My Little Pony Women

I must give dues to my brother for this title – which cries out to be a spoof.

For 20 years, I considered that Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s classic of a New England family was very worthy of one: saccharine self giving, bucolic innocuity, inoffensive innocence, all heading towards the only telos for these female penned classics: early marriage – or death.

Like so many of the repeatedly adapted literature – the latest screen offering is no 3 in 25 years, and the second in only 2 – the title could so easily be confused: My Younger Sister, Wives and Daughters, and tellingly, the sequel of this saga – Good Wives. And yes, this sort of story appeals to the (my little) pony loving girl who wants to grow up to find a good loving neighbour to marry and to produce foals of her own.

Fed up of the pure-so-as-not-to-offend classics, I was perturbed when this turned up on a book group reading list 2 years ago. I cringed often. The opening dialogue is what modern writing schools deride as exposition – giving information via clunky dialogue. I fished out the 1994 film, which I mercifully found second hand for only 50p, and expected to return it after a single viewing.

But I discovered from that book group a different Little Women. Having just seen the new Greta Gerwig film, I have further sought out the alternative, if not real readings of LM Alcott.

————-

SPOILER ALERT

When I first read the book, before seeing any adaptations, I saw much of Jo in myself and hoped for a Teddy. In realising that Jo was not destined for this lovely friend, but an older foreigner (I couldn’t imagine being or loving a 40 year old at half that age), I stormed across my university corridor to throw the book at my friend. Gabriel Byrne in the soon following film didn’t assuage that feeling. What was Louisa up to? She’d set up the romance we all wanted and then gave this man to the snub nosed vain younger sister. It was like comparable Anne of Green Gables not getting Gilbert. The Canadian TV with Megan Follows dangled an older man at her whilst away – who’s not in the novels – but she swiftly turns him down and back on course to her childhood friend. But not Jo.

There’s much in common in these east side of North America tales: female writers with the same initials living in a rural close community; semi autobiographical vignettes creating a long running series; an imaginative impassioned heroine striving to be good, and a childhood male friend who’s always loved her, but needs to move away and dabble in other romance to come back to marry her.

And – a scary dose of scarlet fever, replete with brow mopping, and a memorable tragic death.

For me, there really is one Little Woman – the other three sisters are backdrop to Jo, foils and catalysts to her character.

The writing advice both Anne and Jo are given by their male friends is to drop the fanciful racy stuff they’re churning out, and write what they know…local tales about and for local people. Something I took on board, but I see more kindred now in the pirate adventures of sinners who may or may not repent…

I discovered in 2017 that Little Women’s writing advice is the opposite of what LM Alcott wanted. She preferred her pirate stories to the best known tales (there are many others) which she called ‘moral pap’ – exactly what I had come to see them as. Louisa (May we be on first name terms) grew up in a community which practised Transcendentalism, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Louisa’s father was visionary but poor. Amos Bronson Alcott persuaded his publisher to take his work if his daughter gave him the ‘moral pap’ for girls she had been persuaded to turn out (instead of her colourful preferred genre). So Little Women was born out of family loyalty and financial need. Louisa’s racier work was published under a pseudonym. (Amen sister!)

Louisa didn’t marry and didn’t want Jo to, but her publisher and her public demanded it for all of the girls – save Beth, who died too soon. On lesbian website After Ellen, a 2007 piece by Browne points out that a later character in the story, Nan, remains single to pursue a career. This same article states that Little Women took 43rd place in a LGBT book list, surprising the author, and me… but then, it made sense…

Jo March is boyish and does not behave with the decorum expected of a proper young woman – much to her older sister’s chagrin. Jo often says she’d like to be a boy, and dresses as one in the Pickwick Society meetings and charades. It might be that in her era, women had such little rein that she may have simply perceived that being male gave her more options. (Her neighbour shows us that rich men also had reins.) Jo is possessive over her sisters, but marriage can feel a kind of loss to a long running closeknit set up. But then there is the quote from Louisa about having loved many women and no men, and one wonders if this isn’t so much a modern queer eye but actually what was intended. I note that unlike Anne Shirley, Jo March is not allowed a female bosom pal. The companion Jo does have is a brotherly one. They play silly juvenile games – unfitting for these old before their time Little Women. Louisa didn’t want the relationship with Teddy to be a prelude to marriage and felt that Jo would turn Laurie down. It took me two decades to agree.

Greta Gerwig, who made Ladybird and is partner of Noah ‘Squid and the Whale’ Baumbach, has brought the alternative reading to the fore. Laurie is played by an actor known for a same sex relationship role (Timothee Chalamet from Call Me By Your Name). Saoirse Ronan’s Jo seems distinctly tomboyish and her haircut, picked up in Timmy Timato’s parody, is a choppy ‘dykey’ style – cf the very different crop on Winona Ryder.

I’m uncomfortable with the implication that being non gender standard or like the opposite sex is synonymous with being gay or trans. That’s something I write against in my own novels. Neither Jo nor Laurie have same sex potential companions to demonstrate or deny this thesis.

This version also brings out the writing dilemma for Ms March, reflecting Ms Alcott’s. She’s made to give an unsatisfactory ending regarding the German professor, as well as standing up to publishers wanting to pay her pittance and take the copyright. This made me cheer in the cinema, although I also know that paid writing and acclaim come far too soon to writers in fiction.

It focusses less on the other aspects of March/Alcott life, which the Gillian Anderson film did pick up: Jo discusses Transcendentalism with Prof Bhaer, which he points out is an old German philosophy; Meg March is ribbed for not wearing silk because her family deride the child labour used to make it; and Susan Sarandon opines about women’s roles in hers as Marmee. I think there’s even a critique of the medical world: rich patriarch neighbour turns up announced with his personal physician for Beth, but the doctor can’t do anything both his methods put Beth more at risk.

Marmee March is sent for, and not only a mother and sisters’ love and care aid Beth, but she knows to draw the fever out by the feet with natural remedies.

Aunt March represents the world that is being critiqued and broken free from. Money, decorum, right by privilege… No wonder this aunt chooses vain, money loving Amy to be her globetrotting companion over Jo. Aunt’s death isn’t hugely mourned – she’s just got a house to make into a school to begin a new kind of education – like LM Alcott’s father did. No film really dramatised the real reason that Amy was punished and removed from the local school. The book says that the girls were governed by love alone, which is extraordinary for the day. Yet love can be a manipulative source – pleasing Marmee or Father to do good and strive towards perfection is as much a bit in the mouth as fear and punishment.

Note what little role Father plays… he’s absent even when he’s present again. This is a Women’s family, with a female head – who gets her slippers prewarmed – and a matriarch ruler Aunt, whereas next door, it’s the Laurences who are the male refraction of that: a repressive, rich household with a kind heart against a poorer, freer, less conventional clan.

Father is given a bigger role in the BBC/Masterpiece version of 2017/18 – the writer working for 2 decades on his book, which I sympathise with, but his daughter gets her validation through quick publication and fees, even when it’s not her best work or what her heart’s in. Research has made me wonder if I don’t have more sympathy for Amos Alcott than his daughter. Even the author of the website about him criticises Amos Bronson Alcott, but these detractors are applying their own conventional materialistic standards to a man who flouted the glory and profit ridden institutions who line their pockets. I found him intriguing and extraordinary, and perhaps it is unfair that his daughter – who conformed by churning out the stories her public but not she wanted, putting earnings first – is better known than her trailblazing philosopher and educational pioneer father. Whatever Louisa felt about him – she satirised his Fruitlands farm experiment – or the likes of Harriet Reisin who made a book and film about the family, Mrs Abigail Alcott stood by her husband and the purity of his principles. And for that, I admire both parents.

—–

I’ve written before of Kate Winslet’s roles being often about the corset coming off, or in the case of Marianne Dashwood, putting it on. I think that many stories, women’s period especially (yes I know what I’ve just written) are about that dichotomy. Which is Little Women?

Jo and Laurie are both beasts not living like Aunt March’s dog – good, squeaky, housetrained creatures all for show and taking orders. Marmee is the tamed Jo, in whom Jo’s spirit still resides.

Beth comes pre-tamed, and thus can leave the world early, having attained the goodness that her sisters need to continue to work on for some years yet. The ideal of Transcendentalism, selfless, ungrudging Beth accepts illness and death without fear or regret. Meg is proper, and quickly accepts the life that most women then – and til recently – wish for. Although not rich, she becomes wife and mother whilst young, leading the others towards what could feel like compromise. Meg is to Jo what Diana is to Anne Shirley – yoking herself to roly poly Fred Wright/John Brooke in dull domesticity, not a marriage we’re meant to get excited over. They both stay local whilst our real heroines start travelling.

I’m still struggling with these books, for its queer queer portrayal as much as its ideals, which includes that swift publication and earning are preferred over keeping to one’s principles. And I’m still perturbed that Little Women with its central thesis of abnegation remains so popular. Maybe I’ll be assembling some plastic ponies in front of a video camera after all.

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Christmas isn’t about giving

From the line “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” we get two disturbing directives: that because God gave us his Son at Christmas, we must give to each other, and to charity.  And we must give generously.

Why? Because retail needs you; the majority of its annual taking is acquired around Christmas. Your city, nay country’s economy depends on your buying into the consumerism that Christmas has become an excuse, if not a byword for. It’s celebrating capitalism – both the dream of fluffy families, and of love being shown by gifts, sometimes which are unsuitable, and which creates debts and fear to fulfil. The debt industry also does well out of Christmas, using social expectation to goad us into showing affection and thus our worth by what we have purchased or provided. (I note that many old ‘debts’ are revived at Christmas – collections agencies are active at this time of year and I find that especially reprehensible). Love is shown through stuff, say these prophets of Mamon, and status is shown through stuff. As kids and teens we asked each other, “what did you get?” As older people, it may become “who are you with?” or “what will you give?” All these questions are about acquisitions.

In my family, we give the presents of our presence with one another.

As for the other giving – to charity – the logic there also mystifies me. Charity of course can include church funds as well as special appeals.

There is a practical predicament – that if we are doing 1) above, we are more limited in 2). Those of us not receiving Christmas bonuses from work, or involved in retail or entertainment, will be stretched to pay for Christmas gifts, food, travel, work outings and parties. And on top of this – winter bills. So why do charities feel that this is a time for them to benefit out of already scooped out resources?

It’s actually supply and demand, and a captive market: capitalise on the full pews at Christmas services, and that non-attenders will attend at this time of year. Give them a bit of hearty cheer, bit of entertainment, some traditional refreshments, and they’ll fill the offering bowls. As cute kids pick noses in quilted quasi middle eastern costumes, or surly shepherds bark out local lines, as we sing cultural favourites, with or without personal meaning for us, there’s a trade off: we’ve provided your traditional seasonal needs – now stuff those little envelopes.

Charity is rather a nebulous term, for it refers to a legal set up of an entity, not necessarily good work. Are all charities automatically ‘worthy causes’? Are their causes fought for in a worthy way? Many of us are concerned that what we give isn’t going to help the cause that we’re touched by, or that the charity’s means of doing so is dubious. My experience of Oxfam revealed it to be a hardheaded disorganised business with charitable status that makes its logline ‘make poverty history’ ironic in the way it remunerates its staff – or doesn’t. A popular Christmas charitable cause, the Salvation Army support and administer workfare, which is a form of modern slavery. Do other charities involve enforced medication or proselytisation or animal cruelty in the name of care?

It’s worth asking for more information than is on those begging leaflets.

I’ve also seen a church run an alternative service which was all about the assumption that none of us could relate to the themed suffering connected to the nativity story. Not that the leaders got to know us well enough to know what we were going through. But we were expected to channel our pity into one bucket, going to Christian Aid, as a sleight of hand from solidarity to financial support.

Perhaps one could argue that this drive to donate is a natural extension of pass it on, pay it forward – we’ve got a gift, so gift to someone else. Don’t only give to those you know or who will give back. Yes, there’s a Bible verse to support that.

But if we need to seek a biblical mandate for our actions and beliefs – and I don’t think we do – then be aware that this giving at Christmas, or because of Christmas, isn’t in scripture.

Checking a concordance reveals that Biblical mentions of gifts or giving are about

1 – thanks and praise to the Lord

2 – sacrificial offerings in the Old Testament

3 – spiritual gifts in the New

and the nearest we get about the gift of Jesus is of God’s grace. Even the 2 Cor 9:15 passage I started with isn’t directly about Jesus’ entry into the world.

I’ve known the offertory hymn be “Give Thanks” – for God has given Christ his Son, but the verse and idea that chorus is based on is under point 3 – gratitude; and the upshot is the poor feeling rich – not so that they do a widow at the temple and pour their meagre funds into their place of worship.

The consequence of John 3:16 – the most famous verse about God’s giving his Son – is that there’s no condemnation for believers, but instead eternal life. It’s a verse I now find less palatable, for it pairs gifts with threats. Perhaps exhortations to give also have a dark side.

And many theologians would argue that the real gift of Jesus wasn’t so much his being born – that is necessary for the rest – or even, just his ministry, although his teachings impress and inspire even nonchristians. No, Jesus’ ultimate mission was his death and resurrection. Hence the real showing of God’s grace, the ultimate gift of Jesus’ earthly life, is in the cross and tomb. Yet Easter giving is much less than at Christmas– eggs abound, but not parties, presents, donations or consumerism.

So Christmas giving is not a scriptural mandate. In John 10, Jesus gave ‘a new commandment to love one another as I have loved you. By this will all know that you are my disciples….’

Love does not have to include gift aid envelopes and big cheques, queues in department stores, debts and guilt. Jesus’ real gift dealt with guilt and shows us that God’s love subverts earthly ethos.

If you want to use Christmas as a time to give, then do, but I encourage thinking carefully about the charity you support. If you want to buy presents, I’m not exhorting you to stop. But I am exhorting: stop manipulating us, advertisers, and stop twisting Christmas into a major revenue collection time under the guise of seasonal spirit, or worse, Christian duty.

Stop using peer pressure of offering buckets and sad eyes of supposed recipients.

I like that it’s the birth, rather than the death, which we celebrate as a gift, making the whole of Jesus’ life matter, and not fixating on his cruel end. The fuss about Christmas stems from mainstream attempts to gazump the major Pagan festival of Solstice and Yuletide, although we’ve made Christmas pagan with a small p: it’s usurped by secular Western culture; actual Pagans are very spiritual people and this season is very meaningful to them and considered a High Holy Day. Here, Christians are doing as the pagans with small p do.

Christmas is not a time of giving, by any theological or scriptural or even logical discourse. Christmas is a time to celebrate a particular gift which – and not store vouchers – is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Or rather – a once for all gift that produces grace ad infinitum, all year round.

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Who Called The Fat Police? Dame Davies, give in your badge

The Metro’s recent headline (10th October) was again angering. A British health minister wants to ban eating on public transport to combat obesity!! As a swansong, this former chief medical officer for England – worryingly dubbed Dame – has obviously used her leverage to get a front page of Britain’s most seen free rag to make her campaign. Is this what we should be knighting people for?

Sally Davies is concerned that ‘excess weight’ is now accepted as normal. What she means is that yes, bigger sizes are catered for in clothes shops; that advertising campaigns show curvy people as beautiful; that artists depict them in celebratory defiance to combat fatism and body fascism, for men and women.

And I say – amen! Who decides what’s normal and attractive?! It has varied over time and place.

The Body Mass Index is a tool to allow health services to back the attack on aesthetics that’s arbitrary and actually, modelling thinness is unhealthy. Many of us find larger figures appealing.

What is your real problem with big people, Sally? What size are you, and would I find you attractive?  Would I want to sit next to you on a bus, with or without permissible snacking?

My concern is that Fat Policing has also become normalised. Zoom lenses capture the ‘muffin tops’ of flesh sticking out of jeans by journalists to illustrate their point – which is against the diversity movement, against the anti abuse movement, against privacy. It’s not OK to rib and tell people off for their size, to make them so unhappy that they’ll conform to a standard set out by… who?….and why?

I say we call in the cards to allow citizens arrests of those whom we deem too large – and that especially means health professionals, who often don’t live up to their own didactic advice.

And the suggested snacking ban is more evidence of the Nanny State that we’re increasingly fed up with.

Eating on public transport is a good use of otherwise wasted time. For those on the go in all senses, this might be our best or only time to eat – and, as any good health chief would know – eating properly and regularly important. Only litter can possibly be a reason to curtail public eating. Curtail the mess – not the food. And the Dame’s not even wanting to ban just messy, smelly fatty foods on public transport – but everything save bottled water!

Many people eat to abate travel sickness. Do we want greater nausea to clear up, instead of food mess?

Many people have eat little and often metabolisms. Is a swaying, green, faint person more desirable?

You don’t know what people have also eaten, what their metabolism is, or their needs.

And no, don’t even start thinking of monitoring this and deciding who can eat on buses.

The Dame – now sounding very pantomime – went on to wish to push greater taxes on sugar and ban many adverts for foods she considers ‘fatty’.

I question the real issue behind sugar war and suspect this is about something somewhat darker.

I’m more concerned about purity of food, of added chemicals and modification. And that health foods and toiletry products are often not as pure as they’d claim. That’s where my concern lies.

Real health is about balance, and also natural foods. I support local, where possible, organic, unmodified with minimal ingredients and no chemicals. It’s more than what we eat: real health requires freedom.

The Metro – not the most balanced or progressive newspaper – did cede that Boris Johnson (not my favourite man) had for once made a good point: that ‘stealth sin taxes’ are counterproductive and controlling; the Food and Drink Federation worried that their work to promote health will be undone by these proposals.

I query amassing more for the treasury under the guise of what’s really a fine (thus continuing the ‘sin’ is in government interest), and that this very narrow view of ‘health’ is against more progressive and broader values, and the ‘life limiting’ that Davies speaks of is found in her own policies.

Rolling out these ‘punitive’ measures will also not attract people to work as bus drivers and train conductors.

So not a sensible legacy at all, Dame Davies – or one you would have to pick the pieces up of.

I’m off to the supermarket to buy unapproved foods for my next journey…

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Why the AO and HMRC need calling to account

I’ve written before about the failings of ombudsmen and adjudicators, the latter being Trash Heaps (think Fraggle Rock). In fact, they both could be, as are the organisations we bring to them.

The Nottingham based Adjudicator’s Office is a hive running round the Queen – and yes, it’s been a woman for six years: currently Helen McGarry.

Like her predecessor, she’s no Wincey Willis (think 1980s gameshow Treasure Hunt).

There’s a hunt with obscure words and a deadline, but the treasure is all the treasury’s. For the AO deals with complaints about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and The Valuation Office.

I’ve long had issues with HMRC – the tax office – and it’s not hard to find others who feel the same. They especially like to pick on self employed people and small businesses. Their compliance checks can mean hours, as well as pounds – photocopying and scanning, buying cloud software to upload… and then HMRC ungraciously deciding that they won’t accept your offering. All of course at your own expense. Often their drawn out investigations are because of their own misinformation.

May of us are deemed to have not paid enough tax or paid it too late, or that we have received too many tax credits and they will not only cease, but be demanded back.

I’ve been bullied for some years – I won’t give personal details, but I’ve had to spend much energy on fighting HMRC and learning what hard hearted bullies they are, and how the system is designed for you not to be able to easily recover from it, in any sense. I have strong evidence of collusion but also misuse of law. I think they want compliance or cessation. In any sense.

My case returned to the AO for the 3rd time – a different part, they won’t reinvestigate old ones. They also don’t award for their own failings. And they know that the next tier – the PHSO – is useless. I obtained figures of the tiny percentage of cases which are ever upheld, let alone given compensation. They elongate and annoy, and you need your MP to apply to them. Mine, Clive Lewis, messed up by not sending the supporting documents and he refused to resend the case, even when the PHSO asked me to. Hence Helen McGarry thinks she sits safe, knowing she’ll rarely be called to account by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

The recent investigation seemed to be no such thing. Even the bit about frustration and sympathy was a cut and paste job. It was condescending and had little or no back up. I’d reapplied for tax credits a year ago, but they claim that my area’s roll out for Universal Credit had begun just after, so it was too late. If I’d had a quicker response from HMRC, I would have gotten the award, worth a few thousand. I note the statements which make me look unreasonable: “if [I’d] chosen to…” – utterly inappropriate; the ones that make them sound fair… it’s a school of writing that I see throughout bureaucracy and sometimes in personal emails. McGarry claims the law is on her side; nothing can be changed now. But I’m well aware of law being bent or ignored or even created to suit governments.

I am tired of these organisations not being accountable, of not righting wrongs and even acknowledging them. I am tired of Trash Heaps whose rather ill-judged pronouncements become binding, and who do not expect comeback. I am tired of governments who bully, not work for their people.

If you are too, then let’s stand together against it. We need an AO who’s fit for purpose and a tax office that’s fair – it’s supposed to be collecting for the benefit of the people. We need reform. We need leaders who listen and laws that benefit and protect us, not the few. We need different values that aren’t about greed and control, but respect and fairness. And yes, love, even in politics. And that means love of justice, a fierce love that stands up for ourselves and others and doesn’t take no for an answer.

 

 

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What I think of Christians at Pride

There was quite a noisy group at my recent most local LGBT etc Pride, who now have a prominent stall. They have their own uniforms – a T-shirt with a slogan which matches their banner; and then a self styled one of rainbow dog collars… for these are Christians, and several are clergy.

On one hand, it’s to be applauded that this group is there and is trying to be visible, despite the fact that some other Christians criticise them. I also overheard a flag clad woman holding the hand of another comment: I hate it when the Church tries to join in with our day.

And I – a woman on the outer edges of both worlds – understood that.

The Christians in the parade want to say: we accept you, LGBT+ people. (Often they mean just gay… I’m not sure churches have got their heads round all the letters yet.) They acknowledge that Christianity and other faiths have hitherto persecuted their gay siblings – and some still do.

I’d like to point out that the notion that same sex love as being something to decry and exclude over has come from faith groups.

Many of those who still judge homosexuals are those with a conservative faith.

So one could say that the need for Pride came out of religious prohibition, which influenced laws and morals and medicine, so that what denounces LGBT people can be traced to faith roots.

Hence, it’s brave but ironic that there is a Christian presence at Pride.

Sadly like many, I have experienced struggle in coming to terms with not being heterosexual, especially as a woman of faith. I’ve written and published a novel about it, which is available to buy from many online sources, called Parallel Spirals. There will be a sequel.

I happen to know that many of the people on the Christian stall and march are not LGBT. They’re allies, but they have not experienced the challenges of the realisation that you are other, and that otherness may not be welcome. They have not sat in a pew (or sofa with a smoothie, if you’re that kind of church) wondering if the message of God’s love and theirs will still apply if this church really knew them and who they loved. Would they still get a hug (or even a handshake) in the peace; would they still get an invite to homegroups or youth or elder groups or those endless barbecues or garden parties if the truth about them was known? Would they still be allowed their positions of leadership if it was known what they were really like? Do these church people know what it’s like to earnestly search scripture to see if they really are condemned? NO YOU AREN’T, by the way!! Do they have to hear exhortions about the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman and the inevitable family you’re supposed to have, and feel nervous and excluded? Have they had to put up with people who have – almost for granted – what you don’t, and tell you that you can’t have it – namely marriage and family?

Of course, nongay people in church have other kinds of suffering and misfitting, and it might allow them to have great empathy and solidarity with the people that Pink Pride is about. I’ve heard people speak of other kinds of otherness… it’s not only LGBT people who feel a sense of not fitting, if not exclusion, in their faith communities.

But some seem to be presumptious and patronising. Is it fair to say it’s like white people in a Black celebration saying “We weren’t slaves ourselves, but we do know how you feel”? Of course it’s their way of saying – you never should have been, and we stand with you to show we’re not part of that. We see the well-meaning as much as we might cringe at the execution.

It’s also easy for the oppressed to allow no outsiders to sympathise. Am I angry at men against  violence against women in White Ribbon? Have I not applauded those who stand with something they’re not? Would I not march in solidarity with something  I care about, and be put off if I was told that I had no right to, as I’m outside the oppressed group?

I observed this tribe within a tribe with bemusement, oblivious to how their rainbow stickers and collars seemed amongst the outre costumes, squirting their God’s love like bubbles to passers by with the proffering of a gay positive sticker and a few words…but these little interactions felt like that delicate transient rainbow film.

Or actually, was that bubble the start of a new idea, a new relationship?

So am I saying that Christians shouldn’t have a stall at Pride? Am I saying that their well intentioned solidarity is wrong? No…but am am saying: your message has to be relevant and congruent and consistent, and be aware of how it looks from the other side. Don’t pretend you easily understand when you don’t… But actually, you might. And yes, I do think my novel can help with that. Listen to LGBT people and hear their stories. It will mean really chatting – often in a way that you can’t at fast moving, raucous Prides – and really sitting with them, being prepared to follow up, and to hear how LGBT+ people feel about faith and church and what it’s done to them. And to put it right and show a better way. As I know you can.

And actually, I’m quite touched that a group gives up its day to show that solidarity for something they aren’t, risking censure from both sides, and to transform the view and relationship from judgement and exclusion into love and welcome.

 

 

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Why Cloudfare makes my nostrils flare

eroding privacy in the name of security

 

Many of us are waking up to the huge erosion of our privacy in electronic communications.

We’re aware of the PRISM/Tempura story of 6 years ago, where CSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent that our governments spy on their citizens and share that information…that our internet and phone use is watched and recorded… The film about him starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley revealed that the CSA can watch us through our webcam, via fibre optic cables, even when the computer’s off.

Hence, he put something over the camera eye.

We’re increasingly aware of Facebook, Google and Microsoft being part of this surveillance, accumulating our browsing habits to not only send to advertisers, but to the secret agencies, using terrorism as an excuse and to make citizens compliant.

But terrorism isn’t appropriate to the vast majority of us, and yet we’re being watched anyway… and we’re aware that terrorism and dissent are becoming synonymous.

Hence more of us are taking steps against this and switching our browsers and search engines to ones which don’t track us across the internet and record any browsing history.

Private Browsing in most browsers only prevents other users of that computer in following your online sessions, not the browser or your internet service provider, who are also hoovering up and selling your details – and you’re paying them to do it!

There are some smaller browsers and search engines which take our privacy more seriously.

These include Epic (hard to download and use, curiously) and Brave and TOR – The Onion Router – for the former, and DuckDuckGo and Startpage for the latter. Reading their privacy tips and warnings are galling, for even the size of your screen can help give you away. There’s HTML5 canvas image data extraction, and this is part of ‘fingerprinting’ – websites being able to discover who and where you are, and what you do.

In Windows 10, the privacy settings – now split into two places to look – are defaulted to yes…use my camera, microphone, physical location… allow remote access…

Even some of these more private browsers have default settings to allow Facebook and Google – the very places to avoid – to set cookies and have other permissions.

I’m appalled that even blocking 3rd party cookies and device recognition, as well as hated JavaScript, is enough to make many websites break. To look up a train time, I get warning messages – even in a less private browser – that this information is being shared. I can’t get into my email account with the settings I’d like in place. I’ve even seen some spiritual websites – one with a prayer request form – make visitors be open to trackers to be able to submit that request!!

Hence my ire at Cloudflare, a widely used supposedly security enhancing tool and company. It’s meant to stop robots from spamming or sending malware, but I’m more suspicious that cybercrime is mostly a myth and there’s some ironic Sylvester Sneakly/Hooded Claw plot that the security programs and their manifold updates are the sinister part.

I’m not going to reveal my browsing habits, but I will say that many things I look up aren’t things I want to share with a third party. No – let me make clear – I never want anything I do anywhere shared with anyone that I don’t choose.

I utterly reject “If I’m not doing wrong, I don’t mind.” I mind very much, and so should you.

But the internet is a good resource for connecting and researching, perhaps things we wouldn’t readily tell those around us. Do you want every book you pick up off a shelf known to people who don’t even know you? Do you want every video and piece of music you play known? (by the way, it is unless you block it). Have you not ever tried to find resources about something that you wouldn’t want made generally public? Have you wanted to introduce yourself to staff in every shop you go in? Have you ever been worried by something that you wouldn’t want to tell other people about?

Hence, some of us will set our privacy high and use browsers that block the ridiculous amounts of adverts which slow down our browsing and waste our internet data allowance. We don’t want to see adverts about the legal services we looked up, or that health problem, or the sexuality related matter we sought succour about. We don’t want our moving or surprise holiday plans or new job revealed by adverts appearing the next time we use our device.

But Cloudflare blocks these browsers, and it’s used by places where i) sites can be personal and ii) the users thereof may well be questioners and people who uphold privacy rights.

I’m frustrated – and so are others – by the amount of sites who won’t let you in, treating you as some kind of attack. Or they’ll make you try to perform a hated recaptcha check, which involves Google’s intrusion. Mostly with my preferred security settings, these stupid ‘click all the squares with…’ tasks don’t work. It’s very US focussed so some other users might not recongise what they’re being asked to so, and it’s not clear that you’re meant to choose squares with a tiny bit of something. So it’s easy to get wrong, even as a real sentient human…meanwhile, you’re automatically held into Google’s privacy…to prove you’re real. See the irony?

And I think they’re really trying to get private browsers to reveal themselves.

So I leave those sites, for I feel: if they’re using Cloudflare to bully me into giving my identity away, then I don’t need to read that article afterall.

I thus challenge users of Cloudflare and Cloudflare itself to rethink, along with all those who utilise recaptcha. Note the name – its real purpose is revealed.

And I won’t be netted by anyone.

(And WordPress, you’re still breaking Cookie Law with you assumed opt in)

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Elspeth’s Easter message

Why we should have Table Turning Tuesday

When Christians – especially of a more Catholic bent – celebrate Easter, the focus is on the cross. Yet if Holy Week is about recalling and re-enacting the run up to Easter events in real time, why do we spend nearly all the week on the being crucified part?

I’ve seen Palm Sunday processions – even with a donkey. And I’ve seen Passion plays – even in shopping centres. Yet have you ever heard of an al fresco Stone Rolling enactment? Ever seen those angels or those terrified guards? The Emmaus Road couple, or the Upper Room? We think of the Last Supper – every day, if you’re high church – but not the next gathering of the disciples with the Risen Jesus.

I also noted that the traditional events of Holy Week involve turning of temple tables, and much preaching and speaking out. Before he’s arrested, Jesus is busy in the capital.

I note some call the Weds Spy Weds, but we don’t have Table Monday or Temple Tues.

Why do we miss the parts which question structures, the bits not so passion orientated – but they are of, course. These are as much part of the message as the dying part – plenty of passion here! His ire at the temple’s abuses. Healing. He also spent his not quite last week telling parables, predicting his return, and outwitting Pharisees.

There is often much about suffering – Christ’s and our own – and the whole week can feel a dour one. Lots of prostration, kneeling – and repetition. But less about justice – and that doesn’t count your church’s lent appeal.  And less about joy.

My reason for having a faith isn’t to wallow in sorrow, pain, guilt…

Today, Easter day, is one of joy. It’s celebrating the turning point of history, the reason for being. Jesus came ‘so that we may have life to the full’. But I hear that proclaimed far too seldom.  As well as the Resurrection, I’d like to see more of a focus on Jesus’ response to the temple authorities, and for that to be appropriated to modern times.

Another year, I want to see those doves scattered…

 

 

 

 

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How most websites, including this one, break cookie laws

As I type, I’m seeing a typical banner which appears as I land on a website. “Our website uses cookies. By continuing, you agree to their use.”

THIS IS NOT LEGAL nor moral

A cookie policy should allow us, in one or two clicks, to reject all but essential cookies.

A good website has a radio button or two to slide off and reject them.

This is not the same as a ‘learn more’ link. This just tells you what the many cookies are, not let to switch them off. It may explain how to alter cookies on your browser, or give  a link to a site like All About Cookies. But it does not let you control them on that site.

This auto opting in is wrong. We may need to use a site – to look at a rail timetable, check our bank balance, book tickets, view our utilities account, make a complaint, even view and apply for earnings…

As I wrote in my last post, we shouldn’t have to choose between doing what we need to and our privacy.

On this site alone – I know because I have an app from private web search engine DuckDuckGo which blocks them – there are so many cookies that I have to scroll to see them. Not only from any blogs I may follow, but infamous Google, Gravitas, and several from WordPress. Some of those cookies can last a long time and follow me round the net.

Would you accept a shop flicking tracers on you just for popping in – even glancing at the window – and following you for weeks and months, logging everything you do and passing it on?

Because that’s what non essential to function cookies do.

Why do 3rd parties feel they have any rights to us and our habits?

Why do we accept that our data is for sale?

Why do we accept governments watching us?

As I’m not up to anything – I mind especially.

I am also fed up of laws coming in to protect us which get waived. Cookie laws are supposed to make sites ASK MEANINGFULLY for us to give our consent, not to flag up that they’ve assumed it and put the cookies on anyway.

You can block and clear cookies. Some sites don’t function with 3rd party cookies blocked. These are the ones I feel I can do without.

And Automattic, who own WordPress, please make your cookies legal. Yes, if your site is used by and viewable to people in the EU, you need to comply with GDPR and that means changing cookies or being liable for reportage (Yes, that means you Washington Post, whose actions are already under investigation by the Information Commissioners’ Office!)

And query why anyone needs cookies beyond the functional kind.

The rest need handing over to a certain Muppet Monster.

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The Trash Heap Has Spoken – How the Financial Ombudsman fails

Having had many – always poor – experiences of the Financial Ombudsman Service, I know how badly they and ombudsmen generally need to be held to account.

I know of those who brought serious and urgent concerns to the FOS, to have them exacerbated, and then the FOS didn’t uphold the complaint. There was a grass roots website about this ombudsman but the URL now lands on a different site, and I found a report about ‘managing’ those who spoke out.

They’re busy with PPI claims at present. Payment Protection Insurance reclaiming is about putting right an unjust scandal – historically, and going forward. But many of the financial companies aren’t investigating properly, and the FOS is also dragging its feet and putting customers off getting their justice, coming up to this summer’s deadline.

I was furious just how unjustly I’d been treated regarding financial products.

Credit ratings are favourable when we’ve borrowed often – and thus made them money; not when we’ve paid outright or not bought. Looking into how much extra any form of hire purchase/loan costs above the original price is an ire making exercise. I discovered too that the contracts we’re made to sign – without negotiation – means that even if we’re able to pay off in full later, we’re not allowed to, but have to keep with a payment plan which can require us to pay twice or more what the item is worth.

I believe many of the financial companies broke the Consumer Credit Act 1974 when they held us into non individually negotiated contracts not in our favour.

Ironically, it’s over permissions that I found a particular ethical and legal issue with the FOS. Their own declarations are, I believe contrary to GDPR – and certainly not moral and fair. They enforce a too wide blanket ‘consent’ which allows unnamed 3rd parties to be involved without further permission or warning (other than the companies you complain about), for your data to leave the EU without further consent or reason, and to hold your full case details for 6 years.

I was appalled at what companies had collected – even after many years (and as an ex customer) and when the company had been passed over to another. Old letters, personal facts about myself and my life and 3rd parties were all on file. To allow the FOS to see all of those meant that they had a broad and personal picture of my life, and – knowing how much our privacy is intruded into by marketing and government – I didn’t want that.

GDPR is – or should be about – giving us the right to control and choose who knows what about us.

I gave them consent to investigate, to contact the other parties, but I flagged up concerns about the wording, including the unnecessarily broad issues above. They said we can withdraw consent at any time. I was told that unless I signed to give my consent to all of it, the FOS wouldn’t investigate. When I gave it but said it was coerced, they said it must be freely given.

That’s an issue – that consent is mandatory but that must be freely given?

That I am asked to choose between autonomy and privacy – and a sense of justice and redress? This is becoming too common

 

My other issues with the Financial Ombudsman:

-the length of their delays, repeat sending of forms and asking of question, getting the case wrong, lack of comprehension and joined-upness

-the FOS was very poor at handling a complaint against itself, awarding £7 per case for several months’ hold ups and mistakes

-the independent assessor does as she ‘sees fit’. I’ve frequently found these – when I at last get to them – to be rude, unaccountable, partial in both senses, and unsympathetic. The FOS is slow to see its or others’ failings – I am checking via FOI to discover how badly. (I know from FOI that the Parliamentary Health and Social Care ombudsman awards to less than 1% each year.) The FOS’s IA, Ms A Somal, and her lackeys, consider her report an Opinion with a capital O; she doesn’t feel the need to substantiate it, and neither will she reply to your response. Like on Fraggle Rock, the Trash Heap has spoken (you almost hear the ‘so nrrrr!). And that’s it.

As it won’t hold itself to account, we need the media to do so.

Now the Trash Heap has spoken!

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Utopia and Ever After

A Cinderella story that says goodbye to pumpkins!

The 1998 romantic fairytale comedy seemed pleasant – I saw it twice at the cinema – but it is, I now believe, a vehicle for something much more profound. The centrality of Thomas More’s Utopia may be very significant. Like More’s treatise, Ever After bookends the main story with seemingly irrelevant stuffing, but this stuffing is key to the presentation that this is real. The old lady ends by telling the Grimm Brothers that “the important point is not that they lived happily ever after – but that they lived”. We wonder if Cinderella really was a 16th century noble turned servant who caught the eye of one of France’s many Prince Henrys. (That Cinderella has a real full name, and the mention of real contemporaries and lack of magic may make us waver – I’m afraid this is a pumpkin free presentation). We may quickly assume not – just as we realise that More’s Utopia is a made up word meaning ‘no land’, and that the progressive croissant shaped New World island is a society of his making.

Both are positing a world that could be, far enough ago and away to allow us to take on the ideas a little more easily than if they were just spouted to us about our own world.

And told in a story format, by a 3rd party linked to the tale, to give it weight.

The universal appeal of love overcoming all barriers is a myth that deep down we know to be true – or want to be. And Ever After is a tale of social levelling. Cinderella (or Danielle) is Prince Henry’s equal in every way but social standing. As Leonardo the fairy godmother substitute says, Cinderella is the Prince’s match – and that implies possibly his better – in strength, courage, morality, goodness and also education.

For the central theme of this story states that education – or more precisely, reading – is at the heart of equality. Henry’s education has come from privilege; Danielle’s from passion.

(Note the Step Sister’s comment: that books are for those who can’t think for themselves – we suspect we’re meant to think that the reverse is true). After meeting Danielle, Henry wants to make universities open to all.

Both Henry and Danielle resist the roles society expects of them, but Danielle’s unconventional father – who gave her Utopia – has allowed her to cross social and gender boundaries.

Those who want to enforce them are the wicked villains who get their comeuppance. The Step Mother and Step Sister so bent on titles and power end up as the very servants they despised, literally pushed to the bottom of the pile (or vat). Danielle sees her fellow servants as equals and friends, and we are encouraged to see them that way too. It is in defending one that the whole story begins.

In this, Danielle demonstrates not only is she well read, but thinks. She sees the injustices of the world and dares to speak out about them. Her intellectual bravery and evasiveness make her a kind of Anne Boleyn to a prince of the same name, who is captivated and determined to have her. Through Danielle, not only is her dear friend freed, but so are all those destined for America as a punishment. Her earliest words to Henry are a Utopia quote about poverty being a condition created by society, which those who created then punish.

The Prince, his family, and the nation accepts Danielle the former servant as part of the Royals – and the whole court knows as her status is exposed publicly at the ball. A group often excluded and discarded with a negative label – the Gypsies – is invited to the ball, like in the parable.

Ever After has further a biblical echo of the Magnificat – for the humble are lifted high whilst the proud are sent away empty. Religion is mentioned little – apart from the aborted arranged wedding, there is only a Sunday where our protagonists don’t go to church. Our villains do, to ingratiate themselves and flirt with royalty, rather than out of any wish for devotion. Danielle says her faith is best served out of church.

Couched as a rom com, Ever After is really a tale that invites us to make its tenets our Utopia. Its real ending is not “that they lived” but that they could and should, in our time.

 

 

NB This is not to suggest that I support Thomas More or his Utopia but a critique of that here spoils the overall piece

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