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A life on your knees

Today’s unveiling of a memorial to the ‘Bevin Boys’ – conscripted men who were sent down the mines during the Second World War – got me thinking about my grandfather Colwyn, who died about 20 years ago now.

Col was a wiry, grumpy old bugger who made the mistake of thinking that small children appreciate sarcasm (they really don’t). He was also an expert whistler and a champion grower of tomatoes. When courting my grandmother, Morfydd, he walked a fifteen-mile round trip every Sunday to see her.

He started work at the Wyndham Colliery in South Wales as a young newly-wed, and was quickly promoted to Safety Officer. Jobs in coal mines don’t come much more significant than that. This was in the glory days of the South Wales Miners’ Federation – the ‘Fed’, which sent so many radicalised young men to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. If you ever find yourself in the Wyndham (which is admittedly unlikely, unless you’ve got family in Nantymoel or you’ve got badly lost on the way to the Gower), you’ll find the ‘Fed stone’ – a massive boulder where unofficial union meetings were once held – set into the playing field that now covers the decommissioned slag heap.

Federation Stone, Wyndham

Federation Stone, Wyndham; photo by Mick Lobb

The seams of the South Wales coal field are notoriously narrow. Men spent their working lives bent double in knee-high water, unable to stand fully for an entire shift in the baking underground heat. In the winter, when they went to work before sunrise and came up after sundown, it meant not seeing the sun at all during the working week. Deaths, amputations and grievous injuries were known hazards – and, given his job, were Col’s responsibility when they occurred.

Col hated mining, but unfortunately for him, he was too damned good at his job. When war was declared in 1939 he asked immediately to be released so that he could sign up for the army instead, but – despite repeated requests – he wasn’t allowed to leave the pit. By the time of the miners’ strike in 1984 – the Wyndham Colliery had closed at the beginning of that year – he had long retired. But despite the economic devastation, until he died he counted the day of the pit’s closure as one of the happiest in his life. ‘It was a filthy place. No man should spend his working life on his knees.’

So I’ll raise a glass to the Bevin Boys today – but also to all the men who worked for decades in conditions most of us couldn’t withstand for more than a couple of hours. Seems to me they deserve a national memorial too.

Wyndham Colliery, Ogmore Valley

Wyndham Colliery, Ogmore Valley

Going home for Christmas

The prickling sensation that something was wrong started when I got off the train – seven months’ pregnant, lugging my big bag, waddling through the ticket barrier at the familiar suburban station. I looked for my father’s face, but instead saw my brother’s. ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s had to take Mam to the hospital.’ ‘On Christmas Eve?’

Mam barely ever went to the doctor; she certainly didn’t go to the hospital. Christmas Eve was the day of hunkering down. The front door would close to the world at mid-morning, and we would turn in on ourselves. The rest of the world could do church, or pub, or extended family, or whatever the hell it is other people do at Christmas; we didn’t really care.

‘Why is she at the hospital?’

‘These headaches she’s been having. They’re not going away. Dad’s really worried.’

We reached home – the house my parents had moved in to when Mam was pregnant with me. I walked into the kitchen and saw a packet of Mr Kipling mince pies on the side; shortcrust had never seemed so sinister. My mother was a stupendous cook, and spent the pre-Christmas week nursing syllabubs, steeping herbs, marinating steaks. And yet here was Mr Kipling, which could only mean one thing: dad had been doing the food shopping.

Looking back, that was the last time I ever went home for Christmas. At the hospital, Mam was being told that there was a shadow on her lung on the x-ray, and that she needed an MRI. In mid-January the consultant would tell her that she had Stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain: two fat tumours were causing the crashing headaches that had put a stop to her shopping. Later, she would stand in front of her wardrobe and laugh quietly, pulling packets of paracetamol out of every pocket in every piece of clothing. ‘You would have thought I would have worked out that something was up.’

‘I can’t die now. My daughter’s about to have my first grandchild.’

‘When’s the baby due?’

‘In six weeks.’

‘We might just about be able to get you there. But you won’t survive much beyond that.’

But she did. She saw her first grandchild born, and two years later she saw the second one. Of the first one: ‘This one is clever.’ Of the second: ‘This one, not so much. But he’s a pickle.’ She outlasted the consultant’s prognosis by over five years. The nurses at Charing Cross used to say: we’ve never seen a lung cancer patient with a file as fat as yours. The files are usually very thin. And Mam would laugh, and say, have you checked the name on that bag of chemo? Because there was that time that you nearly gave me someone else’s.

When I was in my twenties I adopted a runaway cat who turned out to be pregnant. As labour approached, I went around the house trying to find her a place to have the litter: all the books said, the queen will want somewhere quiet and dark, away from humans. So I opened cupboard doors, lifted up valances, showed her little spaces between pieces of furniture. And she would have a sniff, and I’d walk away and find her trotting behind me. After a while I realised that as far as she was concerned, I was her safe place – she was going to labour on me.

And now every Christmas I’m a bit like that cat. The tree is up, and the presents are bought, and the meals are planned. I’m a very lucky woman with no major troubles or worries. It’s just that I can’t go home for Christmas.

Mam 1

Here is a list. You might be on it

Earlier this week, the people who live in my house got together to compile a shortlist of People and Things. We did this on the basis of What We Could See At The Time and also What Was In Our Heads That Very Minute. We then handed the shortlist to our milkman, who assumed it was a cheque and returned it shortly afterwards with a bad grace and some runic markings (something do to with Dairy Diaries). Anyway, we are pleased now to share with you the results of our deliberative procedure. Check it out because you very much might be on there.


1) Evie from down the road (age 5)

2) Robertson Ay

3) Norman Baker MP (transport supremo and performance artiste)

4) Funny-looking woman on the news just now

5) Steve Jansen (other surviving members of Japan did not quite make the list)


1) Wireless dongle (broken)

2) 2mm crosshead screw (you can’t throw it away. It’s obviously from something.)

3) Nerf gun

4) Governance in post-war Hungary

5) Dairy Diary

Hope this feeds in to the general stuff-that’s-going-on picture. If you’re not on the list, do please keep checking back.

Mass CiF trespass: a proposal

Emboldened by the response to my long, whiny piece about CiF trolls (and befuddled by suet and booze), I’d like to propose that we make Monday 10 January the day of the first mass Comment is Free trespass. The idea is that people of mild temperament will shuffle gently onto CiF threads throughout the day, expressing their views in a thoughtful and respectful way. If nothing else, it will confuse the hell out of the regulars.

Given that you’re all models of reason and good temper, you don’t need any rules. But here are some rules.

1) Don’t be an arse. Once you’ve spent a few minutes on CiF your sensitivity to arsery will become dulled, so try to have a solid sense of your own definition of ‘terrible, terrible arse’ before you log in.

2) If you feel compelled to forcefully address a point made by a troll, remember the ‘shit sandwich’ technique. So:

@angrylittleman13: I do so admire your tenacity. It’s a shame that you employ it to argue that ‘all furriners should be killed’. I disagree with this view because… [insert National Curriculum Key Stage 1 ‘personal and social development’ bullet points here]. However, your syntax is a testament to the power of out-of-the-box thinking.

3) Check in on the environment and development boards to play with the specialised sceptic and xenophobic trolls.

4) At certain points you will become bewildered and disorientated. You will start to wonder whether Harriet Harman did more harm to this country than the Luftwaffe. This is completely normal. Do some Lamaze breathing, have a cup of chamomile tea, read something by Aditya Chakrabortty. In extremis, stroke your Tony Judt action figure.

5) For the love of Christ, don’t link.

Give me a hug and hold my copy of the Beveridge Report. I’m going in.

Sack Kay Burley! No really, just sack her

[This is my entry for Bright Green Scot’s Dick of the Year contest; see the BGS site for other candidates and to cast your vote FOR KAY BURLEY.]

 ‘What are you protesting for?  You might as well
go home and watch it on Sky News.’

If you can watch this clip without shrieking wordlessly into the void, your therapist is better than mine. It’s not just that Burley is a pitifully bad journalist who is no closer to elucidation than she is to cold fusion. It’s not just that she wouldn’t know a De Hondt ballot if it chewed thoughtfully on her stringy, cartilaginous arse. It’s not just that she’s toe-shreddingly rude to David Babbs, whose kindly response (he recognises early on in the proceedings that he’s dealing with a very large toddler) deserves international recognition. It’s not just that she repeats ‘65 per cent of the public voted for a hung parliament!’, as though that meant BUGGER ALL about BUGGER ALL in THIS OR ANY OTHER UNIVERSE. It’s not just that at some point in the collection of shameful episodes that she is pleased to call her career, she has looked upon the works of Rush Limbaugh and thought ‘that, my friends, is how it should be done’. It’s not even that she works for the world’s most evil walnut-masquerading-as-a-billionaire.

No. It’s the squalid, mendacious assertion that political activism is not just risible, but useless. It’s the suggestion – in 2010, of all years – that if you want to change the world, the best thing you can do is abandon a protest and watch the TV instead. The months between May and December exposed Kay Burley as a towering, totemic dick.

[Coda: it’s not fair to ask you to watch the first clip without also linking to the one below. The gently disruptive tactics and the cheerful bathos (‘Sky News is shit!’) will bring your cortisol levels back down.]

CiF trolls: a taxonomy

Like many whey-faced liberals incapable of bench-pressing a budgie, I spend a lot of time with the paper version of the Guardian. I read it, I stroke it, I take it to bed. We all do, right? Right. But sometimes I read something on  Comment is Free – maybe about anthropogenic global warming, or sexual politics, or anything by Polly Toynbee. And there, below the line, is a roiling sea of rage, misanthropy, and the kind of emotional imbalance that can only be the result of steroid abuse, or living with your parents for a really, really long time.

Talkboards are self-perpetuating in tone; unfortunately for the Guardian (and for the relatively sane), the initial colonisation of CiF by rigid humanoids constructed entirely from anger has proved decisive. Thoughtful, discursive types who are happy to concede that on the one hand this, but on the other hand it might be worth considering the other, simply stare in horror and rarely go back. (I know there are decent folk who post on Cif, but even they would surely concede that they’re hard to find.) Instead, the sub-linear hell-circle comprises representatives from the following groups:

The misogynist who isn’t getting any, and hasn’t for some time Who are women anyway? I’ve never met one. When did they start having opinions and stuff? Why don’t they just fuck off?

The swivel-eyed fantasist It’s the CIA. Or Marxists. Or eco-fascists. Or feminists. Let’s face it, these groups all get together on a regular basis to totally decide the direction of world governance. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Fantasist is no more likely to correctly place a semi-colon than he is to self-combust.)

The critic Don’t like the latest government policy/opposition suggestion? Feel free to insert a painfully laboured insult about a politician here. It’s so much more interesting than any sort of informed analysis. If you can point out at the same time that the politician in question did PPE at Oxford, then you can rest confident in the knowledge that your powerful polemic will utterly destroy their career. OH WAIT.

The Tory Because the comments on Mail Online just aren’t right-wing enough.

The linker He’s got a theory. It’s based on this link. And this link. And this link. It’s going to rock your world, but he can’t explain it here. You’ve got to read the links. Have you read the links yet? Why aren’t you reading the links?

The japester Closely related to Mike Giggler (via email) from Private Eye. Pops up on every damned thread to post the same joke.

SHOUTY TROLL-CUNTS A miscellaneous category (h/t Anton Vowl).

I’m sure there are more, but I need a few puffs of Ventolin and a lie down before I go back.


Some crowd-sourced hating. We could start dividing these by genus soon, I reckon. Some are not exclusive to CiF by any means, but fall into a greater ‘trolls we have known and those that irritate the piss out of us’ family.

The libertarian All new laws are bad laws. We fear change! (via @EmilyMaryDavis)

The anecdotal arsehole Always knows a family/OAP/quango/GP whose story disproves all data provided (via @Langtry_Girl)

The single-issue obsessive He knows that vaccines are dangerous (nay, evil) and that this is being covered up as part of a shadowy conspiracy of silence (a conspiracy of silence that does not extend to censorship of his tedious conspiracy theory nonsense on CiF). It doesn’t really matter what the topic is, he will soon bring discussion round to his hobby horse one way or another (via @jdc325)

The supercilious sarcast Likes to imagine his dazzling wit will get him a slot on HIGNFY; just confirms he’s pretentious twat (via @splintersunrise)

The superiority jock  All of this is far beneath him, and you’re all stupid (via @katie_allen)

The guy who cannot BELIEVE that the Guardian publishes this NONSENSE (via @mePadraigReidy)

The rape apologist (via @stavvers) Nothing funny to be said about this one, but they’re out in force on the threads about the Assange case. Always refer to women as ‘young ladies’.

The all-purpose pervert (via @Mr603) Clusters damply on threads about prostitution or stripping.

Naming of parts

An idle Twitter conversation today with the redoubtable Dr Petra Boynton(@DrPetra) has me sliding back on to one of my favourite self-righteous hobby-horses: the apparent inability of sexually active adults (not to mention medics) to distinguish between ‘vulva’ and ‘vagina’. (Yes, it’s going to be one of those posts. Don’t knock it, it boosts my traffic no end.)

It all started when Dr Petra bought me a handsome meal, got me drunk and then tweeted a link to this story on labial plastic surgery. Leaving aside the utter freaking porn-inflected abomination of women paying surgeons to take scalpels to perfectly good flaps, what really got me was the way that the sub-editor and reporter appear to believe that vulvas and vaginas are the exact same thing. (And this is in a US publication. US fact-checkers will demand three published sources for everything in the world, except female anatomy.)

It’s not as trivial as it might sound. Any adult who couldn’t distinguish beween penises and testicles would be laughed out of the bondage club, but wilful ignorance about women’s bodies is far more socially acceptable than the alternative. It’s part of  a mindset that says that women’s sexuality is an adjunct to men’s; that women’s reproductive and sexual capacity is embarrassingly malapropos. And all the porn in the world (and I don’t know if you’ve checked recently but that’s A LOT of porn) hasn’t got us any closer to being able to distinguish between a tube and a well-populated plane. Women are no better than men on this score; I despair of the many, many mothers who are busily teaching their daughters to refer to their vulvas as minnies/flowers/fifiwoowoomimipops. To be clear: I don’t care what you call them. But please, please, stop making out that they’re indistinguishable. At some point in your daughter’s life she’s going to need to insert a tampon.

Let’s run the rule over this thing. If you gave birth to a whole human being out of it, it’s a vagina (although your perineum may never forgive you). If it’s had a penis inside it, it’s a vagina (still talking about women’s genitals here). If you tried to penetrate it and came up against unexpected resistance, it’s a vulva. If you can see it without a speculum and a little lamp, it’s a vulva.

In the absence of a mnemonic, let’s all recite ‘The Doctor’s Lament’:

The portions of a woman that appeal to Man’s depravity
  Are fashioned with considerable care;
And what at first appears to be a common little cavity
  Is really an elaborate affair…
There’s the vulva, the vagina and the jolly perineum
  And the hymen in the case of certain brides;
And there’s lots of other gadgets you’d just love if you could see’em
  The clitoris and Christ knows what besides.

One day, with a whole lot of sex education and hot-cheeked embarrassment, we’ll all be like this guy from the Onion. But not – and I’m sighing deeply here – like the Onion‘s sub-editor.

Media in shock as system doesn’t achieve something it wasn’t intended to achieve

There’s been a mass outbreak of gentle head-shaking over the last couple of days, as media outlets have reported the findings of a study showing that Brighton’s lottery system for secondary schools has failed to improve access for children from the most deprived areas of the city. Most of these media reports will have left people with the impression that the supposed USP of lottery systems – that they reduce ‘selection by mortgage’ – has been oversold, and that lotteries do no such thing.

It’s an unfortunate misinterpretation of the report’s findings. Anybody who knows Brighton, and who paid attention at the time the lottery system was set up, could have predicted this outcome. It was never intended to improve access for children from the poorest areas of the city; it was a piece of pork-barrel politics aimed squarely at middle-class parents in areas like Hanover (a hilly, Guardian-reading enclave in the east of Brighton, known fondly by locals as ‘Muesli Mountain’ because of its anoxia-inducing gradient). Under the pre-lottery catchment system, affluent families in areas like Hanover had no chance of accessing sought-after secondaries in the north of the city. They were also leaning towards voting Green, potentially depriving Labour of a marginal parliamentary seat (Brighton Kemptown, which went Conservative in 2010) and council representation (all three council seats in Hanover have since gone Green).

So the marginal Labour council of 2007 – backed by the Greens, who weren’t about to upset a large pool of potential voters – effectively rigged Brighton’s lottery system in favour of affluent families who weren’t in the catchment areas for the sought-after Varndean or Dorothy Stringer. New postcode-based fixed catchment areas were drawn up, specifically excluding the most deprived areas, but ruling in areas like Hanover. Stanmer and Longhill – historically ‘undesirable’ schools in the north-east of the city  – actually saw their intake of children entitled to free school meals increase as a result.

So, not only are children from the most deprived areas in Brighton being denied access to the most successful schools (although it should be pointed out that some of the less sought-after schools, like Stanmer, have reputations for excellent teaching); but the local and national media, dominated by sharp-elbowed middle class parents who regard selection by mortage as an entirely comfortable state of affairs, have used this story to assert that lotteries do nothing to improve social mobility.

It can’t be stated clearly enough: the Brighton system hasn’t improved social mobility because it was specifically designed to perpetuate the stranglehold of well-off families on Brighton’s most desirable schools. Lottery pilot systems in other parts of the country might have useful lessons for us, but in Brighton there really is nothing useful to be learned – except that councils will pander to voters in marginal seats and wards.