War And Terror: Unhappy Families

There once was a street. On one side were lots of nice houses and in the biggest and best one lived the War family. On the other side were lots of not-so-nice houses and the Terror family lived in one of the worst. The Wars and the Terrors were both pretty odd families with strange ways of doing things but because the Wars had the best house everyone else wanted to be like them. People would do all sorts of things for the Wars like bake cakes, mow their lawn and write nice articles about them in the local press. Sometimes the Wars would say ‘thank you’ to these people or even give them some cash or, best of all, invite them to one of their cocktail parties. The Terrors never did anything for the Wars because they didn’t like them and, naturally, the Wars hated the Terrors in return.

Now, it just so happened that the Terrors lived near a petrol station at which the Wars liked to fill their big cars. To get to the petrol station the Wars would drive their cars over the Terror’s front yard, absolutely ruining the grass. Then, as they waited for an attendant to fill their tank,  they’d eat junk food and throw their rubbish into the Terror’s back yard. Sometimes the War children would use their catapults to shoot rocks at the Terror’s windows, just to teach ’em a lesson for not being friendly. One time Mr Terror got so angry he shouted at one of the War kids. The next day Mr War bashed the guy’s letterbox in with a baseball bat. He also did a deal with the manager at the petrol station, making sure all his friends could get served first whilst the Terrors would have to wait until the end. Sometimes the Terrors would sneak over to the petrol station to fill up but if they were caught Mr War would get very angry. He’d get his sons to patrol the petrol station and get his mate at the local press to write articles describing how awful the Terrors were – I mean, have you seen the state of their back yard!?

One night one of the Terror kids was so angry that he set fire to the War’s kennel, killing the dog. The Wars were outraged and decided to retaliate but catapults weren’t going to be enough this time so they made some Molotov cocktails with the bottles left over from their drinks parties. Then the War kids got in their cars and started driving up and down the street throwing their homemade bombs. They weren’t the best of aims and they often missed their target, hitting other houses instead. Sometimes the War’s neighbours would join in and throw their own bombs as well. The Terrors thought the Molotov cocktails were such good ideas that they started making their own, which they threw at the War’s cars. So the Wars bought bigger cars and bigger bottles. The Terrors knew that the odds were stacked against them but they took great pleasure in scaring the people across the street and forcing the Wars to spend loads of cash on new cars (in truth, the War family bank account wasn’t looking too good but Mr War never liked to mention that). Meanwhile, the neighbours on the nice side of the street got scared and built higher fences around their houses whilst the neighbours on the nasty side couldn’t afford fences so they just hoped the flaming cocktails wouldn’t hit their homes.

The fighting went on and on and it still goes on today. And if you ever happened to be walking down this street, which I wouldn’t recommend, you might overhear Mr Terror talking to his family over dinner and this is what you’d hear him saying:  “Those Wars are the worst, they are evil, vicious people and we must use all the resources we’ve got to fight them. Our ultimate goal should be one thing and one thing only – to terrify them.” If you were then to cross the road you would hear Mr War talking to his family as well. Save for one word you’d hear him saying exactly the same thing.

This post is inspired by Noam Chomsky’s book ‘Who Rules The World’. I never condone terrorism of any sought and with this post I simply want to make the point that violence breeds only suffering and more violence. Similar points are captured in Lily Allen’s song.

Is Voting Conservative An Act of Terrorism?

Bear with me. Terrorism is defined as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. We might associate it with the ongoing bombings and shootings taking place in European capitals. We might associate it with ISIS and Al-Qaeda and other groups of extreme Islamists. We might be less likely to associate it with similar acts of terror taking place in countries such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. We might also not associate it with right-wing terrorism in the US (claiming more lives since the September 11 attacks to June 2015 than jihadist terrorism). Our media inclines us to believe certain things about terrorism whilst ignoring others. And one thing our media never inclines us to believe is that our government may be guilty of it.

If you remove the word ‘unlawful’ from the definition of terrorism to leave “the use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” it’s not too much of a stretch to see how various  policies pursued by the Conservative government over the past few years might fit this bill. The Tories have cut, amongst other things, spending on schools, disability benefits, social security, the NHS, housing benefits, the social housing stock, and support for women and children. In essence, they’ve cut spending on the threads that keep the social fabric together (and remember, they’re cutting because the banks were bailed out after the 2008 crash and never made to pay the money back) and the consequences have included death. One study suggests that 30,000 deaths in 2015 could be attributable to the “relentless cuts” the NHS faced. Of course, the results were contested but it’s worth asking that if there aren’t enough beds at your local hospital, the A&E waiting time is too long and without sufficient money to buy private healthcare where do you go to get support? A local example for me would be the cuts to the organisations in London who help people struggling with mental health problems and/or HIV, again, without this support system where do vulnerable people go to find community and care? It’s also worth noting that hand-in-hand with the cuts goes an increase in privatisation of services. This means what was once free at the point of delivery becomes priced, immediately making it harder for people on lower incomes to access, and it’s also led to people having exceptionally unpleasant and dehumanising experiences at the hands of companies such as G4S and Serco.

So, as the rich get richer but for everyone else the social fabric tears, I argue that one of the consequences of this is terror. People are dying because they’re not getting the support they need, that’s terrifying. Despite the incredible material wealth in 21st century Britain people are still in poverty, that’s terrifying. Local communities are falling apart and we’re turning on each other as a consequence, that’s terrifying. And our government’s solution is to exacerbate the problem, that’s terrifying. The Tories are implementing violent and intimidating policies to further their political aims except they are considered lawful because they’re the government – the ones that make the law! For this reason if you were to vote Conservative on 8th June you will be an active participant in this terrifying process.

However, I doubt that Theresa May sits with her Cabinet (and David Cameron sat with his) and asks, “How can we terrorise the poor today?” or “Who should we murder with our policies?”, instead, I think she and her party genuinely believe that what they’re doing (slavishly adhering to an increasingly feudalist form of neoliberal capitalism and market idolatry) is for the best. Quite how/why they believe is for another post but I think the one thing they lack, which terrorists do not, is intent. So, no, I don’t think the Tories are involved in a class war that involves murdering their opponents with economic policies but I do they are involved in a class war that consists of defeating their parliamentary opposition and its support base with economic policies that kill. Which makes the answer to the post’s title a no – voting Conservative is not an act of terrorism but I think the consequences of doing so will continue to be terrifying.

Now, on the off-chance any of my Tory-voting chums are reading this (and I do have some because I went to boarding school in Kent…but that’s for another post) I might hear them offer this question: weren’t the Labour Party under Ed Miliband committed to the cuts as well? My answer to this would be another question – what does it mean that back at the 2015 general election both of Britain’s major political parties were wedded to destabilising society? My Tory chums can answer for themselves but, if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I like to look to the context and Britain’s current political context is one of different shades of capitalism. We were told this system would redistribute scarce resources into the hands of those that needed them but when money itself, the oil of the machine, is a scarce resource it’s no surprise that it’s the needs of the wealthy that are being met especially as they’ve managed to buy up so much of the market, media and politics for themselves. That’s also terrifying.

Terrorism is a tragic and horrific force in our world and every time anyone in any country dies at the hands of an extremist it is a tragedy. Every time anyone is injured by an act of terrorism it is a tragedy. Every time anyone loses a loved one due to terrorism it is a tragedy. This post categorically does not intend to diminish that truth by perhaps glibly referring to Tories and terrorists in the same sentence (as much as Tories like to compare, say, rail or mining strikers to terrorists and use anti-terror laws to silence opposition and protect corporate interests etc). However, history shows us time and time again that the self-interested pursuit of capital yields only inequality and that rising inequality leads to people taking more extreme actions to express themselves. Of course, the reality is far more complex than that but if we can’t see how these things connect then we won’t be able to change them and history will just repeat itself. However, a vote for any party but Conservative (and Ukip!) on June 8th might be a step in the right direction.

https://www.thestar.com/content/dam/thestar/news/world/2016/07/13/cameron-gets-standing-ovation-in-warm-send-off-from-parliament/theresa-may.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x700.jpg

Is Valerian A Metaphor For Europe!?

“In the 28th century, special operatives Valerian and Laureline work together to maintain order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the minister of defense, the duo embarks on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where diverse species gather to share knowledge and culture. When a dark force threatens the peaceful city, Valerian and Laureline must race against time to identify the menace that also jeopardizes the future of the universe.”

I feel this one might be self-explanatory but it’s true that like Valerian, Europe has often been overwhelmed by dark forces. There were the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century along with fascists in Italy and Spain. And prior to that Europe regularly went to war with itself: the First World War (1914-1918), Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Austro-Prussian War (1866) and so on and so on. It’s a miracle really to think what Europe has achieved since 1945, that despite countries’ worth of difference, hostility and prejudice we are that bit more peaceful. And now, Europe is often a place where diverse peoples gather to share knowledge and culture. Of course, that dark force of misplaced nationalism, racism and violence has never gone away. Political groups of the right regularly flirt with the values that their more extreme-right friends hold, whilst the extremists themselves, including the Neo-Nazis, just carry on being dangerous and violent. Europe, like Alpha, is under threat.

Now I could end this post by saying that Brexiteers fall into the category of the dark force. However, I am aware there were so many different reasons people voted for Brexit: some wanted a socialist revolution (the ‘Lexit’ vote), some didn’t know what they were voting for, some wanted to stick a middle finger up at the elitist government, some voted believing that Brexit would mean no immigrants, some were privileged Tories who like a bit of national pride and, of course, some were extremists, racists and fascists. I don’t find it too difficult to comprehend these different reasons for voting Brexit, despite my vote to Remain, and I imagine that Alpha, like the EU, has its fair share of internal problems despite all the exchange of culture and knowledge. However, I think it important that we all acknowledge the existence of these dark forces, for they do exist and there is violence. This acknowledgement could be a rallying call that unites Brexiteers and Remoaners around something beyond a hate/love of the shape of bananas, EU bureaucracy and the Common Agricultural Policy. As Syria’s civil war continues to tear the country apart, as the government of Chechnya stands accused of sending gay men to die and be tortured in a concentration camp and as racial violence continues in the States it is clear that the dark forces are amassing and we must come together to stand against them. With Brexit the EU will change dramatically but Europe can still remain united. So I hope we will all jump in our spaceships and send metaphorical laser cannon blasts at all those nasty baddies.

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.

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.

This House: Comedy, Tragedy or Farce?

It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.

Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.

I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.

Murdering Nostalgia With Agatha Christie And The BBC: The Witness For The Prosecution

The words ‘Agatha Christie murder mystery’ might conjure up images of posh people gathered together in a chintzy drawing-room sipping tea whilst some sleuth – normally moustache twirling Hercule Poirot or knitting Miss Marple – runs through all the red herrings before revealing whodunnit. These are cosy affairs where murder doesn’t involve much blood and good always conquers evil (normally after two or three deaths). A sepia toned view of the 1920s and 30s in Britain where the Empire is represented by a gruff colonel type who might drink a little too much and everyone else is having a whale of a time (apart from the corpses). All this changed last night when the BBC gave nostalgia a cup of poisoned tea and watched it die a grim and bloody death (spoilers ensue).

The writer Sarah Phelps adapted the Christie short story and play The Witness For The Prosecution for the BBC. It was a Christmas special except the only thing special about it was its relentless misery. The smiling, diamond encrusted mask of 1920s London was peeled back to reveal a world of grim austerity, inequality and chest infections. A world in which murder is a desperate and unhappy thing committed by desperate and unhappy people or, in this case, unapologetic sociopaths. The moral core of this story was a rotten one as people were left reeling from the effects of the First World War. Lovers, Romaine and Leonard Vole, were so scarred by the atrocities that they didn’t bat an eyelid when it came to committing and covering up the murder of rich heiress Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall  from Sex and the City!). John Mayhew, the coughing solicitor, guilt ridden after the death of his son in WWI, is spectacularly duped by the murderous couple (as are we the audience!) and proves key in letting them get away with it. He even gets Emily French’s maid hung for a murder she didn’t commit even though she did drown Ms French’s cat. Naturally, when he finds out what has happened he walks off into the sea. This adaptation reveals nostalgia to be a lie – the First World War was not great, wealth does not buy happiness and there’s often lots of blood when someone gets bashed on the head. Personally, I am glad the BBC killed nostalgia because it can be a dangerous thing.  Conniving politicians regularly use it to justify prejudice – if we vote Brexit we can take back control and Britain can be Britain again, free of foreigners and full of tea, oh, and wasn’t the Empire great despite all the slavery and oppression. Or we can banish the Muslims and make America great again. But the nostalgic myths they play on of bygone golden ages are just that – myths – half-hearted stories based on lies and a sprinkling of selective history. The past is no halcyon era of smiles and good fortunes it was often dangerous and unhappy.

However, it’s not just nostalgia that Phelps and the BBC killed it was also hope. The victims die painful and bloody deaths, the villains get away with it and the goodies get hung or drown themselves. There will be no saviour on a white horse or twiddling his little Belgian moustache. The closest we get to redemption is the brief smile on Mayhew’s face as he walks off into the sea, perhaps he has found peace after all, asides from the fact that he will soon be dead. However, there is one brilliant moment before killers Leonard and Romaine drive off into the sunset. Leonard mentions to his newly married wife that he’s worried she might get bored of him now that they’ve got all the money. “Don’t be tiresome, Leonard,” she replies curtly, leaving him with a worried look on his face – yup, the lives of murderous sociopaths might end richly ever after but I doubt they’ll end happily ever after. It seems this Yuletide adapation has a lot to teach us about our own times – 2016 was a hopeless year for the goodies and it really seems as though the baddies are going to get away with it. And I’m not sure 2017 is shaping up to be much better. Yet it is one thing to tear up our nostalgic views of the past but it is quite something else to offer any hint of a different future, a future in which there will not be wars, inequality will be no more and the villains might be held accountable. I feel this is beyond the scope of Sarah Phelps and the BBC, which is why we cannot let them get away with murder.

The Trouble With A Gay Dumbledore

A few months ago I was getting excited for Star Trek Beyond, especially because (spoilers!) I’d heard there was an LGBT plotline in store. The character of Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) was being written as gay and whilst George Takei (the first actor to play Hikaru Sulu and gay activist) was rightly not that impressed it was still a change from the usual warpspeed sequences and other Trekky things I clearly know little about. Of course, what I really wanted was a gay Captain Kirk but I was told that would never happen because a Blockbuster movie with a gay protagonist just wouldn’t do well financially. However, unlike movie producers I am not in this for the money and I think it’s high time that LGBT folk of all ages had some good role models to look up to. Unfortunately, as one would predict, Hollywood is doing a terrible job.

Not only was Star Trek Beyond a very average film, the gay plotline lasted about five seconds. We saw Hikaru Sulu give another man, presumably his husband, a hug and then say hello to the young girl that is presumably their daughter. The scene was so bland and vague that the other guy could have been his brother and the little girl his niece. Apparently an actual man-on-man kiss was edited out because in the future there can be people who are entirely green and giant cities floating in space but same-sex PDAs are a big no-no. Meanwhile, numerous fans were up in arms about the “controversy” of the gay plotline and I think that just goes to show how far we still have to go. For now I’ll make do with a gayish hug.

Another example of a missed opportunity is, of course, Dumbledore. Not only did J.K. Rowling make him gay after the event – i.e. after the books had been written and films produced in which there was no hint of his sexuality – but it’s a shame that the only gay member of the Potterverse was a lonely old man who ends up dead. Fantastic Beasts could have made up for this but instead Dumbledore’s crush, Grindelwald, is too busy acting inappropriately around teenage boys and plotting the downfall of muggles. Yup, the other LGBT character is also a smörgåsbord of queer clichés and stereotypes. As for the four protagonists of the movie – all cishets (cisgendered heterosexuals, for more on this, click here). But, I hear you say, surely one of them could have been bisexual. Perhaps but just like with Dumbledore if a character’s sexuality is not made explicit then it just comes across as the ‘norm’, i.e. straight. But, I hear you say again, why should a character’s sexuality have to define them, surely they can be quiet about it? Of course they can and I agree with both points but the problem is you’re probably straight and you probably don’t see your sexuality as a definitive feature of you because you haven’t been routinely discriminated against for having a sexuality other than straight. You’re not regularly made to feel self-conscious or ashamed of your sexuality and if you are it is not because you are of the LGBTQIA community (it is for another equally grim reason that I will blog about in another post). And nor do you have to endure the crass plotlines of a relentlessly straight Hollywood as you search for inspiring role models. So, as far as I’m concerned Captain Kirk can wear a pink dress, have a limp wrist and sing show tunes whilst Dumbledore can have rainbow eyelashes, leather trousers and a biker boyfriend and still neither can be reduced to or defined by their sexuality. It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to. In the meantime it’s left to the fans to make some pretty creative stories of their own about their favourite queer characters.

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.

These Are The Christmas Adverts!?

It’s that time of year again, still pretty far away from Christmas but our economy’s on the rocks and we need to get people shopping pronto. The lights are up in the streets, Paris is ordering another giant, green butt-plug and Black Friday is looming. To fuel this pre-Christmas consumption extravaganza the propaganda machines, I mean televisions, are doing their best to spew out an array of emotive adverts to get us racing further into debt. Here are some of the highlights (well, lowlights).

Sainsbury’s and the 4th Industrial Revolution: this Xmas ad is a simple one, an overworked Dad who works in a toy store (as if we have those in Britain anymore) gets worried he won’t be able to spend enough time with his family at home. As stresses mount and this unforgivably long advert unfolds the Dad’s solution is to automate himself, yup, riding the trend of replacing humans with robots he gets a drone to do his shopping, machines to run the factory production lines and a nodding dog to do his ‘yes-manning’. This radical transformation of our society is being heralded by the World Economic Forum (self-important 21st century Adam Smith types) as the 4th Industrial Revolution but to those of us who aren’t super rich and who don’t work in think tanks it heralds loss of jobs and increased social atomisation. Thus, rather than an uplifting advert this is actually a bleak prophecy of things to come, worthy of a Black Mirror episode, but Sainsbury’s do give a great nod to diversity in British society as people of colour and different faiths appear in this advert, of course, the protagonist is still a white guy proving that the supermarket will go some of the way but not all of it.

Lidl/Aldi: Nostalgia and the Dangers of Anthropomorphising Vegetables: at least these ones are short. Lidl’s is called Homecoming (yup, it has a title) and is about a family redecorating their Grandad’s old cottage out in the countryside in time for Christmas day. This is a blatant play on British nostalgia for the countryside and ‘family values’, which today are, of course, being trashed by urbanisation and rural poverty, which are both exacerbated by supermarkets taking jobs away from farmers and forcing them to engage in unsustainable farming methods. This advert is effectively a nostaligc lie about what our past once was but probably actually wasn’t. Meanwhile, Aldi’s advert (Aldi is another German superchain and Lidl’s top competitor) shows a carrot running across a Christmas table laden with food – he runs past the corpses of other carrots, the mashed remains of dead potatoes and even gets the skin of his back grated off – all so he can reach the plate by the fireplace with a mince-pie for Father Christmas on it. The carrot gets its wish and, unlike all his dead and eaten friends, ends up caught in the antlers of a reindeer at the front of Santa’s sled, perhaps a subtle nod to the idea of the carrot and the stick, and this time the carrot is incentivising us all to eat loads and buy even more. Whilst funny this advert does highlight the dangers of anthrompomorphising vegetables because, ultimately, we kill, cook and eat them.

M&S Does Sexism: I would mention the Waitrose and John Lewis adverts but their over-reliance on creepy CGI animals and their unrealistic plots really let them down this year (a normal robin would not survive that journey and besides the fact animals don’t use trampolines they also don’t get on that well: the badger would attack the foxes, the foxes would eat the squirrel and the second the hedgehog landed on its back the foxes would be eating that too). Although, this US election result take on the JL advert is inspired and depressing! Instead, it’s M&S, which shows Santa Claus heading off to do the rounds leaving Mrs Claus at home. Not only does she lie to him when he asks if any “last requests” have arrived in the post and she says “no, just bills” – actually, there was a letter addressed to her and unless her bank uses crayons it’s pretty clear it’s not a bill. It turns out a young boy threw his sister’s trainers at a dog and she cried a lot (typical girl, amirite) so could Mrs C sort this out. Sort it out she does: changing into a highly impractical dress given the weather, getting on a jet-ski, into a helicopter and flying half way round the world to add a final present to the pile her husband will have just put under the tree. She even has a cheeky bite of mince pie but not a big one because women have to be dainty in their eating behaviour, amirite! Naturally, the sister is overjoyed because all girls care about is clothes and shoes, amirite! So, not only does Mrs C do the dirty work of a young boy too lazy to buy his sister a present but just before Mr C gets home from his worldwide trip she hides all the evidence: her secret HQ (think bat cave meets festive cheer), her cool dress and even the letters she receives from kids all vanish behind the wall. She even pretends to have fallen asleep whilst reading a book called ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ (because women only care about sex with sociopaths, amirite) and when Mr C asks how her night was she says, “oh, you know, quiet.” Um, not true! So why is she lying? She tells her husband it “wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets” whilst giving the audience a knowing look and she’s basically asking us to collude in patriarchy, where men’s egos are so fragile the thought that a woman can contribute to the working world is just too much. Mrs C would rather weave an incredibly elaborate web of lies and deceit rather than have her husband know quite how resourceful and independent she can be. Talk about #masculinitysofragile. Either that or she’s just very bored of her marriage.