Election Day 2020

With fears of election-day violence, America has joined corrupt and disreputable countries around the world. Thank you, Mr President – this is on your watch.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this presidential election might be the most important one of our lifetimes. How so? I’ve narrowed this down to two reasons, both of which have been touted by political pundits, newspaper columnists and the like. This is my take in the context of the films and books that influence my thinking.

Reason 1 – democracy is at stake. Over the past four years, the world has watched a wannabe autocrat in the Whitehouse fight against the institutions of American governance and the freedom of the press. Among the many examples of this, what first comes to mind are Tr**p’s public criticisms of the FBI, the CIA and most recently and most alarmingly the Centers for Disease Control. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk has been one of several books to expose of the Tr**p transition team and the way this president set up his antigovernmental administration, a  heady mix of inexperienced individuals and those with a grudge against certain branches of government.

And the media has had it worse. On top of frequent references to the media as ‘fake’ and ‘public enemies,’ let’s not forget the many instances of reporters being targeted and arrested while trying to report on demonstrations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Netflix has recently produced The Chicago Seven, about the kangaroo trial of seven anti-war protesters during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. From aggressive policing to an openly racist and bias judicial system, echoes of Tr**p’s treatment of the media resound.

Reason 2 – the planet is at stake. Not only has the 45th president of the US started the process of pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord, he’s a supporter of the fossil fuel industry, a climate change denier and has reversed over one hundred acts of legislation by the EPA during Obama’s presidency. A couple of good books I’ve read recently that cover this president’s treatment of the environment include Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth.

There is perhaps a third reason why this is such an important election. But I’ve changed my mind a few times about the real importance of this. Okay, here goes. America’s reputation is at stake. As I would like to see a more balanced world, with a more equitable distribution of wealth, the US doesn’t need to keep its position as an economic superpower. I would be even happier still if it were not a military superpower. Despite these misgivings, I’d like to see America retain some of its influence in the world as a source for good. (Hard to imagine at times, I know. Sorry if I sound like Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.) Voting Tr**p back into office is at the very least condoning criminality at the highest level of government. With all of the noise and distractions to come from this Whitehouse, it’s easy to forget that Tr**p was impeached by The House of Representatives for trying to bribe a foreign government. Even Tr**p’s lawyers admitted that this is what he did, but argued to the Senate that this was not an impeachable offence. There is also the matter of Tr**p’s tax records, the cases of fraud against his businesses and the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.  A Tr**p win tonight (or tomorrow, depending on your time zone) tells the rest of the world that America wants to be represented by a man clearly unfit for the job, in addition to of course his being a vulgarian, a defender of white supremacists, an habitual liar… I’ll stop myself there – you’ve heard it all before.

I’ve realised that I’ve only made reference to non-fiction books and a film based on true events. Let’s not forget the importance of fiction and poetry at times like this. I’ll close with a quote within a quote from Emily Nemens, the editor of the Paris Review, commenting yesterday on election eve: ‘As Manuel Puig put it, “I like to re-create reality in order to understand it better.” May we all understand the world a bit better once this week is through.’

Surviving Political Conventions

While it would be a stretch to say I found the US Democratic convention inspiring,  what is more important is that I – and millions of others – found the Republican convention laughable and ludicrous in its touting of flagrant falsehoods and scientifically improbable promises.

It’s easy to assume that this divide in style between these two political conventions has been brought on by the character of Tr**p, but there has long been some of this distinction between the two parties. Robert Reich, recently wrote in The Guardian: ‘The Democratic party is basically a governing party, organized around developing and implementing public policies. The Republican party has become an attack party, organized around developing and implementing political vitriol. Democrats legislate. Republicans fulminate.’

While I agree with this, the Democrats’ convention replaced a lot of their typical policy speak with some battle talk. This time the Democrats appeared to have followed the advice of Churchill who once said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ While I hesitate to call the coronavirus pandemic a ‘good’ crisis, it’s a crisis, which has laid bare the failures of populist-led governments across the world. Many of the speakers at the Democrats’ convention highlighted Tr**p’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other crises where brought into the mix, reminding people that this president pulled America out of the Paris Climate agreement and continues to create division through racist immigration policies and support of institutional racism in America’s police forces. True, these points against the Tr**p Party (formerly the Republican Party) have been said countless times before but often embedded in the jokey monologues of Steven Colbert, Seth Meyers and the like or in the sarcasm of news columnists both sides of the Atlantic. It was refreshing to hear these criticisms in measured tones without the laughs (these are serious issues after all) from Democratic politicians and dignitaries, one after the other, showing signs of unity. I was also pleased – and like many breathed a sigh of relief – when it was all over and Joe Biden had not committed any lapsus linguae.

Speaking of language, the Tr**p Party convention produced more than its share of linguistic wonders. Here are just a couple of my favourites. Senator Tim Scott warned that Biden and Harris will turn America into a ‘socialist utopia.’ Clearly the senator doesn’t understand that utopias are good things. Coming from the Greek ou, meaning not, and topos, meaning place, utopia literally means ‘no place’ and by extension, thanks to Sir Thomas More who might be spinning in his sepulchre, means ‘an ideal place.’

In the final speech of the convention, the tweeter in chief accepted his party’s nomination by saying, ‘I profoundly accept this nomination.’ His speech writers must have known that Tr**p, the self-described ‘stable genius,’ could not humbly accept anything. Other high collocates for the word accept, include graciously and gladly, neither of which suits the fiery tongue of this presidential vulgarian. Having thrown out these other words, I imagine the speech writers going for a presidentially serious tone and following a thesaurus thread from serious to deep, ending up at profound. At least they had the grammatical wherewithal to add an –ly to make profound an adverb even if the resulting phrase – like this president – makes little sense.

Time for UBI and re-examining humanity

In some ways, it’s already happening. Governments struggling with mounting unemployment and near economic collapse are giving money out – no strings attached. This is one of the underlying principles of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Thanks to Covid-19, with needs on such a large scale, governments have realised that it is more cost efficient to give money to companies and individuals rather than means testing or trying to facilitate how the money is spent.

Yes, dear follower, I have written about this before. That was an introduction to UBI (for me as much as anyone). A lot has happened since that blog. In America, UBI has been gaining ground thanks to Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. In the UK, the coronavirus lockdown has Britain’s Conservative government acting like socialists by doling out public aid. But in Britain, few people (George Monbiot among them, on Twitter) are seeing this massive government assistance programme as being akin to UBI. Is it that a pandemic has happened to people by no fault of their own, whereas unemployment and poverty is somehow deserved and a different – and unacceptable – form of government aid?

I’ve been reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, which is loaded with examples of UBI principles being applied successfully in communities going back to the 1970s as a way to eradicate poverty. These examples support Bregman’s attacks on common presumptions about poverty and individuals in need. Time and time again, these case studies show that giving poor people (including the homeless) money to do with as they please results in their using the money to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. And this is accomplished at a fraction of the cost of government welfare and unemployment programmes.

These points are as much social as they are economic and typical of writing on UBI. What I particularly enjoyed about Bregman’s book is that he looks at the bigger picture and asks why we humans place such importance on work. To state the obvious for a second, work is important because it’s linked to money – which is why women’s unpaid work, such as raising children and caring for the elderly, is not valued as work. This is a worn argument. Bregman goes a step further, pointing out that certain types of work are valued because they are ‘productive.’ Anyone who has taken up art, music or creative writing has had to fend off hints of being lazy and accusations of not doing anything really productive. I wish now that when I was in my teens and early 20s I had Bregman’s ideas at hand. He explains, “Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.” If the pandemic lockdown has shown us anything, it is the human capacity to experiment and create when given the time.

Bregman’s book came out a few years ago. Since then we have seen more worrying signs of the damage brought on by climate change at the same time that the world is confronted with a deadly virus that has pushed millions into unemployment. This might be the opportunity to not only implement UBI, but to also create jobs in green energies and readjust our thinking about what it means to be human.

Unfriending in the time of Tr**p

For the first time in my Facebook life, I’ve unfriended someone because of their politics. I didn’t do this easily. I tolerated this old school friend’s comments about Democrat Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi as being ‘unhinged’ after they rightly (in my opinion) attacked Tr**p on several counts. Of course, the current US president is far from ‘unhinged’ – a ‘stable genius,’ to use his own words. In this case, my tolerance was enabled by my enjoyment of irony.

I also overlooked this now former friend’s lambasting ‘crazy liberals’ for wanting to knock down a statue of Abraham Lincoln. I agreed – that does sound crazy, and it would have been if it were true. In that case, I forgave my old classmate for being misinformed and posting this falsehood on Facebook in error. Mistakes happen.

What finally tipped me over the polite Facebook friendship line was my friend’s commentary on Tr**p’s 4th of July ceremony at Mt Rushmore. During his speech, Tr**p announced, ‘I am here as your President to proclaim, before the country and before the world, this monument will never be desecrated,’ even though there is no movement intent on desecrating the mountain sculpture. America’s most infamous president slid his way down more slippery slope arguments with, ‘Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.’ But that wasn’t enough. This orange president added, ‘In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.’ (These are just some highlights – the full speech can be found at the US government website)

On Facebook, my high school friend posted a photo Tr**p at Rushmore with the caption that it was a ‘great speech,’ the president’s ‘best speech ever’ and advised his friends to ignore what they’ve been hearing in the ‘lying left media.’ Saying that this was a great speech, if I’m generous, is a matter of opinion. Advising people that reports on this speech are lies because most of them questioned the veracity and reasoning behind the president’s bizarre comments is simply wrong. In democracies, reporters scrutinise the comments and proclamations of their leaders. I welcome the media outlets that are constantly fact-checking the current US president.

Back to Facebook. After a Tr**p supporter agreed with my friend about the Mt Rushmore speech, the friend replied, ‘Yeah, Trump loves America. Obama hated America.’ Even though it is hard to imagine that Tr**p loves anyone or anything aside from himself, I don’t doubt that in his own way this US president – or any president, including Obama – loves his country.

It was clear that this ‘friend’ was actively engaging in propaganda. I kick myself as I should have seen this with his posting about the Lincoln statue. That was no mistake. I was being taken for a fool. I went to my list of friends, found this old school friend and I clicked on ‘unfriend.’

I can only hope that others reacted the way that I did or at the very least have seen these postings for what they are. I’m reminded of a famous Mark Twain comment: ‘It’s easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled.’

Of course, the person I should really unfriend is Mark Zuckerberg. While I don’t literally follow him on Facebook, using his platform does make me a friend of sorts. As plenty of pundits have pointed out, Facebook’s practices could help Tr**p to get re-elected. After all, Facebook sold its algorithms to political campaigns helping to get Trump elected the first time and played a part in the outcome of the UK referendum on the EU. In a recent article on Facebook, investigative journalist supremo Carole Cadwalladr explains how Facebook is dangerous for democracy. After suggesting that if Facebook were a country, it would be like North Korea, Cadwalladr clarifies, ‘Zuckerberg is not Kim Jong-un. He’s much, much more powerful.’

Facebook 2
Carole Cadwalladr

Another Guardian writer, Rashad Robinson notes that not only did Facebook contribute to Tr**p’s election victory in 2016, ‘in 2020, Facebook’s indulgent and laissez-faire policies have already enabled hateful harassment, rampant misinformation and disinformation, and the suppression of Black organizers.’ After investigating Facebook’s content policies, Robinson concludes that ‘the rules are often so vague as to even allow for someone as clumsy as Trump to weave right through them.’

Having said of all this, I don’t see myself leaving Facebook. Not yet. This powerful form of communication is the only way I can participate in certain writers’ groups and in groups dedicated to political and social activism and (ironically) understanding. During this Covid-19 lockdown, Facebook has provided a forum for people in my town of Ely to share vital information and to help out their neighbours. It also enables me to keep in touch with friends, relatives, former colleagues and students across the world – people who don’t use email or write letters. Quitting Facebook would be akin to saying that I’m no longer going to allow any post to come through my letterbox. Even though the internet has reduced the amount of post I get, it still comes in and I still need to deal with at least some of it. Like the post I receive, a lot of what is on Facebook can be ignored.

By unfriending my Tr**p supporting old school friend, I’ve taken it a step further. I’m not only ignoring what is being sent, I’m telling the postal courier to not bother delivering anything from this person to my door. This act of defiance might seem small against the colossus that is Mark Zuckerberg’s empire, but it is satisfying. Moreover, it reduces my traffic on Facebook. I know that I’m not the only one doing this when confronted by these right-wing propagandists. And that too, I find gratifying.

 

 

Reading Southern Gothic in the time of Black Lives Matter

While taking the knee is becoming a political statement de rigueur, I’ve been reading William Faulkner’s Light in August, set in America’s south in the early part of the last century.

It was impossible to read this novel without thinking about the stark differences in race relations between then and now. Along with the liberal use of the n-word, discrimination and violence against blacks was the unquestioned norm. Yet, at no point is the reader led to accept or even be dismissive of this world. It could have been written today with a liberal implied reader in mind.

One of the main characters, Joe Christmas, orphaned as a toddler, believes that he is of African heritage – his appearance is ‘white,’ but some characters say he ‘looks foreign.’ When background stories come into the fold, the reader learns that Joe’s biological father was of a mixed African-Mexican lineage. But given some unreliable narration, even this is uncertain. Nevertheless, Joe’s tragic life is shaped by his belief in his ‘tainted’ identity, along with the violence and cruelty of his childhood home, ruled by a staunch Calvinist. As a teenager, Joe runs away and becomes a drifter, unable to fit in with either black or white communities.

In a parallel storyline, another sympathetic character, Lena Grove, has also uprooted herself from her family home, where she was castigated for ‘being a whore.’ In contrast to Joe, she is not drifting but very much aiming for a target – the father of her unborn child with the naïve expectation that they will marry. Lena and Joe’s lives overlap without touching through the character of Joe Brown who works with Christmas (as he is often called) at a planing mill and later shares a house and moonshine business with him. Brown is also the drifter and shady character who made Lena pregnant.

With its interior monologues and experiments with narration, using multiple narrators, broken chronologies and some convoluted subplots, Light in August is categorised as modernist. It is a challenging read. But I found it worthwhile for its depth of characters and the ways it places extremes of human behaviour – racism and fanatical religiosity – side-by-side, exposing the irrationality and ability to destroy lives with hate that they have in common. Light in August 2

Although this story was written in 1932, it only has vague references to that time period and the decades leading up to it, and no precise year is ever mentioned. This helps to make the book feel timeless. Sadly, so too do the explorations of themes like racism.

Metaphors Matter

Following the horrific death of George Floyd, we have witnessed yet another wave of anger and protest. With this some have said that racism is ‘a disease, like Covid 19’. Linguist Elena Semino rightly commented on Twitter: ‘This metaphor may have useful rhetorical functions in context (e.g. to highlight that both kill and are very hard to eliminate), but it backgrounds a central aspect of racism: power.’ Indeed, put simply, racism is about one group of people using race to justify having power over another group. Unlike diseases, there is intention behind acts of racism, whether these thoughts rest in unconscious bias, follow the insidiousness norms of institutions or worse, fester in the venom of white supremacists.

Reading and listening to the anti-racism protesters and news commentators, worthy metaphors have been a bit lacking. The slogan Black Lives Matter, is merely elliptical, short for ‘Black lives matter too.’ The calling out ‘I can’t breathe’ is powerful, a direct reminder of Floyd’s dying words, but it’s not a metaphor. This paucity of metaphors bothers me because firstly because metaphors are powerful tools of communication. Good metaphors, original and sometimes a bit weird, stick with us. Secondly, I’m annoyed that so much of the language of racists is hinged on metaphors – describing the other as ‘vermin,’ ‘invaders,’ ‘pests,’ ‘animals’ etc. Why hasn’t the language of anti-racism these days shown more figurative flare?

In the last century, we had ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,’ Langston Hughes’s dream deferred that stunk ‘like rotten meat’ and sagged ‘like a heavy load’ and the plethora of extended analogies in the oration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Why do we need metaphors to capture the anti-racist experience today?

metaphrs matter 2
Langston Hughes

It is no longer enough to call someone a fascist, a white supremacist or even a racist. These labels are threadbare from their overuse and in some circles worn as badges of honour. No longer are people hiding behind the phrase ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ Even our world leaders are getting away with this. Prime Minister Johnson opposes taking down statues symbolic of Britain’s colonial past and its role in the slave trade. This should be no surprise coming from the man who in 2002 wrote in The Spectator about Africa, ‘The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,’ he wrote. ‘The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore’ (cited from The Independent, 13/06/20). Johnson has in more recent years been quoted as referring to black people as ‘piccaninnies.’ Sadly, I don’t believe Johnson won the last election despite his racist rhetoric – I believe it helped to get him elected.

And then there’s Tr*mp. No, I’m not going there. No need to really.

Metaphors are a way of thinking about our world and expressing the way that we think at the same time. I do wonder if the anti-racist movement has not truly internalised into our thinking enough to give us the metaphors we need. Of course, as a linguist, I could take the counter argument for a moment and tell you that metaphors are ubiquitous in our language, in our lives. But many of these metaphors are used so often they have lost that ability to inspire. Others, like ‘racism is a disease’ miss the mark, and others still lack that stickability to bring about action. Speaking non-metaphorically, I’m weary and worn from viewing scenes of black men dying at the hands of white police followed by angry protests only to see the same scenes again with different people.

It’s Killing Her

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about pandemics and epidemics. Let’s consider another epidemic. To quote historian Rebecca Solnit, ‘Violence against women is an epidemic that takes four lives a day in the USA and leaves millions living in terror or facing the torture of rape, beatings, stalkings, and abuse.’  According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK, 80 women were killed by a current or ex-partner in the past year – that’s a 27% increase on the previous year.

You’re welcomed to say that the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a whole different thing altogether.  After all, the Coronavirus is a biological contagion with no known vaccine. Violence against women is a cultural contagion for which there are blindingly obvious cures.

There is another difference which struck me this week. Like many people around the world, I’ve been following the story of the British couple, the Abels, who were ‘quarantined’ on the Diamond Princess and then caught the virus. Before this incident, the Abels were strangers to me. But now, thanks to the Coronavirus, I know them by name – Sally and David Abel.

Aside from a few women celebrities, I cannot think of the name of one woman, previously unknown to me, who has been the victim of violence perpetrated by a man. On occasion these stories appear in the news, especially if a legal case is involved, but not for long before they fade away. Perhaps, it isn’t just the reporting, but the sheer numbers – to quote Stalin, ‘one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.’

I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, a revisionist’s history of the well-known killings. On the premise that there’s been vast interest over the decades in identifying the ripper, and there’s been little about his victims. Furthermore, what has been said about these women is by and large inaccurate. For example, they were not all prostitutes. Only one of the five women was a prostitute when she was killed and another had been a prostitute briefly in her past. A point also worth mentioning is that, contrary to popular lore, none of these women had been raped by their killer. Based on police records, Rubenhold concludes that these women were all killed in their sleep and only one of them in her own bed – the others were sleeping rough on the streets of Victorian London. I leave it to you, dear reader, to extrapolate the levels of misogyny going on there.Femicide 2

Since I started with Rebecca Solnit, I’ll conclude with her as well: ‘Even those of us who are not direct victims are impacted by living in a world where such gender violence is both common and normalized or trivialized, where any woman may be harmed because she is a woman.’

 

The Queen’s English?

‘Brexit Day,’ as some are calling it, was just over a week ago. On that day, these signs were stuck on doors of all 15 floors of a residential building in Norwich, in the east of England:

Brexit Day poster

Aside from the blatant racism, which I don’t mean to diminish or trivialise, I have several linguistic points to make. Not in any particular order.

What is the Queen’s English? For the spoken language, which the moron who wrote this poster appears to be obsessed with, the Queen speaks RP (Received Pronunciation). It’s an accent of English with no regional associations. That’s because it’s a ‘social accent’ taught in certain private schools and reinforced in the homes and social circles of the upper classes. It’s an accent that clips its vowels and makes toast sound like taste. Today RP is spoken by roughly 2% of the British population. I suspect that the cretin who wrote this poster does not speak the Queen’s English.

The British Library website has 77 recordings of different accents and dialects of English from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (https://www.bl.uk/british-accents-and-dialects). I wonder how many of these British-English accents would be fully understood by the imbecile who wrote this poster.

English is not the only native language of Britain. There’s Welsh, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish to name a few. And the flipside of this – Britain is not the only country where English is spoken as a native or official language. If the idiot who wrote this poster wants only people whose ‘mother tongue’ is English to live in Britain, he or she would appear to be perfectly fine with people from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Liberia, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea – among others.

The ignoramus who wrote this poster has a problem with people who speak foreign languages. Don’t get me started. During this week that saw Britain enter another dark age, the polymath George Steiner passed away at the age of 90. Steiner was trilingual, speaking French, German and English, and he once described his mother as ‘a Viennese grande dame who used to begin a sentence in one language and finish it in another without even noticing.’ Brexit hasn’t really happened yet – we’re in a transition period – yet, I’m already feeling nostalgic.

Steiner
Professor George Steiner

Watching flames through a firewall

As apocalyptic stories from Australia are already starting to play second fiddle to Trump’s war games, Harvey Weinstein’s trial and Harry and Megan’s flashy fugae , happenings down under and across the world are continuing to play out – even if we stop watching it or reading about it.

A couple of things are going on here. First, there’s the media’s coverage of these events. In ‘media’ I include social media and other spreaders of news – real and manufactured. These outlets inhabit the edges of the entertainment industry and will only repeat the same story so often. As the affects of climate change are becoming as common as the buddy movie, the media and their audiences quickly move on.

Of course, unlike the buddy movie, climate change is real and frightening. With that comes another reason why media coverage is waning and audiences are retreating. It’s what author Margaret Heffernan calls wilful blindness – there are things that we refuse to see. Taking insights from a range of people involved with deception, including whistleblowers, criminals, politicians and psychologists, Heffernan points out that people turn a blind eye to ‘avoid conflict, feel safe, reduce anxiety and protect prestige.’ To some extent the media is reacting to our putting on blinkers.

The other factor at work here still involves the media but runs deeper than that. Climate change deniers have gone into full throttle this past week to distance the catastrophes in Australia from man-made climate change.

When looking at neoliberal policies of recent decades, Naomi Klein points out the tremendous tax cuts to the wealthy classes and their corporations. Offsetting climate change involves investment in the public sphere – ‘in new energy grids, public transit and light rail, and energy efficiency.’ Given the scale of such projects, they couldn’t happen without raising taxes on the wealthy. Klein also points out that many green initiatives, such as ‘buy local’ to reduce CO2 emissions, clash with corporate free trade details.  Klein comes to this conclusion:NaomiKlein

‘In short, climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. To admit that climate change is real is to admit the end of the neoliberal project. That’s why the Right is in a rebellion against the physical world, against science.’

The fires in Australia is the story of our day, the one the media has grown tired of or sees dwindling profits in, the one neoliberals don’t want us to engage with, and the one story that we ignore or play down at our own peril.

Dipping into British Herstory

In Bloody Brilliant Women Cathy Newman writes about one of my heroines, Gertrude Bell, with a couple of lively examples exposing male perspectives that has kept Bell out of the history books. In the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s fabulous The English Patient, there is a scene where British soldiers are examining a map, trying to find a way through the mountains. One says, ‘The Bell map shows the way,’ and the other replies, ‘Let’s hope he’s right.’ Newman remarks on this unconscious bias, the assumption that a map maker must be male, behind this scriptwriting. For me, the more astounding point is that this error went unnoticed and unchecked by the script editor and the director’s assistant as well and made it to the screen.

Having read some of Gertrude Bell’s travelogues and letters and having seen an excellent documentary-cum-docudrama about her, Letters from Baghdad , I was pleased by Newman’s find of a letter from Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up parts of the former Ottoman Empire for the likes of Britain, France and Russia). Sykes wrote to his wife describing Bell as ‘a silly chattering windbag of a conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blithering ass.’ No need to deconstruct the misogyny here. Newman follows this quote with a simple ‘Wow!’ An example of the laid back journalistic style used throughout the book.

Newman’s version of herstory covers some familiar territory with Emmeline Parkhurst, Millicent Fawcett and accounts of women impersonating men in order to fight in wars. But it is well worth a read as the book explains the significance of these pioneering women in their pursuit for justice and equality given the socio-political and legal contexts of their time.

As much of my understanding of herstory is of a more international variety, I’m grateful to Newman for introducing me to a few personages that I would have otherwise missed, and who I now feel compelled to read or read about. There’s Dora Russell who championed contraception, recognising that childbearing wasn’t only controlling women’s lives, but also shortening them. Dora is otherwise known as the second wife of Bertrand Russell. And there is Claudia Jones, a journalist and activist, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival. I close with one of Jones’s most quoted remarks: ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.’