Monday 24 June 2019

Who would you choose? Sunday night's 'The Handmaid's Tale'

‘What if I told you “if you don’t choose they’ll all die?”’

These words, said to June by Commander Lawrence, who appears helpful yet maverick, in the extended, televised ‘A Handmaid’s Tale', 
(Hulu, MGM) are chilling indeed.

June is no longer just a recipient for the commander’s sperm ie a walking, fertile, young woman desperately needed to breed to order. The worm is turning in this dystopian series. Women are just beginning to think of resisting their masters. And that includes a commander’s estranged wife who was punished by him and had her little finger chopped off. Even the wealthy wives are treated brutally if their husbands dictate it in this dysfunctional land of Gilead.

But while being given the task of choosing merely five from the doomed people, who are to be sent to almost-certain death, is an unwelcome job, it shows June is finally being given credit as an intelligent woman. And this is at a time when women are not allowed to read or write anything at all. So lowly is their status.

So how would you choose five? How did Schindler choose ‘his Jews’ who would otherwise have been murdered by the Nazis? 

How do I choose the best apples in the farm shop? How did I choose our kitten when he was at the Cats' and Dogs' Home? And what happened to those who were left? The same thoughts, believe it or not, occur to me in our garden. Whenever I do my planting of new seedlings I always try to save even the weakest. The gardening books say the opposite. But this is life. If I throw the less sturdy plants into the compost I’m failing to save some that could grow into stunted-yet-alive plants. I don’t like waste. And I don’t like to stop life even among the humblest of plants. (However I’m less than holy when it comes to slugs).

A job I do rarely is that of cleaning out our garden pond. Currently it is full of duck weed and needs to be emptied. The only thing that forces me to get on with it is the thought that if I were living in Nazi Germany, or some other repressive regime where forced labour was ‘that or death’, I’d get on and clean it out. I’d have no choice. 

I’ve just read some facts about honour killings across the world (BBC online news headlines). As we know the victims are usually women who are killed in order to save family honour. And what do women do in such societies? If they don’t have their own money or loyal, safe contacts how do they flee such dangerous situations? 

One of the most terrifying films I ever saw was ‘Not Without My Daughter.’ In the film, which opens in the USA, an American woman, Betty, marries an Iranian but in time he wants them to return to Iran. She is reluctant but he says it’s only for two weeks. When they arrive her husband turns into a repressive monster who has tricked her into staying. All Betty can do is go shopping in the market place. She has no freedom of movement, no free will and no say in matters whatsoever. Betty briefly manages to visit the Swiss Embassy - American Interests Section - but is told that since she is married to an Iranian, and as long as she lives in Iran, she is an Iranian citizen. This means she cannot leave the country without her husband's written consent and has no parental rights over her daughter. Her husband, alarmed by Betty's absence from the house, threatens to kill her if she tries anything like it again.

Betty and her daughter are overheard and put in contact with some Iranian smugglers, and using fake identity documents, they make their way past the checkpoints. Finally they reach the American Embassy in Ankara and can fly back to the USA. So far so 'Handmaid's Tale.' (Except in the series the handmaids are trying to flee the USA.)

'Not Without My Daughter' was made in 1991 but today, across the world, desperate people are fleeing repressive regimes. Who does our government allow to stay? Who would we choose? 

Although 'Not Without...' was written decades ago, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the role of women now, events in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ look more likely and less fantastical. More real-life than literary.Yes, it can happen. Yes, it does happen. 

Freedom to choose, whom to see, what to watch, what to read, what to eat, when to sleep, when to go for a walk are acts we take for granted.

I can’t truly imagine how it would be to have to wake at 5 a.m. to milk the goats or a single cow so that the men-folk in my family can have milk with their breakfast. How would I feel having to do all the washing up and cleaning and only then eat after my husband, his father and my son have had their fill? If I’m lucky I can go shopping at the market but there’s no money for a coffee with friends, what friends?, merely a chance to chat when I take washing down to the communal well after the men have had the lunch I’ve had to prepare for them. And at night I can’t choose to go to bed and read or watch t.v. when I want. I have to lie, exhausted, in the marital bed for my husband who will want sex no matter how I’m feeling. 

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Russell T. Davies’s ‘Years and Years’ (BBC) may be described as dystopian but for some, women in particular but asylum-seekers in general, these are the lives being lived, in fear, right now. We need to be thankful for our liberties.

And, if asked, which five would you choose? 

Tuesday 11 June 2019

Reaction might bring action for the poorest in society.

Finally the results of the Tory austerity budget, and the disastrous effects on our social infrastructure, are made very clear to us by Polly Toynbee ("Behold, the Tory leadership candidates: all in denial, all in dreamland", The Guardian, Monday 10 June).

For those of us who were brought up to believe that the welfare state was introduced, post-war, to eradicate old-age penury, to ensure some kind of financial safety net for the sick, needy and unemployed and are sickened by tales of desperation as depicted in "I, Daniel Blake" Polly Toynbee's article was a sight for saddened eyes.

The raging beast that is Tory infighting, aka the leadership contest, is a distraction from the real fight England has on its hands: the treatment of the poor, disabled and those with medical needs. Our welfare state has been tarred as something for wet, lazy and undeserving people. Five-week waits for folk with no money are punitive sanctions which are tolerated because such people don't have the strength to argue back.

When I was a full-time special needs co-ordinator the hoops that some parents had to go through to get their child's needs provided for would weaken even the strongest-willed of us. Boris suggests cutting taxes for people who already earn £50K plus - still a good salary - but this reward does nothing to repair the damage done to those with greatest need in our country. 

After ten years' of Austerity Britain those at the bottom of the capitalist heap are broken down by a lack of compassion, hunger and nowhere, other than the church and foodbanks, to turn. It seems ok to blame the poor for being poor, the ill for being ill and the disabled for being disabled. Where are the workhouses? Do we have a bed and breakfast hostel in our street? Do we ever see inside the rooms of such 'hotels'? Belongings piled high for a lack of space and cooking reduced to the preparation of pot noodles as the only kitchen implement in the room is a kettle. Nowhere for children to read or do homework. But, hey, wasn't it such a good idea for Thatcher to sell off council houses? As a nation we should feel shame that our most vulnerable are treated with contempt.

So what do I do about it from my home of comfort in Bath? I donate to food banks and charities for the homeless. I donate to charity shops and I rage against the unfairnesses on social media. I don't vote Tory and I send funds to political parties which aim to get rid of 'the nasty party'. Maybe I should do more. Maybe I should volunteer at a food bank or campaign on the streets to raise funds for the Salvation Army and Crisis Centres. But what I really want to see is the welfare state, the benefits system and social housing returned to complete functionality. How would we measure this functionality?

Polly Toynbee gave some markers in her excellent article yesterday: Functionality could be 
a) 100,000 filled vacancies in our NHS and a reduction in the 2 million on waiting lists. b) Schools would have 10% of funding per pupil returned to them so that teachers aren't buying essential classroom supplies out of their hard-won earnings and heads can start employing more teachers and TAs to reduce class sizes.
c) SureStart centres could be reopened so that children from non-privileged backgrounds could have basic training and preparedness for early years schooling.
d) Pay people properly and keep rents low! Four out of ten children are currently living in poverty in a country that is the 5th richest nation in the world. That is the highest rate of child poverty over the last sixty years. Dysfunctionality not functionality. 
e) Social security should be reinstated so that it was exactly that - security for those in society with needs. 

I could list so many provisions which should be accessible for those who are without.But poverty is hidden, unless you go into your local 'Poundland' or charity shop.

But poverty isn't news. Instead our screens are filled with stories about Tory infighting, Brexit, migrants, the cost of living, data mishandling, snooping, pay gaps, climate change, plant extinction and plastics. Disharmony rules. Dog eat dog. Let's get ahead and leave the rest behind. The poor are poor because they can't keep up.

Where are Cameron and Osborne now? The 'We're all in it together' creators of Austerity Britain are probably doing the rounds at night - seeking out the homeless offering haircuts and medical services to folk who sleep in plastic bags on harsh pavements in the coldest June we've had since last June. Of course they are. The creators of such misery don't give a fig for those in need. That's one-in-five. Hardly a tiny percentage of the population reduced to Dickensian levels of poverty. 

Shame on you. But shame on me, too, for allowing it to happen. I'm supposed to have a social conscience but am frustrated that I don't know what to do to help. Perhaps I should email this blog to a selection of politicians and see if I get a reaction. Reaction might lead to action. Action might lead to a reduction in the suffering and desperation endured by far too many in the poorest of situations in our country. But I must do something. 

Well done Polly Toynbee for spelling it out. Writing about social disadvantage is one step in the right direction to getting something done. 

Sent from my ipad