Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Wakanda - My Solarpunk Dream City

Or another reason to love Black Panther

At the time of writing Black Panther has been out at the cinemas for a good few weeks. It’s understandably got a lot of attention and most of it deservedly positive. Chances are, if you are reading this you have seen the film.

However this is not a Black Panther Review as such. This is me focussing on a very narrow aspect of the Black Panther themes and aesthetic. Because as well as the awesome representations, amazing female characters and strong ethical and moral themes, the entire design and concept of Wakanda was incredibly exciting especially to somebody who is a solarpunk and architecture nerd.

Screen-shot from Black Panther. the image shows a futuristic city from above surrounded by mountains. there are a number of skyscrapers of varying shapes and designs. The central tower has a large circular building spiralling around it.

About Solarpunk and Afro-Futurism

So to begin, let me just explain a little about solarpunk. Solarpunk is a movement, aesthetic and literary genre that embraces eco friendly, eco-integrated technology in a futuristic setting. It generally envisions a utopia or at least a functioning balanced society rather than a dystopia. At its most basic it is a style and aesthetic involving natural elements like plants, water, wind and sun alongside slick futuristic technology and building. More in depth it is an entire movement and way of thinking that people aspire to and is a goal to work towards not just in terms of technology but socio-politically envisioning a low impact society that provides opportunities and equality for all citizens.

Solarpunk is also closely tied to Afro-Futurism. Afro-Futurism is again simultaneously an aesthetic, a literary genre and a social movement. In brief it grew out of a desire to re-centre sci-fi away from white European style and social constructs. Authors from Africa were creating bold and beautiful sci-fi novels based on their own experiences and cultures and ignoring the “tradition” of sci-fi (and fantasy) being largely dominated by the white Western world which was heavily influenced by historic Europe. Additionally it seeks to draw on current and emerging technology and architecture from African countries. In doing so it challenges the narrative of “Africa” often seen in Western countries that tends to homogenise the entire continent and skim over the modern, functioning and often socially forward cities and countries in Africa focussing instead on wildlife, famine and seemingly less developed tribes.

Afro-futurism by its nature often encapsulates solarpunk ideals and aesthetics focusing on new technologies that work with or make use of natural resources in a sensitive and sustainable manner whilst respecting the cultures and needs of citizens.

So then to Black Panther or more specifically, Wakanda. If you have seen the film or to be honest just seen pro-mo pictures then you may by now have an inkling of why Wakanda and Solarpunk are related. The design of Black Panther’s Wakanda is down to Hannah Beachler, the head production designer for the film. As an aside, Beachler was strongly influenced by award winning architect Zaha Hadid and her iconic modernist designs who I happen to be a fan of. Beachler was also inspired by the Afro-futurist movement as well as the incredible real life modern and traditional architecture of a variety of African countries.

It’s worth noting that, while it’s generally not a good idea to refer to Africa in such a way as to imply one giant monolithic homogenous culture, in the case of Wakanda and Afro-futurism, it makes sense. Afro-futurism positions itself as thematically different to European sci-fi and is a pan-African phonemonon not restricted to any one country plus it deals in fictional creations. Additionally Wakanda itself being a fictional state which exists outside of colonialism and some may argue, represents a “heart” of Africa that brings together a number of different cultures and traditions. Essentially there is no single country to reference when talking about these subjects.

Seen through this context then it’s clear why the Wakanda on screen was a dream come true for an aficionado of Solarpunk or Afro-futurism. But it’s not just because it looks pretty, though it certainly does. The real excitement, for me at least, was the variety and thoughtfulness of the design.

Considering your environment

Solarpunk art often falls into the trap of envisioning the same soaring towers of class and metal alloys covered in plants, solar cells and wind turbines. Accasionally you get some divergence to stucco covered Gaudi like organic structures that sweep and curve around a city. This is a trap because it is missing some of the core ideals of solarpunk design and ethos – that people should live a live which is both in harmony with the world around us as well as living in a sustainable and equal society. The thing is, every environment, country, ecosystem and area is going to have very different needs when it comes to living that solarpunk life. At its most simple we can see this in everyday housing design. Most people in Queensland, Australia for example have houses built to maximise ventilation and minimise glare from the sun. Many houses don’t have any real sort of heating system because it’s simply not needed and insulation would not only be a waste of money but could lead to dangerous overheating. Put that house design in the UK and you are going to have cold, damp unhappy residents. Here we need buildings with thick walls, plenty of insulation, large south facing windows to maximise light and smaller north facing windows to stop us getting chilly – though we do share the need for ventilation to prevent endless damp.

Futuristic architecture and sci-fi technology doesn’t do away with this need to be cognizant of our surroundings and in solarpunk I would say the need is even greater if we want to achieve the near utopian levels of harmony the genre aspires to. But while this is where some solarpunk falls down, it’s where Beachler’s design excels. By drawing on existing architecture and emerging African technologies for her design, she created a Wakanda that works well and integrates into its environment with harmony.

The Importance of Traditional Buildings

Traditional architecture is generally a good place to start to look for simple architectural techniques that make the most of the environment, and this is no different in Africa. In Wakanda this is most obviously seen in the village of the Border Tribe who mostly live and work out of what would be recognised as “traditional” houses made of mud and wattle with thatched roofs. The buildings are cylindrical with conical roofs – similar to those found in Rwanda, Lesotho, Kenya and many other areas - and small windows. They keep the daytime heat out and keep you warm at night. But traditional design isn’t restricted to the “simple living” of the Border Tribe[1], its influence is in the central city as well.

Still from Black Panther. Image shows a bustling street view looking down a wide road. There is a futuristic road-train in he centre, the buildings are varied in size and material.
There are a number of buildings in the city that would appear to be made out of mud or clay walls albeit finished with more modern or technologically advance roofing. In other areas of Africa, for example Ghana and Mali, a number of traditional buildings are made from sweepings curves with mound shaped columns supporting the walls and roofs. They are incredible and beautiful structures, made of ingenious shapes that make the most of natural resources. Tin some cases these walls and towers are strengthened by horizontal beams and rods that project through the outer surface making them bristle like a hedgehog. Again these basic shapes and materials make their way into the fantastic and solarpunk Wakanda on screen.

A close up photo of an ancient mosque in Ghana. The building as tall mound shaped pillars with wooden spurs protruding through the clay.

This integration of traditional techniques, using local materials and building methods that are sympathetic to the local environment in order to reduce overall impact is an essential part of solarpunk design and one that is often over looked.

Modern Architecture is Complex

All that being said, Africa isn’t a continent made up solely of traditional buildings and basic living. Like any other continent on Earth it has its share of modern cities and busy urban spaces. Here we need to consider the general history of Africa and how it fits in to modern institutional racism and what that means for solarpunk. Large parts of Africa were invaded and colonised by European countries. Many of the borders we recognise today were not “naturally occurring” (if any can be said to be) but the result of colonial intervention and war. Additionally architectural styles from the 19thC onwards have been heavily influenced by European settlers as well as mass globalisation and the spread of capitalism. European settlers had specific ideas about what houses and buildings looked like, and though their usual stone and brick wasn’t available they strove to recreate this facsimile of European architecture in the land they had colonised. This wasn’t always successful; as noted these building designs aren’t always suitable for the local conditions.

However it wasn’t all a disaster and fairly quickly European building design was adopted. The rapid increase in global markets and the post-colonial atmosphere of the mid 20th Century accelerated building and development of cities. What was peculiar was the flourishing architectural style of many African cities was still dominated by white European or Israeli[2] architects. Rapidly developing African countries where the perfect setting for radical brutalist and modernist designs of the 50s and 60s. While this undoubtedly fit in with the psyche and mood of the time it does mean that a lot of the modern African architecture that is held in high esteem has a complex history in which it is the product of post colonial colonialism. Indeed for a period there was a lack of non-white “modern architects” as opposed to merely people who build buildings, who originated from African countries as those subjects weren’t taught widely outside of European universities and/or there was segregation acting as a barrier.

Photo by Iwan Baan of La Pyramide in Abadjan, Ivory Coast. The photo shows a large modern building made of concrete and shaped like half a pyramid attached to a tall rectangular tower. The building shows signs of disrepair.

Why do I bring this up in so lengthy a manner? Well it’s because of the values and ethics that are a part of solarpunk. Most people who are into solarpunk would agree that solarpunk societies are diverse and equal, free of prejudice and, not uncommonly, free of Western neo-capitalist ideals. That means that when designing and creating a solarpunk city, especially one that is not located in a European country, it is essential to examine the influences and origins of your design. If your design relies heavily on that of white Europeans for a city in central Africa then not only is it likely that it would be ill-suited stylistically and functionally but you would be ignoring the issue of colonialism and systemic racism. This is the case whether you are envisaging a potential real world future or creating new fictional spaces, because even fictional spaces are influenced by the real world.

In the case of Wakanda and Black Panther there is a thread running throughout the film (and I promise this is not a spoiler) that questions globalisation and colonialism and their impact on non-white, non-European countries. That the architectural design reflects this is a beautiful thing. It shows a level of awareness and consideration that is often neglected in solarpunk and sci-fi design (though I would bet good money on it rarely being left out of afro-futurism).

The modern, futuristic and high tech design of Wakanda does draw on the influence of non-African architects that’s for sure: as noted at the beginning there, Zaha Hadid was stated as a major influence and she was Israeli. But those designs have been chosen with consideration of the real world source material and what including those designs implies for a solarpunk dream city. In the cases where European designed buildings have been referenced they are those which have been embraced by current societies and have integrated themselves into modern cities and are still functional. To many of the 20thC brutalist structures were never completed or were abandoned when they proved unsuitable for their environment. Instead it is more recent architecture, both by African and non-African architects that has been referenced as modern African architecture is far closer to solarpunk ideals than its predecessors. It’s in African cities that you will see some of the most cutting edge uses of materials, inspiring design and forward thinking sustainable and eco-friendly building. Not only is that a part of the solarpunk ethos, it is the way of life of Wakanda.

Photo of the Leo Surgical Centre Designed by Francis Kere an architect from Burkina Faso. The image shows a wide walkway between rows of adjoining buildings the buildings have open roofs and wide overhangs.
That Bechler managed to integrate the traditional features and techniques with cutting edge design and modern and sci-fi technology is to be applauded. This is how Sci-fi and solarpunk cities should work. I wouldn't say it's how they should look because if there is anything you take away from this it's that solarpunk cities should be defined by their locale. But it is how they should be formed: seamlessly blending traditional and simple with new and high tech. Creating a city that is free of structural inequality and reflects the idealised social structure of your solarpunk world. In Wakanda the streets between the clay and vibrinium walls are wide and easy to pass through, there are no cars but plentiful public transport systems. there are places to sit and buildings can be entered into easily. The space is built for the people who live there and works with the environment around it to remove any social barriers whether they be from outside influence or physical ability. It is harmonious not just in society but in it's very structure. 

And that, is why Black Panther was an exciting film to watch for any solarpunk, architecture or afro-punk enthusiast. Ecologically smart, location sensitive novel design.

Still from Black Panther showing the mountain headquarters of the Jabari Tribe jutting out of the mountainside.
Included because it was my favourite piece of design.

[1] The simple living of farming war rhinos and defending the border.
[2] In the mid 20th Century several African nations had strong diplomatic relations with Israel which supported various anti-colonial and independence movements. The agreements were damaged in the 1970s due to the Arab-Israeli war, limiting foreign investment and development.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Sketchbook Project

The past few months I have been working on improving my drawing skills. In order to encourage myself to draw regularly I decided to participate in the Sketchbook Project.

Photograph of an A5 manila envelope with the heading "The Sketchbook Project" balanced on a person's knee with a tin of pencils balanced on top

This is a project set up in New York that aims to act as an archive and library of artists from beginner to professional. You simply fill up one of their sketchbooks, send it back to them and it becomes a part of their collection free for members of the public, schools, art and community groups to browse.
What I particularly like is that, while for me as a random member of the public I had to pay for the book, the sketchbook is sent free to schools and community groups who wish to participate. This makes art and participation n pubic arts projects far more accessible to low income people and not-for-profit groups. Greater accessibility to the arts is something I strongly support - art shouldn't always be treated as a luxury or as something only other people do. It should be something that all people regardless of background or current financial status feel they can be a part of.

photograph of an open text book on the left showing an upside down Picasso sketch and an open sketchbook on the left showing my pencil copy of the sketch

This, somewhat shaky and poorly filmed video gives you a walk through of my sketches, the things I have learned and how I have developed my drawing over the past few months. (video is subtitled in English)

If you like sketching or painting or want to do more art, I would definitely recommend considering getting a Sketchbook Project book to fill in and to contribute to the project. I found that being part of a bigger project was a really great motivation to pick up the book and draw even on days I might not have felt like it otherwise.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Names, identities and hats

The eagle eyed of you who have followed me for some time may have noticed that while the blog name has stayed the same, my name has changed a couple of times. I guess name changes aren’t all that unusual on the internet but I think it’s time I told you why, and why it shouldn’t be changing again for a long while, if all goes to plan.

Hi, I’m Robin, I’m non-binary and agender.

So that line sums it up pretty well and I guess I could leave it there. But if I was in to perfunctory statements I wouldn’t have this blog.

First of all what does this mean. Let’s get some things about gender straight. Gender is a social construct. It is a method of labelling ourselves and others that was created within our culture and is shaped by our cultural norms and history. That’s why in different parts of the world the exact definitions of gender and the labels available can differ to our own. What we think of as masculine and feminine isn’t fixed from culture to culture.

But that also means that genders aren’t fixed definitions and it doesn’t have to be a binary state of male or female. There are many people who do not identify with either purely male or purely female and instead feel like they are something else. This is being nonbinary – existing outside of the commonly used binary system we have in Western culture. I should emphasize here that this isn’t just “not being like other girls” or “I’m not really one of the lads!”.  While those experiences can be a part of the nonbinary and trans experience they aren’t the whole deal and can and do form a part of the identities of people who have binary gender.

Pencil sketch of me by Jennie Gyllblad 

How do you know then that you are nonbinary? 

Honestly I can’t say. How you identify is personal to you. So let me tell you how I know and the process I went through.

This is a story of two halves and like the most edgy of modern fiction I will start with the latter half. Though I had heard the term nonbinary (NB) before and knew that there were people who were neither male or female, it was only a few years ago that it was a concept I really started engaging in and thinking about. I had a couple of friends who were nonbinary or who came out as NB and I found that it was entering into my sphere of awareness online more and more. It was the first time I really started to think about it. Listening to other people’s understanding and lived experience was key as there were a number of instances you could term “light bulb moments. Tiny light bulbs maybe but still, something in my brain was clicking in to place and saying “oh, that sounds familiar. Interesting”.

Additionally this exposure to conversations on gender encouraged me to consciously think about my own gender identity and what it meant to me. This is something I would encourage people to do, even if you are comfortably binary or cisgendered (or cis, means that you identify with the gender and sex assigned at birth).  Because we can only really know our own feelings about identity it is very easy to assume that what we feel is the default and that this is what everybody means when they say “I am female” or “I am male” or even “I am trans”. It can be a good exercise in self awareness to actually examine a little more closely what you mean when you think and feel these things and to consider them in comparison to other people’s experiences.

When I examined my own identity in this way I came to realise that actually I was nonbinary and it was a term I began to use to describe myself with close friends.

Now to go back in time to the first half of this process: this process of examining my own identity lead me to consider some of the experiences I had had since I was young. I reflected that I had always bristled at being described as a girl, female, lady or woman. It had been easy to dismiss this when I was a teenager: girl was too childish whereas woman felt too mature. “Female” can be oddly condescending and lady has implications of daintiness and certain feminine behaviour I didn’t embody. But I knew that while partially true, they had always been excuses, easy vocalisations of a deeper discomfort with being labelled as those terms.

I had, like many people my age, gone through a phrase of saying “I wasn’t like other girls” and “I was more one of the boys”. Now these phrases are trickier to unpack. There are definitely influences of patriarchy and internalised misogyny – when media shows women as weak, frivolous, vapid, dumb and generally lesser it’s not surprising that many young women (or people labelled as female) choose to push against this and distance themselves from the term. That was without a doubt part of my experience, but on reflection I was able to see that there were times I said “I’m not like other girls” because I wasn’t like other girls. I was struggling to identify with “girls” as a group and often felt like an outsider. I should note here that I went to an all girl school. There was a lot of opportunity for me to feel like an outsider and gender was only a part of it. But it was a part of it.

Let’s return to sexism and misogyny for a moment. Do you know how deeply frustrating it is to be the subject of mysoginistic slurs, or grouped in to statements like “well that’s what women are like” when there is a part of you, deep down and unvocalised, that knows you aren’t a part of that group? When I say “I’m not like that” it’s not just because I am rejecting the slur, the insult and the sexism, it’s because you’ve not seen who I am. You’ve grouped me in with a group you hate and I’m not even part of it.

There had been a little voice inside me, angrily shouting for decades, “that’s not me!” but never really understanding what that meant. If asked I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why I thought that but it didn’t make it any less present.

Associated with this was how I felt disconnected with various feminist movements. From Girl Power in the 90s to contemporary feminism I had often struggled to connect with it. While I could feel with a deep passion that they were needed and important, after all I had experienced first-hand many of the issues being dealt with, when people would put out a cal to women, or ask women to band together, I once again felt that vague sense of being an outsider. It wasn’t the naive “I’m not like other girls” any more but it was a “is this for me?”. The stronger the message of women banding together the more I felt excluded even though, to the best of my knowledge at that time, I was part of the target audience. Anything related to Breast Cancer Awareness was of particular discomfort and felt like a personal affront such was their all female message so strong.

Back to the present day, or at least those days a few years ago when I was exploring gender identity and a good friend said to me “When I get called girl or woman it feels like a cat having their fur stroked the wrong way.” . That was it, the final little light bulb in my head. That was the feeling. What I found interesting is that when I thought about being called male, boy, man or lad, it felt just as alien to me. Maybe not as aggravating because it didn’t have decades of lived experience and associated sexism attached, but still distinctly wrong. I was then fairly sure I was neither male nor female.

At first I started using the term nonbinary or NB, which can be a nonspecific umbrella term and genderqueer, which was a little more specific and is generally agreed to mean a nonbinary identity that mixes different aspects of feminine and masculine without being either male or female.  Bit by bit I started talking about this to different friends and using it as my identity and it felt good. I felt calmer and more sure of who I was than I ever had. I no longer had the feeling of being slightly out of synch with what people thought of me. Over time I have come to use the term agender as well. Agender essentially means “outside of gender” or to not have a gender as understood by our cultural definitions. I am still fairly flexible on which terms I use.

So what about the name changes?
Just as I had always had this vague feeling of being slightly out of synch with how people saw me, I had always felt somewhat that my name wasn’t quite right. The name I was given at birth was Sophie. It’s a lovely name, with a rich history. It is a name to be proud of and treasure associated with wisdom and inner strength. I honestly do think it’s a beautiful name.
But it was never my name.

Picture of me from 2011(ish) with cropped blonde hair and a vintage black hat

The hat analogy 

The analogy I use I use is hats that don’t fit.
Imagine you have been given a hat as a gift. It is beautiful, majestic, and handsome. But it doesn’t fit. Whenever you wear it it’s a little uncomfortable, maybe it doesn’t balance properly, always feels like it’s about to fall off, and maybe you worry it looks faintly ridiculous on you. It doesn’t stop it being a really nice hat, and one you are thankful for being given, but that doesn’t make it fit any better.
Now for some people you might be able to alter the hat, tighten the hat band and it fits better. That would be those of you who shorten your name or go by a nickname. The Robs and Steves, Kats and Dannis. You aren’t a Robert or a Bob, you are a Rob. You aren’t a Katherine, or a Cathy, you are a Kat.

But for some of us the hat can’t be comfortably adjusted or forced to fit. It still just balances awkwardly on your head making your faintly uncomfortable. Then one day you find another hat. You try it on just to see. It’s different to your first hat, but still pretty nice. But this one fits. This one is comfortable and stays on your head. You can wear it and not worry about it falling off or hurting. That’s what it was like when I started going by a new name. I originally chose Penn. It definitely fit me better than Sophie. It was easier to wear.
The thing was, though I used that online and amongst friends for over a year it still never felt quite right. I liked it but it wasn’t completely me. I knew I wouldn’t stick with it when I decided if I wanted to formally change my name. Even though I was increasingly irritated to have to use my original name in official places, I was reluctant to change to Penn.
I went looking for a new hat and I found it. Robin is the hat that has the right look. It suits me, it fits, it’s comfortable. Somebody else can wear Sophie and it will be the right hat for them. Bot for me, Robin is the hat that fits.

Now to clear up a few points 

Am I trans? Technically yes. Trans is the abbreviation of transgender which has the accepted definition of “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.”. In our society we take the sex assigned at birth, male or female, as the assigned gender. If you identify as NB then you don’t identify as the sex assigned at birth since it’s not even an option. By that definition a person who is nonbinary is transgender or trans. A lot of nonbinary people choose not to call themselves trans as their experience is different to people who are transgender within the binary, that is to say male to female (mtf) or female to male (ftm) transgender. Because the common usage of trans generally refers to people who are mtf or ftm many NB people feel that the term doesn’t include them. Equally some people who are mtf or ftm prefer that NB people don’t use the term trans as it can confuse and complicate the issues they are dealing with.

Personally I fluctuate on whether I use it or not and it often comes down to context. In general conversation I tend not to use it because of the common usage described above. However in some conversations and spaces it is appropriate for me to use the term trans. For example in conversations that are about the experiences of people who are not cis it is appropriate to use the term trans. I also participate in a trans and nonbinary swimming club and am happy to use the term trans when there as everybody there understands the terminology as well as personal experiences.

What about tansitioning?
Understandably because the words have similarities people sometimes think trans means “transition”. What a lot of cis people mean when they say transition is medical or surgical transitioning – genital surgery, breast augmentation or reduction, and hormone therapy. While these are routes that many trans people take they aren’t universal experiences even among mtf and ftm people. It’s a very personal decision involving some pretty major medical intervention. Some people may take it up whilst others choose not to or are unable to due to other health issues. The issue is even more complicated with nonbinary people who (like binary trans people) may experience little or no body dysphoria and don’t necessarily want to change their body. Some people who are nonbinary do undergo some medical transitioning, whilst others don’t. However it is a very personal issue and one that nobody is obliged to disclose to anybody.

What about presentation, and do I still look “female”? Well that depends on what you think female looks like really. Generally I am read as female. My particular body and face shape is associated with “female” in our society. Because it is acceptable for women to wear more masculine clothes (jeans and a sweater for example) but not for men to wear women’s clothing (dresses and blouses) even if I dress in a “masculine” fashion I am often referred to as female. This is aggravating but there is little I can do about it without a concerted effort. Additionally because our culture has developed the attitude that “male is default” there is a tendency for people to conflate “androgenous” or neutral clothing with male clothing. As I said earlier, I don’t want to be male. I’m not male. I shouldn’t have to make myself look more male in order to be not read as female. It’s frustrating. Plus I like leggings and skirts. They are comfortable.

However, and I want to make this very clear: I am not presenting as female. You may read me as female, and our society may associate parts of my appearance with femininity but that is not deliberate on my part. I am presenting as me and as nonbinary.

What do I call you? Robin. Or another nickname I guess. My pronouns are they them by preference but I don’t mind she/her, especially if you are my grandfather. I am not a girl, woman, lady or female or other gendered terms (again unless you are my grandfather or we have talked about it). If for some reason you need to state my gender you can say NB, genderqueer or agender.

But what is my sex? Usually when people ask this what they really mean is "what are your genitals". Honestly that’s none of your business. You can probably work it out if you need to. But really you don’t need to.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Cripple-Punk: when existing is rebellion

Cripple-punk, Chronic-punk, C-punk. Maybe you’ve seen these terms around, maybe you haven’t. But what do they mean?

[image description: a digital artwork depicting user ogrefairy - a fat  light-skinned wheelchair-user with a “The Future Is Accessible” crop top, surgery scars on her knees, reddish-purple lips, thin framed glasses, a dark brown bob cut, and a floral tattoo on her wrist. She is giving a peace sign and a gentle smile while sitting in a manual chair that has been decorated with purple and black zebra patterned tape. Matching forearm crutches sit behind her backrest. The background is Art Nouveau inspired abstract pale purple with a floral wreath of princess lilies and has flowers that match those on her tattoo. The whole image gives off a gentle, soft tone with layers of maybe assertive resilience built in.]

Cripple-punk can be described in a number of ways: a movement, an attitude, a lifestyle. It is all of these things. Tired of being pitied, portrayed as weak, incapable, lesser, and tired of being treated as fragile adult children disabled and chronically ill people are fighting back. Part of this fight is the reclamation of the word cripple once used derisively for those with mobility issues; it is now being said with a self aware pride by the very people it refers to. “Yes I am a cripple. What’s your point?”.
Of course not everybody identifies with the word cripple. For many it is still a word that carries social stigma and negativity, and for others it just doesn’t reflect their personal situation. So then the terms  Chronic-punk and C-Punk. From this point forward I will be using the term C-punk inclusive of both cripple- and chronic-punk.

Let’s turn briefly to the history of punk itself. Whether you believe that punk was spawned in the clubs of New York or the streets of London, what is clear to all is that punk was a reactionary movement. Punk developed as a reaction to and rejection of the orthodoxy. It was a rebellion against the sociopolitics of the mid 70s and 80s. It embraced anarchy, nihilism, dada, socialism and did so with an unbridled and shameless energy and aggression. It was a challenge to everybody to embrace individuality and push against normality.[1]

Since its initial inception as a subculture there have been numerous off-shoots, and further subdivisions such as hardcore punk, post punk and even pop punk that grew organically out of the original punk scene. Later, the term punk was used as a suffix for a number of sub-genres and cultures which were about subverting, challenging and changing the status quo of a given theme. Thus was born steam-punk (subversion of Victoriana), diesel-punk (mutations of the early 20th century), cyberpunk (subversive sci-fi and near future), and more recently solar-punk (eco futurism) and afro-punk (referring both to the contribution of black people to alternative and activist movement AND to a variety of solar punk that is centred on African culture related to afrofuturism[2]). These subgenres are largely arts based, developing from literature in to art, music, lifestyle and “aesthetic”. [3]

[image description: a digital artwork depicting a black person with short black dreads on the top of their head that are died orange at the tips. They are wearing short gray shorts that show pockets and a white bikini top and white lipstick. She has artistic, white prosthetics on her left arm and leg that are decorated with orange day lilies. The background is pale blue with a floral wreath of orange day lilies. They are muscular and seem to be very confident.]

Now that we have a mutual understanding of punk, let’s think about C-punk. If punk is about rebellion, subverting the norm and individuality how does that apply to chronically ill and disabled people, after all people of all backgrounds can be disabled? While that’s correct there are common experiences shared by many people with disability and chronic illness. Disability is rarely seen in media and when it is it is often a feature of a storyline designed to generate sympathy or as a growing point for an able bodied character. When characters are disabled that is often the primary focus and the character is allowed little characterisation or identity other than their disability. This spills over in to everyday life for many people – people with disabilities and chronic illness are often forgotten about (as evidenced by many buildings and events not thinking about accessibility at all) or reduced to a stereotyped collection of their symptoms and abilities. In real life it is common for people to be ignored, talked down to or infantilised as if any single impairment is enough to strip a person of their faculties and individuality. There is a stereotype that disabled people are either meek and quiet, eternally grateful for the things they can do and any shred of recognition they can get or, alternatively, we are bitter and remorseful, struggling to cope with our limitations and desperately wishing we were able bodied. There seems to be some sort of shame or guilt from able bodied people that encourages them to hide disabled people behind the curtain, because they don’t know how to treat them. This is lodged in the idea that a disability or chronic illness makes us somehow “other” and reduces us to a small set of experiences specifically linked to our health. It forgets that even though disability or chronic illness may be a big part of our lives (and trust me I can spend hours talking about health symptoms and medical research) it is not the only part of our lives and really we are as diverse as any group of able bodied people.

These prevailing attitudes have created a culture in which people may be ashamed to use the very adaptations, aides, medication and devices that actually help to improve our quality of life. There is a certain amount of stigma attached to using a walking cane, or crutches. Being a young person wearing joint braces encourages questions from perfect strangers and should you reveal they are for a long term condition, pity or disbelief. People are scared to take medication especially for anything relating to mental health or neurodivergence, but also things like pain relievers for fear of looking “weak” or of “giving in”. [4] Additionally, due to our current socio-political situation (in the UK and US at least) there is a fear that if you reveal you are disabled or chronically ill then you are faking it for benefits, scamming the system or simply put lazy.

Conversely and somewhat surreally there is also the (thankfully shrinking trend) of photographers and film makers using the trappings of disability – such as wheelchairs, crutches, hospital beds, and mental health stereotypes – as a backdrop and props for their shoots and films when they want to appear “edgy”[5]. In fact medical paraphernalia has been a stalwart of shock and horror media since the 19th Century, and shockingly the attitude and acceptance of this is only just beginning to change. Once again this “others” people who are actually disabled or chronically ill turning their daily lives into a boogie man or piece of set dressing. In some cases it may lead to people choosing (or being forced to in some cases) to hide their disabilities in order to avoid bullying, harassment and stigma.

C-Punk therefore encourages people who are actually disabled to embrace their disabilities and to show the true face of disability and chronic illness. If the social norm and status quo is to shame and hide and to strip disabled people of their individuality, then it is a punk act to wear a neck brace proudly, to decorate crutches, to be seen, to say “I am here, I am disabled, and I am just like you.” .

[image description: a group of five individuals of varying gender presentations. They are a variety of body sizes and are dressed in a mixture of styles. One individual is using crutches, one using a walking cane, one appears to be wearing wrist braces and a fourth is wearing headphones. The background is lilac with a wreath of pink and lilac orchid flowers. The title of the piece is "My MentallyIllPunk Famiy"]
It subverts the trend of humble gratuity to both accept and acknowledge ones illness but also to talk out about the difficulties we face. At its most simple C-punk is an aesthetic that does not hide or diminish disability and chronic illness and encourages acceptance or even pride rather than guilt or meekness. But for many it is more than that. It is a socio-political statement and a movement. As long as disabled people aren’t seen as individuals it is easy to dismiss and ignore their rights, ignoring accessibility laws, harassment, the stripping of benefits in a manner that the UN has seen fit to condemn[6]. By, in true punk fashion, making a scene, shouting out being seen and being heard cripple punk forces those who have previously brushed aside the reality of disabled people to view us as real people; real people just like them who may, just possibly be deserving of fair treatment.

In some cases the aesthetic of C-punk bears resemblance to the original punk looks: it is certainly popular with people like myself who are brightly haired and tattooed. But it is not the preserve of the alternative millennial (yes I am 32, yes I am a millennial, I was 15 in 2000) simply being openly, honestly and unapologetically disabled or chronically ill in public is an act of defiance and punk rebellion in our society. Not accepting shame, belittling, lesser treatment or discrimination is a radical and punk act.

Not all who confidently and unashamedly live their lives with disability or chronic illness will label themselves as C-punk and some may have never heard of the term(s). But in a world where existing as a minority is a radical act, they are acting in the spirit of C-punk just as much as those who bear the label. When you see somebody embodying the principles of C-punk, take note: realise that not giving in to outdated stereotypes and pressures is a choice and not always an easy one. We are not your inspiration but we are to be recognised.

All illustrations are by Ogrefairy at Ogrefairydoodles on Tumblr and are used with permission

[note: If you do experience shame, doubt, frustration and other negative feelings about your chronic illness or disability that's ok. It doesn't make you any lesser or any less C-Punk, at least in my eyes. A week does not pass by where I do not feel some frustration or inadequacy over my own health. You aren't alone, you still matter.]

[3] There are long debates to be had about how relevant the “punk” suffix is to a number of these subgenres and many arguments about the validity and actual definitions. That goes far beyond the scope of this particular blog post.
[4] See this great article on disability as “inspiration” in which a lot of value is placed on “overcoming” your personal difficulties, preferably without the aid of medication.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Guest Post - The Year End Festival

[Today's very special seasonal post is written by Mark Tynan (my father) on the subject of how we celebrate this time of year. Whatever festival, if any, you are celebrating this time of year Seasonal Greetings and may it be as good as it can be.]

Before I go into the elements and details of my desire for the introduction of a new annual festival can I just say I am not being disrespectful to Christians and their celebration of the birth of the son of the God they worship. They have a right to their belief and worship and I acknowledge and respect that right. Also, I am not looking to get rid of Christmas but I am looking to begin a non-religious alternative to it; and here’s why.

I am irreligious: I do not, and have never, followed any religion nor worshipped any God. So, as a non-Christian for example, I cannot, and probably should not, celebrate Christmas from a religious point of view. Similarly, I might say that I cannot celebrate Ramadan, Yom Kippur or Diwali, as I am not Muslim, Jewish or Hindu.

But the thing about Christmas, and I wonder if the Christian community might agree with me here, is that it has been taken over, in the last 150 years or so, by capitalism and its religious value has been eroded or lessened, maybe even removed. Ok, Christ was given gifts by three wise men so I can see the basis for the tradition, but these days, major retailers, I feel, don’t urge us to buy gifts on that basis, but instead to boost their annual profits by a considerable amount. Black Friday for instance; does that get a mention in the Nativity story? I think not. Then there are the many TV ads which imply that purchasing from a particular business will enhance your Christmas experience. Quotes ‘Christmas: Morrison’s makes it!’ Sky Sports ‘Christmas is for football!’ (something I had never realised before!), ‘Play happy this Christmas – Gala Bingo’, and so it goes on and on. I might, therefore, urge the Christian community to take back Christmas Day for themselves.

Which leads to the idea I have for the Year-End Festival (YEF) which would not replace Christmas but would call on, and allow anyone to take part; people of any religion or none, people from all ethnicities, the young, the old, all genders, heterosexual and LGBTQA, etc etc. So, YEF runs from Dec 26th to Jan 1st, inclusive, with the advent of the New Year being its climax and there are three elements to it that I relate here.

v  Firstly, I would like it to be seen as a chance to strengthen our society. Obviously, I encourage people to come together with family, friend, partners etc to celebrate the coming of the New Year and to exchange thoughts and feelings on what has occurred during the near-gone year. But I would also hope that there could, or would, be more coming-together of the different groups of people which make up our society to gain understanding of the different views of life and the world that we all have. For example I, as a political left-winger, am happy to befriend those with alternative political viewpoints, discuss matters with them and gain an understanding of their stance, even if it ends with us agreeing to disagree.

v  Secondly, I would nominate one of the seven days of YEF to be called Reflection Day (But not the Festival’s 1st day or last). In the words of the Greek philosopher Socrates ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ I couldn’t agree more, and the chance to develop our self-worth, self-esteem and to build our set of ethics and moral values is, I think, one worth taking. So, what happened in these last 12 months of your life? Are you happy and proud with the way you responded to and coped with issues, people and situations that you faced? If yes, then the YEF would not just be a celebration of the New Year but also a personal celebration of the human being you are or have become. Or is there something in that 12 months which brings feelings of regret or shame to you? Did you not handle a situation very well? Could you have treated somebody a bit better? Reflection Day, I feel, would be an opportunity to establish and examine your strengths and weaknesses and perhaps resolve to enhance yourself in some way and become able to be proud, in the future, of the compassionate, ethical, inclusive human that you have become. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but I am happy to say that, over the last few years, it has worked for me!

v  And finally, the tradition of gift-giving. On the one hand I want it to continue. Everyone (hopefully) knows the love and delight involved in giving and receiving gifts. It can make our children very happy, it can deliver a message of love to another person and gifts can enhance, brighten of improve our lives. But on the other hand, and I think I’ve already got this message across, I don’t like the idea of big business using the festive season to make enormous profits. So, what’s the alternative? Well. I would suggest that all YEF gifts be bought from charity shops. Now, in an ideal world there would be no need for charities – the people, the businesses and the government would all come together to deal with the issues which charities take on. But this idyll is unattainable in the world as it is. Therefore, buying all our gifts from charities would inject a considerable amount of money into the world of need rather than the world of profit. Big business would survive this, no need to worry about them.
So, enjoy the YEF 2017 and I hope that 2018 brings you more happiness, friendship and self-development.

[editors note: Personally I would extend point three to include handmade gifts and those bought from independent sole traders but I also understand and support my father's premise! Though it could also feasibly argued that many saved by not buying traditional Christmas gifts means people can afford to buy special items from independent makers at other points during the year, so their livelihoods may not be impacted. My opinion may be skewed by being friends with several independent maker/traders.]

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Charity Dilema

Recently I have been having a problem with charity. Not in the way you way think. Sure the “chuggers” who stop you every five metres in the street are annoying and nobody really likes somebody knocking on their door during teatime.  But that’s not my complaint.

My issue comes from the fact that we need to rely on charities so much at all: that there really is a desperate need for charities to raise more money because they need to spend that money and help people. Whether they are small local charities providing overnight shelter for rough sleepers or medical research charities investigating a disease, that’s what they are for: helping people. An enormous amount of scientific breakthrough comes from charities and that knowledge goes toward being able to adequately help, treat and care for people with illnesses as diverse as heart disease to rare cancers to narcolepsy. It’s important and valuable work.

Recently I have noticed that charities are in need of more and are having to appeal more often, especially when it comes to frontline services such as housing or mental health support. Charities are desperate for the funding to be able to continue providing services which are being stretched to the limit. Of course those who can donate are. The generosity of people in doing what they can to help others has been phenomenal. It is clear to most of us that things are pretty rubbish in this country for a lot of people right now, and we need to help in any way we can.

What is upsetting me though is that this altruism and giving nature is, I believe, what the Tory government is counting on. Back in 2010 it became a cornerstone of Cameron lead Conservative politics as he pushed for “Big Society”. In part this was associated with things like the push for changing the way schools are run and the opening of more Academies which were privately funded. In practice though the concept of Big Society means that is falls on the general population to look after each other. On the face of it that doesn’t sound like a terrible thing. After all we would all like to think that we are caring individuals that will help each other out when we are can. There are a couple of problems though.

We aren’t just talking about a few small acts of kindness here and there. Big Society is less about lending your mate a fiver when they are short at the end of the month and is more about creating the infrastructure to support social needs from housing to education to health care. These are big demands that can never be taken on by individuals but that need vast amounts of cooperation, skills and organisation.

The second issue is that it leaves it up to the individual as to how and whom they will help. And why is that an issue? Because some people just aren’t as caring as others. Additionally some aren’t as generous as others while of course some simply don’t have as much to give. It has been shown in a number of studies that while people on a large income may make larger individual donations, it is low income people who are more likely to give regularly and to give a larger percentage of their income to charities. Even without the economic split it’s clear that there are some people who are always going to be more inclined toward giving than others. This means that when charities are being relied upon to fill the gaps in social care and infrastructure, the money to make this possible is only coming from a small percentage of the population, while the services, care and resources available are available to all. It becomes a great source of inequity and some may say adds insult to the injury that sees lower income people proportionally taxed higher than high earners already.

While the emphasis currently is on frontline services or services for at risk groups – homeless charities, refugee support, foodbanks and so on – there are those who may think that they are never going to be in need of those resources. But as many of us know nothing in life is certain and unexpected expenses, sudden ill health or injury, loss of a job and many other personal catastrophes can leave you in a position of needing that help. The help and support of charities really is for everybody.

But it’s not just those front line charities which need our financial support. Charities which carry out research into everything from understanding and treating cancers to climate change are struggling. In recent years the government funding for scientific research as well as a number of other policies have meant that research groups have been struggling to continue with studies and projects. It’s easy to feel cut off from this science unless you take a particular interest or are in a STEM industry yourself but in truth we often benefit in ways we don’t realise. Everything from novel materials that can be used in manufacturing, climate studies that help us predict how we can keep ourselves and the planet healthy in future years and of course biomedical research that can literally save lives (or just vastly improve them). All of this requires money. If it’s not coming from the government it has to come from private investment (which can only go so far and may impose bias), or charitable funds and foundations. It’s a limited pot of money and already difficult for research teams to make successful grant applications but it’s often the only real source of funding for many researchers. Of course when financing is limited it is not unexpected that the grants will go to those seen as most in need. That goes for both those awarding the grants and those donating to charities and foundations. The problem is that it’s very difficult to decide what has most worth, what is most in need and what is a good “investment” of our donation. A cure for a rare cancer that could save thousands of lives or better understanding of a non-fatal but life-limiting chronic illness that could help even more. In reality both are valuable. Just as the research into electronics, robotics, energy, agriculture, psychology and many more areas are valuable in different ways.

When the funding isn’t coming from the government and is instead coming from the public we are left with very difficult decisions to make and ultimately some area will suffer potentially leaving a legacy for generations to come. It is beyond doubt that finding a new treatment that helps save lives is important and needs to be done but we have to acknowledge that that may come at the cost of staying competitive in manufacture, engineering computing and emerging economies.

There are some big implications here. It means that the responsibility for looking after people, our health, the general infrastructure and the future economy is being pushed onto the shoulders of charities. This in turn means that the ultimate fate of this myriad of issues is down to us, those who donate. We are left with no option. We have to donate because if we don’t people will suffer. There is clear evidence of this in the newspapers, in fact on our streets, every day. We have to donate because we want to see a future where things get better. We know every time we a few pounds here, the last of our coppers there, that there is a desperation in our country and it is down to a minority with both a social conscience and the means to do so to try and make things work. It’s clear that those at the top, those who are supposed to legally have a responsibility as well as those who could afford to do more, are letting us get on with it. They are taking advantage of our generosity, our desire to help good causes and people in need, our tendency to give back to those who have helped already to say “Thank you.” for efforts done and to pass it on to future people in need.

I will be giving to charity this Christmas, both national organisations and on a more local level, but it upsets me both that the need for this generosity for is increasing and that with every donation we are “proving” that the Tory experiment of Big Society works. Not works in a meaningful manner in that all sectors of society take care of each other equally, everything is adequately funded and infrastructure, investment and core social care is managed by the Government, but works in a sense that people will do their best to fill in the gaps where they can and that the impression of caring and generosity will make up for any lack in real provision.

Do give to charity, please don’t stop. But equally do contact your MPs and ask about where funding is going. Do ask about fairer taxation and query why so much time and money is wasted on raking back pennies from social care while large corporations avoid tax by the billions. It’s just another way of showing people you care and of making a difference. We need charities, but we need a government that actually works for us far, far more. 


Tuesday, 19 September 2017

SmartYellow - more than a book review

This isn’t strictly a book review but I feel compelled to about this book, SmartYellow by J. A. Christy. [contains mild spoilers]

This book has been haunting me since I finished reading it over a month ago. Book hangovers aren’t uncommon but the extent to which this has got in to my brain is something different and I feel compelled to explore this further. As much as this explores the book this post is a commentary on the current welfare state in the UK.

I’m not unaccustomed to enjoying books that can best be described as “a bit grim”: dystopian AUs and contemporary noir are my jam. SmartYellow definitely fits in to that category. 

A brief synopsis: SmartYellow is set in a recognisable Britain, the part of Britain that never really makes it in to books or on TV. SmartYellow is primarily set in a council estate. It follows the life and struggles of a single mother who find herself far out of her middle class comfort zone and struggling to survive on a notorious estate. When an Olive branch is offered to her she takes it and does her best to make the best out of what is increasingly clear to be and terrible situation. Getting to grips with government surveillance and finding out that her tasks are part of something far deeper and more sinister than she first thought.

The science of SmartYellow is subtle and not described in great detail only alluded to in layman’s terms. The source and real power of the technology isn’t explored in depth rather focussing on the impact of how it is used in the real world. It isn’t a lot but it is just enough to push SmartYellow in to the realms of sci-fi and an uncanny valley alternative universe where control of “undesirables” is far more insidious than we would like to believe.
This is a book about choices. It is about hard decisions and what you do when you are caught between a rock and hard place. It’s about Us and Them, our prejudices, our boundaries and how far we will go to save ourselves. And it is brutal.

Perhaps you are starting to get an inkling of why this book affected me so deeply. To start with the setting is meticulously describes and painfully familiar to many of us. An ordinary unassuming town it has its posh bits, its comfortable middle class suburbs, a bustling centre, some working class streets and then, pushed to one side, the council estates. Run down clusters of maisonettes and blocks of flats segregated from the rest of the city. The people who live there are marked as different. They are outcasts from the town. They are considered by everybody off the estates to have failed in some way, to be lesser, to be beyond help and in some cases deserving of all that they have to suffer.

 J. A. Christy’s descriptions are raw, clear and without shame. You feel every ounce of the grey and pastel prison that surrounds you. You feel the fear and desperation. What Christy has done is make us face head on and eye to eye the reality of these estates and how some people are cut off from society. It’s a difficult lesson if you’ve never been forced to think about it and for those who have had to think about it, have experienced it or come close its painful reminder.

Outside of the book this country has a problem with poverty and with the working poor. Though we have a benefit system it is clear to almost everybody that it is brutally unfair and often sets people up to fail. You have to be able to apply in the first place, you have to be able to jump through hoops of bureaucracy to even be accepted and in many cases you then have to continue with these circus trips to attend meeting, fill our form after form and behave in a way which is defined by an anonymous body. This would be difficult for people even in ideal circumstances, but in reality most of the people who have to apply are far from in ideal circumstances. They are already poor, already struggling. They often have substance abuse to deal with. Many come from abusive and broken homes and do not have a support network around them. Some of us are ill and disabled. Others have young children or family members who need care. Often there is a lack of education or literacy that holds people back. But there is no support. All are expected to jump through the hoops and perform the arcane rights necessary to get enough money that they can eat but that keeps them firmly under the poverty line.

Some of us are lucky, we find ourselves in these situations after we have had a chance to thrive. I cannot work and apply for PIP but I am “lucky” in that I have a support network of good people around me who can and will help. I am “lucky” in that I have a middleclass-ish background and have that to draw from. I am “lucky” in that I had the time and means to go to school, do my A-levels and go to university. It makes it easier. Not so easy that I don’t end up in tears and have panic attacks having to deal with the DWP. Not so easy that I can live comfortably and don’t have to worry about money. Not so easy that there haven’t been periods where I would eat less and less so my money would stretch further, that I would lower the thermostat to 14.5 degrees in the winter and just pile on sweaters and scarves to keep warm to save precious energy. But I am still, relatively speaking lucky.

One such element of my “luck” is that I have never had to apply for social housing. Because with that instantly comes stigma. It shouldn’t do. So many people find themselves in a situation where finding a house to rent with their budget is impossible as private landlords buy up home after home and inflate prices. As old buildings are refurbished into “luxury apartments” that house only a few but charge more than many can afford. As inflation and house prices push more and more people into previously undesirable neighbourhoods and who can afford to rent and buy when the people who already live there can’t and have to move out. Social housing is important. It helps people: people who are working full time on minimum wage; families with dependants who struggle to make ends meet; single parent families; disabled adults. They all need somewhere they can call home and they can live safely without fear of becoming homeless or anything else bad happening to them.

However, instead of seeing council housing and council estates as good places for people who need them, in our society council estates and other social housing is maligned. They are treated as the place where the lesser dregs of society are swept off to fester. The stigma is such that even ex-council estates, those which have been bought up in the right-to-buy rush of the 80s and early 90s and are now largely privately owned or privately rented, are scorned, have less market value, are avoided, treated as trouble spots, and bad areas. Sometimes of course they are. I can’t deny that places like The Noctorum estate on the Wirral were violent and rife with crime. When I said I was moving to the satellite town I now live in people sucked in their breath and warned me away from an estate that had a history of crime ranging from gang fights to burglary. There is often the question though of do these places have these problems because the residents are in need of social housing, or do these things happen because of how broader society treats the people who live there.

Perhaps it’s a bit of both. The language used is telling and difficult. Them versus us. Them and not me. They are other. These are the struggles and difficulties that Christy picks up on wonderfully in SmartYellow and she uses the language of They and Us to great effect putting up barriers both metaphorical and more sinister between the in group, the safe space of The Town, and the out group, the squalor and fear of the estate. This is the first way that this book grips you and gets under your skin: the uncomfortable notion that quite probably you can’t help yourself from thinking in terms of us and them; that try as you might you have placed yourself in “us” and talked about “them”. Even if your words have been compassionate there is always the barrier. The realisation or recognition that we are a part of this horrible dystopia that we are reading about is sickening but difficult to pull away from, because now you aren’t reading a story, you are reading something that is achingly familiar and a part of your own world.

This dichotomy between “us” and “them” is a repeated motif throughout the book and something you can’t escape from. It forces you to examine your own prejudice and your own feelings on the subject again and again from every perspective asking yourself “who am I?” and “where do I draw my line?”. It is a brutal test of your own ethics and morality.

I had a further struggle reading this, a struggle that is far more personal and that not every reader may come up against. I am on benefits. I am on (well sort of I’m in the middle of the appeals process) PIP. Previously I was on DSL and ESA[i] and in receipt of housing benefit. I was with a private landlord but my housing was supported by local government. I was one of them. I am one of them. As I described above, I have felt many of the associated struggled. Furthermore I can’t work due to disability. At least not any sort of regular work that is valued and recognised as employment by our government or vast swathes of our country. I am not seen to contribute value. I am not productive. I am a dead weight who does not contribute. I am a burden on society. This is a rhetoric I can barely escape as it appears in new stories, parliamentary debates, TV chat shows and overheard snippets of general conversation on a nearly daily basis. The paperwork I endure to be allowed a meagre sum that amounts to £3.03 a day is full of questions and statements meant to remind me and test that I really deserve. I have literally been judged, and judged negatively I may add, for being “well presented”. I must perform a pantomime that shows that I am in desperate need but also that I am grateful and trying hard enough. I must be perky happy and wanting, but also in difficulties to the point of no basic hygiene. I am supposed to stay within an ill-fitting cage that I may be rewarded with my £3 a day. Do too well and your money is stopped. Save up a little, just enough to feel safe, and your money is stopped. Manage to find a few hours irregular work, far from a manner able to support yourself and your money is stopped. Fail to attend a meeting because you are sick, starving or, god-forbid have a job interview and your support is taken away.

My situation may be more comfortable than the life of the central characters of SmartYellow but I am far, far too conscious of the constant scrutiny from those who have control. So a world that is crafted to have even more control, more surveillance, to subtly infiltrate your lives and not only make sure you are playing by the rules that allow you to eat but also making sure you never stray from your allotted place is all to easy to believe.

The advanced technology of SmartYellow may not exist (probably) but that does not mean we can’t imagine more mundane methods for creating Zones and ensuring that people stay in their place. We already know that it is more difficult for people with a social housing address to get a job, for those who are out of work for long periods to find employment. We know that people with prison records, no credit and disrupted housing continue to struggle for employment, housing and even healthcare as people judge and weigh the elements of a person’s past. It’s not so hard to imagine that there may be a list of blacklisted addresses and postcodes hanging in an HR office or letting agency. It’s not hard to imagine that police respond differently to calls made in certain areas. It’s not out of the realms of possibly that on some desk in some forgotten about council office there are a series of maps with lurid yellow lines traced around the boundaries of the areas where They live. We can’t pretend, also that eugenics has never been discussed and researched[ii][iii], even carried out in places as a method of population control for those deemed undesirable[iv].

I finished reading the book with a sense of acute paranoia. I knew intellectually that the scenario created by Christy was, though based in reality, fiction. I knew it was speculation and not fact. And yet, the very real sense of always being judged by some governing body or other was inflamed and made a magnitude worse. If they are treating us like this now, think what else they can do if the technology and opportunity ever arises? What of failed experiments and pilot schemes? Would we ever actually be told about them? What if the eugenicists never went away? What if things really are getting worse. Will I be able to satisfy the criteria that keep me from being labelled an “undesirable”? Really do I want to be on that side of the divide? How do I see myself, who am I and how do they see me?

So many questions and so few answers, at last none that I was satisfied with.
The real thing that left me shaken and melancholy from reading SmartYellow was a real, deep and darkly certain feeling not that this could happen, but that it already is happening.

Christy created world where choice is everything, where lack of choice and desperation is what sets us apart. A world where we can shut up and accept the status quo, fight for the scraps we have and be satisfied or push against them and risk losing it all. Is that not the world we live in?

I desperately want to recommend this book to people but it comes with a warning: it might leave you feeling like shit.

[i] PIP (Personal Independence Payment), DSA (Disability Support Allowance) and ESA (Employment Support Allowance) are all UK benefits/social security. PIP is being introduced to replace DSA. It is administered by the DWP – The Department of Work and Pensions, which is a department of the UK Government.
[ii] For example Lee Kwan Yeu in the 1960s,
[iii] Exceprt from Richard Dawkins
[iv] Short article detailing some of the forced sterilisation and euthanasia of “undesirables” in the USAn