Fighting for Social Justice


In my novel The Wings to Fly there is a scene in which heroine Midge is hauled over the coals by her Commanding Officer for reading “an obscene book”. He is furious that she should be reading The Well of Loneliness in full view of other young female pilots where they might be corrupted. His anger is something hard to understand in a modern context. It borders on extreme over-reaction, but is representative of the public attitude towards homosexuality before the long, slow ride to acceptability began – a journey that still continues in some societies. Midge is given the book by Rose the Land Girl after their “brief encounter” and I included it in my story as a historical artifact. The Well of Loneliness plays a role in my novel – almost that of a character – because in the past it was handed to female friends as a hint that there could be something more than friendship on offer. I also thought it was about time I reviewed the book. I read it about ten years ago and found it profoundly upsetting. It is a book that, like Marmite, is either loved or despised by modern readers. Here is my take on it:

It is quite a while since I read this book and I am still trying to understand why it was banned and why the ending left me so very angry. Angry, desolate and gutted to be honest. This book is a classic of LGBT literature and, once banned, I gather it was passed from woman to woman as a clue to sexual identity rather than a simple book loan but if you are looking for erotic content you will be disappointed. It is totally devoid of explicit content and the sentence “and that night, they were not divided” was cited as the reason for the ban. Wow! How much society has changed! On the level of literature, the heightened language is full of romantic yearning and tragedic musings that will not speak to many born after, say, 1985. That is an arbitrary date of course but I think it was not until the mid 90s that the stigma went out of being LGBT for young people. For those who are older, some will still be conflicted about sexuality and gender identity issues and that is something recent reviews about this book fail to take into account. In some communities it will never be acceptable and those who escape those communities will always seem quaint to young people today.

Firstly, I didn’t mind the flowery, old-fashioned language. Just as I enjoy Shakespeare and the good old King James version rather than Eastenders and the Good News Bible, I enjoy heightened and poetic language and this book is full of it. So, spoiler number one, if you don’t like poetry, cryptic language or romanticism you are not going to like this book at all.

Secondly, if you despise anyone struggling with a gender binary you consider no longer relevant, you are going to dislike Stephen intensely. I am not sure whether Stephen is trans or butch but in all honesty I don’t think that matters. She could never be happy as a woman at a time when being female had such particular expectations of dress, manners, behaviour and so few opportunities other than marriage, spinsterhood or teaching girls. When you get angry with Stephen, remember she does not live in this modern world where, it seems, any expression of gender is valid and when the restrictions on women no longer apply.

Thirdly, the ending is sad beyond belief and if you are looking for a lesbian happy ever after you should avoid this book. Seriously. There is little point in reading a book you are unlikely to understand with an ending that is depressing beyond belief. In its defence, the ending is sadly believable. People actually DID think that way. Some sick individuals still think that is the way it should really be for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people and that is where The Well of Loneliness STILL has a voice and a role to play even in our permissive world. It has a role because not everyone is inclusive, even those who say they are open-minded often fail when it comes to the crunch and it is not that long since the mere mention of homosexual love would have made most people’s hackles rise.

Bearing that in mind, you SHOULD read this book, if only to understand how the mildest allusion to sexuality could instigate a ban. You should read this book and wonder how the author could bear to live at a time when this discrimination was completely normal. You should read this book to remind yourself that in places the battle for acceptance has not yet been won and that nobody should ever be complacent about the changes that have taken place since the book ban was lifted.

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I was deliberately leaving this post for a week, post election, to allow for some clarity and time to think. In the course of that time things have changed and not for the better. A week is a long time in politics, and in that week I have come to terms rationally with my own disappointing result. It could have been worse of course but it wasn’t great. I will start there because emails and phone calls I received after showed that voters were more upset by the result than I was. You don’t fight an election to lose although you might fight it to “fly the flag” in a seat where you see little chance of success.

Bearing that in mind, when things go to plan there is always the chance of a political upset. Not so in the recent General Election. A few seats swung by a small margin between the first and second placed political parties last time round. One or two targeted seats were won by huge effort, others were lost despite it. On the wider front, analysis showed both main parties increased their share of the vote dramatically and squeezed third party, smaller parties and independents out –
resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of lost deposits nationwide.

“Good,” say some (usually left-wing) activists. “They should shut up, or grow up and join one of the main two parties.”

“Good,” say some journalists. “It shows they are irrelevant.”

I say “Bad!” because democracy suffers the more we polarise party politics. There is no room for the Middle Way or for rational discussion. There is only “What can we do to win Murdoch’s readership?”

In Britain we have been brought up to believe consensus politics is bad and certainly coalitions have always been bad for one of the partners but many other countries cope really admirably with their hung parliaments. It filters out extreme policies and wild swings one way and then the other. It better represents democracy.

The trouble is that the system we have and the influence of hard-hitting political journalism on the results is actually polarising our nation at a time when it badly needs to be united. This takes many forms, but the most extreme example for me this time round was the treatment of Tim Farron on television. This man, a decent and honest working class liberal Christian, has effectively now been bullied out of his leadership position simply because he is decent and honest. He did not lie about his Christianity, nor did he allow his Christian beliefs to define him but he was castigated for those beliefs. Those of us within the Liberal Democrats who identify as LGBT or allies had no issue with Tim’s Christianity but the media did.

A defining moment of journalistic nastiness was Andrew Neil’s so-called “interview”. On the proposed referendum on BREXIT terms, Farron was constantly shouted down mid answer and then blamed for running out of time. That way, the party policies were kept under wraps and a whole political party made irrelevant to those who did not know the policies. It is easy to suggest after the event that he might actually have done better to walk out saying “I thought this was an interview, not a speech by you.” It might have got him press coverage for what he wasn’t allowed to say.

I would have been disgusted by Andrew Neil’s arrogant and rude interview technique whichever leader he had turned his venom on. His approach is often boorish and I have to say extremely narcissistic. I am really so sorry that Mr Farron feels he has to leave the political stage because of this bully. I am even more sorry that there will be political activists out there in the main two parties who think it is fair game to be intolerant of religious differences. Now the same blinkered journalists are trying to make out that the election was about BREXIT; it wasn’t, for vast swathes of people it was about social justice and the Labour Party were not the only proponents of that. They just cashed in on a lot of tactical votes.

Finally, I honestly believe it is time for the BBC to move away from pretty graphics, endlessly looping sound bytes and egotistical, bullying presenters and move back towards what the licence fee we all have to pay was intended for – public SERVICE and public INFORMATION. There should be no place for the cult of “The Great I Am” in an organisation that claims to be politically neutral and every place for informed comparison of policy differences. This is happening on the internet through new apps which will, in time, make main stream journalists superfluous unless they grow up and stop showing off. Democracy is not about THEM. It is about the people.

Imagine the situation. You have a serious medical condition that holds you virtually bedridden for most of the time. It is an invisible illness that saps every ounce of your strength. You are painfully thin. Sometimes you can’t lift a fork to your mouth to eat and even if your carer does it for you you can’t swallow your food without a huge effort. You can’t have a bath without help because you no longer have the strength to get in and out unaided. You are only free from pain when you sleep and the pain stops you from sleeping. Your GP has retired. The new one doesn’t want to know.

For years you have been receiving Disability Living Allowance then with one slip of the pen you are thrown into the category of “new case” and new rules come into play. Despite the reassurances you have had in the past and old rules that the DWP stuck to for a while you now have to prove your level of disability, that you are unfit for work and deserve PIP at both levels. A “nurse” comes to assess you at home where you are so ill with a migraine that you can’t even speak, let alone answer the questions.

You are given a painkiller and it takes seven attempts to swallow it. The “nurse” notes this down as “Capable of swallowing, drank a glass of water in my presence.” Your carer, when attempting to answer questions is repeatedly shouted down and told to “Shut up and let her answer”. Every question is a trap, every answer is a minefield and you are given the very lowest benefit level possible and you are now subject to regular “assessment interviews” because of her skewed and unfair assessment.

You phone a stranger, reaching out in desperation because you can’t cope with the stress of the next interview. All that stranger can advise is that you record the interview. Let them KNOW you are recording it for your records (or for the Press perhaps). She will try and contact them to delay, rearrange or reconsider your case but has been told they will not discuss anything due to confidentiality.

This is a situation that is playing out day after day across Britain as a group of “Jobsworths” being paid to do the ugliest job possible do their best to deliver efficiency and cut benefit bills. Everyday, sick people are being driven to desperation, some contemplating suicide even, because of CAPITA’s Disability Assessments and Disability Work Assessments.

“Was this the creation of wicked Conservatives?” you might ask. No, it was the brainchild of a Labour minister but they did nothing to stop or reverse it. Somewhere in this cruel scenario that plays out like a Kafka story the people have been lost, humanity and compassion have gone out of the window, common decency is moribund if not dead. It is a scenario that probably costs more to administer than it could ever save, even if those people did not desperately need the help that a decent society should ungrudgingly provide.

Never mind Theresa May’s “money trees”, what we have here is a screening process that probably costs more to deliver than it actually saves. We witness untold pain and suffering caused to vulnerable people. There is actual fear of the bullies (and yes they often are bullies) employed to enforce benefit cuts on people with terrible and almost totally incapacitating conditions they never chose to have. Does this make you feel proud to be British? Personally, I think politicians of both Red and Blue varieties should hang their heads in shame at this vicious travesty of justice.

Please share. Please comment if you have been treated in a similar way. Somehow we HAVE to make them leave their ivory towers at Westminster and listen.