" I'm a hungry woman...
...But don't you dare forget
You gotta feed my head too

Hungry Woman Blues II, Gaye Adegbalola

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Still Marching

#StillMarching #Vote100 #SheInspiresMe #DeedsNotWords

The enforced under-representation of any group does not only effect that group; nor does the responsibility to change that under-representation lie solely with that group. Women’s suffrage, for example, is not a ‘women’s issue’: it is everyone’s issue.

Starting earlier this month and continuing throughout this year a milestone in British politics is being celebrated - and it is important to remember that is a milestone not only in one nation or for one gender but it is part of a wider, global journey that has wriggled back and forth many times - slowly but surely onwards.

On the 6th February 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed in the UK granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification.  The same Act gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. These were both part of a long, winding journey, pushed forward with parliamentary petitions, protests, marches, acts of immense bravery, daring and courage - and forced back by hypocrisy, condescension, violence, torture, lies, ignorance and arrogance. A useful timeline can be found here but for details I can highly recommend Suffragette: My Own Story, Emmeline Pankhurst's autobiography.

A timeline of similar journeys around the world can be found here

As we contemplate 100 years since some women and some more men gained the right to vote in the UK, there are many ways to learn more - Channel 4 are supporting the #Vote100 campaign and there are many programmes and articles from the BBC available.

The Pankhurst Centre, Manchester
But, if you're able to, the best way to find out more is to go to the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. The Pankhurst's residence is where the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) were formed, the movement that managed to galvanise the efforts of the previous century to create social equality and start to force real social change, eventually leading to universal suffrage in the UK. It now serves as both a museum and a women's community centre, after being saved from demolition by anarchist squatters (a wonderfully fitting journey for the building!).

Being in that building, where it all began, sends shivers down your spine. To think you are standing in a room that Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia themselves once stood in - it's hard to put it into words. So go!

And to all those who are doubtful that there is more to be done, here is a TED talkVote Sandi & Co.!

The Women's Equality Party send a centenary message to Westminster.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The UK Kent-based Actors’ Co-operative Katapult Productions presents "Tipperary to Flanders Fields" which commemorates the First World War in words and music, using some of the songs and poems from the era.  Some of the content tells the story of the women in WW1 in their own words.  

Devised and directed by Michael Thomas, the performers will be Julia Burnett, Marie Kelly, Alan Simmons and Ann Lindsey Wickens.

Performances of “Tipperary to Flanders Fields” will be held during Remembrance Weekend 2017 at the following venues:

The Avenue Theatre, Sittingbourne, ME10 4DN on 11th November 2017 at 7.30pm;

at The Astor, Deal, CT14 6AB on 12/11/2017 at 4pm;

and at The Queens Theatre, Hornchurch, RM11 1QT on 13/11/2017 at 2.30pm.

Tickets available from the box offices of the theatres.

Initial information shared from Remembering Women on the Home Front Facebook page, with further information provided by Katapult Productions.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

In Memory

Today my little brother was able to participate in our democratic system for the first time. I won't say participate in our democracy because that is not something that happens on a single day but is a part of our lives living in an organised society. But for the first time in his life, having turned 18 earlier this year (OK, he's not-so-little), he was able to give direct input into the workings of our government by voting for his local MP and the national party they represent.

Less than 50 years ago he would not have been able to do this - it is easy to forget that it is within living memory that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in the UK (1969 taking effect 1970). It is also often neglected that it took a very long time, for everyone to be able to vote without their income or property being assessed and, of course, irrespective of gender.

It is therefore easy to take such a basic human right, such a fundamental part of living in a democratic community for granted - and to become blind to the struggles that so many still face to keep a hold of it.

'A group of women in their 20s left the polling station with smiles on their faces in 1929, having just voted in their first general election.' (Huffington Post)

For one particular woman - who had not only rocked society by going to university but was one of very few who were permitted to graduate - the constant struggle to simply be accepted as a human being had galvanised in her a courage and fire to do whatever it takes to change the situation. For decades the ruling officials had been presented with paper after paper, women and men had argued and discussed and persuaded and called for change via policy and debate. The privilege of the privileged few was strong enough that it not only encouraged them to resist sharing it but also gave them the power to do so. Unlike every other previous movement for mass culture change - and, in fact, every other advance in granting suffrage to a wider and wider group of people - for women, use of violence was resisted. Is this why change was slowest on this front? The privileged few could retain one demographic with which they didn't need to share their power because their lives weren't directly threatened by them?

Something had to change. This quiet revolution needed to raise it's voice in order to be noticed and taken seriously. Read 'My Own Story' by Emmeline Pankhurst - probably the most important book a UK citizen can read.

Many women and men put their lives at risk because they knew that life as it was couldn't go on. The situation was worth dying for. 104 years ago today, Emily Wilding Davison, London and Oxford University 1st Class graduate, who had been working full time for the Suffragette movement and the WSPU after leaving a career as a teacher (after many others had been denied to her simply because of her gender), died in a hospital in Epsom. Four days previously, she had taken part in one of the many protest acts she and countless others carried out over years, demanding suffrage for women, which were known to be highly dangerous to the protesters themselves (though very rarely were they in any way dangerous to anyone else). She brought WSPU flags in front of three newsreel cameras to excite the mass-scale public response needed to instigate genuine, lasting change and, as a result of her injuries received, lost her life.

So, on this day, 104 years later, I would like to take a moment to reflect - and ask anyone out there reading this to do the same - about the difficult paths that have been taken to lead us to where we are today - and those that remain ahead. To all 974 female candidates standing in today's parliamentary general election, no matter what party or policies you represent, I send thanks and courage. It is so easy to forget or sweep under the carpet the battles you have had to over come to get even as far as standing to represent your constituency. Yes, simply by way of identifying as a woman, they will have had to fight longer and harder than their male counterparts (a look at the number of sexism-driven death-threats MPs standing today have received confirms this) - a hateful fact that will one day change, thanks to their having taken on the fight. You are all my heroes. Thank you.

Useful links/references...
2. 'Women's Equality party candidate receives death threat signed 'Jo Cox'' (Guardian, Telegraph)
3. 'Threats of death and violence common for women in politics' (Guardian)
4. 'Truth behind the death of suffragette Emily Davison is finally revealed' (Guardian)
5. 'The real suffragettes: Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and Edith New' (The Week)
8. 'The Story of Parliament' (Houses of Parliament)
9. The WSPU (Wikipedia)
10. The Pankhurst Centre, Manchester

Friday, 6 January 2017

Starting the year with a Bang! And a Crash! And a Paradiddle and a tssssch tch t-tssssch tch t-tssssch tch…

Drummers at the 2016 Taunton Carnival
The colours of a carnival. The people thronging the streets of a usually quiet, rural-suburban town. The local community’s chance to show off, with floats and costumes and parades, dancers and shouters, banners and displays. And the noise – oh, the noise! The regimented, rhythmic snare and bass drums of a marching band, the complex and intoxicating rhythms of a samba band, clashing and overlapping, reverberating off of the tall buildings of the high street, old buildings with new faces reflecting the pounding and beating of old sounds played anew, adding reverb, changing their shapes, painting a whole new picture from the colour palettes of many cultures and histories and futures. To one young observer, the visual extravagance of the floats passed by, uninspiring – but the sound of drums lit a spark, sent a message, galvanised a desire: “I will make that sound.”

It’s about time we celebrated drummers in this space. As usual, there is no lack of inspiration – from Sarah Jones (Hot Chip, Bat for Lashes, Bloc Party), Dame Evelyn Glennie, Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz, Santana) and Daisy Palmer
Drumming legend Cindy Blackman
(Goldfrapp, Rae Morris) to the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, She Drew The Gun’s Sian Monaghan and Bobbye Hall, Jody Linscott, Terri Lyne Carrington and so many more – forming an integral part of bands in every genre (The Carpenters, Arcade Fire, The Slits, Beastie Boys, The Who, Pink Floyd…) playing and touring with artists of every calibre (Dolly Parton, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Dylan…); and all this while still, still being told, even by their peers (as a recent Radio 4 show confirmed), that this is a ‘man’s game’, that they’re ‘not strong enough’ – or, if they are, that they ‘look too masculine’ – and if they don’t, that they look ‘too pretty’. Despite still, still being asked, ‘Are you the drummer’s girlfriend?’, ‘Do you need a hand with that, love?’, ‘Are you any good?’, indignities that would never be directed to their male peers, they pick up their sticks, count in the beat and get on with being amazing. In short, they ROCK.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of being entertained by some incredible drummers. Those that stick out the most – who most certainly deserve to be listed with the names above – include Phildas Bhakta who I saw drum with Genesis tribute band The Book of Genesis; an incredible jazz drummer who I saw play in a session with the Southampton University Jazz Orchestra some years ago and who’s name I never learnt but who’s mastery of the kit and the genre has stuck with me ever since; and Emma Holbrook who not only rocked the socks off the Bristol Sessions back in the summer but who I had the somewhat awkward pleasure of meeting afterwards and (less awkwardly) since – and who was the inspiration to finally put together this celebration of great women drumming talent.

Emma Holbrook at Glastonbury Festival 2016 (Photo: Enrico Partisani)

So, back to the carnival and where we began our story of Emma Holbrook, drummer, composer, filmmaker, photographer, teacher and inspiration.

At 8 or 9 years old, amidst the noise and colour of the local carnival, Holbrook knew that she would drum. After begging and pestering her parents she managed to get her hands on a toy drum kit – there was no question of them affording a real one or even lessons. Her first instrument some years later was then the snare drum in a local marching band made up almost entirely of girls – quite the inspiration! It was also a fast learning curve but one that the 11-year-old was more than up to. At secondary school she managed to get time on a full drum kit and figured out how it all worked. At 16 she auditioned for and received council funding for lessons and a drum kit of her own, and she was soon drumming for multiple bands at her college.

And now it becomes a bit more tricky – this is the age when we are told we have to make Big Decisions about our Careers, our Vocations, our Future. No more doing something just because we’re good at it or we enjoy it – we’re told we now have to make a living out of our endeavours. Personally, as someone who’s never quite managed to settle on one thing long enough to ignore all others, I’ve always been jealous of those who’ve known all their lives what they want to be – say, a doctor, police officer, teacher, firefighter – or even those who’ve known what they want to do – work with animals, in sport, marketing – or music. With enough dedication and determination the path looks so straightforward – but of course, this is not the case. Holbrook knew deep down that there would be for her a place, a home, in the creative world but, as is often the case with subjects that don’t lead directly to a secure and steady profession, encouragement was not particularly forthcoming. Many tried to lead her towards something more stable such as teaching, and one teacher even told her she not only couldn’t but shouldn’t pursue music. At this stage Holbrook compromised. Still following a creative path, she studied Film & Drama at the University of Reading – playing the odd bit of djembe for fun here and there.

Emma with filmmaking colleague Susannah Mo interviewing Guardian dance journalist Judith Mackrell for 'Making The Cut' 2015 (Photo: Josh Randall)

It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later, after a successful but relatively short (how our culture suffers from funding cuts) stint teaching film, arts and music tech, that Holbrook’s percussive talents were fully unleashed again, the sound of drums called once more and that vision of her younger self could be realised – she would make that sound – and, boy would people listen when she did!

Watching her play, it’s no surprise that she had a background in drama. Musicians often pull fantastic faces when they’re playing, generally not consciously (see for e.g. two amazing music face-pullers here!), but Holbrook uses it – when she’s up on stage, she’s performing, throwing everything she is, her personality, her hopes, her fears – and most certainly her acting experience – into it. Holbrook feels the rush of making great sounds live, the excitement of not knowing what’s coming next, the joy in collectively creating something right there in the moment – in turn, making her every stroke a joy to watch, to hear, to feel.

Drumming inspiration Emma Holbrook (Photo: Neville Ward)
Currently Holbrook is composing, performing with multiple bands in an array of genres from folk to jazz to funk and for the first time teaching music itself. She has taught herself the piano, working with shapes to create sounds. She’s also continuing with photography and filmmaking, proving that you can earn a living doing what you love – and that that ‘what’ needn’t be a single thing, a known career on a straightforward path, but a plural of endeavours. And it may change in the future, take many twists and turns as Holbrook herself grows. Something I wish we were all told back when we were making those Big Decisions!

Like many people the world over trying to forge a path for themselves in the arts, the creative and the entertainment ‘industries’, hers has not been an easy or straight forward journey. Discouragement, dead-end jobs, outright discrimination, deprivation and even that other D-word that, finally, society is allowing us to openly talk about and start to work through, depression. But also determination, desire and good dose of, ‘Dya know what? I’m going to do it anyway.’.

“It’s hard, especially when you first start. My transition into being a full time creative has been gradual but it had to be. There have been all sorts of challenges up to this point both personal and professional and there will be more in the future but my message is: keep going, keep going, keep going – it’s worth it! Music is brilliant – being creative, meeting new people, travelling the world, constantly learning, challenging yourself. There are many downsides to face but in overcoming them you can find a life for yourself, make a life for yourself - one that is completely your own.”

I want to thank Emma so much for her time and openness when writing this article – and to say to her, I hope you get to meet your hero (the aforementioned Dame Evelyn Glennie) soon, just like I got to meet you!

Monday, 25 July 2016

Celebrating Women in STEM - Free Postcards!

What ho, blog-readers all! Just a quick note to say that someone recently gave me a project and a budget so some rather exciting (and, it turns out, very popular!) women in STEM heroes postcards have been produced based on the 5 Great Engineers and Scientists blog posts! There were two of these posts and there's another in the pipeline so there are 10 designs with text and 15 designs with just pictures. Contact J.Spurrell@soton.ac.uk for your free copies!

STEM Heroes Postcards and Top Female Scientists Cards (from the University of Exeter) at the Talk to US! Celebration Event, University of Southampton
Photo credit: Ki Zhou

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

With 'Greatness' and Respect must come Reponsibility

Note: I originally wrote this almost a week ago. Since then, I have despaired at the lessons that have apparently not been learned after all. However, I have also had the priveledge to attend an international conference in Dublin at which incredible people from all over the world have come together to discuss how, by working with local and global communities, research really can instigate positive social change. In this beautiful and culture-rich setting, I have seen my country represented in a global discussion by a british citizen to whom, from the strong hispanic accent, english was not their first (or only first) language but with which they incredibly eloquently and passionately described a project they were working on that was making a hugely positive impact to thousands of fellow britons' lives. If that doesn't make us 'great' I don't know what does. 

When I was growing up, my infant and junior schools were situated on a main through road. There was a crossing in the middle complete with a friendly lollipop person but the road was long and a bit windy and people would cross at various points all the way along it, despite the cars zipping along at great speed on their way to wherever they were so desperate to get to.

When the school and parents asked the local council to implement some traffic calming measures, their response was that they would do so only if there was proof that this was necessary - and that proof would be not one but three infant deaths. Deaths. Talk about 'cure' is better than prevention...

This, of course, was most likely an exaggeration. I was probably only 8 years old at the time and by the time the council response had got to my youthful ears it had probably transformed beyond recognition. But this morning a news story transported me back to that same feeling of incredulity at society that here, on our mild, damp little island, where the culture of polite tutting and a natural aversion to extremism has come to reign, we had to wait for a death to make us consider our actions.

I genuinely and unashamedly sobbed when I heard about Labour MP Jo Cox's death. In my political ignorance - and very much to my detriment - I had not heard of her before, so although a quick browse of the internet, including some of her own articles, showed that her life is clearly a great loss to us all, this was not what caused the emotional reaction. 

I am growing so very, very tired of the vitriolic, sensationalist, extreme, cheap, cop-out, greed-fuelled, insecurity-abusing, hatred-proliferating marketing campaigns that are constantly being sold to us as 'politics'. The EU referendum debate is just the latest version of this. The rise of parties who's entire manifestos are based on statistics designed to incite fear and irrational thinking pulled directly from tabloid newspaper headlines (and that laughably think these sources can be used as references for their figures - hah, try that in a peer-reviewed journal, Nigel!) is another indication. The dummed down, repetative, emotive language of every political campaign leaflet that has come through the door in the ten years I've been eligible to vote is yet another. And don't even get me started on the benighted misuse of figures that every school student could pick up on: "If we do A it will cost us £x per year but if we do B it will only cost £y per month," - if you're going to make a comparison then x and y need to be in the same #@$%?!-ing units, fools!

My love for numbers aside, there is clearly an even greater problem here. We have fought so hard for a grown-up, sensible, measured political system, one which even approaches the ideals of democracy, and we are watching it decline and descend into nothing more than a pointless popularity contest. Who can get the most votes? Who can say the right things to make the most people buy their political ideal products?

What makes me really sad is that it's only now, after murder has been committed, that politicians are starting to realise that they might have gone too far with their emotionally evocative campaigning where getting a quick reaction has been infinitely more important than providing any actual information. But why did it take a life being so needlessly taken away to realise this? Why was this style of politics allowed to happen in the first place?

We, the general populous, need to realise that we are at least partially to blame. We demand that politicians are infallible. If an MP were to answer a question about a policy change or strategy that did not work well truthfully, saying that they had tried something that they thought would work, it turned out not to work well after all and they were in the process of analysing why this was so as to not make the same mistakes in the future, we would lose confidence in them. So instead they are left with the belligerent stances of either stubbornly sticking to the policy even though it was clearly a bad idea or blaming another party. The sad thing is, the truthful, critically thought-out reaction is the one that would earn the most respect in every other field apart from politics. As Jennifer Allerton points out in her article 'The science of politics' (page 14 of this issue of Wessex Scene), politicians are not allowed to turn to the basic principle which every "scientist knows to be true: that a negative result can still tell us something.".

What's more, we leave no room for the dull yet important, long-term nature of policy and political strategy. A nation, comprising of a large number of people and all the systems and mechanisms necessary to a) keep them all alive, b) help them to cohabitate in the same limited space and c) maintain their standard of living as highly as possible, is a very complicated system. One thing we have learnt throughout human history is that it helps to have some sort of central authority - e.g. a government - whose full-time job is to manage it. Remember that - people management is a full-time job. The system is not only complex but dynamic, constantly changing and the job of managing it is in constant need of evaluating, self-analysing, introspection and updating. It is ridiculously naïve of us to think that this can all be done with a few tagline policy statements, 'less immigration', 'more benefit policing', 'more/less tax'.

The media also clearly has a large portion of responsibility here too - some might even say the largest. After all, for the majority of us this is where most of our information about politics and political decision-making comes from and the headlines we see and hear have an undoubtedly huge influence on our opinions. And the politicians, realising this, play completely into the media's hands as they desperately scrabble for good representation and popularity votes. Newspapers, TV shows, films, radio, online journalism - all of these information conduits are incredibly powerful, and with that power should come the responsibility to not incite people - politicians and the general public alike - into a state of such hysteria that murder can be committed in the name of 'making Britain great'.

Is there a point to this rant? Apart from a personal journey coming to terms with the news of Cox's murder through which channelling tears into structured thoughts is the best way to attempt to prevent such a tragedy happening again, there is definitely a message: we are all, public, politicians and the media, responsible for creating the culture in which such a murder could occur and it's about time we collectively stepped up and did something about it. We've spent so long bickering at the simplified cartoon representations of ourselves that we're missing the bigger picture - for the best description of which I, a member of the public, turn to the words of a politician published by the media:
“Unless we strive for a culture of respect to replace a culture that does too little to challenge prejudice, we will be learning nothing from what happened to Jo.”

A secondary school teacher once pointed out to us that as teenagers we desperately wanted respect, to be treated like the adults that we were fast becoming, and that such respect would be more forthcoming than we anticipated - but that it could not come without us also showing some responsibility.

Politicians, press and public alike, we are all collectively responsible for creating a culture in which it takes a death to teach us that we've taken things too far. Referendums, campaigns and party allegiances aside, we all need to step up our game and start putting into place the mechanisms that will lead us to a future where events such as Jo Cox's murder are as unthinkable as they should already have been. Britain can be 'great', just as any nation or group of people can be - and individuals such as Cox frequently are - we just need to pull together and earn it.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

How do you eat the elephant in the room? One pebble at a time...

Or is it one bite at a time? And is it pebbles that change the course of a river? Every grain of sand is a drop in the ocean...? Whatever the phrase(s) is/are, the point I would like to make is that big changes are most often made as a series of small changes. Tackling any issue as big. complex and embedded as a global inequality (e.g. of gender) won't happen without culture change, without tiny, subtle alterations of perception that eventually take place without us even noticing.

I was on a requsitioning software course this morning (living the high life!) and one of the exercises involved booking a taxi for a university professor. This example professor was called 'Clive', a traditionally male name, and clearly no-one doing the course was surprised by this - a lot of university professors are male. But, I thought to myself, what if we had all been asked to book a taxi for a Prof. Claire? I hope that still no-one would have been surprised. But I wouldn't be surprised if at some level people were, simply because even in hyppthetical situations, you're more likely to encounter a Prof. Clive than a Prof. Claire. (Of course, I would never suggest that you can assume absolutely someone's gender from their name but there's a high chance a Clive will be male and a Claire will be female.)

The course was very good and the hypothetical gender of a hypthetical professor had no real bearing on our ability to be taught how to buy lab equipment etc., or to talk to our fellow trainees and make the pleasant, commitment-free sort of friendships that exist only for the short duration of time you're put in a room with people you'll probably never see again. But this thought niggled at me:

What would be the effect if, every time someone created an imaginary professor, they actively chose it to be female?

Or, perhaps not every time, but more frequently than currently happens? Or even, just that once on that specific course at that specific institution?

Visibility is everything. If we're constantly exposed to female professors then they'll no longer surprise us. Then more women and girls will see that it's something that any of them can be, rather than just a few. And then more women and girls will be likely to become professors (or plumbers, or action writers, or film trailer voice-over artists or any other profession which is generally represented by men only). And then all these industries will benefit from this influx of new and unrestrained talent. And society as a whole will benefit. The same of course goes for increasing visibility of men in more traditionally female roles. Gender issues are not 'women's issues'.

So whether it's a drop in the ocean, a grain of sand, a mouthful of elephant or a pebble, these tiny changes cannot be underestimated. Flag them up, point them out - don't be afraid of being thought of as 'silly' or 'overreacting' - no-one's getting angry about Prof. Clive not being Prof. Claire but that doesn't mean we can't have a conversation about it. 

Good luck! And for some inspiration, here are some extracts from my feedback form from this morning's course.

Discalimer: The writer only recommends the consumption of metaphorical elephants. Acutal elephants are really cool, especially when they're not being eaten...

The Session - 6. Please comment on the session in more detail if necessary
Please could future sessions feature in the example cases a professor with a female name? Am happy to discuss in further detail why seemingly little things like this are so important. Visibility is everything!

The Trainer - 8. Please comment on the trainer in more detail if necessary
Very well delivered! Friendly, approachable and knowledgeable. Thanks very much!

P.S. In the other comments I'm not arguing the case of the 'hypothetical female professor' because I have any complaint or problem with the way the course is run - hopefully the rest of my feedback will show this - I'm clearly not unhappy with the course in any way! But if we do even tiny things like that to change gender perceptions then we'll find the path to equality much easier!

The Environment and Materials - 10. Please comment on the facilities and materials if necessary
As mentioned in part 6., please could future sessions feature in the example cases a professor with a female name? In order to make big changes we need to change these tiny perceptions like not being surpised that the professor we're hypothetically booking a taxi for is female.

Further Comments - 12. Please add any further comments or suggestions that could help us to improve the service we offer
Just to reiterate, please could future sessions feature in the example cases a professor with a female name? You may not think that tackling gender inequality is within the remit of designing an IT course but given that it effects every single one of us every day it is all of our jobs to constantly seek to change things.