Sunday, 21 September 2014

China Flash: Even afternoon tea says something about modern, monetised Beijng

Afternoon tea at The Opposite House, in association with Jo Malone
Finally, an afternoon tea that smells as good as it looks. Opposite House, the chic Sanlitun hotel, is launching a month long celebration of perfume and pastries, scent and scones. In association with British lifestyle brand Jo Malone, the hotel will be serving an afternoon tea inspired by Jo Malone’s Peony and Blush Suede collection at 3pm every day from 22nd September until 24th October. Hosted at their sleek, warm-toned Mediterranean restaurant Sureño and designed for elegant ‘ladies’ who care as much about fashion taste as food taste, the experience includes a vial of Peony and Blush Suede perfume and a voucher for an arm and hand massage at Jo Malone’s Beijing boutique. 

Obviously it feels nice to spend a couple of hours slotting flavour-bomb pastries into one’s mouth in a flatteringly lit restaurant at a hotel full of attentive staff and beautiful patrons while a shoot for an international fashion magazine goes on upstairs, as it was the day I went.

The tea itself is as classy and considered as the fragrances and scented candles Jo Malone is famous for. I am treated to delicately sliced sandwiches whose bread is baked on-site, filled with tender crab, gutsy smoked salmon and creamy mozzarella; a colourful assortment of miniature cakes including a delicious macaroon that melts into a crush of crumbs and strawberry goo and a bright drum of citron tart; a soft peony-infused cream pot that comes with its own little bone china teacup and edible flower; and best of all, the golden, home-baked scones sitting like a line of tanned knees, rugged on the outside, soft on the inside, served with strawberry rose jam (again made on-site), organic acacia honey and Devonshire clotted cream. My cream was as runny as petrol, but never mind. The whole thing was fab.

“Everything is imported,” the Chinese person I’m with assures me. That is the new China: everything is imported. The country which is famous for its manufacturing and export for foreign companies has absorbed and internalised the value those brands place on themselves. What is considered good in China is foreign.

Afternoon tea is part of a Beijing trend for dainty, English-style pastimes. Or not so dainty: I am considering running a campaign against the cheap, sugar-reeking patisserie and bakery places that have opened up across the city, their displays piled with breads, brioches, biscuits, cakes and tarts all of exactly the same beige carb colour. Like the rest of the world, China’s youth are taking on an American style processed diet of over-refined, high carb, high sugar, high corn syrup, sponge-textured junk that’s making them fat and giving them heart disease and diabetes in the space of a single generation, assisted by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle plugged up with video games, Net surfing and mobile phone chatting.

Back to the tea.

“The hotels don’t [usually] do bilingual flyers,” says my companion, showing me a leaflet for the afternoon tea, which is in both Mandarin and English. “In Beijing it used to be the foreigners that had the money. Now it’s the Chinese that have it. Beijing has the richest people in China.”
“Where does the money come from?” I ask.
“A lot of it’s new money. There are provinces with coal.”
“You’re talking about land sales and the licensing of mining rights.”
My companion nods.
“They make money like water flowing,” she says.

The afternoon tea sits alongside a relatively recent fad for heavily iced multi tier cakes and Disney princess wedding dresses, usually combined with plasticky perfect, unwittingly kitsch Stepford photo shoots to prove that an immaculate investment – I mean a momentous sacrifice – I mean a loving union – is taking place. The era and customs these trends reference never existed. It’s all a cartoon, an inauthentic, retrogressively feminine, Americanised fantasy about a historically hazy England where decorum ruled and social rank was set, stable and (in reality) stifling.

There is also a roaring trend for highly trained ‘English butlers’ over here. That’s one of the most lucrative of these ‘lifestyle’ jobs. I quite like the idea of the rich Chinese employing Little Englanders (ordinary Joes from bog standard Brit towns) to apparently confer some class and style but actually to be their dogsbodies.

“You have to understand that even ten years ago, Beijing was completely different,” says my companion. “These malls you see are being built after the hutong [traditional neighbourhoods with narrow lanes and black curved-slate tiled roofs] were demolished. I was here when the last family was evicted to make this development. That’s happening all over the city. It’s not a question of whether the hutong are beautiful, or characterful, or not. This development is ‘progress’.”

The Opposite House opened six years ago, the same day as the Beijing Olympics. It’s part of the new Beijing, the one that will probably become a single huge mall with internal streets and its own subway system. The hotel is in what is known locally, with heavy euphemism, as ‘the village’ – an enormous luxury shopping, food and lifestyle complex whose formal name is Taikoo Li. There are Balmain, Alexander McQueen, Carven, Balenciaga, Versace and Miu Miu boutiques. All empty. A 24 hour Starbucks. Beautiful girls everywhere, clicking on their phones, wonderfully dressed but with nothing to say, sugar daughters waiting for sugar daddies.

“I find the sight of these girls so depressing,” I say. “They’re so wonderful, so beautiful, so well-dressed. But I don’t see them laughing or joking. They don’t look like they’re having a good time. I don’t get it. And what do they do all day?”
“You only have to look at China’s history. Concubines.”

I say nothing. The Orientalist obsession with forbidden cities, palace compounds and the concubine system of institutionalised sexual exploitation neatly skips over the ‘revolution’ that was designed, deliberately, to break down the idea that women were objects to be bought, reared, sold, used and exchanged for sexual labour. Instead it put forward the idea that women could be used for any labour whatsoever.

“A lot of the girls in universities are being kept,” says my companion.

Again, I say nothing. It is not true that “a lot” of female university students are being sexually used, dressed, accessorised and paid for by the exploitative men they believe are their boyfriends and providers. But there is certainly a minority of younger women, highly visible around Sanlitun in particular who are like beautiful, precious-breed strays sniffing around melancholically for a new owner. The fact that they are visually striking makes them seem more numerous than they really are. The truth is that the majority of Chinese girls and women study and work and work and work, while withstanding pressure to court and marry and breed. And then they work and work and work at being a wife and mother and daughter and daughter-in-law, in addition to their other work.

“You know the new trend is for etiquette classes?” says my companion. “Even three week courses at finishing schools in Switzerland? Because the new Chinese rich are not sophisticates. They have to learn it all. They have no manners. They don’t know how to do anything.”

In this new world anything, even social skills, can be monetised and sold back to you. I have a (Chinese) friend whose cruel but lucrative side business is to give extremely over-priced wine and gourmet food tutorials to her newly wealthy compatriots, who believe anything she tells them.

At Taikoo Li there’s an Apple store whose glowing Old Testament apple logo (Eve bit the apple of temptation and iPods poured out, damning humankind and blighting the earth) is so aggressively huge, hanging heavily over the complex, that I often mistake it for the moon when I’m walking home. Opposite Taikoo Li is a stretch of nasty-looking bars with skinny young men outside, hair spiked, dressed sharply in Korean pop style shrunken suits, trying to entice people inside. Next to the bars is a mammoth zone of international embassies with fierce young guards keeping watch, clicking their heels together, chests out, buttocks taut. This morning I saw just three of them marching down a regular street in odd-numbered formation, silently, left, right, left, right, legs straight and high and in time, eyes ahead, like automata.

There’s also a Soviet era diplomatic residence compound that’s like a suburb in itself, housing the families of the diplomatic staff attached to all the different countries’ embassies. It’s built along classic Chinese/Russian communist-chic lines: huge boxy living room, high ceilings, oddly thick walls between the master bedroom and the adjoining room, either for sexual discretion or to contain the bundled wires and strategically threaded mics needed for clear tapping and surveillance.

“The place is enormous,” says my friend from [Feministania], “yet whenever there’s another family also from Feministania they put us in the same tower of the same block. They want us to talk to each other. With the families from all the other different countries, we are polite, we talk about the weather. With other people from Feministania of course we talk about politics.”

“Assume everything you’re saying is being heard. That’s what I was told when I arrived at my office,” said another friend, who works across politics and global finance.

To walk through Beijing today is to negotiate an ever-spreading grid of malls filled with Western European and Scandinavian lifestyle brands, nearly all of them associated with making over the body in some way. They offer clothes and jewellery, scent and makeup, all priced painfully high to accommodate the luxury goods tax. Nearly all the creams and body lotions, including underarm deodorant, contain whitening products and are called Lunar Glow or Pearl Shine or Moon Caress or somesuch. It’s best to look pale, untouched, dewy, delicate: a conflation of racial and gender judgements. Darkness is ugly, it means hard unfeminine work in rural areas, it means you’re not the preferred Han ethnicity but one of China’s many racial minorities from a far-off region, here to do menial or manual labour, having zipped everything you own into a checked plastic cube-bag and brought it on the train from one of the western border areas that bleeds into India or Nepal or even one of the mysterious barbarian –stans.

“You’re dark and you have tattoos,” said someone to me when I arrived. “Here, that means you’re poor. Provincial poor.”

Before I get to the Apple store in Sanlitun on my way home I pass one of the slickest buildings near my office. When I first saw it I thought it was a nightclub or a karaoke place. It’s a plastic surgery clinic called My Like. Its logo is the outline of a mermaid swimming up the side of the white building, with big bazongas and flowing hair. China’s one of the largest markets for plastic surgery globally, alongside Brazil and Korea. When the sun sets the gleaming white clinic lights up with lines of blazing neon pink.

Back to the tea.

Those aspects of the afternoon tea experience which were not directly within The Opposite House’s immaculate control fell short. To be blunt: the Jo Malone fragrance was laughably small. It was exactly the same as a sample you can beg from any woman at any beauty counter at any bog-standard outlet from Chengdu Airport to an Idaho mall. When I got home, me and my roommate – a lifestyle photographer who has a wine fridge filled with rare perfumes worth tens of thousands of dollars – screamed with mirth when inside my ribbon-tied Jo Malone bag we discovered….another, much tinier ribbon-tied Jo Malone bag, which contained….what looked like a Jo Malone matchbox… which contained what could only be called a ‘vial’ of perfume if looked at through rose-tinted binoculars by a pathological liar.

I had been a longtime admirer of Jo Malone, both the woman and the brand she built single-handed. I am shocked that a marque of such apparent sophistication would do something so unstylishly tight-fisted that my disgust is superseded by ridicule. The lavish booklet that accompanies the ‘vial’ (written, tellingly, all in Chinese apart from its headings, to court that new young rich generation of capitalist aspirants) actually has an entire page entitled ‘The Art of Gift Giving’, showing a male model holding an abundance of normal-sized boxes filled with goodies. If only someone at Jo Malone had followed their own advice.

My favourite Jo Malone scents are Pomegranate Noir, 154 and Red Roses but everyone will have their preferences. I would suggest that any fragrance brand wanting to match the culinary skill and presentational dedication of the Opposite House offer either a genuinely medium-sized wardrobe of multiple scents or a single large perfume of choice to customers who have paid for something special. They – we – are not to sign up, pay up and then be palmed off with something a princessy toddler would get in a novelty gift bag at going-home time.

Looking at the insultingly small offering, I wonder if there is some cultural disdain behind it. Do companies think they can fob off the Chinese with these minuscule trinkets because the Chinese will be happy to get their hands on something, anything, a Western brand gives them, no matter how meagre? Do they think the Chinese are so stupid and so desperate for a little acknowledgement by an English-branded company (which is actually American-owned: Jo Malone was bought by Estée Lauder in 1999) that they’ll be grateful for this pathetic sop? Equally, is China so in thrall to a fantasy version of the Western ‘lifestyle’ that it will overlook homegrown enterprises, no matter how nascent, to court an established brand that does not reciprocate its interest or its appreciation?

The Opposite House are already in talks with a range of (Western) brands to work on collaborations for 2015, while gearing up for a second major pairing this autumn: from October 13th to October 24th they partner with Brit designer Paul Smith for a business set lunch, also at Sureño, with a menu devised by prodigal chef Laia Pons Gonzalez. Paul Smith will be giving away a typically quirky notebook patterned with musical notes, a key motif in the label’s collection at this year’s Paris Fashion Week.

It’s a good idea for The Opposite House to host experiences alongside fashion and beauty brands who match their standards and style. However, those brands will have to step up instead of donating some samples they found in the back of the cupboard and putting them in fancy bags with a ton of marketing material thrown in to add insult to injury. The people who come to The Opposite House are chic and wealthy enough to have entire shelves of properly packaged, full-sized products by brands even more elevated than Jo Malone and Paul Smith. Those same people are well-connected if not outright famous in the very sectors in which the brands wish to maintain prestige; if an experience fails to live up to promises or expectations, they’ll walk. 

The Opposite House host a non-branded afternoon tea throughout the year. Although the flavours are slightly different it’s just as sumptuous, just as delicious, just as stylish and just as affordable as the Jo Malone collaboration. Western lifestyle brands who want to get in on the 21st century capitalist China act must match The Opposite House’s quality and generosity or risk looking commercially cheap and culturally nasty by comparison.

Monday, 15 September 2014

China Flash: Porcelain dolls, bad Samaritans and the law

“You cunt, you cunt, you cunt, you fucking cunt, you stupid cunt cunt cunt cunt.”

We’re in the Russian quarter of Beijing, close by the stone walkways, pagodas and manicured firs of Ritan Park. The shop signs are in Mandarin and Russian, there are two notorious nightclubs, Maggie’s and Chocolate: dwarf strippers in one, Uzbek prostitutes in the other, gold toilets and leopard print in both.

There’s a row of huge, dark boutiques selling fur coats and, out on the road, a line of stalled traffic. A man has leapt off his scooter and is verbally abusing the woman in the car behind him. Everyone’s stopped to watch in silence. My colleagues and I didn’t see the incident itself, we can only see the man squaring up to the driver’s side of the car and screaming at the woman, who at first answers back and then winds up her window and waits it out. The man continues to call her every womanhating term he can think of – and the words are so ready in his mind he doesn’t need to stop and think – until another man intervenes and tries to talk him down. Nobody else does anything.

I ask my colleagues about it later. This is what I get:

“In China there isn’t a culture of helping other people. People are afraid to help in case it comes back on them. Have you heard of the ‘porcelain doll’ case? It might be an urban myth but it says something true about Chinese society. An elderly woman fell over in the street and a man helped her. He took her to the hospital, waited with her until her family got there, gave her 200 RMB to tide her over. And when the family arrived, the woman put it all on him. She said, ‘I’m like a porcelain doll, if you knock me, I break everywhere.’ When the police got there, they sided with the woman. They said to the man, ‘Why would you go all the way to the hospital with this woman you don’t even know, unless you’d caused the injury?’”

“There are cases of people faking or setting up accidents or lying in the road pretending they’ve been knocked over so they can get some money out of someone. So people are cautious about helping others for that reason. Tere’s no concept of being a good Samaritan. You know those tin cans that’re really dangerous [a motorbike with a long seat at the back and tin walls and roof, used for short trips by locals with a death wish]? I saw one hit a woman in the street, she fell over, shopping went everywhere. The guy just drove off. He saw what he’d done. But I couldn’t walk past without helping, so I helped, even though I knew what could happen. Luckily she was thankful and it didn’t come back on me.”

“In China, in the cities, you decide the law between yourselves. If there’s a road accident, both parties wait, the policeman arrives, takes a look, asks people what happened, looks around and says, ‘Well, it looks like it’s that guy’s fault.’ And the guy whose fault it is has to pay the other one a certain amount of money which the policeman decides. It doesn’t go near a court. It doesn’t go near a lawyer. It doesn’t go on anyone’s record.”

“This happened to a friend of mine, an expat guy. He got into a car accident with another driver. They both pulled to the side of the road, both got out, had words. The other guy, who was Chinese, pushed him a couple of times. And my friend smacked him in the face, gave him a bloody nose. So then they both wait around for the police officer to come. And while they were waiting, the guy who’d been punched was getting the blood out of his nose and smearing it all over his chest and his T-shirt to make it look like the punch was worse than it was. And when the police officer arrived, he asked them what had happened and my friend admitted, ‘Yeah, I did throw the first punch. That was me.’ And the police officer said, ‘Right… well I reckon you owe the guy….2,500 RMB?’ And they all agreed, so he had to pay up. He thought two and a half grand per punch was reasonable. Maybe he could throw down some money in advance next time he wants to hit a guy.”

China Flash: Beijing storms, turtles and dogs

The thirty year old tree was uprooted, a raw ball of soil and naked noodle roots winched up above street level, a metal spiked fence sagging under the trunk. A group of workmen had cordoned it off and called us away when we took photographs. “The way they’ve planted them in this row, the trees fall over every time even a drop of rain goes on them.”

It’s rained solid for four days as summer ends and the weather breaks. I usually feel like a big old sloppy mess. Now I’m a big old wet sloppy mess with grey rain up to my shins. The rain’s so polluted my skin’s prickling.

The time hundreds of people died in the Beijing summer storm a couple of years ago, in the space of a few hours of rainfall, the water was waist high. In the villages people die in the storms every year. “In the last year the government said 800 people died, which is government-speak for thousands of people,” said the girl whose Chinese name meant Little Bridge.

During the worst storms the rivers rose so high that cars couldn’t tell the difference between the water, the bridge and the road. They drove their cars off the sides of the bridges and sank into the water. Manhole covers on the streets drifted away and people fell into the holes. “Have you noticed how many manholes there are on the street? Most cities are built with some organisation – you’d expect a manhole cover at every corner. But they built too many here. There are five within view. Once I saw some workmen lifting one up and underneath there was just dirt,” said Little River.

We passed a man selling tiny turtles the side of teacup saucers. Displayed on their backs, legs waving, the turtles balanced on the necks of beer bottles.

“People don’t care about the things they sell,” said my friend Peaches. She told the story of a family friend who had bought a puppy from a street vendor*. This friend bought a street puppy that had a bump on its head and seemed like it was going to die. He took it to the vet, who found a ball of thread in its head. The vet said the previous owners must have plugged a wound in the dog’s head with thread to cover it over a stop the bleeding, instead of healing it.

“Did the dog survive?” asked Little River.
“Yeah, it lived until it died,” said Peaches.
“When you say that it makes me think of that shop that says Open Until Closed,” said Little River.

*There’s another Beijing friend who found a dog that had been tied up in a plastic bag. And I saw puppies being sold in a cardboard box on the street. Every so often the man selling them picked one up by the scruff of its neck, brushed it with a hairbrush and threw it back in the box.

China Flash: Hair envy

My friend Peaches’s hair was so beautiful that, having her photograph taken for a college art project at eighteen, the photographer commented, “Your hair must be the envy of horses everywhere.” Her friend’s mother ragged her friend, “Take care of your hair! Look how nice Peaches’s is!” But Peaches didn’t even brush her hair.

Now it’s shaved at the sides, undercut, with a swooping bit that slides across and plumes of turquoise, aqua and royal purple sliced into it. It always falls perfectly. We go to a restaurant in U-Town mall and eat honeycomb noodles in mushroom broth, home-made tofu, beans in slippery cold loop noodles, flat ribbon noodles with chili and shredded greens, two Flintstones lamb shanks on the bone and, to finish, yogurt with honey.

“I swear and promise that we will serve you to the best of our ability, that our food is pure and contains no MSG and that we will deliver it to you within twenty eight minutes,” recites our waitress. She adds to Peaches, “I love your hair. Unfortunately, working here, I’m not allowed to colour mine, or cut it.”

The food is so plentiful that I bet Peaches one yuan that we won’t be able to finish it. We do (and I am unable to eat for 24 hours afterwards). As we finish up she comments, “It’s common for women workers to be banned from cutting their hair. In schools, too, girls’ hair must be between two certain lengths. And boys’ hair isn’t allowed to be too long. It should be less than a few centimetres.”

Friday, 5 September 2014

Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, out December 15th 2014

Asylum and Exile, my 5th book,
out December 15th 2014
I am delighted to trail ahead to the 15th December release of my fifth book, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London (Seagull Books/Chicago University Press). The book's based on my outreach work with asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented people and features their testimonies alongside my own account. More details can be found by clicking here and a full press release will be available on this site on 15th December. The Amazon page for the book is here and pre-orders are open. Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London follows the publication, in 2012, of my previous book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine.

I will be doing as much speaking and writing about this issue as I can, both nationally and internationally, in 2015 and 2016. In the meantime I've released two fractions - new fragmented fiction. They are called Moment of Curfew and Those Castles.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Those Castles

One of my fractions: new fragmented fiction.

Those castles were only beautiful from a distance. To a warden tailing above or a courier steering their slicer bike on the ochre track, the blood-veined stone gleamed treacle black, so lustrous it looked wet, and the outlying fields were as combed gold surrounding jet. But close by, the façade was touched all over with cobweb crackles. The fields were dry hay, bled by the sun, so fragile that when I walked through them, the strands disintegrated like a dissolving mirage, like a shredded veil.

There was nothing behind the façade, only the rubble of that place, the fallen marble worked and engraved, gems long thieved from their settings, murals bleached by the centuries, crushed by time, mosaic and thistle intertwined. Miriadh was so large that it encompassed what had once been a dozen countries, five dozen languages, five hundred races, five thousand gods and five infinities of stories mapping and meshing, a lacework of echo-tales. Along the old countries’ borders were forts and temples, castles and keeps once chained together by defensive walls; the amphitheatres and senates, pits and altars, towers and catacombs of great cities once risen, now gone. And so we lived, as all Mirians did, the past crumbling into the present, the transformed and the ordinary woven together like thorns and vines, buds and leaves.

It was the longest day of the summer and we were playing in the debris, recreating the epics that showed all night on State TV and on the garish posters pasted across our village walls. We pretended to be legends and heroes, declaiming barefoot in high language, a stick for a sword, a maize sack for a cloak, ripped open hard at the seam. In the scalding heat we were noontime adventurers, we nobodies, children from the street 

Moment of Curfew

One of my fractions: new fragmented fiction.

At eleven the night city would tense and hush, would flinch silently for a moment. Then the low groan of the curfew siren looped wide, lassoing the skyline. The siren could be heard, like a drunk’s moaning complaint, from end to far end of the city. The power flagged briefly and the high line train screeched and slowed, pinching tight on its electric rail, then picked up again, nosing between skyscrapers. The buildings’ mirrored facets reflected the siren sound, breaking and scattering hard pieces of it, chopped edits. All the TV, video game, phone, cinema and ad screens cut out and the word CURFEW emerged in stocky black from the jittering peppercorn pixels. There was a stiffly braced clang, an industrial shudder. Then corrugated metal shutters descended over each house window and shopfront and ground to the bottom, where they locked with a blunt tchickk. Office buildings were armoured in rusty scales, the lower metres wearing bright graffiti hems, a technicolour lacework of names and expletives.

At the same time, the globe lights in the good neighbourhoods and the stuttering bulbs in the bad, the strings of red chilli-shaped fairy lights in the markets and the fluorescent strips in the nail bars, betting shops and chicken shops snapped on. The city didn’t empty out so much as atomise, split into concentrated pieces: the curfewed streets, haunted by watchmen, crossed warily by odd parties of permit holders; the taxis, trains and buses, the light in them the colour of weak whisky, each commuter gripping their bag tightly; the metal-sealed buildings and the hot, noisy privacy within. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Inside: the power of books in prisons

This is in response to justice secretary Chris Grayling's ban on books and other items being sent to prisoners. This article has also been picked up, here, by the human rights and civil liberties organisation Liberty. For more details on Grayling's measures click here and also here and to sign a petition protesting them please click here. The writer Leah Thorn, who has a decade's experience doing close outreach work in prisons, has granted me an incredibly informative, moving and trenchant interview about prison reform, inequality, incarceration and prison culture here.

I do outreach work in prisons and also in detention centres and I have seen first hand how powerful and important books are to prisoners. Book are vital, not only in providing enrichment for inmates but as a way of connecting with others to talk through, challenge, inspire and provoke debate in a rewarding and constructive way. In all the institutions I have visited, book groups, reading groups and writing groups exert a strong pull on prisoners, who show themselves again and again to be dedicated, committed, passionate and insightful in their work and in their dealings with me and with each other.

A literary culture creates the space for civilised, meaningful relating, for social development, for questioning and self-questioning, learning, self-improvement: all the things a truly constructive prison system should represent. I have seen virtually silent prisoners linger around the edges of a group and then, through a few comments and some close reading, gain confidence, develop their skills and showcase their talent. The books are not just a source of education but also of entertainment of the most enriching and deepening kind. They are, in fact, an essential tool in tackling the poor levels of literacy and the accompanying frustration, low self-expectation, daily obstacles, narrowed opportunities and the intractable economic and social deprivation and desperately limited horizons which contribute to an environment in which petty but repetitively (almost compulsively) committed crimes are almost an inevitability. I am not talking about 'being soft' on rapists, child abusers, batterers, thug murderers, predators and woman-killers but about lifting up and liberating that great miserable body of the prison population: neighbourhood burglars, car thieves, petty hustlers, smalltime crooks, scrappers and scufflers, drug pushers who are addicts, teenage or early twenties wannabe gangsters, holders or passers-off of stolen goods. For these types, prison can be an opportunity either to become grossly influenced by malign individuals even further down the road to moral and economic corruption - or to gain some skills, judgement, backbone (as opposed to bravado) and promise, which can be taken out into the world upon release. Reading skills can contribute to ensuring that, in time, released prisoners might build a stronger and better life for themselves than they had before their sentence, not because of an increase in something nebulous and romantic like dignity but because literacy skills are vital to worldly progress.

As with all teaching, through the collective experience of reading and talking about reading, the prisoners I have worked with have taught me much more than I could teach them or they could teach themselves without the structure and focus of a book to anchor them. Certainly, we all learned a thousand times more in a couple of hours spent together daily than we would have during whole afternoons spent on the landings [where the cells are] watching daytime TV.

Furthermore I have been told directly by women prisoners with initially low literacy skills how fundamental reading has been to them. One woman told me, "My mum didn't know how to read or write, I didn't know how to read or write, that was just the way it was. So I taught myself in prison."

There is a further point, and it is gendered. I am extremely alarmed by the cruelty and punitive malice of Grayling's proposals for women prisoners with children and the suggestion that children cannot send their mothers parcels.

The overwhelming majority of women prisoners are 'inside' for non-violent crimes. The process of incarceration is mentally traumatising in itself and additionally has grave real-world consequences. In virtually all the cases that I have seen, women prisoners had been their children's primary carers and guardians, with secondary care provided by grandmothers and other female relatives. With the central source of stability and care removed and in many cases moved far from families' home towns, if female relatives cannot take on the childcare responsibilities then families are broken up, young children are put in care and a new cycle of deprivation, vulnerability, exploitation, damaging instability, lack of opportunity and circumstantial predisposition to offending begins.

We can see from all this that it is often the supposed cure, not the crime, which creates deep and long term trauma and is a key factor in the pressing issue of women prisoners' mental health and self harm. Incarceration for crimes which are more often than not the result of economic deprivation, abuse, inequality and lack of support inflicts mental wounds, drags an entire family even further down socially and creates the ground for yet more crimes to be committed - out of survival, out of necessity and out of pain.

The sense of isolation in a prison is extreme and is made perversely worse by the sheer numbers of other prisoners, guards and civilian staff. The entire non-prison world is referred to by prisoners as Outside, and the prison described numbly as Inside. Incarcerating people in a way that is mentally violent as a means of punishing non-violent crimes does not work and destroys everything, inside and out, mental and physical. There is little stimulation in a prison except for basic skills learning, a few hours of classes per day, helping out as an orderly, working in various prison areas such as the 'servery' [kitchen and canteen] or packing boxes of goods to go between prisons, sitting in front of daytime TV, idle chat and destructive scheming which is usually the result of boredom and depression. In such a context books are a humane necessity, vital for the intellect, for processing and sublimating the emotions, for socialisation, for education and for development - not a form of empty entertainment to be handed out like sweets to those who behave well. It is a fallacy that prison life is cushy, although the routine and the utter predictability and slow demarcation and regimentation of time may be comforting for those whose outside lives feel insecure, emotionally raw or unsafe. Treats, in the form of everything from letters to books to clothes and sachets of perfume or a nice top, are rare and treasured.

Receiving gifts and messages from their children and having something to talk to them about on visits - something like a story from a book - is many women prisoners' lifeline, their only source of sustained warmth and hope from the outside world. A chat about a book, gifted to a prisoner by her child, may be the only thing which makes a prison visit less frightening for that child. The prisoners pay this token of love and kindness back at Christmas time when they record stories on CDs for their children to listen to.

I will end with that fragile image of reciprocated love, communication and storytelling. I hope that Grayling changes his mind and seeks more effective, more humane, less petty and less malicious ways of reforming the prison system.

For more on my prison work see this report by the Prisoners' Education Trust, this from English PEN, this also from English PEN and Rape, Refusal, Destitution, Denial on my outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom had experienced detention and imprisonment.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

China Flash: Two Chinese Characters

“Publishing a book was a big thing, an extraordinary thing for me. I’ve been overwhelmed that it’s been successful,” says the Chinese journalist who wrote about growing up during the Cultural Revolution. “I was taken out of school at sixteen and sent to work in a factory. I did that for ten years. I taught myself English through listening to the radio. Someone I knew had access to one. Contraband.”
“Were you a bookworm?” I ask.
“I always had so much work to do. Work in the factory. Work in the house. But if I went to the bathroom even for two minutes, I would read a bit of a book in there.”

The journalist studied at university in the UK and often returns there. I meet her when she’s in London for a few weeks doing some property-related business and chopping through a new Chinese embassy procedure regarding a visa. “They have changed the regulations,” she says – a phrase which arises in every conversation about official Chinese matters. China’s megalith of bureaucratic stipulations shifts on its hinges every six months. Whatever the requirements once were, whichever documents had to be submitted, whoever was required to receive the submission, the criteria will have changed since the last time anyone checked, and will change again shortly. Despite this, I’m impressed the my multiple exceptions, get-outs, grey areas, dodges, skives, middle-people and allowances which makes things easier in such an apparently rigorous, unbending, totalitarian system: a tightly controlled society is always loose at the edges.

“We were brought up by my grandmother who was so kind. Perhaps she was a bit picky about her food, but that was because food had been so scarce. But my father was very selfish. I remember he would fight with us, fight his own children, to get to the food. That is one of my memories. But I still pay his medical bills.”

The journalist lives in Beijing with her two clever, cosmopolitan and gifted half-English daughters, both of whom are planning on studying abroad.

“At the international school, they can be so racist. The other students say to my younger daughter, ‘Oh, you look so Chinese. We can tell that you’re foreign.’ And so she’s developed this idea that to be Chinese is somehow inferior. But she’ll grow out of it. At the school, she surprised them all by giving a mock TEDx talk – on feminism. And it completely took them all by surprise.”

“Tell me, what can I do for you when you come to China? Do you need a place to stay? My place in Beijing is empty at the moment,” says the journalist. She’s already been so generous, greeting me with a gift of an exquisite black silk bag.
“It’s okay. I’m staying with my friend Peaches.”
“Where?” asks Lijia.
“I’m not sure. The…Chaoyang district? The cool one?”
“That doesn’t mean anything. The Chaoyang district is so large it takes one hour in a car to drive from end to end.”
“I’m going to have to get used to living in a city of 21 million people, which is constantly growing. How many ring roads are there by now? London’s small by comparison.”
“So you don’t need an apartment. Do you want to be introduced to people? I can invite you to lots of things. And if you don’t understand what’s going on I can translate. You can come to lots of women’s events. We can fire them up. Get everyone to mobilise.”
“More than anything I want to get to know Chinese people, not just expats.”
“That is the difficult thing. Even I live halfway between the expat life and the Chinese life.”
“And I want to learn Mandarin.”
“To speak it, or to read it too?”
“To read.”
“I’ll teach you two words. So, here we are, drinking tea.”

On my notebook she draws three characters stacked tight on top of each other: a long dumbbell with a cross-bar at either end; a collapsing chair, side on; a crucifix with a tick of a tail and two wing-flicks.

“The top one is the character for grass. And you’ll see, if I draw the traditional symbol for it,” she draws two neatly forked sprigs, “it looks like grass. The middle one is the sign for a person.”
“I recognise that.”
“And the bottom sign is the sign for wood. So tea is ‘a person between grass and wood.’ It evokes the idea of tea leaves but it also represents the Asian mindset, or should I say the Chinese mindset, of a person in relationship with nature. And do you know the word for ‘home’?”

Just under ‘person between grass and wood’ she draws a swoosh with a fin and a slanted-stroke end, possibly like a submarine with its periscope up, above…what looks to me like a crowing rooster with a Mohican.

“This means ‘home’. If you break it down it means ‘pig under roof’. This is a reflection of China’s agricultural traditions, of course. If you travelled out to rural areas you might have seen the animals, the pig, in with the family, in the house, under the roof.”

I love the cosy density of this interpretation, the feeling of earthy warmth and family resources held close. Of the expats I know, most say it takes a couple of years to feel comfortable speaking Mandarin but that it’s too easy to not learn to read or write it, especially when iPhone apps auto-complete and auto-translate words so easily. For each word I’ll have to learn the pictogram and its multiple components, the Chinese sound associated with it and a phonetic transcription of the sound in English, along with whatever prompts or story might help me remember write the characters, so ‘home’ doesn’t say ‘pig under roof’ so much as ‘rooster with Mohican under submarine’ to me.

“You can start by learning a few of the main radicals,” the journalist advises.

It’s good to study a new language and feel that part of the brain twang and deepen, resist and absorb. Despite the language barriers my expat friends have all told me they felt at home in China after a year or so. I hope that when I arrive, I too will feel pig under roof.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Leah Thorn, the poet and activist facing and transforming the lives of women in prison

Further reading: Inside: the power of books in prison, written by me for human rights organisation Liberty and based on my own prison work.

I wanted to highlight the work of a heroine of mine, the poet, activist, performer and prison worker Leah Thorn, who has granted me an exclusive and in-depth interview, below. Given the UK government's latest measures to restrict parcels, including those containing books, going into prisons, we desperately need the action and advocacy of individuals like her to convey and address the reality of life in prison, especially for women. Some of her work with women in prison has been captured by the film-maker Suzanne Cohen in the highly acclaimed documentary Beautiful Sentences, which can be viewed here:

Leah also gave a TEDxWomen talk on incarcerated women and the transformational power of poetry, which can be viewed here:

She is currently making a film of her poem Shhh! which, she tells me, "is about sexism and the continued need for a feminist revolution" and will be submitted to poetry and film festivals upon completion. The film is being made by Second Shot, a production company at the men's prison HMP Doncaster, where Leah spent time filming and talking with the men about issues the poem raises. As I write this, on 4th April 2014, Leah is giving a performance and talk about women in prison and the power of poetry as part of the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury. Later in the year she will be teaching a six week summer course at Canterbury Christchurch University, entitled What Does The F-Word Mean To You?

Leah Thorn photographed by Suzanne Cohen
Image taken from Leah Thorn's site

Following the government's extremely unpopular new measures regarding the prison system - please click here to read the official response to protests against these measures - I asked Leah more about her experience of working in prisons:

How long have you been working with women in prison and how did you get into it?

I've been working in prisons with the Anne Frank Trust for about eight years. My commitment to women’s liberation means I focus a lot, but not exclusively, on the incarceration of women

Do you see the issue of women in prisons as a feminist one?

Completely. Women make up a small, and consequently ignored, minority of the overall prison population: 4.8% in England and Wales. The starkness of women’s imprisonment keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and more aware of the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women.

I am uneasy about quoting statistics that are freely used to designate incarcerated women as 'the most damaged women in society'. Diminishing a woman to a number denies her resilience and ability to survive and serves to distance her from women outside of the Criminal Justice System. However, the figures clearly show how incarcerated women have been targeted and controlled:
  • 53% of incarcerated women have reported emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, with a similar proportion of women having been victims of domestic violence
  • 31% of women prisoners have spent time in care as children
  • 40% of women in prison left school before they were 16
  • 46% say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life
  • 30% of women entering prison require drug detoxification.

Certain populations of women are more vulnerable than others to being criminalised. For example, Black women are four times more likely than white women to be incarcerated and frequently receive longer sentences for similar crimes.

One in five women in prison in England and Wales are Foreign Nationals, technically those who do not have a UK passport. A significant number have been coerced or trafficked into offending. I have worked with women whose only experience of England has been a Customs hall in an airport, a court and a prison. I have witnessed the bewilderment, loneliness and fear of women unable to speak a word of English, who have no-one on their prison wing who can speak their mother tongue. It can take days to find another woman who can interpret and explain what is happening.

Two thirds of women in prison are mothers of young children and many of the women I work with spend their sentence desperately concerned about their children's care and whether they will lose parental rights. In any one year in England and Wales, 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by incarceration. Only 5% will stay in their own home. The others will be cared for by family members or put into foster care.

Despite public outcry, pregnant women are still put into prison and four babies a week are born to women in prison. It is hard to see a woman locked in her cell hours from giving birth, alone and exhausted. Sometimes a prison officer is designated as a woman's birth partner but it often happens that the woman gives birth when that officer is not on shift. Women do not give birth inside jail except in medical emergencies and women are no longer restrained with handcuffs when giving birth, although some women still fear this. However, the women is usually on an open maternity ward with constant bed watch, which means having two officers either side of them for their whole stay. At present there are seven specialised mother and baby units  in England - there may well be fewer by end of the year - and newborn babies can stay with their mothers for between 9 and 18 months.

Older women are the fastest growing age group to be imprisoned. Last year in England and Wales, 368 women aged 50 or over (including 55 pensioners) were jailed, an increase of 139% in that age group. Many are primary carers for disabled or elderly dependants.

Dishonesty is the biggest reason for women's incarceration. More than two thirds serve time for non-violent offences such as shoplifting, welfare benefit fraud, employer fraud and receiving stolen goods. Research on mothers in custody found that over a third said they offended because of ‘a need to support their children’, with single mothers being more likely to identify a lack of money than those who were married.

There is also a strong likelihood that women’s offending is prompted by their relationships with men. Coercion by men can form a route into criminal activity for many women.

Women entering prison are likely to be serving short sentences. In 2012, more than 4,500 women entered prison to serve sentences of 6 months or less. More than half were given sentences of 3 months or less, whilst more than 1 in 10 were sentenced to 4 weeks or less.

Of course there are some women in prison who have committed violent crimes against adults and children and I never dismiss what their early experiences and resultant undealt-with distress have led them to do. Many have committed violence under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol and many perceive their offence as retaliation on a society that has not protected or valued them. However, their treatment in the Criminal Justice System is unlikely to help them face what they have done and move on.

What kind of work do you do with women in prisons?

I am a white older woman, who goes into women's prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women's liberation activist. For two years I was writer-in-residence in a women's prison and I now run poetry-for-empowerment projects across the prison estate, most recently with women who self-harm and with older women. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women's liberation and incarceration.

In my workshops I support women to express their thoughts and experiences through discussion, individual and group writing activities and listening and performance exercises. I encourage the women to share their writing, not for literary critique but for the sense of connection they get from the recognition and appreciation of others.

During my prison residency, we devised poetry performances to mark events such as International Women's Day, Black History Month and Holocaust Memorial Day. Poetry performances were also taken into workplaces like The Cleaning Academy or the crafts workshop or to the Education Department. It was inspiring to see women flourish into powerful performers, whilst their audiences changed from being reluctant and suspicious to being engaged and moved. It was affirming for the poets to experience their work being so well-received and applauded.

Poetry anthologies were compiled and edited to validate the women's creativity and thinking, including the book 'release' which was written by, and for, women in prison who self harm. 'release' contains poetry, women's stories and a feminist exploration of self harm and the book has been circulated by the Ministry of Justice to all women's prisons. One prison returned the books saying they did not have a problem with self-harm and several prisons expressed the view that the women's stories were 'too graphic and potentially upsetting'. This is ironic, given how graphic and upsetting self-harm is for the women who do harm themselves, as well as for the women around them and for the staff who have to deal with the consequences.

Do you feel that this work is effective and why?

The workshop space provides one of the very few safe places in the prison for women to express themselves truthfully and with emotion. The nature of creativity enables women to remember who they are as individuals, not as 'offenders'. And, unsurprisingly, having warm human connection helps raise self-esteem and self-confidence and build trust and openness between the women.

What are some of the personal stories of women you've encountered that stay with you and provide either hope & inspiration or a cautionary tale?

Here are a few things that are firmly in my memory:

A few women who have committed violent crimes will be held in isolation, locked up for 23 hours a day, with the remaining hour spent alone in a high walled courtyard. The isolation can obviously exacerbate feelings, and acts, of rage. So one woman I worked with had been in these conditions for six years, because the prison (with the best will in the world) could find no alternatives. She could only be unlocked if six officers were present and this treatment increased her rage, which in turn 'necessitated' further restrictions of freedom. It was clearly a self-perpetuating cycle. I am not saying that poetry was the answer, but I do know that for the two years we worked together, her levels of self-harm reduced. And as she began to open up about her childhood and teenage years, she began think afresh about herself.

I spent quite a lot of time on Healthcare, connecting with women through locked doors and that is a very strong memory for me. I witnessed a woman being put onto the Healthcare Wing, as she was shaking and crying hard and it was deemed that her mental health was ‘deteriorating’. Here was a woman who was responding in a rational way to incarceration. Yet instead of being offered more human connection, she was restrained and forcibly taken by officers to a bare cell and locked in by herself for 23 hours a day. She could be heard throughout the prison screaming ‘Is there anybody there?’ and ‘Can you help me?’. This of course brought up painful feelings for other women and for staff, as well as being devastating for the woman herself. I do not know how I would cope were that to happen to me.

As a safeguard against accusations of sexual abuse, I was taught in training never to get physically close to a woman and never to touch her. There are times, though, when I decide to put my hand on an arm or even hold a woman and because the outcomes have been positive, [ie she has not harmed herself or she has not need heavy medication], I have never been stopped by officers. In fact, there are some officers who will give physical comfort when it is clearly needed.

Lastly, in order to have access to all areas of the prison without an escort, I carried keys as a writer-in-residence. This meant wearing a heavy black belt at all times, with a pouch attached that contained the keys on a thick metal chain. I was worried initially about the difference this would make to the relationships I could make with the women. I did not want to be identified with the authoritarian aspects of the prison and locking up and unlocking women from their cells or Wings was a hard experience for me, especially when they thanked me for locking them up. However, I soon realised that listening and encouraging and respecting them overruled the strangeness of one of us having the power to incarcerate the other. The women were so ready, and eager, to give and receive warmth.

Why did you choose this issue on which to base your TED talk?

I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women's prisons. And also because TED talks can advocate individualistic solutions, rather than putting forward a wider political perspective on issues. I wanted to make sure there was some good old Second Wave non-liberal analysis on the day!

I explained how the Criminal Justice System plays a key role in framing and sustaining the oppression of women. It is important to acknowledge this form of social control and view it as an issue for women's liberation for several reasons:
  • The Criminal Justice System provides a lens through which to view the many ways women are punished for the impact on them of sexism. Working class women, and particularly Black working class women, are disproportionately represented in the system. The Criminal Justice System is wider than imprisonment, but I focus particularly on the incarceration of women as issues of sexism, male domination, racism and classism are so starkly apparent within the setting of women's prisons.
  • The social conditions that fuel women's routes into prison, such as poverty, isolation, harassment, substance dependency and abuse (along with the emotions and mental health challenges that arise from these conditions) are often intensified by the experience of incarceration. On leaving prison, most women go back to the same conditions as when they entered but with the additional distress of their experience of imprisonment.
  • Ultimately, the threat of containment and restraint gives ALL women the message 'This is what happens to you if you speak out or act out'.
  • Community solutions are more effective than incarceration in helping women turn their lives around and in diverting women, and particularly young women, away from criminal activity before they start offending.

You have now worked in the US and the UK women's prison systems. What are the main differences between them?

I write from the perspective of living in England, the 'lock up capital' of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 people are in prison. Thanks to a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population imprisoned, although these statistics may need revising later in 2014.

Sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women's narratives. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. The stories and poems I heard from incarcerated women in the States were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion with those of women in England. In both countries I have listened to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.

However, there are differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. One example is the Corston Report (PDF), commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody in Styal Prison. The remit of Baroness Corston's investigation was to address the need for 'a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach'.

The report makes a powerful case for diverting women before they get into prison and providing them with support and resources to help them deal with the results of sexism, poverty and racism. It costs £38,000 a year to keep a person in prison in England & Wales. When women are imprisoned, there are the additional costs of ensuring their children’s well being and maintaining family life. For a woman to attend a women’s community centre for one year costs £1,900 a year per woman. These projects will support her to look at her ‘offending behaviour’ in the light of the hurts she has experienced as a woman and give her practical support to deal with financial, legal, relationship, addiction and emotional challenges.

One of the first successes of the Corston Report was to stop the regular strip searching of women - 'Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.' However, strip searching of women prisoners is still common practice in most North American states.

Unlike the United States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women - eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.

Of course this exploration of issues needs to expand to include experiences in countries other than the UK and the US, including those that have a different perspective on incarceration. For example, Scandinavian countries and some indigenous communities in New Zealand and Australia focus increasingly on the social and economic causes of offending rather than on the punishment of the individual. Prisons are being closed and support provided in the community.

Within prisons there is a real need for gender-appropriate training for staff with a particular emphasis on respecting women, understanding abuse and developing awareness of responses to trauma. Well-supported accommodation is needed on release, to break the cycle of repeat offending and custody and through-the-gate services are key. Women may leave the prison clean of drugs after detoxing inside but they come out onto the streets often unmet by anybody, with £40 that the government gives them and a see-through sack with all the possessions that they brought into the prison. Many will have lost their accommodation and many of them will be over 50 miles away from family and friends. They come out and either want to take drugs immediately or despite their best wishes they go back to their previous ‘haunts’ and acquaintances. Many are very vulnerable to men's distress. It was not unusual to say goodbye to a women and hear her say 'This is the last time I’m coming to prison'. Within a month, she would be back in my poetry group, feeling like a failure.

I have read and witnessed you speaking very passionately and knowledgeably about this issue. How did you professional history lead you to this point?

I came to Women’s Liberation through my job in anti-sexist youth work in the early ‘70s. Feminism informs the way I see the world, the way I live, but if I’m honest I did become discouraged seeing the gains of the Second Wave dismantled and appropriated. Working in women’s prisons has completely brought me back to myself, re-fuelled my passion for a feminist revolution.

And of course there is always a personal story behind the action. Everywhere I go, I go with an awareness of being a Jewish woman and with the strengths (and challenges) that arise from my identity as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. In my early twenties, I began to understand the role of by-standing in the death of my German grandparents and I decided I would never willingly be a bystander. My prison work is part of that commitment. In prison, I employ useful skills I learned from being my mother's daughter - like, how to stay calm (or appear calm) in the midst of chaos and panic or how to use humour to lighten potentially dangerous situations. Working in prison means coming face to face with all that is wrong in the world and I want to ‘fix things’, [tikkun olam], with all that is rational about that, as well as all that comes from the urgency and unbearable-ness of seeing suffering up close, stark, stripped bare.

Leah Thorn can be contacted by emailing

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Patriarchy, we need to talk about vulval itching

Inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s Guardian article, Can You Stop The Menopause?

I am writing this while pissing Samurai swords. When not pissing swords I’m managing to piss shards of broken mirror, whole arrows complete with tips and ends, crumbled chunks of pebbledash and the occasional streak of razor wire. When not doing that I’m taking as many cranberry tablets as I can fit in my mouth and drinking pints of nettle tea, dandelion tea or cold water with bicarbonate of soda mixed in. 

I have cystitis, obviously. Very common, very discomfiting. It occurs, or threatens to, whenever I’m dehydrated. The last serious attack before now was at the end of 2012 when I had a glass of vinegary red wine in a restaurant and went to bed without needing the bathroom. By the next morning my bladder had filled with crunched glass. 

The 2012 cystitis attack and the health issues that followed have made me think about the connection between external events and internal manifestations, mental pain causing physical pain, the mirroring of psychology and physiology. It also shone a light on some GPs’ apparent ignorance of this connection. I had never got cystitis just from one glass of wine and a missed bathroom visit before, but certain events I experienced had clearly weakened me, worsening my susceptibility to illness, the frequency of illness and the severity of illness. They left behind a trace of vulnerability operating at a very deep level. 

I went to the GP to get some antibiotics for the cystitis. She gave me a five day course of something so strong that it gave me thrush. I’d never had thrush before and assumed that the antibiotics hadn’t worked and that my cystitis had worsened. I went back to the clinic and was assigned a (very nice) man I’d never seen before. 

“I was wondering if it might be thrush?” I said in passing.
“Do you have any discharge ‘down there’?” he asked, looking embarrassed.
“No.” There was just an extreme discomfort, tenderness, soreness and swelling and a sense of tingling, weeping, sizzling allergy, as though the skin had suddenly become live.
“Then you don’t,” he said with relief and gave me a further three day course of cystitis antibiotics despite there being “no blood, no proteins,” in my urine.

Secret hint to gentleman GPs: if you’re calling it “down there” while exuding very strong aversion vibes to actually looking “down there”, you may be in the wrong profession. The antibiotics sent the thrush over the edge and led to extreme discomfort and feverishness for six weeks. It was so bad that in the middle of a voiceover recording a colleague said to me in concern, “I can tell that something’s not right.”

Like so many women facing dismissal of our instincts, derision for our opinions, contempt for our knowledge and aversion for our bodies, I got the correct advice from other women. Discharge doesn’t always happen with thrush, which has a range of symptoms. A colleague who’d been hospitalised for long stretches was told privately by her nurse that antibiotics often caused thrush through their brutal destruction of the good bacteria in the gut alongside the bad. She recommended taking probiotics and probiotic yoghurt. Various women’s health forums suggested topical and natural remedies – natural yoghurt again, a heavily diluted tea tree oil solution, garlic or swallowed garlic capsules – all of which worked to ease symptoms. Then there’s the anti-thrush diet which many women said had permanently cured them. Zero sugar, zero carbs, no booze, no caffeine. Booze and caffeine to be reintroduced in small amounts a couple of months later. 

I tried it. It stopped the thrush dead within three hours. 

How can GPs not know about these simple, natural solutions? I’m not talking about flower remedies, homeopathic pills, exotic herb concoctions or casting spells at the full moon, just basic changes to diet and the topical application of ingredients with known antifungal and antibacterial properties. How can GPs not know the full range of symptoms of something as common as thrush? How can they be so cavalier about prescribing antiobitics which have such a strong effect?

The next time I went to the doctors was for a routine smear test and met lovely Dr Newman.

“They really need to redesign these things,” I commented dryly, in so many ways, when it was all going on with the duck (my term for a speculum).
“And it’ll be a woman that does it, I’ll tell you that,” she said.

Love a flash of feminism in a medical professional. I told her about the thrush and instead of throwing pills at me she told me not to take antibiotics as it would just make me resistant and instead to drink as much water as possible to flush it out. Although she did make a little racial error when recommending a follow-up health check to my mother. My mother was about to go to India and suggested that Dr Newman give her a letter to take to a doctor there.
“It does need to be someone who speaks English,” said Dr Newman. 

Dr Newman, some tiny tips. India’s doctors all speak fluent English and usually at least two other languages besides; India’s medical expertise is so great that Indian doctors and surgeons are employed globally and are indeed famous for their skill; and India’s best hospitals and specialist research units are world class. You seem to be under the impression that we are about to go to a village health station under a palm thatch in the middle of nowhere to talk to a shaman holding a feather and a rusty shaving blade. We are not. 

Incidentally the worst/best place I was ever recognised was in the middle of a smear test, by yet another doctor at my local health centre where morale is obviously so low that they change their entire workforce about twice a week.
“Haven’t I seen you on TV?” said the woman.
*Insert duck.*
*Open duck*
“Yup. Maybe,” I stiffly conceded.

Anyway, I sorted it out. But in the long run I’ve found it disturbing that my usually equine constitution has become so sensitised. The thrush flared up again last Christmas after a few mince pies too many. This was exceptional: I don’t usually eat sugar or major carbs but certainly never worried when faced with the odd plate of pasta, a dessert or a cup of coffee.

I am struck by the years of crumbling physical damage caused to me by an injury that was emotional and psychological: the thinning hair (which I write about, with handy remedies, here); the nagging stress acne which never quite goes; the way a simple cold now becomes five days of bed-ridden temperature; the loss of muscle mass; the terrible triggering, which I describe here. I am literally weaker than I was before, unable to run as far, lift as much, build as much bulk or work out as intensely as I used to.

Before, I had never understood people who claimed that non-physical issues like unemployment, over-work, being in the wrong job or experiencing a family dispute had ‘destroyed their health’. I thought the phrase was melodramatic, Western-privileged and narcissistic; people worldwide who survive natural disasters, famine, pandemics and wars do not go on about it ruining their health. They don’t have the luxury.

Having survived the last five years, I see now how it is possible. Instead of following GPs’ concentration on treating symptoms rather than causes, we must embrace an idea of total health, which does not make a stark distinction between the soul and the body and accepts that one affects the other. Emotional pain becomes physical pain while emotional strength boosts physical strength. Happiness, caused by social factors, supports numerous health factors.

I didn’t make the connection between the events and the effects until I went to get a verruca sorted out at the chiropodist.
“I got it from a shared hotel bathroom in New York. You see. Never travel cheap,” I said. I nodded down at my toe. “There’s loads of them. It’s like a mushroom forest.”
“It’s to do with your immune, you know,” said the woman.

That explained it in a flash. The colds, the hives, the zits, the thrush, the fatigue, the muscle turning to flab, the feeling of being dogged by weakness and ill health. It is sad that events from five years ago should have such deep effects as to disrupt and sicken the very fibres of my being so that bacteria, infection, disease and germs can drag me down. I feel defiled by what happened and this feeling is vindicated at an observable, cellular level.

When I think about what happened one image comes to mind: that of being struck at the core with an iron bar, straight through with one strike, of a strong and elegant column being broken into pieces by a stranger who came out of nowhere. And then being torn open, gutted, eviscerated, thrown away and left to die.

You cannot put a shattered column back together. You must accept its destruction, accept your own annihilation and the success of the destroyer. You must walk away from the debris and start again. It is sad that the rebuilding process is not just professional, not just emotional, not just social but must also be physical and carried out in the most gratingly basic way. And it bothers me that a person is able to do this to other human beings and thrive in success, social regard and happiness while his victims are demolished publicly, privately, psychologically and physically.