Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Scourge Part 7.

Part 7: On Our Way.
It was freezing. Hellishly freezing. What have I got myself in for? I woke at 7 wearing vastly more clothes than I had fallen asleep in. Dave was making green tea and looked rosy and alert. After a few sips I too was rosy. It was the first day of the walk, and we were almost on our way.
“A little bread and Snickers, and we’ll be on our way!” said Dave, stretching in the morning sun. It looked to be a good one. The clouds were high and ruffled, like silk sheets, and the sun was in the east, hardly peeking over the mountains and hills which we were soon to cross.
It was a tad ironic that our first stint towards the east was to be spent heading northwest. This was to reach St. Bees Head, the most westerly point of North West England. Before that, we were obliged by tradition to soak our boots in the sea. Before that, however, something had come to my attention which needed attention. After that, we'll be on our way, I told myself.
A rare sequence of logic had occurred in my head during the cold night. My passport, which was now at the Belorussian embassy, was going to be sent to Dave’s house while we were away. It dawned on me that it might need to be signed for, and then it dawned on me that Dave’s girlfriend was not going to be in the house. This could be a problem.
“It’ll be fine,” Dave said. It was the reassurance of someone whose life wasn’t going to be affected whether it turned out fine or not.
“How?” I retorted.
“A neighbour could sign for it, or you pick it up from the depot or something.”
I bit off a nail. “If it goes back to the depot, I won’t be able to get it before I have to go to France.” My schedule was tight: return from the North on Saturday, leave on a giant trip to Beijing on train on Sunday. “I’m going to phone my mum, and then we’ll be on our way.”
It was 10:30 before we were on our way. I won’t bore you with the arduous and contradictory obstacles which conspired to thwart my humble attempts to secure my passport, save for the simple fact that it was torturous and Homeric in its scope. And it wasn’t over: I’d have to find times (and phone signal) to phone my parents, the Belorussian embassy and, now, my aunt, during the week.
By the time I’d made some kind of vague arrangement, I was too fed up to do the stupid boots-in-the-sea nonsense. I found Dave reading by the beach and joined him. “Fuck it,” I said, “let’s go.”
The beginning of the walk is marked by a plaque. We were going to take a photo next to this plaque when an extended family chortled up to it and began taking a range of photos, as one would at a wedding. The two of us stood patiently for a moment, with me and my newly heightened stress levels radiating a conspicuous aura of impatience, and then we left. I shook my head in appalled disgust at these wretched foes and their dimwittery. Photos!
We left and marched up the hill. The walk was immediately taxing, the incline and heavy bags putting strain on our hitherto untested shoulders. The extended family, who we’d by now named the Fellowship, were right behind us, chuckling and whooping. They overtook us when I phoned my parents again to talk more about passports, and we overtook them when they stopped to drink water. Every time we passed we engaged in a quintessentially British bit of theatre, remarking on the weather and the challenges ahead. This peaked when we reached a river, cut deep into the high rock which we had to descend to cross. There was a bridge at the bottom and a kissing gate. A naive walker such as myself didn’t know the term ‘kissing gate’; for those as ignorant as me, it’s a gate on a spring which pushes against a fence which has to be pushed open and squeezed past before you let the gate fling back against the fence. It’s like an airlock for the countryside, stopping animals roam freely. On the other side of the gate and the river, Dave stopped to apply sun cream.
“They’re coming,” I warned him under my breath. But it was too late.
“Here we are again!” laughed the approaching woman, currently spearheading the Fellowship. With three generations, ranging from about 55 to twelve, they were surprisingly spritely. Embarrassingly so.
“Waiting for us at the kissing gate!” another woman chuckled.
“We’ll have to stop meeting like this!” said a man, presumably some kind of uncle, who’d begun to enjoy the euphemistic shenanigans.
“We couldn’t resist,” I said.
They stopped this time to exchange backgrounds. We explained that we were from London (which isn’t strictly true but makes the conversation simpler) and this is our first big walk. They were more local than us, from Coventry, and one in their ranks had done it before. This time, they planned only to walk half way. They all had two walking sticks each, which looked professional but seemed, to us, superfluous. As for the kids, it was their first time doing a long-distance walk, and although they shrieked with delight and a zest for adventure, I pitied them.
“See you next time!” Dave yelled as they strolled up the valley, before lamenting to me in a quieter tone, “We’ll never be rid of them.” Wanting to escape the Fellowship was no trifling matter: our grand visions of the untamed country, the rugged path trodden down by a couple of silent, hardy wanderers, was not aided by the happy-go-luckiness of an extended family high on fresh air and good spirits. It was far too nice.
The next time we passed them we did it at such speed that I was tempted to make race car sounds as we overtook. We’d gotten our act together, with water and sun cream and snacks all in reaching distance. Bag straps were all tightened and our march was seriously on; it was our Nazgul to the Fellowship on the next hill. This time, we’d decided, we’d leave them for dust.
We achieved this, and spent another two hours hugging the cracked clifftop walking north. The rock was red and aged, freckled with clumps of grass. We considered the few sheltered spots hidden in the sloping grassland, weighing them up for potential camping spots, practicing for the coming evenings. Across the Irish Sea was the Isle of Man and the peaks of southern Scotland, and besides us was St. Bees Lighthouse, which has been guiding the local ships in some form since 1718. The one we were passing was built in 1822 after the previous had met its fate in the embers of a fire which killed the lighthouse keeper’s wife and their five children. An image of the Fellowship huddled in the corner under a blanket of smoke flashed across my mind – I couldn’t help it. On that note, we banked eastwards and said goodbye to the coast. Finally, we agreed, we were on our way.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Scourge of the Trail, Part 6

Previously on The Scourge (link to part 1)

Part VI: St. Bees.

Virgin Trains – they look fast, with that sloped front and stripes down the side, but they’re not. Fast enough to kill you if you crash, yes, but not fast enough to get to Carlisle in less than four hours. By any standard that’s not a good deal – if something is going to be dangerous, it should at least be efficient.
It was five before we wandered out into the citadel of Carlisle. We had half an hour to waste here before our connection to St. Bees, so we bought coffee, newspapers and sandwiches and wandered around the city gates. Being on the border of England and Scotland, the gift shops are all full of Scottish souvenirs. It was comforting to know that I could come away with Scottish souvenirs without having to set foot in actual Scotland. I wondered if there were English souvenir shops just over the border on the Scottish side.
In the news, the hitherto peripheral figure of Jeremy Corbyn was making seismic leaps towards political leadership, and astonishing pundits in the process; and a British scientist was being ripped apart by the lions of social media for making an ill-advised joke about women.
As we debated the efficacy with which a slip-up can turn into a career-threatening scandal, our train came and very nearly went. Carlisle station confused us and we found ourselves, heavy bags and all, clambering along the platform hunting for our train. It was hidden on one of those special little platforms, saved for the loser trains which the other trains don’t like. All the cool trains went to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh. Ours, a rickety contraption, perhaps one of the first trains to have been ever rolled out back in the 18th century when Britain was in the throes of empire, contained only the poor sods that time left behind, who had no choice but to venture, or return, to the bitter countryside; and the two poorest sods, all going to one destination: St. Bees.
We entered St. Bees cuddling the fields, looking over the Irish Sea towards the Isle of Man and a rocky-looking Scotland to the north. With these chunky bags, I felt conspicuous. I could hear the locals’ thoughts: another couple of city boys doing the Coast to Coast. Bet they won’t last a day.
Dave, being the man with the book, was responsible for finding places to stay. Coast to Coast not only gives you maps, but also a roundup of reputable accommodation in any given place, complete with a little review of facilities, price, and phone number. Our first night was to be spent, for a cool £6 each, in the garden at Stonehouse Farm on a delightful patch of grass overseen by a blond chap who sounded, to Dave’s ears, like his uncle. It was all very homey.
It was our first time putting up tents and we were grateful to have no one watching us, judging our ineptitude. Pegs were getting lost and bent, and refusing to go in the ground. Arms were too weak to force them. Poles were being thrown around, as were muttered expletives. Half an hour later, however, we were able to look with pride at our new homes, Dave’s palace and my pod.
The weather had turned, and a brisk wind had picked up. We flip-flopped down to the beach to take a look at the sea. The water was wholly uninviting, and we put off the C2C ritual of stepping in it until tomorrow. We found the Queen’s Head and I had a fish and chips while Dave had a vegetarian curry. We savoured it as if it were our last, for we were sure it would be. Back in the tent, our ‘kitchen’ awaited.
I read The Whitehaven News which told of the attempts of workers at Sellafield nuclear plant to save their jobs, and the contestants for Miss North West Great Britain, for which local farmyard animals were added to make up the numbers. It was also reported that hundreds of moon jellyfish had washed up on the beach at St. Bees, and the advice, against all popular remedy beliefs, was not to piss on the sting. Another story was about selficide – the act of dying while taking a selfie. People were electrocuting themselves, falling into ravines, getting run over by trains, and so on; and the craze was catching on all over the world. “Don’t take selfies,” Dave told me with authority. “It’s simply not worth the risk.”
“I suppose it’s comeuppance for an immoral act of narcissism,” I mused.
Sadly for me, the camera on my phone was half broken, meaning only the selfie shot worked. To take a picture of something, I had to take a ‘selfie’ and then awkwardly remove my self from the frame. This was a bit of a balancing act even of steady, safe ground, but on a windy mountain top...
“You’re going to die,” said Dave, and took a sip of IPA.
I considered this for a moment. “Fuck it,” I said. “I’m getting a beer.”
In darkness we reached the tents. A cat was in mine. I pushed him out and waddled in. The night air was brisk but my pod-tent kept the chills at bay. With my tiny torch a-fixed to my head, I read a Matsuo Basho haiku and went to sleep.
First winter rain,
I plod on,
Traveller my name.

Take me to Part 7.

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Social Acceptabiltity List 2015

As the New Year ticks over, we reflect on a bumper year in the world of social discourse. Here’s a little run down of the movers and shakers in this year’s Social Acceptability List, which is compiled by the Fallen in Public and its patchy memory and is about what politicians, newspapers and netizens went on about and how. What’s in? What’s out? What’s OK? What’s not? Read on to find out...

In today's edition - IT'S IN! - Shaming!

Until recently, shaming was a term probably more associated with the honour killings you hear about in those nasty stories about Muslims. Now it’s become a tool of the young, well-meaning, progressive Left. It’s no surprise that social media is the arena where most of it plays out.

In June, a scientist called Tim Hunt made a ‘joke’ to an audience about women in the science profession. The media got wind of the ‘joke’ and did not find it funny. Commentators lined up to castigate the man, and he was duly dropped from his position. Reactionaries cried ‘Liberal fascists!’, ‘feminazis’ and, of course, ‘’political correctness gone mad”. But the moment for sexist jokes has passed, and unless you’re ironically adopting the role of the man who says wrong things in public, a la Ricky Gervais in character, you can’t get away with saying “female scientists cry when they’re criticised.”

Some genuinely mean people have started a little group called Overweight Haters Ltd, which hands out sanctimonious cards to people they deem overweight. What purpose this has I have no idea. Those who condemn the activity called it fat-shaming, and articles and memes have duly spread. Slut-shaming, which kicked off this new era of shaming, had its modern rebirth in 2011 in Canada when a policeman said that women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing as ‘sluts’. The response was the Slutwalk, a protest against the habit of some to blame the victims rather than the perpetrators of rape; and an in-your-face expression of women’s rights to act how the hell they want and fuck off if you don’t like it.

The act of shaming is by no means confined to the left, but the terminology is certainly lefty. Slut-shaming and fat-shaming are attributed to the patriarchal and sexist society in which we live, and the enthusiastic, moralistic exercise of the right to demean others. Both take place because the expectations we have developed about how women (for the most part) should look and behave, the answer being – hot but not too naughty.

But being hot leads to its own problems, as I well know. So does Charlotte Proudman, who received a message on LinkedIn from an older man who wanted to tell her that her photo was ‘the best LinkedIn picture [he’s] ever seen!’ He also used the word ‘stunning,’ the wretched brute. Charlotte replied smartly to her admirer and explained precisely why she was offended. So far so good. Then came the shame. She screengrabbed it and shamed him all over the place. Shamed him good, she did.

Since then, Proudman has become a Guardian columnist and something on an expert on misogyny, leading some to conclude that she is a sly opportunist who used the (fairly innocent, so they say) indiscretions of an online contact to catapult herself into a new career. Others say she’s a torchbearer of women’s issues, highlighting the supposed ‘innocence’ of everyday sexism itself. Because this all takes place in the digital sphere, and concerns closely held ethical beliefs, shaming has an ugly brother – the death threat. Everyone who shames is apparently mortally vulnerable, encouraged to kill themselves, or, in the case of women, promised rape. It’s as reliable as an argument following Christmas dinner.

To shame or to be shamed? That’s the little conundrum we’ve gotten ourselves in to.

Shaming has this year become part of the social vernacular, a nifty way to point out people’s wrongdoing. Sometimes it’s claimed by the victim, as with fat-, slut- and now sweat-shaming, which is when people point out the unseemly act of (women) perspiring. Other times it’s targeted at the bad behaviour of others, such as the new big American hobby of drought-shaming. This involves ‘naming and shaming’ those who use too much water in a drought. So, for those that use the word, shaming is sometimes bad and sometimes good, depending on the direction of criticism. Similarly, ‘tax-shaming’ has be coined to deal with Amazon, Starbucks and their dodgy friends. Gratuitous-banker-bonus-shaming hasn’t quite hit yet, but give it time.

There are probably a few more shaming terms yet to be introduced to makes sense of what is happening to the victimised among us. I could see the year ahead offering up such gems as skinny-shaming, hipster-shaming, diet-shaming, beard-shaming, depression-shaming, vegetarian-shaming and Lidl-shaming. Indeed, anyone on the receiving end of criticism or hate (which is a hell of a spectrum) is likely to cry ‘shamed!’ just as long as they can put a snappy prefix on it.

Then there’s the media, the big boys, who do an excellent job of pointing out the shamelessness of women. Newspapers and magazines get paparazzi shots and put red circles around the shameful thing, be it a sweat mark, a side-boob, a patch of unshaven hair on a leg or in an armpit, drunkenness, swearing, or whatever unladylike thing a woman, often famous, has done to degrade humanity. The obvious response to this, as far as I can tell, is a lengthy campaign of shame-shaming, directed at the tabloids. Over to you, Twitter.

As part of what is sometimes called 'clicktivism', the rhetoric and politics of shaming have got much to do with that of privilege, which made a little appearance on this blog here.