Articles

Go Cashless or (don’t) Go Home

Cash NO

Today, the day after they stopped accepting cash on London buses, I find myself chatting with no fewer than ten people who are stranded at my local tube station, unable to get on a bus. Some are angry, some are confused, and those who are locals are loudly taking the mayor’s name in vain. In vain because, despite all protests and suggestions that this might not be the best idea in the UK’s capital city and major tourist hub, Boris & his cohorts have bull-headedly persevered with the first phase in their master plan to removing all human contact from the world’s oldest underground railway.

Which one

Ours is a well maintained station with – shock horror – actual staff, but it is small and parochial. It therefore has only two ticket machines, only one taking filthy dirty money, as well as one or two TFL staff on the desk to assist with queries and open ‘the big gate’ – necessary when you want to take a case, buggy, or otherwise bulky item through. You can also, shockingly, buy tickets from these humans. For the tube. For now. But not for buses, which serve an enormous part of both the visiting and the indigenous population. No no, for buses my friend, you need to plan ahead.

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Granted, some of my befuddled compatriots do not have Oyster cards, which clearly means they are ‘not from round here’, so why on earth would we want to let them onto our travel network? Yeah, so this station may be on the Piccadilly line, which runs through both Heathrow (the busiest airport in the UK) and Kings Cross Station (the 9th busiest train station in the UK), and admittedly that means the one most likely to host non-natives, but if you don’t have a UK bank card then you can forget it mate. Why didn’t you buy the right kind of ticket at Heathrow, eh Johnny foreigner? Ok, so the machine that takes cash here is broken today, but that’s your problem, not Boris’. He couldn’t have forseen this possibility, could he?

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My heart goes out to the genuinely sympathetic, helpful, but ultimately powerless staff member at the tube station who is trying (futility personified) to help people with their onward journey. Never mind the confused visitors to our supposedly great city. Never mind the language barrier or the soggy children in tow. Never mind the woman who, despite being an Oyster-brandishing Londoner, finds herself with minus credit so cannot get any further. What’s that, lady? You’ve got cash? Nope, sorry, your money’s no good round here. The working Oyster top-up machine is card only, so you should have thought about that before trying to go to the job you work at to afford London’s exorbitant travel fares. Coins, you say? Where’s your pay pass card? Whaaaat? You don’t have one? Then you don’t deserve to travel as you clearly aren’t part of the in crowd.

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I have myriad issues with Pay Pass cards already. Firstly, what was the purpose of bringing in chip & pin to tighten security if any person with sticky fingers can now lift my card and spend up to £20 in each of several shops without raising the alarm? No one looks at the cards, so the one I’m tap-tap-tapping could say Mr Boris Johnson on it and no one would be any the wiser. When I was obliged to tap in a busy pub and had the audacity to ask for a receipt the barman looked at me like I was from Mars. “But it’s Pay Pass?” he said, like he was speaking to a small child. “It’s still my money” I pointed out. Reckoned I nailed that response! “Yeah…but it’s Pay Pass” he countered. Ah.

In a café I visited with a friend in Leicester Square recently, a woman ‘caused a scene’ when the (extremely rude) waitress grabbed her card out of her hand and tapped it for her. The customer was perturbed, and asked why she had done that. “Shouldn’t I get to choose if I tap or not?”, she asked, in an entirely reasonable way. The waitress (did I mention she was rude?) eyeballed her and muttered, “Pay Pass”. “Yes, I know” replied the customer, whose temper was beginning to fray, “but I should have the option, shouldn’t I? And least of all I should be asked to check the total – you didn’t ask me to do that, so how do I know you charged me the right amount”. This was greeting by a shrug, a tossing of the card back on to the table, and a flounce off. My fellow customer was so taken aback she was cowed for a moment, so I sidled up to her and said, “I agree, it’s terrible this Pay Pass thing”. The woman looked at me, gratefully, and without warning three other people from neighbouring tables turned round and chimed in, agreeing with us and raising their concerns about its security. The waitress surveyed the mounting dissent with what can only be described as utter distain, poked a colleague, and muttered “you deal with it” before scuttling off to no doubt delight another patron. The gentleman waiter who replaced her was apologetic, soothing, and agreeable – as in, he too agreed. So with such mistrust and dislike for TFL’s new poster child, should our politicians and transport network rethink?

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Well, we had better all get used to it, as part of TfL’s ‘Future Ticketing Programme’ is that the Oyster card platform is due to be replaced by a contactless payment card system by June 2015. What that means for non-UK residents or those without a qualifying bank account is anyone’s guess.

The most prolific bus users are still the elderly, and thankfully they are still entitled to free bus travel, alongside those with qualifying disabilities. It’s a vote-winner, but the Freedom Pass has actually been around since the 70s, despite many attempts by various politicians to take credit for it since. That being the case, in 2012 Boris announced a shiny, new pass succinctly called the “60+ London Oyster photocard”. Now, why would this be necessary if the Freedom Pass already exists? If you are a cynic you might think it is an attempt to claim some already achieved glory – after all it was the Labour-led Greater London Council that introduced the scheme – however, there is more to it. Firstly, the age people qualified at was initially raised during Ken Livingstone’s mayorship, and has continued to rise, being incrementally increased to 65 or 66 by 2020 depending on which website you read. In actuality there is a fundamental difference between the cards: eligibility and, unsurprisingly, cost.

Freedom!

On introduction, Londoners became eligible for the Freedom Pass on their 60th birthday. Initially the pass entitled them to free travel, at all times, on London Underground, London Overground, Bus, Tram, and Docklands Light Railway services in Greater London (also at most times on many rail services in and outside Greater London and on bus routes that fall into the English National Concessionary Bus Travel Scheme). In January 2009 this was altered and the pass is now only valid on weekdays from 9:00. The 60+ card is valid for fewer journeys and incurs a £10 issuing fee – that said it is still far cheaper for those over 60 not yet eligible for ‘Freedom’. Little known fact – with both cards you may take up to four under-11s on the tube, DLR and Overground Services. That’s the grandkids sorted. Unless they’re 11+, in which case you will have to pay – as long as it’s not with cash!

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Without assuming or casting aspersions, one would surely be forgiven for thinking this is the group most likely to be carrying cash, and least likely to have a couple of Pay Pass cards tucked in their wallet. The other eligible group, the disabled, will often being in the same category. What happens then if the people who normally utilise this card lose it, or god-forbid are robbed? What if they stumble upon one of the non-included forms of travel, or happen to go somewhere or return outside the qualifying hours? If they are prepared they may have a Pay as You Go Oyster for such occasions – or be lucky enough to find a working machine that takes cash or one of the endangered species, a staff member, to assist. But only if it’s the tube or train. Not buses – not anymore. No Pay Pass card? Then tough. Walk home, Grandma.

Grandma

 

Let The People Vote!

ImageThere has been a lot of discussion in the press and on social media about the merits of not voting as a protest again our current First Past The Post system. While I agree that FPTP is not a fair way to select our government – there are various forms of Proportional Representation, each of which is far more representative of the actual votes cast – those choosing not to vote in protest may be doing more harm than good.

Firstly, the argument about FPTP applies far less for the European and council elections, which are what we are voting in today, than when it comes to a General Election. When we had an opportunity to change the system 3 years ago the one posited, Alternative Vote (AV), was the least effective of the PR systems available, and little was done to educate the electorate, so that came to nothing and the voter turnout was as woeful as usual (42.2%). At that referendum, only 0.59% of people spoiled their ballot, presumably as they did not think the correct PR system had been put forward. That small percentage at least came out to vote, and still made their voices heard, but the 57.8% that did not go to the polls could have swayed the decision either way or protested on a massive scale if everyone used their vote.

I know it’s old hat to say so, but people fought and died for the right to vote – we should not take it for granted. All over the world there are people, particularly women, who are denied this right. Many people living in poverty under corrupt governments would give their eye-teeth to vote. Or, in faux-elections under dictators, to have legitimate options. Even in the UK, some people are unable to truly use their vote because they live in Uncontested Wards (what used to be called ‘Rotten Boroughs’), meaning the election is decided before it runs as no one has any choice in who will represent them. You can read Darren Hughes article on this here. Only FPTP allows this to happen, so wanting to protest our current voting system is entirely valid and understandable, but I think there are better ways to go about it.

In my opinion, not voting to effect change is a dangerous gamble as it only means fewer people are deciding who governs us and your voice is not heard. FPTP is not a fair system, but by not voting we run a great risk of increased representation of right wing parties at the moment. Most people protesting our current system are left wing, and for me the chance of parties like UKIP and the BNP gaining seats is, for me, not worth gambling on. I have cast my vote(s) today, and am proud to have done so. I continue to support the campaigns for a fairer UK voting system and hope we will achieve it – to me the Single Transferable Vote (STV) is the best, fairest system, but there are lots to choose from, all more representative than FPTP and AV. I would encourage anyone who is dissatisfied with the current system to check out The Electoral Reform Society website – they set all the different voting system options in a very easy to understand way and are linked to a number of campaigns who are hoping to change it.

Finally, If you still feel like not voting is the best way to have your voice heard and you want your protest to mean something, make the effort to go to the polls and spoil your ballot – this at least is an active protest rather than passively not attending, and will register a level of disaffection rather than looking like voter apathy.

 

Stalking – how far is too far?

Posted on March 13, 2014

As most people who know me personally can attest, I appear to be somewhat of a magnet for stalkers. In my relatively short life I have had a range of unwanted attention: this does not make me unusual, most of my female friends (and a large percentage of the men) have experienced someone who is persistent beyond the point of flattery. The question is, where is that line? When does ‘pursuing’ someone you like and are perhaps romantically interested in cross the proverbial line, and who decides where that line is?

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It is a difficult question. If someone were to physically assault you, or to openly advance on you in a way you found threatening, that would seem clear cut (and awful). However it is in the realm of persistent but non-physical harassment that it all gets a bit murky.

If someone repeatedly asks you out, even when you continually say no, is that harassment? It is unwanted attention, and it can be uncomfortable, but does it cross the line? If someone emails you a few times, repeatedly asks friends and colleagues about you, is that stalking?

For me, the key word has been ‘repeatedly’. It is this persistence, this inability to hear the word “no” and accept it that makes these unwanted advances in to something more oppressive.

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In my time I have had the phone stalker (repeated unwanted calls) who used to trouble my poor mother in the days before mobile phones, and who sometimes turned up outside my school. I was sixteen and had met him in a nightclub but then decided he wasn’t for me and started dating someone else. Luckily that was short lived, and young as I was it didn’t really strike me as more than a guy who really fancied me trying his luck. However, when I banged into him years later he approached me again to apologise and tell me he had been in a bad place back then. I was somewhat impressed by the apology, but less so with the fact he then asked if he could maybe have my number…

When I was eighteen I worked in a pub and was advanced on by a guy 20 years older than me who also worked there weekly playing guitar. It turned rather nasty and he tried to smash the windows of the pub after he was rebuffed. Unbeknownst to me he had already managed to get my (landline – still no mobiles!) number from a friend under false pretenses, so after that called me at the home I shared with my then boyfriend. Going to work was frightening in case he turned up, I stopped answering the phone at home, and left working the pub soon after.

Then there was the stalker-ex. A break up was followed by 3 months of silence followed by 3 months of persistent calls, emails, and the odd threat to turn up at my house. This was irritating rather than frightening, but I still dreaded opening my inbox in case I had another email from him as I couldn’t help but read them. After a distressing one where he said he had made an attempt on his life I deleted and blocked his email and thankfully have heard nothing since.

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Finally, there has been the stalker-colleague. For the last 3 years I have been subjected to persistent and extremely unwanted attention from a man I work with in the form of emails, face-to-face contact, unwanted gifts and cards, and on one occasion him turning up at a theatre I was working at. I had a fantastically supportive boss throughout which enabled me to deal with it in the way I chose, which rightly or wrongly was informally. I truly felt, knowing this individual, that the obsession would abate if someone in authority set him straight, and after intervention by my manager and his things improved. Although I had nightmares about him, and dreaded going in to work for a time, I felt empowered by the fact I was dealing with the situation on my terms. Things improved significantly over the last year, however recently he has made another attempt to make contact with me entirely outside of the shared work environment and I have now had to deal with it another, more official way.

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Things that made these incidents more or less tolerable were, without doubt, being believed and supported. My pub manager did not want to bar the man who posed me such a threat (until he tried to damage property), and ultimately I left that place of work. My recent troubles were made manageable by my understanding boss – but more difficult by colleagues who did not see the seriousness of the situation and often found it rather funny. Cries of “hey, here comes your boyfriend!” as the man who was harassing me approached my work station did nothing to diminish the problem, but did a lot to reduce my feeling that I was right to be distressed. I’m sad to say it was generally a male/female divide: the guys told me not to worry, this guy wouldn’t hurt me; the girls recounted their own experiences of stalking and/or harassment.

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It wasn’t until November 2012 that the law was changed in England and Wales to make stalking a specific offence for the first time. Scotland was a little ahead of the game, criminalising Stalking in April 2010. Baffling, but bear in mind spousal rape didn’t officially become a crime until 1991 (1982 in Scotland)…

That aside, better late than never, and I can say from first hand experience the Police do take stalking seriously, and more importantly now have the legal infrastructure behind them to do something about it. Please don’t feel you won’t be believed – you will be. Report it. If not to the Police, confide in someone you trust, and keep a diary of events, however innocuous they may seem. Once I put 3 years worth of ‘little things’ and ‘minor incidents’ on paper it not only filled three full A4 pages (small font!) but it became clear to me that this was not just an irritation, not just something bothersome that felt a bit uncomfortable: I was being stalked. I had always assumed, and still feel, I was not in physical danger so never felt it was appropriate to report it as I felt I was perhaps being a little dramatic – a classic ‘hysterical woman’. This could not be further from the truth – what I have tolerated is more than anyone should ever have to endure from someone that supposedly ‘loves’ or ‘cares’ for you, and ultimately we never know what someone else is capable of, particularly if they are already deluded as to their relationship with you.

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Of course, in the grand scheme of things I feel lucky – this has encroached on my life and thoughts for the last 3 years, however I have never felt that I am at risk of physical violence and thankfully this man has never had my home address or phone number. My heart goes out to women and men who have been stalked in a far more aggressive manner than I have, because if what happened to me felt that overwhelming at times I hate to imagine if it were also literally following you home.

Websites such as 192.com make it easier and easier for stalkers to find your personal information. It is just one of many websites that provide personal information, usually for a fee. They get their information from the Electoral Roll, Telephone Directories and Companies House and offer it for sale unless you opt out of their service (one you never asked for and likely don’t know you are on). Fortunately for me I realised this a few years ago and had my details removed – something I am hugely grateful for as otherwise I might well have had first-hand experience of the home stalker. I would personally recommend to everyone that they request their details be removed from the site, and also that you remember to check the ‘opt out’ box on your Electoral Roll Form as otherwise they have the right to sell your information to websites and companies such as 192.com.

192.com Opt Out Form

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Another concern is social media: Facebook has improved but you still have to be careful about your privacy settings and letting ‘friends of friends’ have access to your page. Twitter is more difficult as it is essentially public domain so you have no control over who sees your posts. If in doubt, go for the highest privacy setting or disable your account and report it if you feel you are being targeted through the site. People joke about ‘Facebook stalking’ someone, but the reality for a lot of people who have experienced it is far from humorous.

Ultimately, you decide how far is too far. Any behaviour that makes you fearful or anxious, that encroaches on your life or makes you uncomfortable should be challenged – not necessarily directly as that can potentially escalate the situation, but perhaps through a trusted third party, manager, or the police. If someone knows where you live, please please call the police, even if you know the person and think they pose you no threat. Everyone deserves to feel safe at work and at home, and that includes you. You did not cause or encourage this behaviour, so don’t let self-blaming put your safety at risk.

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I have included several links to UK websites on this post (click on the images), but if you are from another country the same services are hopefully available. The 24th April 2014 is National Stalking Awareness Day in the UK, and if you or someone you know is being subjected to this treatment please do contact one of the helplines or charities to get some support and advice.

Obviously, if my stalker is reading this: you know who you are. Stop. Imagine someone was doing this to your mother. Stop.

National Stalking Helpline

The Great Child Debate

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It is an absolute fact in lady-land that at some point you will start to be asked when you are having children, or why you haven’t had them yet.

The amazing thing about the Great Child Debate is that these questions do not necessarily come from your family – or, as most would have you believe, your mother. Often these intrusive, personal questions come from colleagues, acquaintances, or comparative strangers – and almost exclusively from other women. Would one approach an unknown male and ask if he has started having regular prostate checks? And if not, why not? Surely because that would be none of your damn business – and quite frankly, neither are other people’s reproductive resolutions.

Inevitably, this is a hot topic amongst we ladies (and gents) of the thirty-something age bracket. Of course we discuss it with each other – in the same way we discuss mortgages and whether or not we can still manage two nights out on the trot – but we are doing so with friends who know us fully as people and our individual circumstances. This does not mean the conversation is up for general discussion with any other human who has a pair of ovaries and has already successfully reproduced.

Upon reaching the grand old age of thirty, a colleague of mine innocently asked me when I was going to think about adoption as I’m “knocking on a bit” and didn’t at that time have a “steady man”. I was gobsmacked. Firstly, I am not personally at a stage where I am financially or emotionally ready for children – and as I sit sipping a drink in my peaceful flat listening to the neighbour’s child making exorcist-type noises I am quietly grateful that I am beholden to no one other than my slightly pushy cats. That’s me. That’s my personal circumstance. Now, three years later, another colleague is pregnant – for whom I am delighted – and a well meaning assortment of randoms daily tell me “It’ll be you next!” or ask “Don’t you want kids?”. I always have a two word answer very close to my lips.

On the flip side, many people I know are keen to have children (or more children) but for various reasons can’t, or haven’t yet. Some cannot afford to have another child in the current climate, so want is not the issue. One of my friends learned some time ago that she simply cannot conceive due to a medical condition. How excruciating in that circumstance to repeatedly be asked that question? She is, however, extremely direct and tells people why – which is definitely not what they expect or are comfortable hearing. Well you asked!

Of course, some people do like to share. People like to announce that they are ‘trying’. What they perhaps do not think of when declaring this intent are the soul-crushing questions they will hear over and over until either they produce offspring or start to receive the sympathetic stares.

Each to their own of course, but I honestly cannot understand why people feel compelled to ask. If you are close enough, the person in question will tell you. If not, it is probably a good time for you to start minding your own business.

The F Word

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Feminism.  Is this still a dirty word in the modern age?  Many women (and men) I know who hold the tenets of the women’s rights movement dear are still uncomfortable being saddled with the title of ‘Feminist’, laden as the term is, with many still ascribing it to angry women who just don’t like men.

This of course could not be further from the truth: women who fall under the banner are variously in relationships with men, are mothers to sons, and have fathers and brothers they love. It is not about ‘us versus them’, it is about rights, and equal and fair treatment regardless of gender, creed, colour, race, religion or sexuality is one we should all have without having to ask.  The definition of Feminism, in fact, is “an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women”.

Unfortunately, although we have come a very long way, there is further to go.  Women are still under represented in almost all professions, and even in occupations where we have a long history of representation there is still a dearth of women at the top.  This holds true in all levels of Government including – as reported in The Guardian – The House of Commons:

“The House of Commons has 650 MPs. Of these 650, there are 504 male MPs, so women are seriously underrepresented.”

There are many who would draw a parallel between the rights of women in the Western world and that of their counterparts in other countries.  You need only look at the case of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teen activist who was recently shot in the head for daring to demand that she be allowed an education, to see where the difference lies.  However, equality is not a contest, and just because other women face tougher challenges that does not mean we should accept being treated as a minority in a country where women make up 51% of the population.  Rather we should be blazing a trail for these women, and supporting them in their struggles while still challenging inequality wherever we find it.  Also, we in the West are not as enlightened as we think. Only this week I read two articles that concerned women’s rights issues, and both gave me pause.

Firstly I read Rebecca Watson‘s excellent article “It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too” in The Slate.  When she opted to speak publicly about Feminism and her first-hand experience of sexism in her professional field she was treated to a hate campaign that would have sent many into a hole never to return.  One suspects this was the intention.

My YouTube page and many of my videos were flooded with rape “jokes,” threats, objectifying insults, and slurs. A few individuals sent me hundreds of messages, promising to never leave me alone. My Wikipedia page was vandalized. Graphic photos of dead bodies were posted to my Facebook page. Twitter accounts were made in my name and used to tweet horrible things to celebrities and my friends.

What was particularly disturbing about her article was how brazen her critics were and are, not even thinking to anonymise threats and attacks.  This in itself shows that the problem is endemic, and the fact that women are being ostracised for daring to speak out about such treatment frankly beggars belief.

The second article was in The Guardian, written by Jill Filipovic and with the stand-out title “The real Republican rape platform“.  This was nothing short of terrifying as it showcased some incredibly disturbing comments made by both men and women in the Republican Party ahead of the US elections.  Whatever your views on abortion, most will find it shocking.  Being that I am pro-choice, I was gobsmacked.  Let us begin with Richard Mourdock:

“I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Familiar as I am with the pervasiveness of right-wing Christianity in American politics, some of the quotes in Filipovic’s article made me check the date on the article.  Was this written in the 1950s?  Nope, definitely 2012.  Despite senior Republicans disowning these remarks, Indiana senatorial candidate Mourdock has as yet refused to retract them – though he did make an ‘apology’ of sorts (no doubt with an arm twisted up his back) for “any interpretation other than what I intended”.  I consoled myself with the fact that this opinion was coming from a man, someone for whom women’s rights are not important, and also with the fact that even Romney and his ilk wanted to distance themselves from his views.  Surely he is a lone voice?  Sadly no.  Cue a quote from the Tea Party’s Sharron Angle, a female Republican senate candidate who believes abortion should be outlawed, even in the case of rape and/or incest:

“she insisted that a young girl raped by her father should know that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Much good can come from a horrific situation like that, Angle added. Lemons can be made into lemonade.”

Much good can come from a horrific situation like that.  That is her true belief.  Understandably this statement has made a lot of people very angry. Add these comments to those of “legitimate rape” exponent Todd Akin, Roger Rivard who tells us “Some girls rape easy“, and those of Douglas Henry who believes that “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was” and you begin to feel that the whole world has disappeared through some kind of time portal to the dark ages, where women were chattel and had no say over their body or choices.  How much more enlightened then is our Western world compared to that of our Middle-Eastern sisters?

Thankfully, in this dialogue almost entirely dominated by men (according to 4th Estate 81% of people quoted about abortion in election news stories between November 2011 and May 2012 were male) some opposition voices have come to the fore.  President Obama, when asked by Jay Leno for his thoughts on the ‘rape debate’, replied:

“Rape is rape – it is a crime – and so these various distinctions about rape don’t make too much sense to me, don’t make any sense to me. The second thing this underscores though is this exactly why you don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s healthcare”

Lena Dunham and Tina Fey have also spoken strongly on the issue, with the former recording a video endorsement for Obama and the latter speaking at the center for reproductive rights:

“if I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a $2 haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m going to lose my mind.”

Lesley Gore has re-recorded her 1964 hit “You Don’t Own Me” to encourage women to get out and vote at the US elections on 6th November.  It shows a variety of women singing along followed by some shocking facts about Republican plans to remove funding from Planned Parenthood, shut down all family planning services and repeal affordable care – all actions that would primarily impact women.  This attempt to remove any prospect of choice, along with the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies, is a workaround as the Republicans know they can’t just outlaw abortion overnight.  That’s right, the Pro Life lobby are so Pro Life that they don’t even want you to have safe sex!  Aren’t we overpopulated enough as it is?! They even want women to have to disclose to their employer their reasons for being on birth control, an idea which if it ever became law (perish the thought) would surely discourage women from taking precautions.  Will these measures prevent unmarried couples having sex?  Hell no, but at least they will suffer the STIs, unwanted pregnancies and stigma that they clearly deserve…

On an election theme, CNN also published an article (and quickly retracted it) stating that women who are ovulating are more likely to vote Liberal as they will be feeling ‘sexier’.  Yes that’s right, rather than staying home and having all that sinful sex you are still able to safely have (and if the Republicans win you’d better make the most of it), the hot-to-trot ladies will be off to the polls to cast a lustful vote for the incumbent President.  The article, referred to as “craptastically craptastic” on the Daily Kos, is utterly ridiculous – however I do urge you to read it as it really does beggar belief.  It does, however, attempt some balance by asking the opinion of Susan Carroll (professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University) who, unsurprisingly, is not convinced:

“There is absolutely no reason to expect that women’s hormones affect how they vote any more than there is a reason to suggest that variations in testosterone levels are responsible for variations in the debate performances of Obama and Romney”

Carroll sees the research as following in the tradition of :

“the long and troubling history of using women’s hormones as an excuse to exclude them from politics and other societal opportunities…It was long thought that a woman shouldn’t be president of the U.S. because, God forbid, an international crisis might happen during her period!”

So, in a nutshell, if you think that Feminism has no real relevance for those of us in the First World, I beg you to reconsider.  The articles I have cited are but a few of those I read or consulted whilst writing this post, and the sheer volume of polarising pap in the run up to the US elections should give anyone, regardless of their political persuasion, pause for thought.  The attitudes and opinions expressed certainly bring a few F words to mind, but surprisingly Feminism is not top of the list.

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Since posting this I have come across an ‘Ad’ from Todd Akin where a rape survivor endorses him.  You can watch it here.  Presumably as she got pregnant she was not “legitimately raped”…

The Recoil Factor

Posted on 23rd September 2012

Several of my friends and colleagues have suffered in recent years from a phenomenon that, in my head, I have begun calling “The Recoil Factor”.  This is essentially a negative reaction that those close to the sufferer have after the person goes through a trauma, illness (mental or physical), bereavement or major life change.  This reaction is baffling to those who do not experience it, and unfortunately means that a friend or loved one in great need of help and support suddenly finds those around them backing away, disappearing, and generally running for the hills.  This can often contribute to feelings of isolation, depression, and a low sense of self worth.

Recently the victim of a sexual assault, one of my friends has bravely chosen to tell others about her ordeal so as to hopefully catch the perpetrator, and also so that others can avoid being in a similar situation in the future.  The after-effects of the attack have been traumatic and life-changing, and she is currently suffers from anxiety, panic attacks.  In the short period since the terrifying experience she endured she has been avoided, told to “get over it”, been given the distinct feeling of not being believed, and also due to a period of sickness from work to recover now feels her job may be in jeopardy.  ‘This must be an isolated case’ you cry!  No, sadly this is often the norm, and there are people all over the UK (not to mention the world) who are experiencing the same feelings of rejection and disappointment just when they are at their lowest ebb.

I can cite numerous examples of this.  Friends with eating disorders who are “hard to be around”, victims of psychological and physical abuse who “should’ve just left”, an ex-colleague who survived cancer only to find half her ‘mates’ seemed to have lost her phone number, and a friend whose sibling was murdered who apparently was “just no fun anymore”.  So what is it about tragedy that makes people so damned unappealing?  When we have a relationship with someone, romantic or otherwise, is it not understood that this is for both good times and bad? Often it seems to be a case of when the going gets tough the tough are on their own and the rest get going.

Of course, not everyone does this.  Conversely in the face of disaster there are those who step up, often those the victim of the personal tragedy would least expect to come to their aid.  Perhaps it is the friend who always seemed a little self-centred before, or a colleague who goes the extra mile, or even a stranger on a train.  Sometimes, just when it seems darkest, someone completely surprises you by giving you just what you need at just the right time.  These people will ultimately be the real friends that you treasure for life, while those that recoil are consigned to the friendship bin of history.

Ultimately, your friendships and relationships are a reflection of who you are as a person.  If you find yourself thinking, “that’s terrible, I don’t know what to say” then say nothing – listen instead.  If the situation is difficult for you – perhaps it relates back to a bad experience of your own – then be honest and say so, don’t just switch off your phone or sidestep a person who needs you.  Just remember, if you were in the same boat you’d wish there was someone around to help you keep your head above water.

Let My People Vote 2012

Posted on 22nd September 2012

As election fever hots up in the US of A the Republican attempt at vote manipulation has begun in earnest. 

For those of us this side of the pond, American politics may not seem to be of that much importance or interest to we Brits, dealing as we are with our own financial pressures and revelations of serious corruption in the wake of the independant Hillsborough report.  For those who have any interest whatsoever in freedom or fairness, however, it does and should concern you.  At this very moment a concerted effort is being made to deny basic voting rights to scores of American citizens, primarily because they fall into the groups most likely to vote Democrat.  This insidious push to topple Obama by unscrupulous means has been well documented, however still has the power to shock and awe.

 Five short days ago, on 17th Sept, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was caught on camera branding almost half of Americans as ‘victims’ and intimating that he does not care about those people.  The video can be found at: http://www.motherjones.com.  The gaffe, which he has thus far poorly defended, is taken from a recent address he made to Republican donors, where he is heard describing almost half of Americans as “people who pay no income tax” and are “dependent upon government.”

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…My job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney has not apologised for these comments, although he has conceded they were not elegantly stated, but the worrying element is not purely that this man could potentially be the next leader of the ‘free world’.  What is of greater concern are the tactics that have been employed in order to ensure that these “victims”, who by his own admission he cares not a jot for, are being blocked from their inalienable right to vote by introducing a new voter ID system that is intended to prevent them.

In a surprisingly guileless admission in June of this year, Mike Turzai (the Pennsylvania state House Republican leader) stated:

“Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation – abortion facility regulations – in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” 

Feel free to draw your own conclusions by watching the video of said statement here, although in all honesty the intention is not really in dispute.

Essentially the new voter ID rules mean that those who do not have a driving license or, hilariously, a firearms license, are all but exempt from voting.  This is allegedly to prevent voter fraud, but the real fraud is in the targeting of this policy as it disenfranchises the core Democrat voters – namely people who are poor, elderly, young, disabled, and/or non-white.  Sarah Silverman, who was the spokeswoman for the Jewish Council for Education and Research’s ‘The Great Schlep‘ at the last election has again starred in an entertaining and educational short film detailing the underhand tactics of this latest attempt at winning by obstruction rather than via support – watch it here.  Unfortunately there is little anyone can do about this new system as it is now in place and will be the one used for the November elections, however what the citizens of America certainly can do is ensure they have secured the right ID to make sure their vote will count, and with any luck block the election of Romney and his undemocratic party once more.

The following is taken from the website www.letmypeoplevote2012.com:5 things you should know about voter id laws

  1. These are not bipartisan efforts. They are initiated by Republicans, passed by Republicans, and signed into law by Republicans. The State House Majority Leader in PA asserted that these voter restrictions would allow Mitt Romney to win the state.

  2. The voters most likely to be burdened by these new voting restrictions are Democrats. Consider which voters don’t have ID. Among seniors and young voters, 18% don’t have valid ID. Among African Americans, 25% don’t have valid ID.

  3. Restrictions on voting, like poll taxes and “literacy” tests, have a long history. They are used by one party to prevent supporters of another party from voting.

  4. If someone were trying to steal an election, in person voter fraud, where a voter pretends to be someone they are not at the polls, is the last method anyone would chose. Absentee ballot stuffing is much easier. But more Republicans vote by absentee ballot. So no new restrictions on absentee voting.

  5. The Brennan Center has estimated that as many as 3.2 million citizens could find it harder to vote because of new voter ID laws.

Save Our Hospitals

ImageTaken from the Ealing Gazette

Ealing Hospital is a pretty busy place on an average day, but today’s demonstration of a community’s united outrage was anything but average. 

Having massed from 10am in Southall Park, two thousand people marched East along the Uxbridge Road today to protest against further proposed NHS cuts, including A&E closures at Ealing, Central Middlesex, Charing Cross and Hammersmith. Meeting a further horde who had gathered at Acton Park and taken the same road West, the full contingent then joined together for a huge rally at Ealing Common where there were speeches from MPs, community leaders, and live music to round off the proceedings.

These are not a few disgruntled Labour supporters who simply abhor change, this is an entire community comprised of all different ages, races, faiths and backgrounds standing shoulder to shoulder to tell the Con-Dem(n) government that they have gone, and are continuing to go, too far.  Feet from where I was, Ealing Gazette reporter Rupert Basham tweeted that there was a “strong sense the community is all in this together, and that these closures are a matter of life death”.  I agree wholeheartedly, but standing outside Ealing Hospital with my colleagues and neighbours today – on my 30 min break from my NHS day job on the very same site – I was given pause, moved by the camaraderie and commonality of purpose but equally saddened that mutual anger and outrage are the ties that bind us.

 Image

Unfortunately I had to return to work, but the crowd – which included babes in arms and pensioners on mobility scooters – carried on marching, shouting and waving their banners a further three miles to Ealing Common.  Once there they were addressed by the leaders of Ealing’s three main political parties, Julian Bell (Labour), David Millican (Conservative) and Gary Malcolm (Lib Dem).  There were also speeches from GMB President Mary Turner, Ealing MPs Steve Pound and Angie Bray, Shirley Franklin from ‘Save Whittington Hospital’, and Dr Onkar Sahota (Ealing’s representative on the Greater London Authority).

Image

Taken from Ealing Gazette

The fact of the matter is that, despite it’s ever-increasing cost, the NHS is the jewel of Britain.  Forget the Royals and forget the Olympics, if you ask someone from another country what the best thing about the UK is they will tell you (often at length) that it is our health service, which still just about holds on to its original aims of providing universal healthcare that is free at the point of use.  They see what we cannot, that once lost the NHS will never ever be rebuilt – certainly not if the Conservative party have anything to say about it.  Yes, it’s expensive, but what would be the social cost of it disappearing into the ether?  Those that have least will suffer most – as seems to be the case with every new policy under our incumbent government – and it will impact most severely on the elderly, who in a wonderful sense of irony have contributed most in the way of taxation in their lifetimes.  Do we really want an American system where the first question on arriving at Hospital is not “how are you feeling” but “who is your insurer”?  I think not, and judging by today’s display of solidarity I am not the only one.

Almost six years of working for the NHS has made me realise that, although it is not perfect, it is full of people who are doing their absolute best to help the wider community.  Money, or lack thereof, is the primary reason for all the health service’s problems and deeper and deeper cuts are overtaxing staff and short-changing the taxpayer.

In the mental health sector, where I work, chronic understaffing and the removal of ‘non-essential’ staff (whether they are essential or not depends whether you are talking to the patients or politicians) is hitting us hard.  In an environment where staffing costs are 75% of our total budget, colleagues, service users and the wider public are feeling the impact of the financial squeeze.  Therapy groups, essential to rehabilitation, are cut down to the bare minimum with rumours of more to go.  Staff have less time to spend with their patients as they are so overstretched, and when someone is very unwell this can result in assaults and injuries to both staff and patients.  This unfortunately is always a possibility given the nature of the place we work, but the situation is exacerbated with every fresh slice into the budget – how can we care for people with both hands tied behind our backs?

But don’t worry – if you get assaulted you can go to A&E…for now.

Reviewers on the Rocks –

Is theatre reviewing a thankless task?

Posted on 11th Sept 2012

Having read with interest Amy Taylor’s well-written and extremely even handed article on www.thetaylortrash.com this evening I began thinking of the many unpleasant exchanges I have had with individuals and companies in response to pieces I have written since I began reviewing in 2006.

What many people do not realise is that the vast majority of critics do not get paid for their work, regardless of whether they are publishing their reviews on or off line.  Of course there are free tickets to the productions, and occasionally a nice press function, but by and large critics are people who love theatre – or their chosen genre(s) – and give up their free time to see and write about it.  In most cases critics will see the production and then rush home to write the review in time for their deadline, which is more often than not the next day.  If you are also working at another job, as most freelancers are, this can mean you are under a great deal of pressure, particularly during a period as jam-packed and frenetic as the Edinburgh Festival.  I personally reviewed 54 individual productions at Edinburgh this year, and saw a further 15+ of my own volition, and trust me – we want them to be good.  I find a 60 minute show translates to approximately an hour of writing about it, and when you are seeing 8 shows a day a terrible show can be soul destroying, particularly as you have given up the opportunity to see another production in order to attend.

As a performer I have been in productions that have received reviews ranging from 2 to 5 stars (so far I’ve avoided the painful 1 star…) and negative press is a hard pill to swallow.  That said, if you invite someone to review it you are presumably confident that it is good, and understand that in asking for someone’s opinion on your work you might be unpleasantly surprised.  By all means be annoyed, particularly if you feel the piece has inaccuracies, but if that is the case contact the publication to ask for a correction or, quite frankly, suck it up.  Shows I’ve been in have been given less than sterling reviews by publications I write for!  If that doesn’t show a lack of bias I don’t know what does.  I have personally reviewed shows where I have known one or more of the actors, or the writer, the director, or sometimes all of the above.  I do not do this intentionally, however if you write and perform it is always a possibility, and those are the times when your professionalism is really tested.

As a general rule I always try to find a positive note, even in the direst of plays, but sometimes a show truly has no redeeming feature.  Those are the 0 star shows, and I have yet to give one out (although one show at Edinburgh this year came close).  If I can find a glimmer of hope or positivity it will be 1 star, and on two notable occasions – both solo shows – those reviews have provoked the unbridled ire of the companies who received them, along with allegations of unprofessionalism, “targeting” the performer, and public defamation.  One of these experiences was in my second year of writing for Fringe stalwarts ThreeWeeks, while the other came two years ago while reviewing for The Public Reviews.  Even though you, and those who know you and your work, are certain that the review you have written is one based on your honest response to a production you have experienced – and one that your readers will pay for if they see it (often at great expense) – it is still hard not to question yourself and take verbal and written attacks personally.

Like Amy I will not name the companies in question, but suffice it to say that both experiences were extremely unpleasant.  The first individual, rather than contacting the publication or my editor to raise concerns, stalked me over the internet in order to get my personal email address to which they sent abusive missives suggesting my mission in life is to destroy the work of others.  I did not respond, but forwarded it to my editor who replied on my behalf.  I heard nothing further, but a couple of years later was reviewing a production and realised that this person was in the cast.  As it transpired I knew the writer of the play I raised this as a concern and asked if they would prefer someone else review the show.  I was told this was not necessary and duly attended the show in which the lady in question was very good, however on hearing my name she apparently hyperventilated and begged that I not use her name in my review, regardless of context.  Although I thought this was unfortunate – given that I would have otherwise positively name checked her – I acquiesced and instead referred to a “strong supporting cast”.  I hold no grudge against this person, but clearly she is still reeling from a review published more than four years ago and is unable to understand that it was a professional critique, not a personal attack, which is sad for a myriad of reasons.

The second incident was rather more dramatic, with my poor, long-suffering editor being inundated with emails and web posts from ardent supporters of the actor they felt I had maligned in my review.  Fortunately for me I was not privy to all of these, and TPR has my eternal thanks for that, as I gather some were fairly unpleasant.  The upshot, however, was that my editor received many calls for my review to be removed and for me to be banned for writing for the publication.  Again it was suggested that this was “personal”, despite a positive 3 star review of another of the actor’s solo shows – written by me and published on the same site – was still in evidence on the site and ad received a grand total of zero complaints since it’s publication.  In a bizarre twist, the actor in question latterly met my editor in the street and claimed he had nothing to do with the behaviour of his fans and said my review was helpful in improving his show, inviting me to see it in its new incarnation and offer my thoughts on whether or not it had improved. Finally a professional, no? No, because that same person told a colleague and friend of mine, only weeks later, that I am “evil”, “the devil”, that I clearly have it in for him and told her that my editor had banned me from reviewing him and would instead see all of his shows personally in the future. True? Not one word.  Luckily the person he approached is a good friend, and someone who is often my plus one and knows my work, however I know he continues to hold a grudge and to blacken my name at every opportunity.

As a performer myself I do often wish I had begun writing under a pseudonym because of these incidents, but I didn’t and refuse to change now so far into my career.  I hope that my writing continues to reflect my passion for and love of theatre, and that the reviews and features I write retain their positivity and impartiality as that is what companies and their productions deserve.  I begin every show at 3 stars and work my way up or down from there, and always challenge myself over negative reviews to ensure I am being fair.

It is worth mentioning that these experiences are extremely rare, and that from the hundreds of reviews I have written over the years I have had far more thank you’s than screw you’s!  I continue to enjoy watching and writing about theatre, along with a variety of other genres, and envision myself always doing so.  If I stop enjoying it, or worse stop caring about it, then that will be the time to retire my paper and pen and go back to passive viewing.

Same-sex Marriage: The Last Taboo?

Posted on 29 Jul 2012

“We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal and that is why we intend to proceed with plans to allow same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships. We believe that this is the right thing to do.”

Nicola Sturgeon

Four days ago the SNP announced plans to allow same-sex marriage in Scotland following a consultation which garnered a record 77,508 responses.  Unsurprisingly the proposal is being staunchly opposed by the Catholic Church and Church of Scotland, who seem to believe the fabric of society will unravel if the bill goes forward; however the majority of the Scottish people seem to be in favour as long as the government allows religious institutions to opt out of performing ceremonies if they feel it is contradictory to their beliefs.  With British society becoming increasingly secular and same-sex civil partnerships already permitted throughout the UK, is the decision to allow marriages in addition to what is already available not simply removing the specifying of gender from the legislative vernacular?

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, recently referred to same-sex marriage as a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right’.  This kind of inflammatory language, coupled with bizarre comments from Archbishop-elect Philip Tartaglia insinuating that the tragic death of MP David Cairns was somehow as a result of his sexuality or lifestyle (rather than complications of acute pancreatitis as cited by medical professionals), has certainly lent credence to gay rights campaigners assertion that this is just another attempt at ostracise and vilify LGBT people rather than a genuine debate about the proposed bill.  Cairns’ partner, Dermot Kehoe, called the Archbishop of Glasgow homophobic and prejudiced after the comments, which Tartaglia is yet to show contrition for.

“It is not homophobic to say you don’t agree with gay marriage. It isn’t homophobic to think it is unchristian.  But what is homophobic is to make generalised views based on their sexuality…  It’s generalising on the basis of ignorance. It’s taking something you know nothing about and saying it’s because he’s gay, that’s the definition of prejudice.”

Dermot Kehoe

The concept of marriage predates reliable records, however it has always been based on the contractual rather than the religious.  In Jewish custom, the Ketubah (a contract akin to a prenuptial agreement) is signed at the time of the marriage and is essentially a written agreement setting out the terms for the relationship. The marriage ceremony, therefore, is meant to be a public demonstration of a couple’s commitment to this agreement, and it is this legal document rather than the ceremony that constitutes the marriage.  The same type of contact also exists in Islam and is known as Katb el-Kitab or Nikah-Nama. The blend of the secular and religious is purely a choice: twice as many heterosexual couples opt for a non-religious registry office wedding or humanist ceremony as are married in a church, therefore it seems the question of same sex marriage should not be debated primarily by religious institutions.

“It seems like it is the last vestige of an older morality.”

John Haldane

The fact is that civil partnerships have gone along way towards allowing LGBT people to have their relationships legally recognised and to affording them most of the same rights as heterosexual couples.  Many of the critics in the marriage debate are simply asking, isn’t that enough?  For many it is, and understandably given most religious institutions’ views on gay lifestyles a church wedding is not high on everyone’s agenda.  That said, it should surely be a choice left down to the individual couple, and one that should be theirs to make.  With gay ministers now being ‘accepted’ in the church (provided they declared their sexuality and were ordained before 2009) it does not seem too great a leap to assume that there will also be parishioners who are gay and would like to be able to be married in their church.

The SNP have made clear their intentions stating that “no religious body will be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages”, also adding that although protection for religious bodies not choosing to conduct such ceremonies already exists under the UK Equality Act they will also amend the law to give further protection.  With this in place and no one being forced to participate in ceremonies they cannot reconcile with their religion, the refusal to allow two people (who love each other but happen to be the same gender) to have the same rights as a straight couple smacks of nothing more than bigotry cloaked in faith.  If the church survived the coming-out of the clergy it is unlikely that this latest step towards genuine equality will cause it to crumble, but if it does then surely it is not truly an institution built on love as it professes to be.

“I believe that love shared and celebrated in society between two people of the same sex should make no-one afraid and can only enrich communities.”

Rev. Scott Rennie

4GoesMad

Posted on 23 Jul 2012

A great deal of discussion on Twitter this evening during Channel 4′s launch of the ’4GoesMad’ season, starting with Ruby Wax’s ‘Mad Confessions’.

Aimed at raising awareness in order to end mental health stigma, it can only be a positive thing that 4 are running this series of programmes about this topic – although the choice of title does little to achieve their aims.  Although humanising sufferers will go a long way towards demystifying a very complex area – mental health sufferers and their respective needs are incredibly diverse – there needs to be some focus on where the services are coming from and how they are funded.  The current spate of old-school Tory cuts have decimated many parts of the NHS, and mental health services have been hit hard.  Demanding that trusts save hundreds of thousands of pounds in a sector that spends 75% of its budget on staffing is the main problem here, not identifying need which sadly is all too apparent.  Providing therapies that are desperately needed, particularly in secure services where staffing levels are always going to have to be higher, is becoming more and more difficult as staff struggle to cover patients’ basic needs let alone providing staff to escort inpatients to therapy groups and activities/appointments outside of the units which are vital to allow reintegration into the outside world.

As usual arts therapies have gone first (in a pinch anything arts-based is first against the wall) and various consultations are underway in Trusts across the country, desperately looking for things to cut (Psychology and Occupational Therapy posts are currently in jeopardy).  When the primary focus is financial by necessity, as the alternative is having Trusts broken up and patients sent further afield to have treatment, it is no great surprise that many of those Tweeting about the subject of mental health this evening were complaining about lack of access to outpatient services and treatments like CBT and Talking Therapies which have exponentially increasing waiting lists.  Fantastic charities such as Mind are having their funding slashed, alongside Rape Crisis and various shelters who often provide pathways to services.  By their own admission many GPs are ill-equipped to deal with mental health problems, and as a result are very likely to oversubscribe anti-depressants and anxiety pills rather than referring sufferers to counselling and therapies that might be able to help get to the root cause of the illness and offer treatment rather than the sticking plaster of medication.

During a recession, with many people joining the long-term unemployed and suffering from stress and depression due to financial worries, the numbers of people needing access to services will only increase.  Now is the time for an investment in mental health services so that people can gain treatment and find coping strategies quicker.  If one in four people suffer from mental ill health in their life, that will include many MPs or members of their family so it is incredibly short-sighted of them to ignore the huge chasm in services that it opening up ready to swallow a large number of people whose lives and that of their families, friends and co-workers could be improved dramatically if only the services were available and accessible.  Mental illness should not be a life sentence.

Regardless of its shortcomings, tonight’s programme has certainly provoked debate about the subject, which can only be a positive outcome.  Literally hundreds of Tweets have already been posted and as the season lasts all week hopefully that discussion will continue and encourage those who know little about the subject to ask questions and educate themselves.  It may also empower those who are scared to disclose their mental health challenges to others to do so or find those they can talk about it with and therefore gain more support.  The stigma surrounding mental health sadly continues, but it is only by talking about the realities of the illness that attitude can be changed and tonight’s foray was definitely a step in the right direction.


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