Looking back, looking ahead

I’ve had a rather enjoyable 2012. I’m ending it with a sense of achievement, which is nice. I started this blog, and now have my very own corner of the internet in which to stand upon my soapbox. I attended my first ever BarCamp which was loads of fun. I managed to get my weight down to under 10 stone for a period of about 10 days, and I have kept most of the weight off (not counting the last 3 weeks.) I also completed NaBloPoMo, through which I have become more confident and more politically engaged. I played some really cool video games and finally finished Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time after rage quitting over 3 years ago. I got to see a show sitting in a theatre box, which has always been something I wanted to do, and in so doing also got to see The Mousetrap (from a rather restricted view but I don’t care!) 2 modest theatre related ambitions now fulfilled! I also looked through a telescope and saw the craters of the moon in amazing detail, and could just about make out the stripes on Jupiter. And I turned 30. I’m not usually big on arbitrary milestones, and much prefer to think about actual achievements, but 30 is kind of a big deal.

As Terry was writing his end of year review blog he looked over Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare for reminders of everything he’d been up to this year. I have to admit that on occasions I am rather snarky about Terry’s incessant ‘checking in’ to places we go to. I still don’t really get the gamification aspect – why would anyone want to be the ‘Mayor’ of Platform 2 at Woking station? But looking through Terry’s list I realised that as an aide memoir it can be pretty useful. I’m not a sentimental person. I have few keepsakes, and I take virtually no photos. I’ve always been happy to dwell on the past using nothing more than my memory. But, perhaps as I grow older, I realise that while my memory might be good, it’s not unlimited, and maybe it would be fun to have a more reliable record of what I get up to. So my New Year’s Resolution which I might actually stick to, it to start using check-in services when I go to interesting places. I’m not counting Woking Station though.

Why I find the story of Jacintha Saldanha so upsetting.

For the past week each day has carried with it a fresh take on the continuing saga of the Duchess of Cambridge, her stay at a hospital for severe morning sickness, the prank phone call made by a pair of Australian DJs and the apparent suicide of one of the nurses who fell victim to the hoax. This is a story which keeps giving, providing opportunities to feed the public’s insatiable desire for tragedy, moralising, scandal and anything involving the Royal Family.

Amongst the various stories and opinions circulating around this, I think there are 3 serious points which are upsetting to me.

1) There was a substantial violation of data protection. I am not belittling the tragedy of the situation, far from it, nor am I seeking to speak ill of the deceased, but none the less there was a breach of data protection. This ‘prank call’ could quite easily have been made in a different context. I know lots of people who work in security and privacy, and care deeply that institutions behave responsibly with our data. While I’m not saying for a moment that any of them would have done the same thing, it’s not inconceivable that someone might have wanted to know if there was a serious risk of DPA violations. Depending on how and why this was done the outcome may or may not have been the same.

Data protection and security should be treated more seriously than it is. Staff who work with information about other individuals, which is probably almost everyone, should have better training about what they can and can’t say. And this training needs to be intrinsicaly linked to Customer Service training. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been ‘taught’ one way of dealing with telephone enquiries by someone doing customer service training, and quite a different way by someone doing training in compliance, control, security and data protection.

2) The reason this story stayed on the front cover for 3 days, possibly contributing to the decline of the nurses mental health, was because it was to do with the Royals. I’m not a monarchist, but I’m not a fervent anti-monarchist either. I get pissed off when the Royals do stupid stuff, because they are doing stupid stuff, and I dislike what they represent, but I don’t hate them personally. I find the tone of some of the anti-Royal rhetoric very distasteful. You can’t pick which family you get born into.

I am also rather disgusted by the frenzy with which they are hounded by the media. If this privacy invasion had happened to a ‘nobody’ then no one would have cared anything like as much. As came up repeatedly during the Leveson Inquiry there seems to be an unwritten rule that Royals, Celebrities and other individuals of note are not entitled to a private life. I despise some of the ‘journalism’ done in the name of the ‘public interest’ because it involves the Royal Family.

3) Mental Illness still carries a huge stigma, and is under-diagnosed and misunderstood. An inquest will take place into the death of the nurse involved, and I wouldn’t want to second guess the outcome, but I find it hard to believe that this poor woman wasn’t already very emotionally vulnerable. It is cruelly unfortunate that she happened to be the one who picked up the phone. Suicide is always a tragedy, and the fact that people can go through life unable to ask for the help they need, or denied that help when they do ask, is horrendous. Mental Health issues are still frequently seen as a fringe problem compared to physical, tangible medical conditions.

The one positive I take from this coverage is that it is raising a little more awareness. As the chief executive of Samaritans, Catherine Johnstone, says on the BBC Analysis page: “Suicide is complex.” Perhaps with a little more understanding of the fragility of the human mind, people in pain can start to feel that they can be heard without judgement.

Our Atheist Christmas

I have very fond memories of the family Christmases of my youth, which include making an entire nativity set out of mince-pie cases in a rare moment of Blue Peter-esque aptitude for craft. From when I was about 10 or 11 we spent 10 days in a centrally heated bungalow on a campsite in St Ives, Cornwall. The view was gorgeous, the weather was actually fairly mild for the time of year, and I was happy enough trotting along to the local church for the seasonal crop of services and carol singing.

I know of some adults who seem to spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to re-create the Yuletide experiences they had as children. They then breaking down hysterically because they can’t get the bread sauce the way their Mum made it, or because their own little darlings appear to have turned into materialistic little monsters who would rather play with their new computer games than gather round a tree and sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

So I count myself as fortunate that I haven’t got that inclination to turn the clock back. While my childhood Christmas memories are genuinely happy, I am delighted that they are just that: memories. My interests and values now are radically different from what they were as a child. I rather suspect that 12-year-old me would have been quite disapproving and slightly scared of godless-heathen-30-year-old me. That’s fine. 12-year-old me is in the past, and she’s staying there.

The watershed moment when I realised that as an adult I could create my own kind of Christmas was in 2002. Terry and I had been together for just under 2 years, and we were living together in a shared house with 3 other women, all of whom had gone home to their families for the holiday. I had a Saturday job at F.Hinds the jewellers, which expanded into a brief period of full-time work in the run-up to Christmas. By the time the shop closed at 6pm on December 24th I was shattered. I got back to our house to find Terry had made me a delicious dinner, opened a bottle of wine, and downloaded a new episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (He downloaded the whole series for me via an illicit FTP server using a dial-up internet connection overnight when no one else was using the phone. That’s when you know it’s true love.)

The following day we cooked frozen pizza, ate it off paper plates, drank Cava straight out of the bottle & chucked the whole lot into a bin liner afterwards. No mess, no fuss, no washing up & no family. It was the best Christmas ever. I remember lounging back on the sofa and thinking about how everything I’d ever been told about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ was wrong, or at least wrong for me. As an atheist I could happily ignore all the religious overtones. My parents very sensibly continued their tradition of going on holiday for the period, so I had no filial obligations to fulfil. As a penniless student I couldn’t have pulled off a massive supermarket-advert extravaganza even if I had wanted to, which I most certainly didn’t. I got to spend a few days in a blissful state of slovenliness with no pressure to mark the time of year with any particular sense of occasion. It was wonderful.

2012 marks 10 years since this great epiphany, no pun intended, and our Christmases are still pretty low-key. To the casual observer it would look like we barely observe the festival at all. In fact we have taken to referring to December 25th as Doctor Who day for obvious reasons. But I’m not bah-humbugging – this is one of my favourite times of year. The university where I work is closed so I get 11 days off. It gets dark at 3.30 in the afternoon which is perfect for watching films on the projector. In spite of yearly reminders about the dangers of binge-drinking, supermarkets will sell bottles of fizzy pink wine and off-brand Irish Cream Liqueurs for next to nothing. We’ll be going to see 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless people, which is fabulous, and we will once again try and fail to get past the first 3 episodes of The Wire.

Perhaps some people hate Christmas because they feel the Northern Hemisphere is mocking them with its snow-dusted images of nuclear families enjoying too much food. Perhaps some people hate Christmas because they think Tim Minchin is mocking them on behalf of the Southern Hemisphere.

If that’s the case then you have my sympathies, but I don’t hate Christmas at all.
10 years ago I realised Humpty Dumpty style that I could define Christmas to mean whatever I wanted it to mean. So that’s what I’ll be celebrating this year.

Do babies have genders?

I remember participating in a civics workshop at school once where I was first introduced to the distinction between sex and gender. I’d always thought of them as meaning the same thing i.e. whether you were male or female. However the chap leading the workshop posited a distinction between sex and gender. He described the word ‘sex’ (in this context) to mean your biological designation as either a man or a woman (or as he crudely but amusingly put it ‘what’s between your legs’ which got a big laugh from a group of 14 year olds!) Gender on the other hand he said, referred to the result of the societal behaviour that you were expected to exhibit, and that you could expect others to exhibit according to your sex. (He almost certainly made the point more articulately than that.) His point was that while ‘conventionally’ your sex and gender might be the same, this wasn’t a given. You might biologically be female but ‘feel’ like a boy.

I’ve never personally known anyone who felt that they were born in the wrong body, that I know of, so I’m not going to pretend to know what that would be like. I have no idea if anyone in the transgender community would use this kind of distinction to characterise their situation. They might think it’s quite helpful, they might think it’s a total misrepresentation. I just don’t know.

But I am very interested in the notion that your ‘gender’ encompasses more than your ‘sex’. That depending on your culture you will have profoundly different experiences because of your sex and what that means to other people.

As the saying goes: we have more that unites us than divides us. Biologically humans are pretty similar to each other. We eat, respire, sleep. We grow to maturity, age and die. We form memories, develop the capacity for reasoning and learn to communicate. We can invent, imagine and reflect. All of these put together describes the species of modern Homo sapiens as distinct from any other life form on the planet. Compared to these, the differences between male humans and female humans seem slight.

The differences that do exist between the sexes are even slighter prior to a human reaching sexual maturity. Before the point where your status as an egg or a sperm carrier becomes relevant there are some legitimate physical differences between boys and girls (beyond the obvious ones around plumbing!) But the difference in how girls and boys are bought up can be extreme, and most of that isn’t about biology, it’s about social convention.

In the Metro a couple of days ago I happened to see the headline of one of those stupid human interest stories. It read “Baby girl was raised as a boy for two years”.

(I should point out that this case is in Brazil, so perhaps there are even larger cultural associations with gender there than in the UK. Apparently the mother suffered abuse as a child herself and is claiming to have done this to try to prevent her daughter suffering the same fate.)

Anyway having just read the headline and nothing else to situate this in a context, my first reaction was: what does that even mean? If a child is only 2 years old, then beyond potty training (I have no idea when that starts…) what relevance does their sex have? The article expanded thus: “She managed to convince the baby’s father and grandparents ‘she’ was a ‘he’ by dressing her in boys’ clothes, only letting her play with boys’ toys and cutting the little girl’s hair short…”


For a while now, each Christmas brings with it a slew of articles and blogs about the gender division of children’s toys. Children are taught gender-appropriate behaviour so young. Is this supposed to make the world easier for them to navigate later? What exactly would be the consequences of raising a generation who had learned they were, first and foremost, human, not female or male? Does it even make sense to talk of the gender, as distinct from the sex, of a baby?

But things are slowly improving. Campaigns like Pink Stinks have sought to raise awareness of the issues around the fairy-princess-ification of our female youth. A little girl called Riley became a minor internet sensation for her rant about the toys she felt she was expected to play with. And a Guardian writer celebrated a Swedish Christmas toy campaign featuring a pretty blonde girl dressed in a black track suit top brandishing a nerf gun.

Of course training a generation of snipers carries its own set of moral issues.