Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Women's Equality Party: What's in it for me?

On 14th January I went to a 5x15 event at Methodist Central Hall presented by the Women's Equality Party.  It was the first major event since WEP’s launch in October 2015.  Speaking at the event were Caitlin Moran, Sophie Walker in conversation with Tanya Moodie, Rosie Boycott in conversation with Jo Brand, Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig.  The capacity of Methodist Central Hall is 2,300.  It was full and I am sure could have sold out twice over. 

WEP’s central premise is that equality is better for everyone.  While there must be few that disagree with that as a notion there are sadly many who are not prepared to do much if anything to achieve it.  As Catherine Mayer said at the event and later wrote in the Evening Standard politicians are happy to talk the talk but not many walk the walk (Justin Trudeau an honourable exception).  The net effect is that the patriarchy endures not through active resistance to equality but by good intentions undone by inertia.  This is bad for women, it is bad for men, but worst of all, it's bad for children.

WEP has six objectives:

-       Equal Representation
-       Equal Pay & Opportunity
-       Equal Parenting & Caregiving
-       Equal Education
-       Equal Media Treatment
-       End Violence Against Women

A few moments’ thought surely brings the irresistible conclusion that in respect of each of those objectives we have a long way to go.  There are more male MPs in Parliament now than there have EVER been female MPs.  There are 7 women in the Cabinet of 22 Ministers.  This is the highest number ever and it is not even one third.  There is still, STILL, only one female Supreme Court judge as I months ago lamented.

People do not walk around slack-jawed in amazement because this supposedly represents progress.  But progress is not inevitable and the speed of it at times would make a sloth seem Boltish.  Progress requires actions not words.  WEP is a result of action by a formidable and commendable bunch of women and its aims will not be achieved without the continuing actions, large and small, of a great many other women AND men.

Two sage pieces of advice I recently saw for men inclined to self-identify as feminist are: first, listen don’t talk and second, when you do, talk more to men than women.  Feminism like WEP is a party to which men are invited but it is not our party.  It would be churlish and wrong to decline the invitation and there is the promise of an almighty good time for all but only if men don’t try to choose the caterers, venue, dress code and music.

Of course there has been criticism.  It’ll split the vote, it’s the narcissistic vanity project of white, middle class metropolitan Guardian readers with too much time on their hands, it’s bound to fail, why women’s equality why not just equality. 

All those criticisms can be rebutted.  If mainstream parties are not acting on their declared ambitions for promoting equality then they are failing those that want equality and do not deserve their vote.   WEP’s already 40,000 or so nationwide membership suggests an appeal and a hunger that reaches far beyond the borders of Islington.  It will only fail if we let it fail and to do so would be no indictment of Sandi Toksvig and her band but of us.  The very notion of equality encapsulates equal treatment and opportunity for all but it is self-evident that in so many ways it is still women who are being held back, belittled, beaten and bruised.

I sincerely hope WEP achieves its objectives and will lend it whatever support I can because I can find no fault with any one of its objectives and because it is a movement of hope looking for concrete change in a world which in some ways is not changing at all.

If you agree you can join here:

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Amicus & Mark Rylance - Friends to the Friendless

The Economist recently published an article predicting the coming abolition of the death penalty in America and elucidating the factors pointing to this, by many, much looked for development.  Reading it spurred me to write up a wonderful evening I attended at Inner Temple Hall in October last year where the actor Mark Rylance read from Francis Bacon’s essays and from the last letters sent by Andrew Lee Jones at a fundraiser for Amicus.  It was an electrifying evening for all those fortunate enough to attend. 
I have previously written about the unfortunate contemporary merging of the concept of heroism with celebrity but I have no qualms about declaring my admiration for Rylance.  Primarily because I think he is one of the best actors alive in England and acting at its best is the most effective way we have of showing others truth.  In particular, Rylance is a master at embodying reflective stillness, something which many would do well to cultivate.  However my admiration for his professional endeavours is compounded by his support for Amicus, a charity which is dear to my heart because under its aegis I was able undertake an internship in a capital appeals law office in New Orleans in 2004. 
Amicus was founded in 1992 following the execution of a death row inmateAndrew Lee Jones, in Louisiana in 1991.  Andrew Lee Jones was convicted of killing the daughter of his estranged girlfriend in 1984.  While on death row Andrew Lee Jones became a pen pal of a British woman called Jane Officer who, during their correspondence, learnt about his case which, sadly, had many of the hallmarks of injustice that blight so many capital cases: 
His trial lasted 1 day 
The height of the prosecution case was that he knew the victim 
No scientific evidence was presented at trial 
An alibi witness was beaten the police prior to the trial and withdrew his witness statement 
The jury was  all white, Andrew Lee Jones was black as was 30% of the local population 
At a clemency hearing in 1991 his trial lawyer gave evidence and apologised for not having provided a fair defence citing: 
He had been appointed by the court and had received the papers only very shortly before trial 
He had finished law school less than five years before the trial 
He had only occasional contact with Andrew Lee Jones prior to  the trial who was over medicated with anti-psychotic medication something his lawyer had not known at the time. 
Rylance wrote an insightful and compassionate letter for the programme for the performance in October which I hope I can be forgiven for setting out below.  It is far removed from the glib platitudes that often appear in such programmes.

Reading the letters of Andrew Lee Jones to Jane Officer, I am overcome again, in tears, as I seem to be so often these days, by the cruelty and beauty of human life.  If one could experience cruelty or beauty in separate places it might be easier to cope, but they come like ballroom dancers intertwined and leave me standing in the shadows like an awkward 16 year old hoping and praying I won't be asked to dance. 

I had determined to keep my Sundays free this year and reduce my work but the honour of being asked to support Amicus could not be dismissed.  “The longest serving death row inmate has spent 37 years in a 6ft X 9ft cell.  He is still there, waiting to die.”  I read this in the Amicus programme of 2012.  He may well be innocent like the 140 other people, in 26 states, released with evidence of innocence between 1973 and 2012. 

What kind of a being are we to be able to do this to each other?  And then immediately I remember the beauty of the silent, almost angelic presence of Jane Officer, as the invisible recipient of Andrew’s letters.  All of her letters were destroyed by the guards when Andrew was executed.  Could they not bear witness to her kindness?  I don’t think I could if I was a guard on death row.  But here she is, Andrew gives witness to her presence.  Perhaps the only intimate presence he had at the end of his brief life. 

If I learnt anything playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, I was able to envisage much more clearly that justice is not a single dramatic act, an eloquent declaration, the swing of a sword, the bang of a gavel.  It is the painstaking untying of a twisted knot with one hand while, with the other hand, you attempt to hold off someone waving a ready pair of scissors!  The interns of Amicus would all have jobs with Thomas Cromwell if he was alive today!  The beauty of their careful thoughtful work is an inspiration and a comfort.  As I said it is an honour to be here tonight. 
I am confident that one day soon the work of Amicus will come to an end but until it does it remains a staunch and unceasing friend to the friendless and I salute Mark Rylance for lending himself to its work.
If you also think their work is important you too can help here: