I Got Sorted Into Gryffindor…Ugh

I had mixed feelings when I finished the Pottermore Sorting Hat test because it put me in Gryffindor. I’d always associated the house of the lion with arrogant upstarts like prefect Percy Weasley who takes far too much pride in his factionalism and being better than others. And, yeah, bravery and daring are great but not when they go hand in hand with a giant ego and even greater arrogance to boot. As for chivalry, I thought that was dead or at least extremtly unfashionable.  But the funny thing is, after a Slytheriny experience at boarding school and much Ravenclawing at university, I ended up getting involved in a bit of campaigning and activism. Sure, I was trying to make a difference but boy does the life of a “Social Justice Warrior” come with all the Gryffindor traits and not just the good ones.

As an SJW I cast myself as exceptionally brave and daring, taking on a corrupt and immoral system that gobbles most of us up. I talked about the environment a lot, went vegan for a while and met lots of ace people. Together we laughed in the face of the right-wing media as it labelled us ‘lefty loons’ and ‘deranged socialists’, whilst the Alt-Right and fans of Milo Yiannopoulos had even worse things to say. In response, we prided ourselves on being better than those greedy right-wing Slytherins, they were just a basket of deplorables after all who’d trade their grandma for a promotion. But the irony was that as us SWJs got a little too comfortable on our high horses so we inspired our opponents to do exactly the same. It was a war of attrition as each side tried to out-meme and insult the other. As for some sort of dialogue in the middle, nah, we were Gryffindor, the best, and of course our movement/campaign/action/protest/saving-the-planet-thingy was the most important one of all.

But I’ve never been much of a fan of cliques, recognising they’re just a tool to quell collective insecurities and blunt nuanced thinking. Cliqueiness sucks, whichever side of the political divide it falls on. And I think that’s part of the problem too,  just as the Sorting Hat ensures nice children become nasty factionalists, so splitting ourselves into simplistic political boxes such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ means we too easily ignore the things that we might have in common with others. Yet it is precisely these commonalities, be it a love of nature, a thirst for adventure, a passion for teaching, that transcend the political divide, reminding us that we are humans before we are SJWs, Alt-Righters, Gryffindors or Slytherins. The Harry Potter novels prove that the housing system is inherently flawed (why let a fricking hat decide childrens’ fates after all!?) and while we are still living through divided and hateful times I think it worth taking a moment to imagine a future without factions, houses and Sorting Hats (so many spoilers in the video below).

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Why Is The Cure For Cancer So Expensive?

I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Donna
Donna, in all her bright pink glory!

The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.

Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.

Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.

pharma-greed
Pharma Greed Kills

But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.

Chalk
Innovative use of some pink chalk

Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.

Still Waiting at the VAULT

Beneath Waterloo station lie the vaults. They are long, cavernous rooms made of brick and stone. They are dank and smell a little of damp. They are also the site of Great Gatsby themed parties, plays about starships, masked balls and for only two more days – Still Waiting. As the blurb promised this is an event “about the hundred handshakes you experience in the Calais Refugee Camp, volountourism and packets of pasta, and our relationship with Europe’s refugee crisis.” And as the trains rumbled overhead so I was transported into a very different world. Actually, no, I wasn’t transported because Still Waiting is about this world and the problems it is facing. Perhaps, instead, rather than being taken away on an escapist adventure I was more deeply immersed in the real world. I was made to feel.

Still Waiting - at the VAULT theatre, 1st - 5th February
Still Waiting – at the VAULT theatre, 1st – 5th February

Three cast members/musicians took us through the refugee crisis via songs, statistics, jokes, laments and thoughtful interludes. The title comes from the name of a report released by Refugee Rights Data Project on the situation in Calais. It is the “largest research effort around refugees and displaced people in the region to-date” and it is called Still Waiting because so many people are doing just that, waiting and waiting for a chance to find a new home, to be reunited with family and friends, to escape the persecution of their homelands and/or for better education opportunities. And these are people who are waiting, not just photographs in a newspaper, or numbers on a spreadsheet, or stereotyped ‘masses’. They are people like us.

And that is what Still Waiting achieved – it turned the numbers into stories and the stories made me feel. Whether it was listening to the recording of Ramia’s story, a young woman who escaped Aleppo in Syria and is now living in Goumenissa in Greece. Or hearing the cast discuss their own experiences of going to (or not going to) Calais to help the refugees and the charities supporting them (they also sang a song about it called Humblebrag and it’s worth going to the show just for that!). The show costs £9 and in going you help fund Crew for Calais, one of the charities doing vital work to support refugees. Go also to be moved and to be drawn into a humanitarian crisis in a way that no broadsheet or head of government seems capable of doing. Go because this matters, it really does matter, and we are running out of excuses not to. Because the world won’t get better by itself, the world needs the cast of Still Waiting, it needs Crew for Calais and it needs the resilience and fortitude of the endless refugees forced to leave their homes.

The world needs us too and it’s events like this that remind me of that.

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.

Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

Wear A Red Ribbon Folks, It’s World AIDS Day

What!? I hear you say, why do we need yet another day about something? Didn’t Trump just get elected to power on International Day Against Fascism and Antisemitism. Well, let me put this to you starkly: since the discovery of the virus in 1984 over 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS. As the World AIDS Day website says, it is “one of the most destructive pandemics is history.” It is a plague that has killed many, is killing many and will kill many. With it comes another plague too, one of apathy and stigma, and this you can help fight by educating yourself and those around you.

I could carry on like this, relaying to you facts you can read on Wikipedia or one of a number of websites. I could tell you all about the inspiring film “How To Survive A Plague” which tells the stories of numerous passionate activists and expert scientists working together to develop cures and treatments for HIV and AIDS (on tonight from 6pm at The Cinema Museum in south-east London, go, go, go). I could also tell you about the greed of pharmaceutical companies and their indifference to the suffering of millions. I could tell you of the stigma and hate burning in the hearts of so many people, be they pedestrians on the pavements, preachers in the pulpits or presidents in the White House. I could tell you how ongoing ignorance condemns so many to needless misery and death. Yes, I could tell you these things but I think you can find them out for yourself.

What I will tell you is that I love someone who is HIV positive. And the fact they’re HIV positive makes no difference to me. Instead perhaps that I admire them a little more for the courage with which they meet the world – a world whose track record on this cause is deeply shameful, save for those activists, scientists and all their supporters. And there’s still so much ignorance and prejudice out there, which means those who are HIV positive are not treated positively. So this World AIDS Day, have a heart and wear a red ribbon for those who have HIV and to commemorate those who are no longer with us. Go educate yourself too, it’s all here (and watch the movie tonight) and share this post, please. And remember this, that the HIV and AIDS pandemic is more than just a plague it is also a war, for when cruel hostility, bigotry and indifference result in the unnecessary deaths of so many then I’d say that’s mass murder. I wish that it didn’t have to be like this, that people were not forced to pick sides in this fight, but until my wish is granted the battle rages on. Please pick the right side.