match at all and you still get on like crazy because you love each other’s differences. I am a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a partner, an amateur historical anthropologist and an even more amateur dancer. I am a part-time seamstress and an increasingly part-time Formula One enthusiast. I am getting into cloud watching and, aged 28, have recently become re-addicted to Ribena. I have studied for five years at SOAS, part of the University of London, and there of all places we embrace all sides of people and focus on learning about others (it is, I believe I’m right in saying, the only university in Britain that doesn’t study the country it is sitting in). I am desperately afraid that it will now face closure, as getting enough funding there was already a tricky question. It would be devastating to lose an institution that prides itself on debate and allowing people to be every side of themselves. I wish people would make more of an effort to embrace this way of thinking, rather than judging people so quickly and with so much anger. I know I am guilty of judging others quickly too, but I hope it doesn’t change my behaviour towards them too much, and I know that I would not abuse them pointlessly when they had done nothing to offend me or anybody else. And more than anything I wish that the leaders of the Leave campaign had not used the words and the ideas that they did to win this vote. ‘Take our country back’, always menacing and without any solid meaning (take it back where? Removing what?) now has an even more sinister edge after these reports of racism and people being told that the nation has voted for them, specifically, to get out. Little Polish girls at school were crying to their teachers, afraid that they were going to be deported. We need someone to stand up and eliminate all the confusion, tell these people that their behaviour is reprehensible and founded on lies, and that they must stop.

I don’t know what the future will bring us. I know most of us are still in denial, hoping desperately that some loophole will be found so that the referendum result will not go ahead. Perhaps it will, perhaps not. But I hope that this spread of hate and disunity stops before it goes any further. Jo Cox needs to be remembered for all the sides of her legacy. The sides of her that I am sure are most immediately missed are her identities as a mother and a partner and a friend. But she also needs to be remembered as a campaigner, a passionate MP, and as a murder victim – and, I hope, not remembered for being only the first victim in the beginning of an onslaught of violence. I am astonished and saddened that such a unique event as the death of an MP for political reasons has been explained and swept away as the result of ‘mental illness’ – a catch all term which I am not saying wasn’t a part of her death. But I do believe like her husband that it was not the only reason, that it was not random, that it was in some way a result of the viciousness of the Brexit campaign.

The saddest and most infuriating thing about our whole situation is that it was all lies. I feel desperately sorry for the people who voted to Leave, believing in these ridiculous claims. But I feel even more sorry for the people who are now being attacked as a result of people’s feeling of ‘triumph’ in this result. Let us hope that things do not continue on this trajectory, and that history will not remember this summer as the beginning of a slide into hate, terror, and persecution.

Introvert, Depressive, Anxious, Female – Normal?

As is probably true of us all, I’ve been pretty down this week. I’ve been struggling with concentration, sleep, and general irritability. Although I would no longer classify myself as depressed, I am aware that my moods fluctuate quite a lot, and I do what I can to keep them in check and generally don’t feel like I do too badly. So I was a little surprised yesterday when one of my best friends said she thought I should see a psychiatrist.

I’ve been thinking it over ever since and it has made me aware of several things. Even people who have experienced mental illness, talk about it a lot, seek treatment for it, and understand what it’s about, do not always like being told that they need help. I don’t want to be one of those people who refuse treatment when people around them think it is needed. But it is a horrible feeling, perhaps even more so if you have had treatment before and improved, because it makes you feel you have failed by being ill again.

In my case, there is also apprehension and scepticism over what a psychiatrist can do for me, and how that would work in practical terms. In the past four years I have had two years of counselling, six months of antidepressants, six sessions of CBT and a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs (I only took one, which made me feel so ill I could hardly sleep, work or eat for 24 hours. Apparently this is common and can last up to six weeks, and as I have very little excess body fat, I thought it was better to be mildly anxious than starve). I do not really want any more talking therapy. I know the background of why I am anxious, and sometimes low, and I don’t really feel that talking about it any more will make it any better. I don’t really want to try pills again – my main issue is low self-esteem and sadly there isn’t a pill for that. The side effects when I have taken them before were also rather troubling and off-putting.

The conversation with my friend focussed my mind on what I’ve been wondering on and off for the last couple of years, or even longer than that. Am I ill, or am I just me? There are so many ways of interpreting our behaviour and thought patterns these days, with so much more knowledge of mental illness freely available, that it all too easy to label someone as one thing or another. Here’s a good example of what I mean: when I was at school, I used to hate being asked to answer a question unless I was 100% sure of the answer, and that was rare. I was terrified of getting it wrong. Various books I have read over the last few years have included examples of this and attributed it to a different ‘label’. Quiet by Susan Cain says this is introversion. Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says this is common among females, because we are socialised not to consider our answers important and to be quiet and shy and let the boys speak. Or you could say this is the beginnings of anxiety, a deep-based fear of being found not good enough that requires therapy or pills to solve. Or is it just me? Just the way I am, that I don’t like talking about things I don’t know much about? I don’t know. It could be any of those things, or none, or all. So how do we know when we are mentally ill?

When I was at school or doing my BA, the label ‘anxiety’ was not that common amongst teachers so you just had to get on with it and do the best you could. I know that universities are far more aware now and some make special provisions for students who experience anxiety, particularly for presentations (I don’t know about schools; I’d be interested to learn). This is good in some ways, because people can get help and support, but it can also reinforce negative behaviours. Using the example of presentations, if my teachers at university had known that I was so nervous I thought I was going to be sick before each public speaking effort, and so anxious during those five minutes that I couldn’t breathe properly, maybe they would have let me off. I would have been so relieved, and I am a little envious of the students who are let off now. But: avoiding what makes you anxious in this way does not do you any favours. If you never try, you never learn that it doesn’t kill you, and you never improve. By the end of my BA degree I could do a presentation with far less nerves, and my audience would be more or less unaware that I was anxious at all. It is still a problem for me, but I learnt that I could do it. Not facing these anxieties is called negative reinforcement: the immediate relief of being let off is so marvellous that you keep doing it again and again, and you never get any better.

So is it useful to give yourself a label and use it as an excuse? For things that make everyone anxious (public speaking is one of the most common phobias) maybe it isn’t. And I can’t say I’m generally anxious because a lot of things that some people loathe I have no issues with. I adore flying, for example. I get anxious before some big social occasions where I’m not going to know many people, but who doesn’t? I now get anxious when I drive because I haven’t done it much lately, but again, isn’t that normal?

Another example I read about was a girl who lost both her parents very early in life. After the death of her mother when she was only about 20, leaving her an orphan, she went to see a counsellor. The counsellor told her she was ‘ordinarily unhappy’ and for a long time the girl was livid. But the counsellor meant: of COURSE you are unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? And in some cases this is a useful way of looking at things. You’re nervous of talking in front of 30 other people you hardly know? Fair enough. It’s not unusual. It doesn’t need a label.

My friend is worried that I may still be suffering from a form of depression, which may have been misdiagnosed by a GP without the time or expertise to look into the problem fully. By the standard definition of feeling down and hopeless and plagued by negative thoughts for two weeks or more, I am not depressed. I have been low this last week, and anxious, but again with all the news this past week or two, WHO HASN’T been feeling down and anxious?!

I do know that there are some things that are not perhaps ‘normal’ for me to worry about as much as I do. And I could call that anxiety, as they can get into self-reinforcing and self-inflicted spirals. But most of them are to do with self-esteem: am I good enough at this? Do people like me? Am I important? Am I pretty enough? Am I clever enough? It’s exhausting. But it’s not constant. So is it an illness, or is it just something people suffer from – particularly women?

I have been listening to the Guilty Feminist podcast a lot lately – highly recommended – and listened to one yesterday on Worth. They discussed how much they felt they were worth, both in monetary terms for their jobs but also in terms of standing up for what was important to them, and measuring their own worth by different standards. Sarah Millican was the guest, and she said it had taken her a long time to work out that she needed to judge her own worth herself, without taking on anyone else’s assessment. She read out a review she had had after appearing on a television show where the reviewer essentially pronounced her worthless because she was not young and sexy, but neither was she a wife and a mother. Too often women have their worth judged in these ways, rather than on anything else. It’s a huge problem, because when women judge their own worth in this way, even if they wouldn’t judge their friends like that, it’s easy to feel worthless. Oh, my boyfriend didn’t want to sleep with me this evening therefore I’m not sexy therefore I am worthless. I am single and in my thirties and don’t think I want children therefore I’m worthless. I’m in my fifties and have been at home raising my children for thirty years, but now my children have all left home and don’t need me every day anymore therefore I’m worthless.

I am well aware that I have issues assessing my own worth, and believing that I am not worth much leads to problems all over the place. If I don’t think I’m worth much, I don’t understand why my partner would think so, so I think he’s going to leave. I get irritable and needy, and then he gets upset, and then I feel even more worthless because I’m being a pain in the arse, and the cycle keeps going. This, I think, is what my friend thinks I need a psychiatrist for, and probably because she’s heard stories of these kind of issues with my partner too often for too long, and there’s nothing much she can say, or anyone can say – except perhaps a professional. Maybe she’s right. I know what the psychiatrist will say, but is that a reason not to go? Do I need a label? Or can I cope with this on my own? Is it an illness that requires treatment, or is it because I’ve grown up as a slightly introverted woman and these are common tropes in many women’s lives? I really don’t know.

I am considering going purely for the guidance of a professional opinion. At the same time I am aware that my best friend in all this is probably myself. If the worst problem I have is negative thought spirals, the best thing I can do is practise mindfulness. When I did it actively for a few weeks, I procrastinated less at work, I got into less idiotic thought patterns about my partner’s ex-girlfriends (of ALL the pointless things to think about, that’s got to be one of the worst) and I felt much better and more confident in myself. We have been told time and time again that exercise is effective as medication for some mental illnesses. So even if a professional would give me an anxiety or depression label, does that also mean I need psychiatric treatment? If I don’t think I need it, odds on it won’t work. So ultimately, my opinion is the one that’s worth the most.

For Jo Cox.

“So much death… what can man do in the face of such reckless hate?” – The Lord of the Rings

I have been reeling all week from the shooting in Orlando, the shooting of a young singer in the middle of doing autographs, the appearance out of nowhere for such ability to inflict pain. The lists of the dead from Orlando, the faces and the words of love, have been entirely heartbreaking. I feared for my gay friends, their friends, their parents and siblings and loved ones. How could so many innocent lives be wiped out so suddenly, with such ease, with so little care?

Today that fear and horror and loathing were brought smacking home again. While shootings in America lose some element of surprise, if not shock, due to their ridiculous gun laws, shootings in the UK are less frequent. But today a colleague in my office spoke suddenly in total disbelief: a female MP has been shot. Three times. Then stabbed repeatedly.

Reading the story for myself I began to feel so sick. The man apparently said ‘Britain First!’ as he attacked her. I stared at the words and took almost no meaning from them. What did he think he would achieve? What is supposed to happen? What is to be gained?

I was on my way to meet my best friend for dinner. I walked around trying to find the restaurant and realised I was not well. Every little noise made my nerves shudder, I was dazed and lost and confused. I went to the restaurant and could not go in. I walked back and round and about trying to avoid people. I was shocked a little back to my senses hearing some men discussing the attack – “we’ve got to be very careful, now”, they said – and I wondered what they meant. Who were they, that they were so afraid too? Or were they talking about the country at large? We need to be very careful, now. How much lower can we sink.

Halfway through dinner my friend went to the bathroom and with great trepidation I checked my phone for news. Jo Cox had died. She is gone. Her two little children will grow up without a mother, a husband without a wife, perhaps, parents without a child. I burst into tears and wept in full view of a very crowded restaurant, but who cares. What better reason is there to cry than for the wasted life of one who was taken too soon, for no good cause, for nothing at all.

I am too shocked and sad and numb to be able to make this post about much else. I do not know what the man’s motivations were. I do not know what will happen. Is this to do with the EU referendum? I suppose it must be. How pathetic. As I said in my last blog, I simply do not understand the logic of those people who think we would now be better off on our own. I read a perfect analogy: that suggesting we leave the EU is like that friend who suggests leaving a bar, because somewhere else might be better, but once you’ve left you find that they don’t really have a plan and you wander for hours, cold and alone. People say they ‘want Britain back’, but the Britain they want back doesn’t exist and never has done. I studied Chinese migration to Britain and people have been making the same complaints about foreigners for the last hundred years; and if I’d studied British history further back, I’m sure they were complaining about it then too.

But how could anyone think it was worth killing somebody for? What thought process, what ideas went through their mind? To carry out a murder like this you have to be mentally unwell, but still the anger and purpose has come from somewhere. I am sickeningly angry with the media and the politicians for the lies they have peddled from the beginning of both referendum campaigns, but particularly Leave. Huge, stupid, twisted, dangerous lies. And now no matter what happens with the referendum it will be too late for them to completely correct the hate and disgusting selfishness of their ideas, because a woman is dead. Politics and leanings this way and that will vary over time, and if we leave the EU then there will be changes and I don’t anticipate them being immediately for the better. But nothing, neither leaving nor staying, could be worth killing an innocent woman for. Not even close. Not even an inch of a trillion miles. It is senseless.

I have studied history for a long time and I am idealistic and left leaning in my politics. I hope for equality and the end of ridiculous privilege and the realisation that we are all so similar to one another, that it is stupid and pointless to be so hateful towards other people. When you have these kind of ideas it seems so straightforward to you that everyone else should feel the same. Perhaps that is arrogant, I don’t know. It just seems so logical, rational, and obvious that I often can’t conceive of arguments against it. I have these ideas and I expect history to march forward, for progress to happen, for change to come and for everything to keep getting better. But I am having some hard knocks in recent years. I started listing all the depressing things and then it got so long I had to stop. There are too many to count.

There are some points of hope. I was heartened and warmed by the election of Sadiq Khan as London Mayor, a wonderful expression of trust in Muslims at a time when they are feeling particularly victimised for the actions of a small minority. I hope desperately that there will be more good news, that people will realise Britain is stronger within the EU and we will vote the right way next week.

But it has all paled into a far lesser significance for me now. I feel a desperate need to be close to everyone I love, to pull them close and tell them what they mean to me. A friend of a victim of the Orlando shootings said that they’d been planning to catch up, but they’d been busy – and now he was gone. Jo Cox, like all the people in Pulse, went out in the morning on just another day. Never to return. Because of the spread of senseless hatred and stupidity that is pulling our world back, trying to roll back history. We must push back and love and learn and pull together and turn the wheels back in the right direction. Like the ‘tiny fire’ ignited in the hearts of people around the world by the ridiculous sentencing of Brock Turner for rape, more fires will be ignited to fight homophobia, racism, selfishness and hate. RIP Jo Cox. You will not be forgotten.

The Orlando shootings: let’s spread love not hate, or indifference

I try to avoid the news as much as I can these days. I didn’t check my phone or even see Facebook all day last Sunday so I didn’t hear about the shooting in Orlando until Monday morning. I saw a headline on someone’s paper about a shooting in a gay club, and was gripped by the same awful fear as after the Paris attacks or the Sandy Hook shooting or any of these other horrible, senseless crimes. I was particularly frightened because a friend had her hen do at a gay club in central London that night – but of course in America it’s so much easier to just pick up an assault rifle and massacre innocent people so I wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be in Orlando, USA. As soon as I got to work I went onto Facebook, thinking I would be very behind the news and there would be endless messages of support and that my news feed would be covered in profile pictures with rainbow backgrounds.

I was surprised to find after scrolling through a few dozen statuses and articles that only one friend seemed to have changed to the rainbow flag. I was confused but then remembered the backlash the last time we all changed our flags after the Paris attacks, with people claiming there should also be a flag to support Lebanon, or Syria, or the other places seeing horrendous attacks against innocent people far more frequently than we have them in the West. I also wondered if people are just becoming numb to the shock of another shooting in the US. They are horrifyingly common, after all. And of course there are many ways of expressing support for the victims, their families and the LGBTQ community at large without painting a photograph in pretty colours. But I was surprised in general by the lack of attention the shooting was getting on my news feed. I was, to be fair, a day after the event, but whereas after the Paris attacks I had to limit my facebook exposure for several days because the outpourings of grief were so raw they made me extremely upset, this time it was for the most part business as usual, the standard statuses about this and that event from the weekend. There were also, which I can excuse to some extent, lots of postings about the EU referendum. It seems from these useless polls that the lies and inflammatory bullshit in the media are swaying people towards kicking the chair out from under themselves, and I can’t blame my friends for trying to persuade people to vote remain (although in the context of my friends list at least, I think I’d be preaching to the converted).

And yet. This wasn’t just another US shooting, or another IS attack, or even another attack on LGBTQ people. This was the worst US shooting ever. The man pledged allegiance to IS before shooting and they were gleeful in claiming responsibility but it is unclear as yet how much the man actually followed their beliefs and how much he was just a desperate and sick man who decided to say he was part of IS right at the last second – perhaps he thought what he was going to do would have greater impact if he wasn’t just one man alone. And this certainly wasn’t just another attack on LGBTQ people. This was the worst mass killing of gay people since the Holocaust.

The media coverage of the shooting did not make me any less confused in terms of how it was being reported. Owen Jones’s decision to walk off the Sky News set is already set to become legend, and when you see what he was putting up with, you cannot blame him. There were repeated attempts by both presenters to deflect attention from this being an LGBTQ hate crime. Let’s imagine for a moment that the shooting had been in a Catholic church. Even if it was attributed to IS there would still be full acknowledgement that this was a crime against Christians. People who tried to deflect that fact and say ‘well no, it was an attack against all people trying to practise their religion’ would be scorned. Julia Hartley-Brewer’s comment that the killer would have had similar issues with her as ‘a gobby woman’ were truly astonishing. We know from the fact he used to beat his wife that the man was also deeply misogynistic, but if he wanted to just kill a group of confident women I’m sure he could have found a venue to do so. And not liking women expressing their opinions is not the same as being repulsed and deeply angered by the sight of two men kissing, which Mateen was on a trip with his father. Even this was dismissed by the presenters – ‘that was months ago! I’m sure plenty of things have made him angry since then!’ – missing the point that the anecdote shows a revulsion towards gay people. But even then, why are we looking at that small incident and drawing from it, as if we need any more evidence? The fact he picked a gay club as the spot for his massacre makes it abundantly clear that they were his target, and I genuinely don’t understand why people are shying away from saying that’s what it was. Julia Hartley-Brewer has now written her own article explaining why she thinks the whole furore is ridiculous, and done nothing to calm an inflamed situation or bring the focus back to LGBTQ people by saying Owen Jones ‘may have more in common with IS than he thinks’. Ugh. I’ve watched the clip several times and I do see Owen Jones’s point. I think a lot of points could have been cleared up if they all allowed each other to finish their sentences, as a point Hartley-Brewer has since made that they were trying to explain his homophobia in terms of his religion did not come across to me at all. But it doesn’t alter the fact that several news outlets are not addressing the LGBTQ issue enough. Some papers, like The Daily Mail, didn’t even run the story on their front page on Monday morning, choosing instead to spread lies about immigration which I thought had been leaked last week and already proven wrong. I’m trying to imagine if they would have done the same if a different group had been targeted.

Let’s also imagine for a moment that he hadn’t mentioned IS during his 911 call. He was a Muslim so the link would have inevitably been drawn anyway, but by mentioning IS he has allowed news outlets to make this about the continuing war on terror, a fresh story in their favourite saga of unremittingly awful news. By making it immediately about the whole IS cause, and about the whole IS group, the LGBTQ community have been marginalised and half forgotten. ‘This wasn’t a gay hate crime! It was an IS crime!’ It can be both, and both need to be acknowledged and talked about. While we were all terrified of IS terrorist attacks before, the gay community will now be feeling doubly vulnerable. Attacks against parts of Western culture – going to concerts and sitting in restaurants – are terrifying in their normality, the feeling that they were picked at random simply as places that would have a lot of people gathered in one place. We can’t all always avoid going to places where there are crowds, so there was little choice in continuing about our daily lives. But this attack is different. People out in Soho the following evening were second guessing their decision to go out. Now gay clubs are a target, even more so than they were before. If there is another attack in a gay club, will some people say that the party goers shouldn’t have gone out? That they knew the danger? I hope not but I am afraid that the thought would cross some people’s minds, in the same way people blamed the parents of a Indonesian girl who was gang raped and murdered while walking home. Apparently she shouldn’t have been let out on her own.

This attack highlights the challenges still faced in gaining equality for LGBTQ people around the world, as so many people continue to hate for no reason. In some countries it is still illegal, and I have crossed various places off my list of possible travel destinations because if one of my best friends came with me, he could be arrested at the gate because he is attracted to men more than women. People are still persecuted, people still face ridicule and bullying from their peers, and even in central London where you would think surely “anything goes”, people still struggle to come out to their parents. I don’t pretend to be able to speak for the LGBTQ community, being as I am a woman who has only had relationships with men. But I am a supporter of the cause and believe deeply in the equality of all people, as anyone should who has half a brain. It makes me so sad and so angry when people refuse to let people love. This is the most stupid thing about being homophobic – that the decision of other people about who they love is so far from being anybody else’s business. Love is love. And it is desperately important that this shooting is acknowledged as an LGBTQ hate crime, an attack on this community, and a mark of how far we still have to go. Some particularly sick individuals took to Twitter to say that this attack was a good thing, attacking ‘perverts’ rather than ‘innocent people.’ There are no words, other than fuck off you revolting pieces of shit.

The other thing about the media coverage which made me so angry was the reactions from politicians, mainly in the US and UK. David Cameron tweeted once saying his thoughts were with the victims and their families, and then went back to tweeting about the referendum. I can’t see that he has said anything else. Nothing about supporting the LGBTQ community in Britain, the specific nature of the attack, or another call for the US to sort out their gun laws. Jeremy Corbyn did better at least by going to Old Compton Street last night and showing his support very specifically for the people who will be feeling at their most vulnerable and exposed. Donald Trump of course lost no time in making the attacks about him and his campaign for the US presidency. I’m sure we all have the same feelings about this man by now, or at least I hope we do. He has gone from being a figure of fun to someone who sends such a surge of rage through me whenever I see his face that I am starting to fear for my blood pressure. I’m not laughing anymore, although perhaps I should – perhaps he is like a Boggart and will only be stopped by people laughing at him and exposing him for the pointless shapeless bag of hot air that he is. It was his comments that angered me the most, claiming that his shooting proved him ‘right’ that they need to stop the migration of Muslims into the US. I am so angry and upset that such a hateful crime is being used to spread more hate, more anger, more unfounded persecution of the Muslim population at large. I am terrified by the unthinking racism of his supporters, as I am by the unthinking xenophobia of the people in Britain who are voting to leave the EU. It shows this awful superiority complex, this belief that we in the US or Britain are better than all the others and if we could only somehow be left alone we would all be happy special snowflakes. It is total bollocks and at a time when the world is tearing itself apart in so many ways, I am flabbergasted that people can’t see that being more unified, that having more conversations, more connections to one another, is the best way to survive and prosper.

Amidst all this sadness and horror there are always heartwarming stories. The number of people who went to Old Compton Street to sing and join hands last night. The people who went to the blood banks in Orlando after a call for blood, so many that there were then volunteers supplying the queue with food and water, and so many that in the end some were told to come back later in the week. The man who was at the gay club who told a news reporter that the killer had ‘picked the wrong community to mess with.’

I don’t tend to write political posts, but I felt in this case it was important for me to add my voice to the others around the world. I am full of disbelief, rage, and sadness, but I am also full of love and support for all the LGBTQ people who are now feeling more fearful than ever.  I am in no way suggesting that this was ‘worse’ than the attacks in Paris, or anywhere else, as it doesn’t work that way. Every single crime against innocent people is horrendous. But this attack was different, and everyone needs to acknowledge that this is a dreadful benchmark in our history. I wonder if some people don’t know what to say, either because it’s too awful for words or because they feel that in some way gay people are the ones who own this grief. Julia Hartley-Brewer suggested that was what Owen Jones was trying to do, but he wasn’t. He was saying it was difficult for anyone who wasn’t gay to understand how much this attack is different, because it is a direct attack on LGBTQ people and their ways of life. I see that and I grieve with everyone else. Everyone should be joining together now more than ever to show that, to quote Dumbledore, ‘though we come from different places and speak in different tongues, (and love different people), our hearts beat as one.’ If you don’t feel you know what to say, just say #loveislove. Or link Owen Jones’s article in The Guardian. Or a news piece. Or this blog. I sincerely hope that this horror doesn’t breed more hate, or indifference, or embarrassment about discussing gay politics, but that it shows the world how much we have to fight for, and that the progress some places have made is fragile – and that it is not enough.

 

“Wasting” time and “changing” thoughts

Apologies in advance for the overuse of inverted commas in this blog post!

It is 8.20am at King’s Cross Underground Station. Rush hour. People stream from train to platform, platform to escalator, escalator to barrier, barrier to stairs. I am always struck by the uniformity of colour. Everyone is wearing black or navy, with only infrequent splashes of anything brighter or lighter (for years I refused to buy a coat in either black or navy, insisting on red, pink, blue. Recently I gave in as, while being prettier, they also require far more frequent washing). Being on the tube at this time of day is often dead time. With neither enough free hands nor enough space to hold a book, and with too much noise to be able to comfortably listen to anything, I mostly choose to just stand. The only entertainment I can get is reading the headlines in the free newspapers people carry, or the adverts above people’s heads, both of which make me wish I had a pair of glasses which could remove my ability to read.

I have been awake for two hours and on the move for one, but this is the first time I feel like I’m participating in a rush hour commute. The early train can hardly be described as “rushed”; nearly everyone has a seat and it is usually completely quiet, without even gossiping colleagues to break the silence. Everyone is in their own worlds, passing this parcel of time in whichever way they prefer. People watch films or write notes, start work and read books (physical and electronic). Others take advantage of the well-cushioned seats and headrests to return to sleep.

I have choices in how I use this time. I cannot work as the trains do not have internet. There is enough intermittent connection on my phone to talk to friends, sometimes discussing in that early morning time urgent happenings from the night before, and I’m sure many would use this time on various forms of social media, catching up on tweets and news feeds and photographs. I am restricted in what I can do in this area. I chose some time ago to remove social media apps from my phone, so I cannot scroll the endless facebook news feed as I used to – I found I had got into the habit of doing it as soon as I woke up in the morning, which, even when there was nothing in particular going on, gave the morning a greyish tinge and a flatness which I decided to do without.

We are given so much advice these days on how to spend our time, but so much of it passes without our conscious thought. I have seen endless articles lately about the “busyness epidemic”, that we are all rushed off our feet and don’t have time to do – what, exactly? I know many people have jobs that take up most of their non 9-5 time, but I also know – from my own experience and these constant articles – that we are also “wasting” time on websites or doing “nothing.” But what are we doing when we do nothing? This is what I’ve been thinking about recently, since I moved and put an hour’s train ride between me and my job. I now have two hours every day, ten hours a week, which at the end of a year I will be able to look at as a distinct and separate area of time and think: what did I do with it?

The cultural feeling around long commutes is overwhelmingly negative, and I was nervous about how it would affect me. While getting up so early is not my favourite thing to do, I am finding some deep comfort in this neatly packaged and wrapped slice of time I have, every day, morning and evening, to use as I will. There is nobody to interrupt me or to tell me what they would rather I be doing. I am finding it interesting seeing how doing different things affect my mental state for the working day or resting evening ahead. There is some kind of expectation we should do something profound with this amount of time, seen in a block – learn a language, read heavy non-fiction, “improve” ourselves in some way. In some ways this is appealing, although there needs to be a balance between relaxation and personal improvement. And there are ways to pass the time and enjoy it without feeling at the end of the journey, week or month, that it was “wasted.”

One thing I am getting back into is listening to books. Audiobooks require a fantastic amount of mindful concentration. We are so used to paying attention to what is in front of our eyes, that attending fully and completely with our ears is a surprisingly difficult task. Your mind will wander and you’ll realise you’ve missed a few pages. You are conscious of every moment of daydreaming in a way you are not while you are reading, when I for one will frequently skip explanations, descriptions, and chapter headings without even noticing (it is only with books like The Time Traveller’s Wife that I realise how much I do this, when you need to read each chapter heading and fully process it to know whose past or present you are about to be in). Similarly, when we are speaking to other people, our mind is often not consciously engaged with what they are saying, but attaching extra meaning, processing an emotional reaction, thinking ahead to what we are going to say, or thinking about something completely different. Listening to an audiobook for an hour I am very aware of the time passing, but I arrive at King’s Cross into the swell and sway of commuters feeling very tranquil, very aware. I have been taken out of my own headspace for a full hour, unable to follow the often pointless and petty meanderings of my brain, and it is a deeply welcome break.

One thing I have been more conscious of lately, and which led to the deleting of facebook from my phone and the installation of an app on my laptop which allows me only five minutes on there a day, is how much social media can affect my mood. It is, for me, a deeply unmindful way of passing the time. Although I think in some areas restricting time on facebook is me using avoidance tactics on things which make me anxious, which I would do better to address head on, in other ways it removed a way for me to “waste” a lot of time. “Wasting” in the sense that I am not aware of what I am doing, I am glazing over and mindlessly absorbing what I see, which is only the falsely positive, overwhelmingly negative or lists of pointless platitudinous quotations. Into this gap I moved the reading of more articles (which led to more blog writing) and also participation in some online courses. I have signed up to far more of them than I have actually ritually participated in, but three have proven very useful in this ongoing quest I and everyone else seems to be on to “improve,” find some balance, feel happier, and (in my case) add tools to my arsenal to fight ongoing mental health issues.

The first (this and the others were on the free FutureLearn website) was on Literature and Mental Health, looking at the way poetry, novels and plays have addressed mental health problems or might be used by people to help them in times of stress or pain. As a result of it I have memorised several poems that are useful in calming me down and making me focus when I am having anxiety attacks (Yeats “The Lake Isle of Innsifree”, Oliver “Wild Geese”, Auden “Funeral Blues”). The second was on Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance. I won’t bore you by reiterating that mindfulness is very popular at the moment, but I will say that the course was extremely helpful day to day in helping me slow down my thoughts and feel more at one with myself. Sadly since the course ended I have struggled to keep this up, so I am now enrolled on it for a second time.

Mindfulness is all about the avoidance of wasting time, in this sense I am using of wasting time by being unaware of where you are and what you are doing. Mindfulness teaches you to concentrate on the present moment, accepting it for what it is if it is unpleasant, and enjoying it fully without past doubts or future worries if it is pleasant. It is all very well and good but, of course, extremely difficult. I also read an article once against it and in defence of daydreaming – the author quite rightly pointed out that it is only the daydreams about the fool you made of yourself in science class at school that are bad for our mental health; if we are cheerfully daydreaming about winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or galloping along a beach on a chestnut horse, we are more likely to be happy at the end of the commute than if we were sat there concentrating hard on the exact shade of blue of the chair in front. However, mindfulness is very useful for combating negative thoughts, simply because it makes you focus on them and see them for what they are, whereas in “default mode” (or perhaps “toxic thought world” as Adriene, online yoga instructor, has termed a similar way of thinking) we allow the narratives of self-criticism and worry to run unchecked. I had a silly horoscope on an email newsletter the other day (Lenny, co-run by Lena Dunham) which told me that there wasn’t a real problem, the only issue was the ‘troubling narrative’ I had built up around whatever it was I was worrying about. Like all horoscopes it trod that beautiful line of being totally specific, and yet entirely vague, so that it could neatly apply to absolutely everybody. But for me it did give me pause for thought, and pushed me to try a more mindful way of thinking.

The third course, which for me builds on the mindful aspects of not “wasting” time and of “changing” your thought patterns (I am as yet deeply sceptical of things which tell me I can change how I think, which I hope isn’t the biggest obstacle to it actually working), is about Anxiety, Depression and CBT. As someone who has experienced anxiety, depression, and undergone a course of CBT, you might think this course would be rather in the way of teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (heaven alone knows where that saying comes from). But examining it all from the outside in has been remarkably helpful. The course spells out for those who have never suffered from either anxiety or depression how it affects the brain and the way sufferers interpret things. To cut a long story short, and oversimplifying wildly, people with these issues focus on the negative. They see neutral situations as negative, remember negative things far more easily and with greater depth than positive ones, and thereby encase themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of shrinking worlds and increasing mental anguish. It is in many ways a form of unchosen self-torture. CBT teaches people to break the cycles of negativity which influence thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and behaviours, by interpreting situations more realistically, and adjusting behaviour ahead of changes in mood to try and kickstart adjustments in thinking, then feeling, then living. It is, like mindfulness, far easier said than done. The four or five sessions of CBT I had were very good, but like the mindfulness course, without weekly guidance I have fallen back into old ways of thinking. This course, together with the mindfulness course, is helping to reiterate to me how much of what I think and feel is not real.

It is now 6pm, and I am on the train heading home. After a day at work I may not have the mental concentration for an audiobook, or an online course, or even a book, depending on what it is. Sometimes I will daydream but the time passes slowly. Fortunately my partner gave me a straight out of left field gift for my birthday: a Nintendo 3DS. As a teenager I spent a lot of time watching my two brothers, and later boyfriends, play various computer games. It seems to be a fairly typical experience for females, which is interesting. What is it that makes us observers rather than players? Is it cultural gender stereotyping, that girls are not allowed to play these games or will automatically be bad at them? In some cases I’m sure it’s a genuine lack of interest, but for me I think often it was informed by an idea that I wouldn’t be any good. This was reinforced as my brothers, having a ready-made two player game, would play each other very often and far more frequently than I would want to join in (you see, I had a stable of model ponies to look after). They were then far more proficient than I was, and I didn’t like to lose constantly or make them feel like they were being held back by me. But my partner thought this was a shame, and that a Nintendo 3DS might be a way for me to try my hand at games – single player, straightforward, and just about me. I was sceptical. But time never passes faster on the train than when I’m playing Pokemon. I’m sure some people will think this is time “wasted”, but I disagree. For a start, as I have said elsewhere, time enjoyed is never time wasted. Also, there is a strange sense of achievement that comes from playing these games. And, it is a mindful practice, as you are totally in the moment, unaware of the people around you or the worries of the day you’ve spent. It is a fun and easy way to switch my mind off. Why wouldn’t training a high-level Charmander be a positive way of evaluating how I’ve spent some of my hours on the train? Especially if, at the same time, it is stopping me from focussing on negatives or getting stuck in tedious, grey spirals of thought. And the less time I spend on that, the “better” I think I will be.