Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014 - Against "Awareness"

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
Do go read other contributions to Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014
Full image description and attribution at the bottom of the post.

There is a widespread belief in our culture that raising Awareness of illness and impairments benefits disabled people. Even if it were possible to educate the general public about every medical condition there is, this doesn't do anything to address the attitudes which cause inequality. In fact, I would argue that Awareness thoroughly supports those attitudes; disabled people are to be pitied, and if they can't be pitied, they must be hated.

Awareness is about Money.

Awareness Campaigns are primarily money-raising exercises. They raise money for charities and they provide very cheap human interest stories to fill magazines, newspapers and TV shows. Some charities are extremely worthwhile causes, but others are not - the mere association between an organisation and a group of people who need help and support doesn't mean that that help and support is forthcoming.

Meanwhile, as I've been looking around for graphics to illustrate this post, I have learned that one can buy a great number of Awareness t-shirts and accessories from companies who don't even feign affiliation to a charity. So there's money to be made all round.

Awareness reinforces a strict narrative about disability. 

It's tremendously important that disabled people tell our stories - all kinds of stories - but there are only three stories told about disabled people in our culture; triumph, tragedy or villainry. Awareness leaves the villains alone - nobody gives their spare change to help Blofeld walk again.

Instead, Awareness concentrates on the narrative which makes up The Tragedy Model of Disability:

"Keep Calm and Fight Depression"
1. Disaster strikes an innocent.
2. Our hero bravely battles against impairment.
3. The bittersweet resolution, which may be:
(a) Our hero succeeds in becoming at least slightly less disabled.
(b) Death and thus, the end of suffering.

Almost every news story and most fictional stories involving disabled characters follows this pattern. Awareness Campaigns' favourite subjects start out as brave soldiers, promising athletes or straight-A students - all the better if they are about to get married or start their dream job when they become disabled. Obviously, they have to become disabled in a way where they are blameless; for reasons that remain unclear, extreme sports injuries are fine but sexually-transmitted diseases are not.

Then they have to suffer; multiple tests, multiple surgeries, multiple experiments in alternative therapy, moments of despair (but preferably nothing as serious as a suicide attempt). And at the end, even though most subjects will still be disabled, it has to be played that they have overcome their impairment in some way. They may have defied all expectations to taking up macrame! Or they have a relationships! Or even a job!

"Losing is not an option"
When the disabled people are children, a non-disabled parent will often be cast as the hero in their place. Even last week, when a mother murdered her three disabled children in New Malden, near London, newspaper reports told this story, just hours after those children were found dead: We are reassured that the parents didn't know they carried the genes which would cause some of their children to have Spinal Muscular Atrophy until the mother was pregnant with the younger twins (Disaster strikes an innocent); the devoted mother (no quote marks) slaved away looking after her burdensome children with little outside help (Our hero battles against impairment). The children were "likely to spend their short lives in wheelchairs" but now they're dead, which is sad but not the worst thing in the world.

Quite unlike when non-disabled children suffer violent death at the hands of their caregiver - that is the worst thing in the world.

Awareness promotes a dynamic between non-disabled and disabled people which renders equality inconceivable. 

I've written before about the way that doing anything for disabled people, including normal things that family members, friends and colleagues do for one another all the time, can be framed as care and take on a special charitable status. Give your non-disabled friend a lift? That's a favour. Give your disabled friend a lift? That's care, have a medal, bask in the warm-fuzzy of your own philanthropy.

"I wear a ribbon for my hero"
Thus all interactions with disabled people become tainted with this idea of charity. Employers imagine that employing disabled people would be an act of generosity and compassion, rather than shrewd recruitment. Accessibility is not a matter of fairness, but kindness, and can this organisation afford to be kind? Governments are able to frame disability benefits and social service support as a matter of charity, discussing deserving and undeserving cases, as opposed to straight-forward eligibility.

This is a major factor in the abuse of disabled people, with disabled women twice as likely and disabled children three times as likely to experience domestic abuse than their non-disabled peers. Stand next to a disabled person and you'll be assumed to be their carer. Live with one and you'll be assumed to be a saint (see above, re the New Malden murders).

It's a common complaint from folk with chronic illness that they'll see their friends on social media sharing Awareness material, including aphorisms about the importance of loving and supporting someone with a particular condition, when they haven't made personal contact in months. But this is what happens when all interaction with disabled people is reduced to charity; you're not enjoying my company, you're giving your time to me. And if there's no praise attached, what's the point of that?

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

Once I'd received my diagnosis, friends and family would take an interest in news stories about the Dreaded Lurgy. Most of these stories were human interest stories of the Awareness variety; stories about someone with the Dreaded Lurgy. A Day In My Awful Life or My Life-Plan Down The Pan - this sort of thing. I did meet one of my best friends through one such story, but hers was told with far more stoicism and grit than the others.

Anyway, these people with my diagnosis were, naturally, a complete mix. In some cases, I didn't even look like those people; the drugs I was on had made me fat, while some featured dangerously underweight women who struggled to keep any food down. Some of them described managing a part-time jobs, while I was rarely awake for a full hour stretch. Others couldn't walk or even talk, while I was relatively ambulant and nattering away just fine.

Thus, my diagnosis was gently questioned by well-meaning friends and family all the damn time. This was only sometimes skepticism about my account of things - usually the hope was that the doctors had missed something and maybe there was a cure for what ailed me.

Awareness places different conditions in competition with each other. 

"I wish I had breast cancer" - Poster for Pancreatic Cancer Action
Kery Harvey wasn’t wrong to wish she had Breast Cancer, a better understood, more operable condition with much better survival rates than the Pancreatic Cancer which would kill her, aged 24. But the advert, designed to raise the profile of the charity (there’s no information that might promote early diagnosis) is explicit about a message that many Awareness Campaigns aim for; this condition is the worst. It causes the most suffering to the loveliest people, in the most tragic of circumstances.

While there is a large degree of solidarity within the disabled community (hierarchy notwithstanding), communities built around a shared diagnosis are not always sympathetic to other disabled people. It is obviously true that some diseases are generally nastier than others, that some diagnoses are better understood than others and so forth. But, with the help of self-interested charities, illness-based communities can often lead themselves to believe that their problems are unique. Awareness promotes this mentality, pitching one condition against another for sympathy, attention, charitable donations and occasionally even government resources; I have seen on-line petitions demanding funding for very specific areas of research.

When the Robot Hugs cartoon Helpful Advice went viral with the caption “If physical illness was treated like mental illness” (not the artist's own words) it appeared in my Twitter stream on a daily basis for over a week. And every time I saw it, I despaired. People with chronic injuries and physical illnesses get advice about trying harder, thinking positive, avoiding essential medication and so forth all the time. Yes, the stigma of mental illness is undoubtedly worse. But pitching one condition, or group of conditions, against another, can cause hurt all round.

"Helpful Advice" by Robot Hugs.
The dramatic messages of Awareness Campaigns often reinforce or create new stigma.

"Who loves someone with autism?"
My guess is many people but few pandas.
The Caffeinated Autistic has a good summary with links to how, in their attempts to raise money and Awareness, Autism Speaks has described autistic people as if autism is a dreadful mask that the real "normal" children are hidden behind. This includes the now famous Youtube video where one of the board members spoke about contemplating the murder/suicide of her daughter and herself.

The insistence that mental illness is just like any other illness, i.e just like a physical illness, has helped to reinforce the idea that mental illness has wholly internal, biological causes and always can and should be cured or managed with drugs.

Attempts to promote the idea that invisible chronic physical illnesses are real, and not in the imagination of sick people, frequently use language which reinforces the false dichotomy between real physical symptoms and conditions, and imaginary mental health symptoms and conditions, further stigmatising mental illness and making it particularly difficult for people with both physical and mental health conditions.

It's your fault! If you're charged with sexual assault!
Breast Cancer is perhaps the best example of Awareness Gone Wild. In an attempt to market themselves as a fun sexy feminine product, Breast Cancer charities and companies wishing to make money out of pink things have made a fortune, but at the expense of women and others with breast cancer, many of whom are not young, thin, pink-loving white women whose main aspiration in treatment is to Save the Tatas. Barbara Ehrenreich's essay on her experiences with breast cancer is a good example of a great deal of excellent critque of the commerical tactics of Breast Cancer Awareness, which even includes a film Pink Ribbons Inc.

There's a Problem With Our Poster-Boy. 

Poor Stephen Fry. It’s not his fault; everything I've ever read or heard him say about mental illness in general or Bipolar Disorder in particular has been cautious and balanced. He has certainly dented the stigma of Bipolar Disorder or Manic Depression as something experienced by axe-wielding maniacs. However, at the same time, the strong association between the illness and Stephen Fry has very much reinforced the belief that:
  • Bipolar Disorder is a condition associated with artistic genius. People with mental illness who are not artistic geniuses are still either layabouts or monsters. You can't be a regular person with average skills and aspirations and happen to have Bipolar.
  • People with mental illness deserve our sympathy and respect because they are capable of massive success. Our cultural landscape wouldn't be the same without Stephen Fry, and that is why we should be cool about mental illness. 
  • Bipolar Disorder manifests itself in occasional dramatic episodes but is otherwise easy to live with. Stephen Fry is an incredibly busy man, who is - as far as the public can tell - never too sick to work. When Fry attempted suicide in 2012, the public didn’t have a clue until he spoke about it the following year, by which point it was a past event; done, dusted and recovered from.
Stephen Fry quote about the one in four people who have a mental illness.
None of this is Fry’s fault - it is an entirely good thing that he gets to have a private life, and that dramatic events like suicide attempts can be talked about in hindsight and not as dramas unraveling on rolling news (also safer for the rest of us).

The fault lies in a media and a culture which generally under-represents and misrepresents people with mental illness. And people with all kinds of illness. And disabled people in general.

There's a Problem with Our Poster-Girls.

Women are more likely to develop chronic illnesses of almost all kinds. Women are also more likely to seek out others with their condition, join or create support groups, get involved with charities and campaigning. Men and others with chronic illness may struggle to find information and support which is not designed exclusively by and for women. However, when it comes to Awareness Campaigns, stories and images are dominated not only by women, but by a certain kind of woman; our culture's ideal victim.

The "Moving Mountains" Calendar sold to raise money
for the MS Society did feature a variety of women.
She's young, white and pretty. She's usually very slim and often blonde. Her impairment is the only barrier to her being a complete hotty. In fact, if she were fictional and non-disabled, she'd be exactly the sort of person who usually gets murdered at the start of a long-running television show.

Weirdly, her ubiquitous presence on any Awareness Day hasn't really changed the perception that young attractive people can't have chronic illness. That's because, in reality, chronic illness is a fairly commonplace misfortune; Awareness is about sensation; our pretty young victim's plight is tragic because it is unusual. Too unusual to say, be the young lad sitting in the seat reserved for disabled people on the bus.

There are too many conditions to ever be Aware of them all and what's the point anyway?

Pancreatic Cancer Awareness
If you see someone wearing purple or a purple ribbon it may be for ADHD, Alzheimer’s, Chiari Malformation, Crohn’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Dyscalculia, Eating Disorders, Epilepsy, Fibromyalgia, Huntingdon’s Disease, Lupus, Macular Degeneration, Migraine, Multi-System Atrophy, Pulminary Hypotension, Rett Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis and a whole range of different cancers and other conditions which I haven't heard of. And that’s before we get to matters not related to any specific medical condition, like suicide prevention or domestic violence.

"Hope - Support Epilepsy Awareness"
Presumably, you only ask the first time you see someone wearing a purple ribbon. You might not even ask why someone is dressed entirely in purple.

The question is, is there any specific medical condition that people need to know a thing about?  

"I love someone with Cystic Fibrosis"
AIDS Awareness was one Awareness campaign which worked very well. As well as going some way to address a terrible new stigma, it promoted changes in behaviour which helped to prevent a pandemic in Europe (something we often forget was perfectly possible). But HIV/AIDS was a brand new disease.

Fibromyalgia Purple Ribbon Tree
There are symptoms we need to learn about for purposes of prevention and early diagnosis, but most of these symptoms could relate to a number of serious conditions; new pain, mysterious marks on the body or blood where it shouldn't be - I once saw a list of Symptoms You Should Never Ignore include sudden blindness!

But as far as being Aware of conditions for the sake of people who live with them, what does anyone really need to know?

My neighbour is disabled with what I've heard referred to as "One of those conditions." Perhaps Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis or Myalgic Encephalopathy. I speak to my neighbour, but I've never asked, for obvious reasons. Apart from realising that my neighbour has an impairment and therefore is more vulnerable in bad weather or a power cut, could there be anything, any of us need to know about his specific condition?

The idea that having medical information will improve the way disabled people are treated rests entirely on a view of disabled people as charity cases who effectively need to justify their difference with medical information before they will be treated decently. The idea that disabled people will ever be seen, automatically and unquestioningly, as equal to everyone else, becomes inconceivable if people need to know about our private experiences and medical histories in advance.

Image Description and Attribution:

1. A graphic with red background and black writing reading "Keep Calm and Fight Depression". There is a crown at the top of the graphic. By Keep Calm Studio.

2. "Losing is not an option" - white poster design, the word losing in orange with a ribbon for an o. Other lettering in black. Available as a poster to raise awareness of "any orange ribbon disease" from Awareness Gift Boutique at Cafe Pres.

3. "I wear a ribbon for my hero" - black poster with white and blue writing and a large blue ribbon to the left. Available as Pancreatic Cancer Action features a bald young white woman with some raised areas on her scalp. There is a quote "I wish I had breast cancer." in large bold writing, acredited to "Kerry, 24 #kerryswish". Below reads

"Today 23 people will be told they have Pancreatic Cancer. Like Kerry, this is what they face:
  • Only 3% will survive because of late diagnosis.
  • Most will die within 4 to 6 months.
  • It's the UK's 5th biggest cancer killer.
Pancreative cancer has the lowest survival rate of all 22 common cancers. Early diagnosis saves lives."

There's then a link to the webside at the details of the registered charity number.

4."Helpful Advice" by Robot Hugs. A grid of six illustrations entitled "Helpful Advice". The first features a figure in bed, thermometer in mouth and a figure above them saying, "I get that you have food poisoning and all, but you have to at least make an effort."

The second features a figure with a bleeding stump where their hand might have been. Another figure is saying, "You just need to change your frame of mind. Then you'll feel better."

The third features a figure leaning over a toilet, with another figure saying, "Have you tried... you know... not having the flu?"

The forth features a figure injecting their leg, while another figure says, "I don't think it's healthy that you have to take medication every day just to feel normal. Don't you worry that it's changing you from who you really are?"

The fifth features a figure with a bleeding abdominal wound with another figure saying, "It's like you're not even trying."

The sixth and final features a figure in bed with a drip and a heart monitor with another figure saying, "Well lying in bed all day obviously isn't helping you. You need to try something else."

5. Unattributed graphic found on Facebook as part of the "Light Up Blue For Autism" campaign, featuring a soft-toy panda raising its arm and the caption, "Who loves someone with autism?"

6. Design on a drawstring bag available to buy here to raise money for the US Breast Cancer charity Save the Tatas. It has a black background with white writing which reads, "Save a life! Grope Your Wife! Save the Tatas"

7. "Stephen Fry on mental illness" possibly by rationalhub on deviantART - a poster featuring Stephen Fry's smiling face (a handsome middle aged white man with a slightly wonky nose) and the quote,

"One in four people, like me, have a mental health problem. Many more people have a problem with that. I want to speak out, to fight the public stigma and give a clear picture of mental illness most poeple know little about. Once the understanding is there, we can all stand up and not be ashamed of ourselves, then it makes the rest of the population realised we are just like them but with something extra. - Stephen Fry."

8. "Moving Mountains" Calendar Cover by Steve Yates at Derwent Photography. This photograph shows the silhouette of twelve variously-shaped standing women, some holding umbrellas, on a hill. This 2011 fund-raising calendar featured nude photographs of women with MS in the landscape of Cumbria. All the photos can be seen here.

9. "Pancreatic Cancer Awareness" purple ribbon design available as a grosgrain ribbon from Brychan's Lair.

10. "Hope: Support Epilepsy Awareness"  unattributed, found at A Dog 4 Deeds post for Epilepsy Awareness Month, 2011.

11. "I love someone with Cystic Fibrosis" graphic available free from Cool Graphics

12. Fibromyalgia Purple Ribbon Tree is a tree design decorated by loops of purple ribbon. This is available asa fridge magnet from HomewiseShopper at Cafe Press.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014 will be on Thursday, 1st May

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014 is now underway. Please Click Here to see this year's contributions or share your own.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
The ninth annual Blogging Against Disablism day will be on Thursday, 1st May. This is the day where all around the world, disabled and non-disabled people blog about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination (known as disablism or ableism). In this way, we hope to raise awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we've made.

How to take part.

1. Post a comment below to say you intend to join in. I will then add you to the list of participants on the sidebar of this blog. Everyone is welcome.

2. Spread the word by linking to this site, displaying our banner and/ or telling everyone about it on blogs, newsgroups, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so on (we are using the hashtag #badd2014). The entire success of Blogging Against Disablism Day depends entirely on bloggers and readers telling other bloggers and readers in advance.

3. Write a post on the subject of disability discrimination, disablism or ableism and publish it on May 1st - or as close as you are able. Podcasts, videos and on-line art are also welcome. You can cover any subject, specific or general, personal, social or political. In the previous eight BADD, folks have written about all manner of subjects, from discrimination in education and employment, through health care, parenting, family life and relationships, as well as the interaction of disablism with racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Every year I have been asked, so it's worth saying; the discrimination experienced by people with mental ill health is disablism, so naturally posts about that are welcome too.

You can see the archives for previous years here: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Blogging Against Disablism Day is not a carnival of previously published material. The point about doing this around one day (or there abouts) is that it is a communal effort and all the posts connect to one another. You can of course use your own post to promote other things you've written in the past as you wish.

4. Come back here to Diary of a Goldfish on the day to let everyone know that you've posted and to check out what other people have written. I shall post links to everyone's posts (slowly) throughout the day, creating an archive. However, I do need you to comment and leave the URL of your post or else I shan't find your post and won't be able to link to it.

We have both a Twitter account @BADDtweets and a Facebook Page where there will be notifications of new posts and updates to the archive during the day.


Naturally, Blogging Against Disablism Day invites contributions from people with all variety of impairments and none at all. You are welcome to contribute with podcasts, video-blogging or anything else that allows you to take part. And whilst May 1st is when this all takes place, nobody who happens to have a bad day that Thursday is going to be left out of the archive.

If anyone has any questions about web accessibility, I recommend the Accessify Forum. I am not an expert on web accessibility myself, so if there are any suggestions about how I can make this day more accessible, please e-mail me at diaryofagoldfish at

The Linguistic Amnesty

Whilst discussions about language and the way it can be used to oppress or empower us are more than welcome, please respect the language that people use, particularly to describe themselves in their own contributions. We all have personal preferences, there are cultural variations and different political positions which affect the language we use. Meanwhile, non-disabled contributors can become nervous about using the most appropriate language to use, so please cut everyone as much slack as possible on the day.

At the same time, do not feel you have to use the same language that I do, even to talk about "disablism". If you prefer to blog against disability discrimination, ableism or blog for disability equality, then feel free to do so.

I've written a basic guide to the Language of Disability which I hope might explain some of the thinking behind the different language disabled people prefer to use about themselves.

Links and Banners

To link back to this post, simply copy and paste the following code:

These banners have seemed popular over the last couple of years and I am yet to think of anything better. If anyone fancies editing these images or coming up with something new, then please do so. You are free to use and mess with these as you like, so long as you use them in support of Blogging Against Disablism Day. If you already have the banner, you just need to change the URL that it links to from last year's BADD. Otherwise, you simply need to copy the contents of one of these boxes and paste it on your blog, in a post or on the sidebar as you like. The banners come in two colour combinations and two sizes. The sizes are a 206 pixels square or 150 x 200 pixels.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014This is the black and white banner which reads "Blogging Against Disablism". Here's the code for the square one:

And here's the code for the narrower one (which can be seen here):

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014This is the colourful banner which reads "Blogging Against Disablism". This is the code for the square one:

And here's the code for the narrower one (which can be seen here):

Please leave a comment (including the URL of your blog) to let everyone know you are joining in and I shall add a link to you on the sidebar. Also, if you have any questions, please ask.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Should David Cameron be Sectioned?

There's a petition calling for David Cameron to be detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act (the petition isn't that specific; the authors know nothing about mental health so they've just said he should be sectioned). The petition lays out a case as to why Cameron would qualify:
1. David Cameron MP appears to think he is Jesus Christ, and compares himself with Jesus
Cameron hasn't said he is Jesus. He said that Jesus invented the Big Society and that he, David Cameron is carrying on his work. It is a pompous and ridiculous thing to say, especially as the Big Society is whatever Conservative politicians say it is - mostly volunteers stepping up to replace essential services that have lost government funding and Food Banks, the need for which barely existed before they came into power.

However, John Lennon compared his fame to that of Jesus Christ. In one song, he claimed to be a Walrus. Extreme arrogance is not the same thing as a Messiah Complex.

Meanwhile, even sincerely believing oneself to be Jesus Christ is not itself grounds for sectioning.  On a recent television programme, Ian Hislop interviewed a perfectly sane and pleasant man who believes he is King Arthur.  It is possible for people to believe incredibly unlikely things about themselves and the world around them without even being unwell.  Eccentric, for sure. Factually misguided, almost certainly. But as a generality, unless there is considerable personal distress, there is no illness.

The argument continues:
2. He does this despite doing the opposite of what Jesus is recorded to have done, so David Cameron is clearly delusional.
By this thinking, every professed Christian who is homophobic, smacks their kids, accumulates massive wealth or in any way treats other people in ways they themselves would not like to be treated, could be delusional. Only they're not. This is just a mixture of misinterpretation and common or garden hypocrisy. Many if not most of us profess ethical beliefs we sometimes fail to follow.

In some ways, this is the opposite to mental ill health. Some mental illnesses are characterised by a person having beliefs they find impossible to compromise on. Sometimes, it is not the belief that is the problem (e.g washing hands helps guard against infection) but the inability to compromise on that belief to any degree.
3. He refuses to listen to the vast majority of the country, instead pretending everything is fine and refusing to explain himself, instead making idiotic ramblings and carrying out dangerous actions whilst pretending nothing is wrong
He refuses, he pretends. He is not oblivious - he chooses to ignore the people who, as Prime Minister, he is supposed to serve. This is not a sign of ill health, just a sign of a poor governance, ignorance, arrogance and selfishness. David Cameron is behaving very badly. It is possible to do that in perfectly good mental health.
4. He has already harmed thousands. He is a danger to himself and others.
There's no evidence that David Cameron is any danger to himself (his immortal soul notwithstanding). There's no evidence that David Cameron is a direct danger to others. There is no evidence of violence towards others. He has made decisions which have harmed people, even led to deaths, but very indirectly; he has spearheaded austerity measures which have put already very vulnerable people in increasingly vulnerable positions. He is responsible for that.

But this is the point; someone who is not in control of themselves will lash out and could harm people fairly randomly. They have diminished responsibility. Cameron is in control. He is surrounded by advisers and he sits through parliamentary debates where the consequences of his actions are discussed at length. He knows full well what he's doing and chooses to do it anyway.

Other arguments set forth by supporters of the petition include that David Cameron is a psychopath. Psychopathy is a controversial and complex area, but there is some evidence that Cameron exhibits some of the characteristics you might associate with this condition.  However, there are two things to be said about this.

The first is that Cameron is part of a government who collectively exhibit these traits. He is part of a very small but very powerful cultural bubble where it is normal behaviour to dismiss the suffering of others (particularly groups which represent a convenient scapegoat) and to line one's own pockets whilst professing to have the country's best interests at heart. It is impossible to tell whether Cameron would behave as badly in a context where the people around him weren't behaving this way, and giving him permission to do likewise.

Meanwhile, psychopathy, if it can be said to exist, is in the nature of a person and thus untreatable. If someone has not committed a crime, it becomes legally very tricky to detain someone for treatment (Section 3 of the Mental Health Act) when their condition cannot be treated.

I don't need to say, of course, that the idea of a petition to section someone is, if we take it seriously, absolutely terrifying. In days of yore, it was quite easy for wealthy men to get troublesome wives and daughters diagnosed with a serious mental illness and shuffled out of the way into institutions for the rest of their lives. In the mid-twentieth century, it was not uncommon to find people who merely deviated from the general population in some slight way - gay men, sexually active unmarried women, for example - put away and subject to dangerous and damaging treatments for little more than the failure to conform.

Do we really want to imagine a world where it would be possible to persuade doctors to detain and medicate people by a popular vote?  Does that even work as a joke?

So what can this petition achieve? Well, it has already has several effects which one is free to witness both on the petition site and elsewhere in social media :

  • It has caused a great deal of amusement at the expense of people with mental illness. Despite the earnest tone of the petition, we shouldn't take this seriously, because it's just a laugh! Mental illness is so funny!
  • It has reaffirmed our cultural connection between mental ill health and bad behaviour; David Cameron is bad, therefore he must be mad. The petition states, "This is not an attack on those with mental illness" but saying a thing does not make it so. 
  • It has reaffirmed our cultural belief that mental illness is actually worse than evil. The fact that Cameron has overseen so much suffering in the country is one thing, but the reason he ought to be removed from power is because he is mentally unwell. 
  • It has promoted ignorance of what mental illness is and how the Mental Health Act works. 
So well done to everyone. And people argue e-petitions are a waste of time. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Cupcake Fascism & Class War

The only cupcakes I've ever eaten were stolen. They were stolen, they were sticky and they were sweet. That's the first thing Tom Whyman gets wrong in What is Cupcake Fascism?; cupcakes are all style and little substance, but over half that substance is buttercream. They are neither dry, nor wholesome, no lacking in goo, but rich, sickly sweet and impossible to consume without getting one's fingers sticky. Unless you can open your mouth really, really wide. This is both metaphor and truth.

Meanwhile, in another piece on class, The Working Classes Don't Want To Be Hard-Working Families, Selina Todd writes,
"Sit my extended family around a table and you'd have white- and blue-collar workers, the sick, the old, people in council housing, and families with two cars and a nice house but large debts to pay for them. This is replicated all over Britain. There is no static "underclass" and neither is there a robust middle class: instead, there are a lot of people who have to work for a living and, because of that fact, choose to identify as working class."
This a world I recognise. It's hard for left-wing commentators to admit this, because it's much harder to get to grips with than a binary world of gin-swilling middle classes versus the pasty-munching working people, but we're pretty much mixed in. The one massive flaw in Grayson Perry's truly excellent 2012 series on social class and aesthetic taste (do watch it if you didn't) is the tremendous leap between the working and supposedly middle class folk he spoke to - a gap which could be represented by years of education, multiples of annual income, several degrees latitude and in fact, most of the UK's population.

And you know the thing that makes this stuff even harder? We're mixed in but not at all blended. Class still exists and it still matters. There is rising wealth inequality. The possibility of home-ownership is more or less hereditary now. We're being governed by toffs who were born into wealth and use their positions as public servants to generate more for themselves and their friends.

That's why Tom Whyman wants to call middle class culture fascist and takes aim at the unmissable target of nostalgic twee. I get class hatred. I was part of the Assisted Places Scheme. Being a precocious child who asked such questions, my mother informed me we were, "Lower-middle-class, fallen on hard times."

The mothers at school intimidated mine, so I observed their vulgarities. In those days, posh women wore Alice bands ("Grown women, wearing Alice bands!" my teenage self would sneer). They had handbags with thick gold-coloured chain instead of a strap. They often wore necklaces, generally pearls, outside their blouse collars or polo-necks - jewellery outside their clothing, for crying out loud! They wore a lot of make-up, some of them had had cosmetic surgery and they drove the first family-friendly 4x4s, the ridicule of which was clear to me, years before anyone called them Chelsea Tractors. These women seemed like characterless china dolls next to my wild-haired Mum, who dressed sensibly and practically and cycled everywhere.

Whyman isn't moving far beyond my teenage self as he sneers at modern middle-class hipster aesthetics. I don't entirely object to the sneering (although I do play ukulele). The tea parties, Liberty prints and shelfies of middle-class culture are routinely privileged as clever and tasteful, while the clubs, leopard prints and magazine racks of working people are not. The Guardian publishes dazzlingly sycophantic pieces like this about a very wealthy young woman using her wealth to get wealthier like that's somehow a worthy and interesting creative exercise.

I really enjoy The Great British Sewing Bee, The Great British Bake Off and BBC Three's Hair, which was barely spoken about but applied exactly the same format to amateur hairdressing (three challenges over two days each episode, the second day dedicated to something fancy). I like this format - I like to see ordinary folk showing off what they can do. I'd like to see a woodwork version next, please.

Despite the identical format, Hair was punctuated with random pop music and presented by Steve Jones, a sort of Welsh Father Dougal who asked what a quiff was, despite having a rather impressive example directly above his frowning forehead. Hair was not the subject of newspaper review, speculation about who deserved to win or any declaration that hair-dressing was the new black. Sewing and baking are fairly classless activities (although wealthier folk often have more time to muck about with more expensive materials, without needing a practical purpose or special occasion), but apparently, hairdressing - at least as skillful, creative and useful as baking or sewing - just can't be packaged as gentle and genteel.

Thus, as I say, I don't entirely object to the sneering. Sewing Bee played Doris Day to introduce an anorak.

But this sneering is always aimed at feminine aesthetics. It is the mob baying for Marie Antoinette; demands to strangle the thirty-five year old in bobby-socks and fairy-wings with her own designer bunting. Another crack in Whyman's argument is that, of course, feminine fashions (which is what cupcakes are) are very often infantile. At once point it was impossible to buy an adult woman's jersey nightdress without a big teddy on the front and a slogan about snuggle-time or feeling sleepy-woo. In the 1970s, a lot of women seemed to dress like Little Bo Peep.

And then Whyman gets it completely wrong about the 2011 London Riots. Yes, they were kicked off by the police killing of Mark Duggan, along with austerity measures that place the overwhelming burden on the poor and the young - it wasn't a random occurrence. But the riots were a nightmare for many ordinary people in London, especially poor, vulnerable, disabled and older people. Attempting to clear up and make things better was not about passive-aggressively asserting middle class values, but trying to put things right, tidying up one's own backyard after the storm, taking care of one's neighbours. People who want peace on the streets are not automatic supporters of the regime.

Meanwhile, what those rioters did? The young poor (and a fair number who weren't so poor and weren't so young) were exploiting a situation of over-stretched resources to their material advantage. Rather like, you know, our senior politicians. Except, of course, the kids got punished.

A busty 18th century lady with a ship on her head,
admiring a rather large cupcake.
Marie Antoinette once had her hair done up with a silly great ship in it (a look, incidentally recreated on BBC Three's Hair). She never did tell anyone to eat cake, but she lost her head for looking like a ridiculous hedonist at a time of national hardship and frustration. She never had an significant power. Nautical hairstyles were not the reasons for poverty and oppression in pre-revolutionary France.

There are political attitudes in our country, many class-based, which are causing us big problems; the belief that a person's value is measured by their wealth, and that wealth-creation is the highest possible virtue. The very middle-class belief that charity, rather than welfare, is a sensible way of providing for people in financial difficulty (it feels so good to help out). The belief that poor people are lazy, feckless and dangerous. Whatever belief you'd like to attribute to the fact that youngsters received custodial sentences for petty theft during the 2011 Riots, while Maria Miller stole £5800 and didn't even get the sack.

The cupcakes I had, even with the elicit thrill of having stolen them, weren't that special. My Granny, baker and cake-decorator extraordinaire was scandalised when my cousin had cupcakes instead of wedding cake ("They're mostly just buttercream!"). So we're agreed, I feel, that people should eat more substantial and flavoursome baked goods.

But twee is background; stage dressing. It is an aesthetic, not divorced from our social and political problems, certainly not immune from critique, but not to targeted in place of the widening wealth gap, increasing poverty, deteriorating working conditions and political disenchantment.

Plus it's hard to believe someone who uses the phrase Cupcake Fascism can really mean it when they conclude, "you are just not thinking about the matter dialetically enough."

Also, how can you possibly illustrate an article with the phrase Cupcake Fascism with anything but a cupcake with a swastika on it?  I found some on a site promoting the swastika as a positive symbol we should reclaim from Nazism. But someone could have at least drawn one.

Oh and if you're interested/ bored enough to get down this far, you might like Is 'cupcake feminism' all empty calories? from 2012, which discusses some of these topics from a different angle.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The History of My Adult Life In About 100 Objects.

I am eighteen and I am leaving home. I take what I can fit into a suitcase and a shoulder bag and carry on and off a series of trains. Seven or eight months later, my parents deliver what I couldn't carry, namely Ho Chi Minh (my hamster), his cage, my lava lamp, a considerable collection of artificial flowers and a few books. A lot of my old stuff stays with my parents. Some of it will be given away over the years. 

In the brief tense mistral before we moved in together, my boyfriend presented himself as an anti-materialist, aspiring to having no more personal possessions than would fit into a backpack. I soon realise why he would have such an aspiration; at thirty-four, this man cannot fit his cuddly toy collection into a single suitcase. 

We arrive together, open a joint bank account and share the rent, but I live like a guest in my boyfriend's flat. When we argue, he threatens to send me home. He chooses all the furniture, all the stuff. Things we share are sometimes given away or sold without my knowing. Even my own things are sometimes half-offered to other people before I, cornered, am asked whether I'm happy to let them go. I usually am. It's only stuff. 

My possessions are referred to as my shit. Anything of mine; clothes (now bought to his taste), my computer, art materials, stationary is shit. At the same time, I am constantly berated for not taking care of things - if an item of clothing gains a hole, a paintbrush loses bristles with use or an old computer has hardware problems, it is because I've been mistreating my shit.

Making cups of tea and cooking, I dirty too many teaspoons in one day. We have twelve, so he hides nine of them. A few years later, I find the other nine by accident, but they are more trouble than they are worth. They remain in their hiding place.

A spherical paper lampshade reflected by two opposing
mirrors, ad infinitum.
I am not a materialist. What do things matter? Objects are about status and insecurity; people want stuff to show other people what they have, to seem important, individual or fashionable, because acquisition becomes a hobby and stuff is mistaken for love or achievement.

I'm not like that. I am cool, easy-going. I can believe this while being fascinated by aesthetics, reading art and design books and blogs, making art, crafting all the damn time. But that's different; I make stuff, I give it away and leave others to make of it what they will. I paint but none of my pictures remain in our home (not like my partner's paint-by-numbers effort, that is mounted, framed and hung on our living room wall.).

There are things I would like to have to make my life more comfortable and pleasant, but I know the objections it will meet: it will be a waste of space, it will be a waste of money, it will gather dust, it will generate condensation, its presence will cause accidents, I will use it wrong and break it, I won't use it at all, it will create work for other people and it isn't worth having. Often, on top of all this, my motivations for having a thing are wrong and misguided; I am naive, I don't know what I really want or need, and I am too easily influenced by others.

That one is true actually - during this period in my life. I am way too easily influenced by others.

I am twenty-three. After eighteen months of barely leaving the flat and never alone, my friend is selling off her old electric wheelchair and my Granny offers to buy it for me. Everyone thinks this is a really good idea. I get the electric wheelchair. Weeks later, I persuade my partner that I am safe to go out alone.

There are periods when I can get out alone. There are periods when I'm too ill and genuinely unsafe. During such periods, I am reminded of the poor wisdom of having an electric wheelchair.

I am twenty-six. We move. It becomes impossible for me to take my powerchair out at all without help and, although there is an able-bodied person in the house all day long, there is no help available. Not that, I am reminded, there is anywhere worth going. Now it really does take up space. Now it does gather dust. I offer it as a long term loan to a friend. I consider selling it to replace my failing laptop.

Later I will think, What on earth was I thinking? The chair is not quite my legs - I can manage in the house okay without it. But it is my outdoor shoes.

I think they call this pattern "Damask"; a black and white
vaguely floral pattern on a plastic surface.
I am twenty-eight. Always in trouble for being clumsy, I buy a plastic tray to place under the kettle and tea-making area to reduce spills on the worktop. It is black and white and boldly patterned. This is the first and last object of visual interest that I ever impose on our shared environment. When the house is tidy, the only signs of my presence are the spines of books, CDs and DVDs. Even my shoes are hidden under the bed.

We live in a two bedroom bungalow, using the box room as a living room and the living room - the biggest room in the house - to store my husband's piano, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum-kit, dolls house, swords, computer equipment, exercise bike, lazer-cutter, a plastic model kit collection which dates back to before my birth and two full size manikins.

Off to the goth festival, my husband says he needs some new plain black t-shirts. I check around and find 17 spares; 17 completely unworn plain black t-shirts in addition to the ones he wears every day.

During later pleas for my return, he will cite this physical dominance of our space as a behaviour he's prepared to change, as if that's why I left. At the time, it really doesn't bother me - I don't really notice, to be honest - and even with hindsight, it is the very least of my concerns. I can manage with little space, but I have no peace; no peace, no basic respect, nothing that would look like love to someone who has known love.

That particular year, he smashes three things in violence; a tray (though not my nice new one), my laptop and a bathroom door I was leaning against. The broken tray and the door - now little more than a frame with cardboard taped over the middle - will still be on display when I go. He still intends to fix them.

I am not a materialist. What do things matter? If I have not worn an item of clothing or listened to a CD during the previous year, I put it on eBay. Books, I often give away if they can't be sold. Art and craft materials are trickier, as they are not easily resold and little bits and bobs do come in handy later on.

A heart-shaped cherry quartz (red) bead with other
round beads, including opals if I remember correctly.
Somewhere in my head, I have confused two ideas. One is that it is morally wrong to buy things we don't want or need, which are often produced unethically and at great environmental cost, and may well end up being thrown away without use. The other is that it is morally wrong to have stuff. To even hold onto stuff - to take up space. At least for me.

Thus, I regard my bead habit as a vice. I buy interesting beads. Not very expensive beads (I know they exist; I window shop) but fancy glass or semi-precious stone beads, mostly from eBay. I do make jewellery sometimes, but I have a stock I will probably never use; a collection of small and beautiful things I can bring out to look at then store away out of sight.

My Gran gives me her old dressmaker's dummy. I am delighted, as I am an odd shape, have little money and dabble in making and adapting my own clothes. But I have no room for it. It sits at my parents' house for a few months and then they take it to a charity shop. A dressmaker's dummy costs about £100. Because it is not an essential item, even for making clothes, I can't imagine a time when I will be able to afford to replace it.

A great collection of purple clothing and fabric.
I am twenty-nine. I am leaving my husband and must sort out my stuff. I have to throw some things away. I try to sell decent clothes and give away some of my books but there isn't much time. I am sleeping on the sofa and, together with the physical effort of all this single-handed sorting out and the tension of living in this house, sleeping with the door barricaded and my walking stick beside my pillow, my spine is suffering. It feels as if the weight of all this stuff is bearing down on me.

The last day - the last morning, before I set off to Wales, is a nightmare. I can't stop finding bits and pieces that I need to make a decision about; a CD, a hair accessory, a pen. I have to leave the house in a mess, which I know will invite complaints. I have had ten years of such complaints, often with fists. Once I'm in the car, I couldn't really give a fuck.

My Mum has been listening to a Dubliners tape and when she starts the engine up, it automatically plays Don't Get Married. Later, this will seem funny. At the time, it is not even slightly funny.

My worldly possessions now consists of a stream-lined quantity of clothes, art and craft materials including my beads, paints, fabric and two easels (one freestanding, one tabletop), a ukulele, a guitar, a manual wheelchair, a powerchair, a camera, an Asus EEE-PC (the original - it will give up the ghost in exactly two weeks time), a Mac Mini computer (no TV or monitor), an ancient sewing machine, a great quantity of books, a box of CDs, a dozen DVDs and a further box of miscellaneous bits and bobs, including the lava lamp mentioned ten years earlier, now minus its cap.

We carry it in my parents' two cars. We stop off in Bristol overnight and part of me wishes my folks' cars would be stolen from outside the hotel. I am a problem and my stuff is part of that problem; I can't lift and carry it, I can't even drive it about. There's too much of it and yet, this is all I have.

A double-string of literally jet black multi-faceted beads. 
My ex asks for his wedding present back. It's an antique jet necklace and despite appearances at the time, he wasn't thinking of me when he bought it - he wanted it for himself and merely gave it to me to wear rather than keeping it in a drawer. I try to work out how much it is worth, although it would be practically impossible for me to sell at value. So I sell it back to him. I need the money and negotiate the return of The Wire and Battlestar Gallactica boxsets, which I originally bought anyway, not expecting him to like them. I'm not even all that keen on Battlestar, to be honest. 

I am lodging with a friend, who is having a very hard time and has particular anxieties about stuff and clutter; my landlady has too much of it and doesn't want any more in the house. This is fair enough. I count 27 tins of rice pudding, distributed randomly around a pantry serving a household where nobody eats rice pudding. There may be more, tucked out of sight.

Of course, my stuff isn't any problem. Only, you know, it's a bit of a problem. No, it's no problem. But, you know, it is taking up space. Only, it's not any real problem at all. My friend and landlady is, she reassures me, always true to her word and I believe her.  But that word changes a lot.

A collection of pillows and cushions.
I continue to sort through my stuff, looking again at the things I already chose to keep and choosing to let some of it go. There are some basic things I need to buy and frankly, that's exciting. I buy a v-shaped pillow and extra regular pillows. I buy a waste paper basket. I buy my own towels, which are floral and cheerful and alarm my landlady. I have never had such choices before. I was sometimes consulted, but I didn't buy things myself, spontaneously, not things for living with every day.

There's no chair in my room and the bed moves away from the wall when I lean on it. My back pain is getting worse because of this and the physical tension of living with flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares which intersperse a period where I am now happier than I have ever been. I decide to buy a deck chair - a fairly posh one, for comfort - as I can lean back in it and it can be folded away and take up almost no space at all. I shouldn't speak to my landlady about this, because it makes her nervous. She'll hardly ever see it, but I am bringing more stuff into the house.

I am not a materialist. I'm vaguely aware that as a divorcee, I am entitled to the value of half the stuff that my ex-husband and I had between us, but initiating a straight-forward no-property-involved divorce from a safe distance of three hundred miles is difficult enough. That's the truth of the matter. There are times when I get angry about it, feel a coward or irresponsible for letting all that go, but honestly?  It's okay. I am breaking free.

A wooden picture frame with a curly swirly
tree pattern. 
In Tregaron with Stephen, I see a beautiful picture frame. It is about £16, which is an awful lot to pay for a picture frame, but Stephen buys it for me - for us, for our eventual home. It is the single most beautiful thing I have ever possessed up to that point. It might be months before I see him again (in fact it will be three weeks but we don't know that), so our photo in that frame mean the world to me.

A few years later, we will watch horrified as a very similar frame is featured in this monstrosity. Fortunately, if inexplicably, it is featured on its side. Like an inverted crucifix.

As I travel back across to England to visit family, my friend and landlady's tune-changing and with it, the spectre of homelessness, weigh heavy on my mind.  While I'm away, despite reassurances that it wouldn't happen, someone else is invited to stay in my room. My friend and landlady complains about having to move all my stuff around - I've got so much of it - in order to prepare the room I rent for her guest.

I'm not really well enough to travel back, anyway. I ask my parents if I can live with them for a bit.

Having helped me carry my worldly possessions back and forth between East Anglia and West Wales, my folks feel able to remark about what an enormous amount of stuff I have. I'm thinking that when they were my age, they had a three bedroom house, a garden shed and a garage full of stuff, whereas all mine fits in one room, along with my borrowed furniture. But this is not my house, I wasn't sure they'd cope with my return and I am extremely grateful.

My Mum offers to help me go through everything and throw out the things I don't need. This offer is repeated, in various forms, such as, "I'm about to put these two boxes in the attic. Shall we just go through them? We might only need one box."

I now have four very beautiful ceramic spoons with goldfish
on them in my bedroom.
I am living in a room with no shelves, so I look at my books again. Of course, I have books which I may never read. I have books I have read but will not read again. What is a reasonable number of books for a person to keep? There must be a number, depending on circumstances, just like there's a reasonable amount of money to spend on a winter coat, according to one's income. Only books are not a winter coat. I mean, stories are important, reading is important, but the possession of physical books? They are not a winter coat. I have no winter coat.

My folks' house is probably about middling on the clutter front. But both my parents despair of the habits of the other and thus, both my parents believe their house to be cluttered. Mum is sentimental and has trouble letting go of trinkets and objects, even quite ugly things, inherited or received as gifts. My Dad has a collection of wire, along with phone chargers and sundry defunct or dysfunctional tech. They'd both like to have a good clear-out but they never have time. In truth, each would like to clear out each other's things.

Now they both want to clear out my things.

At some point, I have acquired some tea-towels. They are stored with other things in a box in my parents' garage. A mouse (or possibly a gang of mice) eat them.

I keep a scrapbook of cards these days, and favourite ones
get put in frames (a framed greetings card on a bookshelf)
My parents were once poor but they're now quite well-off. They don't feel well-off and so don't expect that even I, homeless by some definitions, should see things and money differently. It is inconceivable to them to fix or make do with something if a new one can be bought, because obviously, everything is so cheap.

When I was a child, my Mum made or altered most of our clothes. My Dad and I made a guinea pig hutch and a garden bench for my grandparents. My grandparents made stuff for us; furniture, curtains, toys. We all made stuff and, because perhaps I got sick so had the time plus very little money, that carried on for me.

Now they mock me for patching things up, making do with old stuff or making new items as if it is all a false economy; way too much trouble when I could just go out and buy things. As if I could, just go out and buy things.

My Mum observes I have a hole in my skirt; I should throw it away and buy a new one - she will buy me a new one, as a present, such is her enthusiasm for the disposal of the first. All my clothes are in a poor state of disrepair but this skirt is thinning fast, practically opaque in places. Still, I don't let it go.

A great amount of paperwork. Fortunately, I don't possess
this volume of paperwork any more.

In fact, I find myself incapable of throwing anything away; blister packs, broken pencils, torn and useless scraps of bubblewrap. My room becomes a tremendous mess - it looks like the room of someone with a serious mental health problem. It is a shocking sight, especially given that my presence is almost undetectable in the rest of the house; I pick up after myself, wash my dishes, tidy the cushions when I get up from the sofa. Part of me believes, because I have been told it over and over and over and over, that I am simply a slob and that this is what happens in a room occupied by a slob with no-one to shout at her about it. But another part of me looks at the room with barely a patch of carpet in sight and wonders whether the flashbacks and panic attacks might be worth mentioning to the doctor.

Also my back, which is getting worse and worse.

It is my thirtieth birthday. Stephen gives me a photo album containing the story of my year. There are hardly any photographs anywhere, print or digital, of me during my twenties. It is almost as if I have started existing again after a period of non-existence.

My Extensive Mug Collection, 1980-1999 and 2010-2014
(Four different mugs in muted colours)
I am thirty. Stephen and I begin collecting for our
bottom drawer. Mum calls it this; back in the day when almost everyone lived with their parents before and sometimes after getting married, young couples would begin to collect bits and pieces for their future home in a literal or metaphorical bottom drawer. Some of our things for our future life are stored, quite literally, in our bottom drawer.

Stephen and I begin to live together in two places, relying on our parents to transport us between Surrey and Suffolk every two or three months. We try not to carry too much stuff on these journeys and thus we end up buying more things. The first extra thing is a camera tripod. The second thing - after much discussion, because it feels like pure excess - is an extra pair of ukuleles. We don't double our clothes, but once we live in one place, we will probably have enough to cope without a washing machine for two or three weeks. We end up with duplicates of other things by accident, because we forget what we've got and where.

Our bedroom wall: A pale-coloured wall with a collection of
paintings, prints and photographs in a variety of frames.
We sort out our bedroom at my parents' house. We erect shelves, during which I have my final really powerful flashback.

My parents cope badly with us changing things in their spare room, putting pictures on the wall, changing the agony-making mattress for a memory foam one, installing a linen basket. It's not a problem, of course - we are welcome here; it is our home. Yet there is tension. I imagine it feels like the occupying forces are taking down their tents and establishing their own bricks and mortar. I imagine this but I don't know what else we can do. I have lost patience with mixed messages.

There are many things which I have wanted for a long long time, but which I could not justify before. Not because I couldn't afford them (although sometimes I couldn't), but because I couldn't present a case that they were absolutely essential, they wouldn't take up space, they wouldn't cause additional problems and I wouldn't waste them, break them or forget to use them.

Most of these things are presents from other people. But I am allowed to express my desire for them, accept them and keep them. They include:
My notebooks. Some of these are full already.
(A collection of notebooks of different sizes with
various patterns).

  1. An MP3 player. Now I even have blue tooth "sleep phones" - a headband with earphones inside it so I can listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks in bed. 
  2. A shower seat. So, you know, I can have a shower. 
  3. A kettle in my bedroom.
  4. Houseplants.
  5. Doc Martin boots. 
  6. Multiple and variously-shaped pillows and cushions.
  7. A king-size duvet on a standard double bed. 
  8. A special table for painting in bed. I am allowed to paint in bed
  9. Notebooks - not just one notebook, which I must fill cover to cover before starting on another - but multiple notebooks I can use for different purposes.  
  10. After my second EEE-PC dies, a laptop computer that is neither second-hand nor the very cheapest one on the market. 
Surrounded by pillows, my back improves.

Two red "Le Creuset" soup pots. They are super cute.
Despite their remarks about over-crowded living conditions, my parents often buy us presents when they're out and about; a cushion with a fox's face on it, a plastic saucepan for the microwave. At Christmas, birthdays and on the occasion of our two weddings, we receive many lovely presents; things we would never have thought to buy if we were stocking up from scratch ourselves. We have a few super cute pots for soup and miniature casseroles. Stephen's parents save up their Tesco vouchers and buy us Alessi cutlery, which is extraordinarily posh. My sister-in-law brings back beautifully ornate hand-painted bowls from Istanbul. We have a collection of decent cookware and utensils, even cake tins in our bottom drawer.

Our future home will be filled with beautiful things we couldn't possibly afford ourselves. We often get things out to admire them and fantasize about using them every day.

This is now and I am thirty-three. We hope to have a place of our own within the next six months. We're going to need a lot of stuff we don't have now. We have use of two beds but we don't currently own one. We do own a chest of drawers and have inherited a rocking chair but the latter needs reupholstering. Mice are beginning to eat it.

I'm looking around and thinking, do I want to take everything with me?  Because honestly, I still have things I don't really want, things I don't really need but which look like they might be useful, or valuable in some way. We are going to need more stuff, so I'd like to have less of the stuff I don't need.

I own a vase. A white vase the shape of a Florence flask
with peach-coloured lilies on, on my bookshelf.
I am not a materialist. Things matter because they are useful, they bring us pleasure and they can be infused with meaning.  Having beautiful things and useful things that I could live without but which bring me immense pleasure (like my MP3 player) makes me feel very fortunate and very free. Having beautiful things is like being able to eat delicious food or listen to fantastic music (on my MP3 player). There's a big difference between taking pleasure in objects and connecting their value with personal worth (did I mention that my MP3 player is an iPod?).

There is no moral to my story. It is just about bad luck, good luck, mixed luck, a bad back and stuff.

Mum isn't in a great mood. I bring two A4 sheets of cardboard - the sort from the inside of reinforced envelopes or the back of paper pads - into the kitchen.

"Can I throw that out?" asks Mum.

"I was just about to," I reply.

"Good," she says, grumpily. "We don't have room to keep stuff like that here. When you have a place of your own, you can have as many old sheets of cardboard as you like."