Category Archives: In memoriam

In memoriam

A vigil for Savita: why so much hatred for women?

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Candles for Savita outside Irish Embassy, London

This week, the news broke about Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old dentist of Indian origin living in Ireland, who had last month presented herself to a hospital in Galway, Republic of Ireland, in terrible pain. It was found that she was miscarrying her first, unborn child 17 weeks into her pregnancy but medical staff treating Savita refused her pleading to terminate the already unviable foetus as its heartbeat was still detectable. Savita was left in agony, with no hope of giving birth to a live baby for days before the foetal heartbeat could no longer be found. Savita then developed septicaemia and died days later. When begging for an artificial termination to end her misery, she was reportedly told that “Ireland is a Catholic country,” and the doctors were therefore not able to terminate the pregnancy. Here is a link to the BBC story. Apparently, medical staff treating Savita ran the risk of being charged with murder had they brought this unviable pregnancy, already miscarrying, to a definitive end. For a clear explanation of the law in Ireland, please see the blog post by @_millymoo here.

Vigils and marches were held this week in Dublin, London and Delhi and yesterday I attended a candlelit vigil outside the Irish Embassy in London to mark my disgust at what had happened. For me it is just the latest instance of women having diminished rights, of receiving unfair and barbaric treatment because of their sex. In this particular case, it was clear that the rights of an unviable foetus took precedence over those of the woman carrying it but for me it was just the latest in a series of bad news stories.

My protest was also against the treatment of women as second class citizens all over the world. From the prevention of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the prohibition on driving for women in Saudi Arabia to the disappearing girls in China and bride-burning and sexual harassment in India, all around the world there are instances of incredible and appalling barbarism towards girls and women. A Guardian article just today about Female Genital Mutilation in Indonesia (and the rest of the world) made me weep tears of rage.

Let us not just point the sanctimonious, enraged finger at Asian or Muslim countries though. Women are held as second-class citizens in supposedly Christian cultures too, and not only Catholic ones. Even in so-called developed countries, debate still rages about whether the work of a woman is of equal value to that of a man; whether women have permission to reach high office, or any office, in the Church, ironically by definition a caring profession. Societal issues about gender and childcare responsibilities mean that women’s talents and skills are often lost to the economy or that women are left doing two jobs, outside and inside the home, and being paid less than one man. Consider also why so much of the recent US Presidential election focused on the rights of a woman over her own body and of stupid politicians’ total and almost proud ignorance of female biology. People talk about being Pro-life, they are very good at telling others what to do with their bodies and lives, but we don’t often hear whether these people are willing to take on the emotional and financial responsibility for raising an unwanted, unplanned-for child for the next 20 years.

I want to know why so many people hate women so much. Or feel it is OK to denigrate them or belittle them or wave away the concerns of half the world. Women have to sacrifice their bodies and in many cases their mental and physical wellbeing, when having children and in many parts of the world pregnancy carries grave risk. Why, in 2012, is it still acceptable for women’s lives to be degraded by cultures and religions despite generally having responsibility for bringing forth and raising the next generation? A woman is more than a walking incubator.

As things stand, Irish women (and women from other countries with severely restrictive abortion laws, such as Poland) seeking a termination for whatever reason, whether they have been raped or sexually abused or have simply made a mistake, are forced to come to Great Britain, where they are supported by the British taxpayer and the NHS. Women whose unborn children are so severely disabled that they are unviable outside the womb are forced to carry through their pregnancies without medical intervention. How is this acceptable in 2012?

So all of these things were racing through my head as I went to the Irish Embassy yesterday to support the Savita protestors campaigning for the Irish government to introduce proper legislation to give Irish women the right to abortion in their country. There were about 100 demonstrators there, and at one point four vans full of police officers were shipped in to keep the peace. Some demonstrators were blocking the road, it is true, but many of the Irish women protesters present refused to move from their embassy steps, Irish soil. Eventually, after having made our point, we dispersed, some of us to return home, some to plan a future strategy.

I am so pleased and proud that Darling Daughter decided to come along with me to the vigil. I generally strongly disapprove of parents bringing young children, who are unable to think through the issues and make up their own minds, to demonstrations and protests. An ex-school chum of the Boywonder’s was always being photographed for the local paper with his father, a local councillor, and holding placards to support his father’s campaign against the local psychiatric hospital, for example. I feel the same way about religious faith. I have none, but it is up to my children to decide whether or not they want to be part of a faith. In the meantime I would never prevent them from attending services or rituals to learn about faiths and cultures.

But Darling Daughter is a clever and thoughtful child and always has been. She is extremely interested in human rights and currently intends to work in this field. It was completely her choice to come on this, her first demonstration, and I respect and admire that she stayed despite being hugely intimidated, especially by the arrival of so many police. At one point she and I were standing on the pavement taking in the candles in the photograph and we looked up to find ourselves surrounded by eight police officers.

I know that just attending a demonstration or a vigil does not in itself make a lot of difference in the world, but apathy and ignoring an undesirable situation enables tyrants to win without effort. Is that really the sort of world we want for our daughters?

Sometimes, a bit of a fuss is a good thing.

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Today, as every Sunday, I did the ironing in my pyjamas whilst listening to the Archers Omnibus. I only remembered afterwards that today is the sixth anniversary of the day my dad died. My husband was working in Paris at the time, and the children and I were celebrating the final afternoon of the summer holidays with a trip to Parc Asterix when I managed to pick up a voicemail from my cousin’s wife, telling me that I’d better come home that evening. Well, my dad was unconscious in hospital when I arrived in London at about midnight, and slipped away the following afternoon as I was trying to engage my mother about switching off his life support machines. I took over the formalities with no fuss and, after the funeral two weeks later life went on as usual.

There was no commemoration today. I’m pretty sure my mother doesn’t remember the date my dad died or that today is the anniversary. She’s not great with dates, never has been, and doesn’t remember anyone’s birthday except, of course, her own. No-one else in my family is really interested in dates and anniversaries and things. My cousins, with whom I’m glad I have become closer recently, commemorate their mother’s passing by spending some time together. So do my friend Jeannie and her two sisters even though that was many more years ago. I find that touching and sweet.

But I have no brothers or sisters. My mum and I struggle to find any common ground at all. It was like this before the obvious deterioration in her mental faculties, and I think we live in parallel universes, just meeting up for a while on Wednesday afternoons or when she has a medical appointment, and inevitably going off at tangents.That’s it.

When I was small I used to have huge birthday parties, and my parents were highly sociable people who threw huge parties at the drop of a hat for anniversaries or engagement parties or whatever. And we’d celebrate with lots of people and lots of fuss and embarrassing, inappropriate speeches. But they found personal, quiet intimate celebrations, going out for a celebration meal or making a cake, almost impossible. As I’ve probably said before, I think it’s because they both came from such large families that they just got on with life without having time for cultivating emotional intelligence. It was a different world, rural India in the 1930s, but as an only child growing up here I reacted against the inevitable bluster and fuss and paper plates by withdrawing into myself. Yes, I’d always be on hand to wash up and fry puris and look after the little ones, but it really wasn’t my idea of how to live. I’m more sophisticated than that, you see.

My husband is similarly an only child who grew up quietly in family circumstances that eschewed noisy celebrations. We are quiet, hard working, socially anxious. We don’t tend to make a fuss about stuff. Noisy celebrations are not a priority. Every year I inevitably forget about Diwali until it’s too late and then feel resentful about making at least a bit of a fuss at Christmas. It’s all rather sad. Perhaps it’s a function of our lack of religious faith or a resolutely Northern European approach to life that we don’t really see any meaning or relevance in all the legends and festivals. Or perhaps the sheer, unrelenting grind of everyday London life takes precedence over everything else to such a degree that there is simply no energy left to expend having a good time. I don’t know.

But I think our rationality has made us throw the baby out with the bathwater somewhat. So I’m finally determined to get someone to come and put some lights up around my house to switch on at Diwali and at Christmas. Even if the necessary scaffolding for our sloping drive is expensive. Because sometimes it is good to make at least a bit of a fuss. It’s important to mark the passing of the years before it’s too late. Which brings me to my dad. I haven’t forgotten him six years ago today.

On how the Lennox case affects us all

Lennox as a puppy.

I have been exercised in recent days about the case of poor Lennox. To my sadness and shame, I had done very little to add my support to this appalling case in the two years before Lennox’s destruction on Wednesday, despite being made constantly aware of it through the efforts of Dogs Today’s Beverley Cuddy and It’s Me or the Dog’s Victoria Stilwell amongst others. I suppose I thought that sense and logic would prevail through a competent justice system and that poor Lennox would eventually be reunited with the Barnes family.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, here is a brief synopsis. A fuller version is available on Beverley’s blog and elsewhere.

Lennox was a five year old Labrador/American Bulldog cross who lived in Belfast with responsible owners who fulfilled all their microchipping and registering duties under Northern Irish law. HE HAD NEVER ATTACKED ANYONE OR ANYTHING. He was seized from the family home, accused of being a dangerous dog of the “pit bull type.” He was assessed by an ex Metropolitan Police officer on behalf of Belfast City Council (BCC). Independent, more expert evidence that assessed Lennox as being a calm, friendly pet was apparently suppressed. You can see all sorts of information relating to Lennox’s case here.  DNA evidence of Lennox’s genetic heritage is not admissible in court so it appears that Lennox was condemned for being a banned breed, a “Pit Bull Type,’ merely on the basis of his appearance.

Belfast City Council kept the poor dog away from his family in deeply unpleasant kennelling for two years whilst the case was proceeding and going to appeal. Victoria Stilwell had concerns about his treatment during this time. Many people campaigned on his behalf and some idiots made threats to some of the Council’s staff. I believe that this sort of stupidity exacerbated the situation and caused Belfast City Council to dig their heels in more firmly and refuse to listen to any reasonable petitions on Lennox’s behalf. His family were not allowed to see him nor were they granted his body but were merely told that they would receive “some ashes” in the post. Belfast City Council obfuscated and refused to meet Victoria Stilwell, who had offered to export Lennox for rehoming in the USA, and refused to entertain any pleas for clemency. In the end, they did not even have the courtesy to inform the Barnes family that they had killed Lennox, and a campaign supporter who called them to confirm this was greeted with sheep noises over the telephone.

This case highlights that shabby treatment of dogs and worries me for the following reasons:

Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and Amendment 1997 (in Northern Ireland it is the Dangerous Dogs Order 1991) banned the following types of dog:

The Act also covers cross breeds of the above four types of dog. Dangerous dogs are classified by “type,” not by breed label. This means that whether a dog is prohibited under the Act will depend on a judgement about its physical characteristics, and whether they match the description of a prohibited “type.” This assessment of the physical characteristics is made by a court, and DNA evidence, though widely used in cases that involve humans, is not admissible in the case of dogs. Lennox was classified as a “Pit Bull Type” by appearance only, in the view of one ex-Metropolitan Police Officer.

I am completely against breed specific legislation as it potentially condemns innocent dogs, as was the case with poor Lennox. And let us not forget that he was also part-Labrador. ANY DOG, even a Labrador, can be brutalised by an owner intent on making it into a fighting dog or a rough tough-looking status dog. ANY dog. We must change Breed-Specific Legislation and concentrate on the DEED of the dog, and not the BREED. Remember, poor Lennox was innocent of any crime, except looking like a “Pit Bull type”

Training

Many people seem to be against Staffordshire Bull Terriers (Staffies) and their crosses because of a general public perception that they are dangerous fighting dogs and cannot be trusted with people. In my view, this perception is media-fuelled and completely wrong. We are vilifying the wrong species here. Staffies have been bred with those huge jaws that grip things tenaciously and don’t let go by PEOPLE. They were indeed bred as fighting dogs by PEOPLE. Unscrupulous people. Whenever there is a case of a Staffie attack, it is easy just to believe the headlines but people don’t take time to discover that these particular dogs have often been raised in neglectful, brutalised homes. It is the owners who let their dogs down.

If a dog is nervous around other dogs or people it is usually for a reason, and the dog should be kept on a lead and muzzled if necessary. But so many owners breed these dogs unscrupulously and are too lazy or stupid to provide responsible leadership to their pets so the dogs end up up in rescue homes and, because of the breed’s undeserved reputation, they are difficult to rehome and left to rot or, sadly, euthanised. If a dog attacks or bites, it is the dog who is euthanised and the owner who failed his dog is free to harm another poor dog. I recently blogged about a horrid incident in which I was threatened in Beckenham Place Park by a thuggish owner when I intervened to stop him hitting his dog. The Police, when they eventually stopped the youths, could do nothing about the situation, as the dog was on a lead and under control. There was NOTHING wrong with the dog at that time but I felt sure the poor thing would have been turned into an anxious, angry fighting dog within six months.

Dogs trust us, their owners, to provide gentle but firm, positive leadership. This is why it is important to civilised people to train all dogs consistently from puppyhood to have a soft mouth, good recall and good manners in public. In my view, people who want a dog should be made to undergo a certain period of dog training with a properly qualified dog trainer BEFORE they are allowed to keep a dog. There are far too many people too lazy to provide even basic training for their dogs or even walk them. These people do not deserve their loving, trusting companionship, in my view.

Malice

Thinking more widely than the case of poor Lennox, though, my worry is this: if a council can come and snatch an innocent dog from a loving family, impound him and kill him with impunity whose poor dog is next? Cases of unscrupulous owners and poorly trained dogs, or owners who simply can’t be bothered to clear up or take responsibility for their own dogs have made our society unjustifiably fearful and biased against all dogs. The few have made things difficult for the vast majority of loving, responsible dog owners.

I have written about my Postman who decided to take his anti-dog grudge out on me and accused me, completely falsely, of having a dangerous dog. Now that the Dangerous Dogs Act is extended to include acts committed on private property, what is to stop anyone who knows nothing about how dogs making malicious, spurious or false accusations in this way?

I hope that Belfast City Council are at least held to account for their behaviour in this case and that there will be a full, public investigation to stop this happening to other family pets. Remember, if unaccountable council people can reject or suppress all reasonable, objective evidence and alternative courses of action to protect their own egos in the case of a dog, what else are they empowered to do?

For my dad

My dad as a young man. This photo dates from the 1950s, I think.

My dad, Keshav, had he lived, would have been 80 years old today.

Born into a Brahmin family in rural Vita, India, he left his university course in 1952 to join my uncle who was seconded to the UK with the Indian Navy. In those days, the UK was the mother country of the Empire and the streets were supposedly paved with gold. Large scale recruitment took place from the Indian Sub-Continent and the Caribbean for people – then still British subjects – to work in the newly-formed NHS and on public transport. It was natural that, given such a golden opportunity, he would come to London to continue his studies here.

He soon found that his life was to be tough. He was one of that generation of people who would rise early to go and labour on post-war building sites, going on afterwards to college for his 4 A levels and further education, then coming home to study into the small hours in a largely unheated, dimly lit room. This experience cannot have enhanced his eyesight, extremely poor from a young age and although he tried to complete his degree, he did not succeed, gaining instead a Diploma in Marketing that was framed and proudly displayed in the sitting room of his house until after his death.

Life was tough in the early days. My dad lived in a succession of boarding houses, “digs,” where he could be told at a moment’s notice that his presence was no longer welcome. Was he rowdy, badly behaved or ill mannered? No. It was because he was Indian. My dad learned very quickly to assume the ways of his hosts and became assimilated. He swallowed casual racism, learning to wave it away with a stroke of one of his large hands. People called him “George,” because they could not pronounce his first name.  Perhaps it was this indignity this that prompted him to give me a name that he thought everyone would find easy. Sadly, he was wrong in that.

My dad became a committed Labour Party supporter and joined the early CND Aldermarston marches against nucear weapons. I remember him explaining to the 7 year old me all about apartheid in South Africa, after he was shocked to find a tin of fruit cocktail from that country in the larder. He seemed very pleased at my interest in politics and current affairs, and that I would argue with any of his friends. He encouraged my interest in music from an early age. I remember coming home from school at the age of 5 and humming the Blue Danube Waltz. My dad hunted through his disorganised collection of vinyl – he had been a member of a record club – and played me that and Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninov.

Dad worked hard exporting railway parts until he was made redundant in 1980 by the relocation of his company to the North. Those nine months of unemployment changed my dad’s personality forever. He tried so hard to find a job, painstakingly writing out his slanting CV in tiny capital letters. It must have been so difficult in an era before word-processing for someone with such poor eyesight. A normally jovial fellow, he became quieter and more reserved, but eventually found a job locally for half the pay. Still, it was a job, and he enjoyed being useful.

His outgoings were low: he had paid off his mortgage and I was at the local grammar school. My dad spent nothing on himself, squirrelling away savings for a pension he hardly even drew. My mum was working so life was not as difficult as it might have been. They still managed trips to India and travelled together all over the world. In later years they would sit in front of the television: he was my deaf mother’s ears, explaining the dialogue to her; she was his eyes, describing the landscape and actions of the characters. She still does this.

When I started going out with my boyfriend shortly after this, it must have been a huge shock to his system as we had been relatively close. However, he eventually came to like and respect him, making his speech at our wedding several years later a paen of praise to him. He was tremendously happy at the arrival of his grandchildren and rejoiced in telling them stories as they sat on his knee.

In his later years, my dad was probably completely blind, and his refusal to acknowledge this probably prevented people from helping him. Without a white stick, he would launch himself across the road and hope that drivers would see him and stop, thinking this was just another stupid drunk. I am glad he never saw or heard the name calling of some of my fellow sixth formers as he sat everyday at the front of the bus. The memory of this makes me cringe. What had my dad ever done to them? Nevertheless, my dad had a huge circle of friends and was always welcoming guests from India.

I think my dad became depressed by his incipient blindness and by a feeling that the world was passing him by. When we moved to Paris and he could no longer come and see us every week, I think he just faded away, devoured by cirrhosis caused by childhood hepatitis. The last time I spoke to my dad on the phone, he called me in Paris to tell me he was going into hospital for routine surgery. He caught an infection there, and, as I enjoyed a final summer holiday day out with the children at Parc Astérix, I got the call from my cousin to tell me that I’d better come, quickly. I raced back through the rush hour traffic on the Périphérique, and managed to get the last Eurostar to London, arriving at midnight. I went straight to see my dad in hospital but by that time it was just a question of when we switched off the machines keeping him alive. In the end, he slipped away, making the decision for us. He would have liked that.

As I sat with him, I could think only of our bitter arguments as we both dug our heels in and the emotional blackmail and hurt. I wish I had not become so estranged from the sensitive person inside. He would have been glad that his death was one of the factors that has brought our family together and made us closer than we ever were when he was alive.

We all still miss him.

So, farewell then, Pete

We might fight it with eye cream and Botox and fast cars, but Age creeps up on us inexorably. We might not feel older than about 25, but the shadows are there under our eyes, the concealer settles into our laughter lines, hand responsibilities at work and with our families mean that there is a limit to the pretence we once shared that the whole world belongs to us.

Now in our mid forties, several among our friends have lost parents. Even if that is sudden, to an extent that is expected. Older people have had their lives and made their memories, and death is part of the eternal cycle. But today we attended the funeral of Pete, one of us who, at 48, lost his battle with cancer. He was cut short. It is shocking and sad. A waste.

I suppose it is there from about 35, that thought that we need to stay fit and try to eat healthily to avoid heart disease; that we should check ourselves regularly for lumps and bumps that weren’t there before; that a persistent headache might be a brain tumour. We have such busy lives. People depend on us and we can’t afford to fall ill. That thought that throbs away in the back of our minds like a very faint pulse that we haven’t as much time left as we might think. Pete was caught out and his death makes us face our own mortality.

Pete was a college friend of my husband’s and coincidentally came from the same home town. My husband’s college cohort, sent off to Germany for two years in the first week of their course, bonded quickly and became fast friends. They shared their lives and loves, beer and cigarettes, in Germany and then in North London, going on to be productive and useful in a whole range of careers. Pete stayed local, joining his family business.

We remained a large, cohesive group for several years, meeting regularly in Leicester Square, sharing group hugs, going to clubs, sobbing at films (Schindler’s List is a particularly strong memory) meeting new partners and travelling to weddings across Europe. An international band, many of the group settled in Europe or further afield.

It was the arrival of children and the flight of most from London that put paid to that once close relationship for most of us. In the days before emails and texts and Facebook, many of us lost regular contact and then felt too shy or embarrassed at what we had lost to pick it up again.

So today we all came to Pete’s funeral, here in Beckenham, nearly 25 years on from graduation. Tiny Beckenham Crematorium was packed to the gills with people whose life he had touched. The music and readings were personal and full of joyful memories. There were big smiles as well as plentiful tears. It was a testament to how much Pete was loved.

I remember, Pete, when the Boywonder had just been born and I was struggling with the stress of a starving newborn and a new house and mastitis and the suspicion that I was terrible at breastfeeding and that I would therefore be a bad mother. You came to see me and held my tiny, struggling baby and somehow reached out and made me feel not quite so alone. You were Uncle Pete to all our children as we slowly drifted away. Profoundly sensitive, sweet, kind, gentle under a bluff rugby exterior, it took you a while to settle down and eventually find happiness with Tracey. In the end you never had children, but you would have made a great dad.

I am so profoundly saddened that we lost touch and that everyone’s busy lives got in the way of our being of some comfort to you in your suffering. I am so sorry that your cancer was such a battle in the end, that your immunity was just too low. Perhaps our support could have made a difference as yours made such a difference to me all those years ago. Let your death be a reminder that we should hold our friends to us.

Uncle Pete, best friend, Best Man, beloved husband, devoted son: sleep well. xx