Nowt so blind

Last night as it was getting dark I went out for a walk. All was fine to start with but on the high street I almost walked straight into someone else. As I said, it was getting dark, and this person was wearing dark clothes. I managed to avoid him but it was close. Unfortunately a few metres further on I walked straight into a small child and sent them flying across the pavement. I really do think that when children are out at this time, and it will happen more now it’s autumn, that they should wear bright clothes, or I just can’t see them.

I have the same problem out cycling. This morning I cycled into the back of a horse. In my opinion riders should take responsibility – be safe, be seen, after all. We should share the roads and to do that horse riders need to make sure their horses are more visible. There is plenty of hi vis gear out there which helps. After all it really isn’t easy to see a horse without the aid of fluorescent material — they are so well camouflaged and not remotely fucking huge.

I would imagine that by now you think I’ve lost the plot somewhat or that I’m sociopathic and that, even if I am visually impaired, there’s no excuse for this behaviour. Either that or you’ve worked out that I’m trying to make a point about our behaviour on the roads. If I walk into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? If I cycle into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? If I drive into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? Why is it only in the last case that you blame the child?

This post from a fire station is doing the rounds again. There are so many similar things that appear at this time of year, and indeed at all times of year. ‘Be safe, be seen’. But how do you make someone see you?

The text reads ‘The same child is in both photos. The only difference is how they’re dressed. As we approach shorter daylight hours, whether you walk, cycle, use public transport or drive, make sure you can be seen.’

Now I have a number of problems with these kind of photos, of which more later. For now, let’s think about what is going on with this text and what the aim of this is. Although the statement says pedestrians, cyclists and drivers should make themselves seen, it’s not clear who is trying to do the seeing. But ask yourself this, if you were walking would you expect to see a child? Or at least, see the child in time to avoid walking into them? I’m going to take a risk and go with ‘yes’ on this one. When we are walking we do generally expect to see other people in time to avoid walking into them. If we do walk into them and as a consequence cause them significant harm, we don’t then blame them for not being visible enough. When you’re walking the onus is generally on you to ‘look where you’re going’ so you, the moving person, avoid other people.

Yet when we drive, we expect people to make themselves seen. What changes? The first, is the speed you move at when you drive. When someone says they can’t see someone, what they mean is that at the speed they were travelling at they didn’t see them in time to take adequate safety measures. At that stage you can either opt for the admission that you’re driving too fast, or you can blame the person on the road. Since going faster (however illusory that is) is one of our prime reasons for driving, we tend to opt for the latter.

Connected with the speed of travel is the amount we have to process whilst driving. Not just the child who might run out, but the other vehicles around us, the cyclist in front of us, whether we have enough room to manoeuvre our huge metal box around, where we are going next, what the road signs say, what lane we need to select. So in our hurry to process this, rather than admit that driving might be problematic, we’d rather that other road users flag themselves up.

There are various ways to fix the problem of not being able to see a child in time. You can light the child up. But will this always work? The answer is broadly, no. Read this report on a man hit and killed whilst cycling. Both the driver who knocked him from his bike and the driver behind who killed him say they could not see him because of the glare of the sun. Paul James was wearing a hi vis jacket but according to the driver of the first car to hit him ‘The lighting coming through the trees and foliage on the side had created a flickering effect and I believe the high visibility jacket blended in with that.’ And this is the issue both with ‘hi vis’ clothing and with the expectation that you will make yourself seen. Bright yellow is only highly visible in certain light conditions, not all of them. Unless you expect humans to evolve into a form of reverse-chameleon, and to keep up an ever-changing coat colour that contrasts with its background, at some point they might blend in with their background, if you don’t look hard enough.

Which brings me back to those photos. Look again. There are a myriad of problems with comparing a few pixels on a screen (are you looking at this on a mobile phone? How does that compare with the big wide world?) with what you actually see when driving. The images are a very carefully chosen moment in time. The campaigners have made use of the fact that the small screen narrows what you can see. It doesn’t compare with the real world, but they claim it does to make a point. Out in the real world, everything is bigger. It’s also continually moving and changing. Shift the child from the dark of the tree to the glare of the road and what happens?

So the next way to fix this is for drivers to slow down. I can see rabbits running across a road when I’m driving so I’m sure the average driver should be able to see a person, even a small one. If you cannot, then I would seriously consider how good your eyesight is. The other thing that would actually make a difference is to design streets so that we reduce risk to vulnerable road users and ensure that mistakes made by drivers do not impact on those outside of vehicles.

Consider again that slogan ‘be safe, be seen’. The sentence ‘I saw the child’, makes ‘I’ the subject of the verb and the child the object. ‘I’ am doing the seeing. But the sentence ‘the child was seen’ is in the passive voice. Passive voice is often used as a sneaky way to avoid responsibility for what is happening. Don’t want to admit to who did something? Use passive voice. But when we are driving, we do need to step up and take responsibility. As drivers, we should be the subject of the verb. We are in the driving seat, literally.

These pictures are a rhetorical device, a way of evading responsibility. They encourage a lack of vision. They put responsibility on people to be seen – but you cannot make someone see you. And if you expect people to burn themselves onto your retina in the latest high visibility gear, you’ll stop looking in all situations, including the ones in which it obviously doesn’t help anyway. If you are blinded by sunlight, you need to stop or slow down. If you are travelling around a steep bend (it isn’t blind if you slow down enough) then you will not see someone in whatever they are wearing, until you are very close to them. It really is very simple, make sure you can stop in the distance you can see. No-one can make you see – you must observe.


Around 20 years ago, whilst I was researching for my PhD, I found out one of those things that perhaps should be obvious, but that hadn’t occurred to me until that point. Pigs are not meant to be that shape. I was reading F.H.A. Marshall’s classic 1910 text The Physiology of Reproduction (yes, I hear you). Now I knew that domesticated animals were changed versions of their wild forebears. I knew we’d selected cattle, pigs and sheep for their meat, milk and wool-producing capacities. But what I hadn’t realised was the full extent to which we had changed the bodies of animals.

I had naively assumed that we’d bred pigs to reproduce more rapidly, mature and gain weight faster, and to be tastier. What I hadn’t realised, until Marshall spelled it out for me, was that we had changed their shape so the parts with the most sought after cuts of meat were larger. Those little legs and long backs are not the unfortunate by-product of breeding a fatter, juicier pig. They are quite deliberate, because no-one really likes eating the trotters but they do like loin.

I have been pescetarian or vegetarian since 1985. As uncomfortable as I was with this new knowledge of what we had done, it did not change my eating habits. I ate no meat other than fish anyway and did not intend to become vegan. I originally opted for pescetarianism because I did not like the taste or texture of meat, and a large part of that dislike was the knowledge that I was eating the flesh of animals. Eating fish was a compromise. As I remember it, my mum would not let me in the kitchen to make my own meals. My dad did not cook (he does now) but he did insist that every meal had some meat in it. Eating fish was a compromise because although much of the time I wasn’t that keen on it, I could eat it without feeling ill and it meant my mum wasn’t always having to cook extra things for me.

Since then I’ve gone through prolonged periods (years) of being vegetarian, interspersed with being pescetarian. I know there are things wrong with the dairy industry but I admit I haven’t done much to change that, until recently. A little over a year ago I stopped buying milk and yoghurt at home. I wasn’t always finishing what I bought and forcing an animal into over production and then not even bothering to consume what they’d produced just seemed to me to add insult to injury. I was still fixated on cheese though, cheese I thought was the one thing I wouldn’t give up.

And then I found out about veganuary and thought “well why not at least try it”. It was only for a month and it would give me a chance, rather than saying it was too difficult, of finding out what it was actually like. And I wouldn’t have blogged about it but would have kept the experience to myself, if it weren’t for reading this rather daft article in the Independent, and wanting to add something a bit more reflective.

Being vegan is not just about eating a plant-based diet, although if all you’d read was the Independent’s take on it you might think so. It is, as far as I can work out, about rejecting the commodification and exploitation of other sentient beings, no matter what their species. It’s thinking a pig would be better off as a wild boar, not as a thing to be kept, forced to breed and then slaughtered, because you enjoy a bacon sarnie with your hangover. Now there is a lot of this I agree with, except that I think human history is inextricably linked with the history of other animals. So whilst I think our relationship with those other animals is highly questionable and can be very exploitative, I’m not quite ready to end that link completely (I might be in future). As someone involved with cats and horses, I think sometimes there is more agency from animals than we credit them with and the exploitation isn’t always one-way (particularly where the cats are concerned).

So here are my thoughts on trying to be vegan:

1. Veganism is not difficult in and of itself – it becomes difficult because the world we live in is not geared to it. It’s actually easy to just eat plant-based foods, if you’ve got the time to find them and prepare them. But, our ready-made foods are geared to omnivores and vegetarians, not vegans. And our culture is geared to working long hours and coming home too exhausted to cook properly. So it’s easy to shove fish cakes in the oven, or boil up some tortellini. It’s more difficult to cook from scratch. This is not a vegan problem, it’s a societal one. We either need more time to cook, or more ready-made vegan meals. I vote for both.

2. Fry’s chocolate and oreos are incidentally vegan. Oreos are the crack cocaine of the biscuit world. DO NOT start that habit.

3. Every other thing has got whey powder in it. Or honey. Or some vague egg product that I’m sure it doesn’t need. Veganism would be a lot easier without that.

4. It’s easy to give up cheese. This one surprised me. I thought I was addicted to cheese but now the thought of that funny rubbery stuff is not good and I don’t like it (I have replaced that addiction with oreos though).

5. My skin looks better. Whether this is giving up dairy, fish and eggs or eating less and fewer processed foods, I cannot say.

6. Giving up dairy felt right and I feel healthier for it. The evidence for why this might be is complex but suffice it to say, as a middle-aged woman, giving it up feels good, and that’s as much information as I’m prepared to divulge. (Just watch that you find another source of calcium and bear in mind that what I’m saying is purely anecdotal).

7. It’s very, very hard to find any unbiased information on either side. I’m used to wading through and assessing evidence and yet for me assessing the pros and cons of veganism has been a minefield. Finding out that sheep are used to fertilise land to grow quinoa was interesting. There is no simple way to sort through and understand our dependence on animals.

So did I make it through veganuary and will I continue to be vegan? No on both counts I’m afraid. Somewhere round about week 3 I came crashing down with a virus and, a rare occurrence for me, had to take time off work. I don’t attribute this to my vegan experiment, since for me it’s not a major dietary change. I attribute it to common or garden January, and stress. Nonetheless I craved a quick fix and ate some fish. Sorry. Maybe veganism isn’t that easy, especially when temptation is all around you.

I think the nearest label I can get to my current diet is dairy-free pescetarian because I did succeed in staying away from dairy products and have gone off them. So I eat eggs, fish and honey, carefully sourced, but no other animal products. I will choose vegan options where I can.

For me, trying to be vegan reminded me of trying to be vegetarian 30 years ago. Back then, the vegetarian option when you ate out was often an omelette. If you were lucky you got vegetable lasagne and chips and the chips weren’t necessarily cooked in animal fat. Now, cheese is clearly labelled up and we know whether or not it contains rennet. Being vegetarian, at least in the UK, is relatively easy. No-one has said “but why are you vegetarian” to me since the BSE crisis of the mid 1990s. So if you are vegan, or trying to be vegan, you are making a difference. It will get easier as more people do it. And personally, I think this is a good thing. Whilst I don’t currently entirely object to our use of animals, I do think it needs to be more careful and less industrialised. Veganism, vegetarianism, or just being careful where you source meat from, are all steps in the right direction.

Credit where credit’s due

It needs someone pretty special to take a workable majority, show the fixed term parliament act up for the chocolate teapot it always was, call a snap election, call for strength and stability, and end up with a hung parliament. In the process almost losing a home secretary who you comprehensively dumped on during the campaigning, rendering the term “running  through a field of wheat” a metaphor for, well I’m not quite sure what really but if you think it’s naughty it shows how out of touch with reality and most people you actually are. If the aim was to gain a mandate for Brexit, you had it you weapon’s grade wank badger. I mean parliament voted to trigger A50, or did you sleep through that bit? You’re now reliant on the DUP, who I don’t think actually like you very much, to form any kind of workable majority. And that’s only if your own MPs agree with you, and I’m not sure they like you all that much either.

Well done Mrs May. As for resigning? Well I guess since you made this mess, you might as well live with it. God knows the rest of us have to.


Lies, damned lies and propaganda

Whenever anyone shares data, stats or facts with you, ask yourself this: why are they telling me? Information does not occur in a vacuum, so why is someone telling me this particular thing, not some other thing? Whilst I don’t hold with the idea that there are lies, damn lied and statistics, it is true that someone can wave one piece of data in front of you to prevent you from focusing on or finding out about another. It’s a magician’s sleight of hand. A pickpocket’s carefully placed wrist pressure. Direct you towards one thing and you might not notice another.

18765974_10154476032452019_277567954129105029_nPolitical propagandists are cunning enough not to lie flat out, well not generally, but like Trump’s interpretation of Sadiq Khan’s calls not to be alarmed, they can place facts somewhere shorn of context such that they give you a false impression. So what to make of the above infographic?

Well for a start, Labour were only in power for the first four months of 2010 so that doesn’t fill me with confidence as to the trustworthiness of the source. The minimum wage is set in October so the 2010 figure is one set under a Tory government. The Low Pay Commission reviews the NMW each year and make recommendations to the government so I’m not absolutely sure it can be held up as a great example of Tory policy especially when you consider that the Conservatives objected to the introduction of NMW in 1998. Hold onto that. If you spot things awry with a piece of information you want to ask, how thorough has this person been? Is this a mistake they’ve made or have they quite deliberately told me something not quite right and if so, why?

For the purposes of this short post I’ll leave out the annual deficit figures. What I will flag up is this, why cite the deficit and not some other figure? In February 2013 David Cameron was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority for confusing the deficit with the debt. Debt has increased under the Tories which is why they’ll tell you the deficit has reduced and why they’ll try to elide the difference between the two.

So, looking at this table, I’ll just briefly do three things. 1. Fact check, site sources 2. Adjust for inflation 3. Put some context back. After doing one and two, the table looks like this:

Fact check

National minimum wage information here: Note that it does change depending on age. In all cases I’ve taken that for the oldest category at the time

Information on the NHS budget is from

For the tax free allowance I used the HMRC’s website. For the GDP and unemployment stats I used the Office for National Statistics

So, first the remaining stat on the economy, the GDP. Inflation adjusted, it doesn’t actually look as if the Tories are making the increases they claim to be. Even if it’s less than a decade ago, bear in mind prices change.

Second, the NHS. Under the Labour governments of 1997-2005 there was the highest sustained increase in funding since the NHS was established. Contrast this with the Tories who are allowing increasing amounts of privatisation, whether it be by putting contracts out to tender to firms such as Virgin Healthcare or selling Plasma Resources UK to Bain Capital, a private equity firm set up by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And if you’re curious about the tenders by private companies for NHS services, have a look at the number of Tory MPs sitting on the boards of private healthcare firms who might profit from large NHS contracts. Of course one could argue that the NHS needs not just cash but more reform and that might include allowing in private companies. But if that is the case, why do these figures concentrate on the budget alone? Whoever devised this table of data, why did they just tell you about the NHS budget without any other information?

Third, with regard to NMW; tax free allowance and unemployment, for context we can discuss these together. Once inflation adjusted you can see that actually, the rise in NMW under the Tories is small and that in fact direct comparison is complicated because the age brackets were changed. Also, the rise is put forward by a separate body, not the government of the day.

Under the Tories and the coalition, the numbers of self-employed, part time employees and those on zero hours contracts has risen. Yes, they may well be off the unemployment register, but how secure are the jobs they’ve got? Added to which, the Tories have set about dismantling employee rights to make it easier, basically, to sack you. To be honest, I’ll take a full time, secure contract over a slight pay rise, job insecurity and part time or no work any day.

So why then are these figures being given to us? What do you notice about them? They concern the economy, workers’ rights and the NHS. They are all things which Labour voters will worry about. So if you want to pull those voters towards the Tories, you have to convince them that these things are safer with the Tories than they were with Labour. You have to show that look, the NHS budget is higher, NMW is higher, the deficit is down. What you don’t do is mention the actual state of the NHS; the denudation of employment rights and what’s happening with the national debt, as opposed to the deficit.

After the 1867 Reform Act, which saw an increase in the numbers of largely middle-class male voters, Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke, is rumoured to have said “we must educate our masters”. Actually, it seems likely that he didn’t say it but the idea that he did fits a neat narrative that saw increased access to education in 1870. If you can vote, you should be educated. What worries me, almost 150 years later, is that the right wing press have worked out that few people are taught how to spot propaganda and how to deal with it. Of course, this post might just be more propaganda but for the other side. Nonetheless, whatever side you voted for, or might be about to vote for, I would ask you this, when someone shares information with you, take a few minutes to ask why and dig further. There will always be a reason, and it might not be the one you think it is. Vote or not, we cannot be masters of politicians if we fail to understand how they manipulate us.

Be safe! Be seen!

Well I would be safer if you fucking looked

Every autumn, every time the clocks change, someone witters on about the importance of wearing hi viz for vulnerable road users. Sometimes it’s even a road safety “professional” and having recently got into a bit of a discussion with one of them on Twitter I decided this topic really warrants more than 140 characters.

First, I’ll declare my hand. When I cycle I generally wear something like this Endura jacket because it’s pretty bright without making me look like a luminous canary. I have a bright rear light, bright front light and I wear fluorescent silver snap bands on my ankles because I have to keep my trousers away from the chain and I might as well use something bright to do so. I know my get up is eye catching because drivers sometimes claim that my lights are too bright and they’re dazzled (no, I’m not polite to them). When I ride my horse I vary what I wear but I will generally go for something that can be seen at some distance over a hedge. It’s not that I’m anti being seen but I am against unexamined “common sense” arguments because I’m aware that these won’t necessarily keep me or anyone else safe. And if I can’t be bothered to look after myself, I certainly don’t want to put my horse at risk because I didn’t do my research.

There are two problems here – first, does hi viz protect the individual and second, does it make the roads safer for everyone? On the first, the evidence is actually fairly mixed. This study of conspicuity aids for motorcyclists found that what works varies according to environment. And this Nottingham PdD thesis found that actually, there’s a slightly raised risk of crashes amongst cyclists using conspicuity aids (yes, the author did adjust for other factors). So whilst being more visible by using hi viz might seem like an obvious choice, A. it won’t in some environments make me more visible and B. if it does, it might increase my risk of crashing (if for example I assume that someone must have seen my eye-searing outfit when actually the cockwombles are on their phone and haven’t looked).

Which brings me to my next point. I can’t make someone look. It doesn’t matter what I wear, if they are not concentrating or think they don’t need to or are adjusting their CD player or using a mobile or speeding or whatever else it is drivers do, no amount of retroreflectives, Christmas tree lights or disco balls will make them see me in time to do something about it. For every “be safe be seen” campaign there need to be at least three “keep other people safe, watch what you’re doing” campaigns. The problem with putting the emphasis on the vulnerable road user to be lit up is that it takes the emphasis away from the person operating the dangerous machinery to be responsible for looking. That in the end could make us all less safe. Drivers crash into houses, emergency service vehicles, trees, street furniture (including traffic islands, which are pretty hi viz), and bridges. So whatever is causing crashes, it isn’t only lack of visibility on the part of the thing, or living being, crashed into.

The answer I got back to this point about things drivers crash into was along the lines of “but those things didn’t step into the car’s path” which is interesting for various reasons. Reporting of collisions on the road consistently gives cars agency when actually it should, one would hope, be the driver in charge. If anything it’s the driver’s path, not the car’s. But is it? Philosophically, is a pedestrian (or other road user) moving into the driver’s path? If I am walking from A to B across a town my path will intersect with those of other road users. Am I stepping into their path or are they in mine?

De jure the answer is complex. There is no jay walking offence in the UK. Some people are aware that pedestrians have right of way at junctions if they are crossing as a car approaches. Whilst one would not want to test out the theory, there’s no particular reason to assume that the road is any more a driver’s than it is mine as a pedestrian. As this article on jay walking in the US makes clear, there is something in the evolution of transport that has placed the motor vehicle above pedestrians. At some point, the path became the car drivers’, not the vulnerable road users’ and even though in the UK this has not been enshrined in law, in practice I’m not going to argue with a lorry. Or a Ford Fiesta for that matter. De facto the path has become the drivers’ but not, in the UK, for any particular legal reason, more because might has become right and this has been designed into road layout. To get across a busy road, I as a pedestrian must press a button or request that traffic stop as a favour. Drivers do not assume that actually the vulnerable road user is just as important as they are and that therefore, it might be the car crossing the pedestrian’s path and not vice versa.

So practically, what do I do to try to ensure that I’m safe and seen? Well in my experience, I am at greatest risk riding or cycling when someone in a motor vehicle is overtaking. It isn’t that they don’t see me – it’s that they see me and decide it’s OK to risk my life in an effort to get where they want to more quickly. On a bike my key strategy is road positioning and a hypersensitivity to what is around me. On my horse, again it’s road positioning and hypersensitivity, but without transferring that sensitivity to him.

I bought my horse, Charlie, for about 20% of what you would expect to pay for a horse of his age, type and experience because he had had an accident on the road and had lost confidence. I spent months convincing him that it was OK, that I would look after him, that I knew where the tractors, the buses, the rattling trailers were and I would keep him safe and away from them. Did I achieve this by wearing luminous yellow? No. That might be common sense but it makes no horse sense. I did it by being aware, planning ahead, moving him to a place that was safe when I thought something he couldn’t cope with was approaching. I keep him safe by looking and planning ahead, and by assuming that no-one else on the road is doing the same. It works a whole lot better than just shoving fluorescent on and hoping some dimwit notices me.

Cycling terms explained

A handy guide to all those terms the cyclist in your life uses that befuddle you. NB unlikely to make you less befuddled than you were before. May make you more irate

Cake: essential fuel for cycling. It is in no way, shape or form unhealthy. Anyone who says otherwise is not your friend.

Cycle path: a path which according to the Highway Code you can use and according to non-cycling motorists you must use, on pain of, well, something or other. Irritating them probably. Unlikely to be fit for purpose. Will probably feature broken glass and irate pedestrians who tell you it isn’t a cycle path, despite the prominent blue signs saying it is a cycle path. Ontologically they may have a point as despite the signage, it is unlikely to be a path you want to cycle on and it’s still less likely it will end somewhere you want to cycle to.

Goes a bit Sustrans: see cycle path. Not, unfortunately for the organisation, a compliment. Refers to a more than usually awful facility, often with random and inexplicable barriers. May also be overgrown, disrupted by tree roots, narrow or so rural you need an MTB. Or just a tractor.

Helmet: confers magical abilities to avoid all damage to anyone on a bike hit by a car, lorry or even freight train. Worried about fractures to things other than your head? Concerned that a truck might actually turn your internal organs to mulch? Don’t be. Wearing a helmet will protect you against all those things and more. Try wearing one when you’re drunk and negotiating stairs, as statistically it’s more dangerous than cycling to the shops

High viz: similar to helmets. Has magical properties which insure that drivers will actually look when they haven’t otherwise bothered. Must be worn at all times by cyclists so that motorists who are on their phone/ speeding/eating breakfast/ generally just a bit distracted and can’t be arsed to look think “fuck me my retinas are being seared by retroreflectives perhaps I’d better concentrate whilst operating dangerous machinery”

Keirin: not a Scooby but I’m assuming that one day the bloke on the scooter will win

MGIF: must get in front. A reference to drivers who haven’t grasped sections 162-169 of the Highway Code and believe that they have a divine right to be in front of a bike, even in situations in which clearly the bike would be faster if only they hadn’t plonked their car in the way

N+1 : The number of bikes you should own, where n= the number of bikes you currently own. Once dismissed by an acquaintance of mine on the grounds that maths is tricky. Car drivers eh.

Rain: stuff that makes you wet. This is a problem that can be solved using a towel. Contrary to what non-cyclists will have you believe does not also make you melt or make cycling impossible.

Road tax: abolished in 1937. Millions of motorists apparently still pay it, which makes them irritable and gives them a sense of entitlement

SMIDSY: Sorry mate I didn’t see you. Used by certain motorists in the belief that not seeing someone absolves them of responsibility in a collision. Actually an admission of incompetence and the need for a sight test

VED: a tax based on vehicle emissions. Millions of motorists believe cyclists should pay it despite the evidence that A. they already do if they own a car B. cycles would be zero rated and therefore in Band A (£0) C. it doesn’t cover the full cost of the roads D. they’re usually already paying income tax and council tax both of which actually do go towards funding roads

In defence of dressage?

During the 2012 Olympics I wrote an article for the Guardian online defending dressage as a sport and Britain’s dressage team in particular. Four years later the British team came a respectable second to Germany and Dujardin retained her individual title. Dujardin’s freestyle test was an incredible performance from both horse and rider and for many people, myself included, a beautiful display of teamwork. However, questions remain over the future of dressage. Those questions are being asked both inside and outside the equestrian world.

From the outside we have the perspective of bloggers such as Patrick Redford who argued that the Olympics are for humans and are about human endeavour, not equine endeavour. It’s not difficult to counteract this. Horses have been there since the beginning, with the original Greek games including chariot races. The equestrian competitions have always been a part of the modern Olympics. It’s not as if someone woke up in 1988 and randomly decided to add horses into the mix. They may not fit with what Redford wants to see, but he’s not a one-man decision making body, as much as he might like to be.

The Olympics are diverse and we can all pick the bits we prefer. Redford could just avoid watching horses. The BBC had about a dozen channels covering the event. It’s easy just not to watch dressage, show jumping and eventing. I don’t watch any number of ball sports, not because I’m denying their sporting nature or saying they don’t belong or trying to turn others against them but just because I personally don’t find them interesting.

In terms of whether or not they’re athletic, riders do not need the prowess of say Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis-Hill. However, riding is intensely physical. To ask my horse for shoulder-in I have to be aware of how his feet are falling, feel what his hind legs are doing, ask his shoulders to take a different track from his hind legs and co-ordinate my efforts and his. Look at the riders on the medal podium – many are older, but how many strike you as un-athletic? If I ban riding from the Olympics on fitness grounds I’m also going to have to ditch golf and shooting which require many skills, but not the kind of cardiovascular recovery rates needed for a marathon.

Horses do much of the work, yes. You need a good horse at Olympic level but you cannot just stick any rider on them and expect them to succeed – there is a considerable human element. Much of the criticism I have seen doesn’t really register the skill level involved and then just resorts to petty insults along the lines of “It looks silly” and “what have I watched, I don’t understand?” Concepts of silliness are highly subjective. I think badminton looks silly. And throwing yourself backwards over a bar doesn’t really strike me as the action of someone rational but I’m happy for it to be in the Olympics. The specialist attire required for riding is generally practical although I think the dressage riders could ditch the top hats and tails for helmets and show jumping-style jackets. As for not understanding it, it would take me quite a while to work out what the hell is going on with the keirin and I like cycling. I don’t think my lack of understanding is a reason to ban something.

From inside the equestrian community there are more serious points about the welfare of competition horses which are much more difficult to counteract. Dressage has long been dogged by controversies over rollkur, a training method in which the horse’s nose is forced behind the vertical and the head and neck carriage are brought so short that the horse has difficulty breathing. If you look at the photo below of my horse Charlie grazing, you can see that his head and neck are stretched out. The horse has evolved to put its head down and eat forage at ground level (most of the time, some of their ancestors were browsers and modern horses will still eat trees and shrubs). The horse’s windpipe and gullet are almost in a straight line in this position, allowing easy breathing and swallowing.


Contrast that with the picture here of Parzival competing. His nose is behind the vertical (a no-no in dressage that you cannot get away with unless you’re famous and compete internationally). Parzival’s windpipe is jammed into the space you can see just above the white padding on his noseband. Take a hosepipe and flex it to around 30 degrees to get an idea of just how narrow this is. It’s why quite often when you watch dressage you can hear a horse’s breathing. Done correctly, the horse’s nose should be further from its chest, the angle is less extreme and the restriction in breathing is far less marked. However, movements such as the extended walk are included partly as a way for the horse to get its breath back.

When we ride a horse we ask it to carry an increasing amount of weight on its hind legs. In the photo of Charlie grazing he’s carrying around 60% of his weight on his front legs. Even when he raises his head and neck, he’s still likely to be “on the forehand” i.e. carrying more weight on his front legs than his hind legs. It makes him difficult to control, hard to manoeuvre and a bit uncomfortable to ride. If I ask him to carry more weight on his hind legs and to lift his shoulders, head and neck, he becomes easier to control, more comfortable and, if it’s done correctly, it’s easier for him to carry my weight. This is the original point of dressage and schooling – it isn’t really an end in itself. It’s a preparation for any of the other things you might want to do with your horse. It’s easier for them to jump if they can power over using their hind legs as springs than if they’re trying to lift an already heavy forehand. It’s more fun cantering across the moor if your horse is less likely to trip and more able to right himself if he does. It’s easier to open a gate without dismounting if your horse can turn on its forehand. You can control an animal more easily on the road if it knows shoulder-in because you can ask it to bend its head to the right and see traffic out of its right eye so it shies to the left away from the traffic. That’s if it shies at all – the extra control schooling gives you may well mean you can anticipate the horse’s movement and prevent it from jumping sideways.

Somewhere along the way, humans got competitive about this. We couldn’t just enjoy riding, or even be content to be good at it as a means to an end. And the competition wasn’t “my horse is the healthiest and happiest” it was “I can jump higher/ go faster/ perform a better pirouette”. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I thought the horses’ welfare was being maintained during the process but when I watch top-level competitions, it’s fairly obvious it isn’t. If it’s not Rollkur, it’s spur marks. Or nosebands cranked so tight that the horses’ jaws are damaged. Or Penelope Leprevost booting her horse for tripping. Or Andreas Helgstrand turning his horse’s tongue blue. Or Totilas being pushed to such an extent that he’s lame.

Of course there is the argument that at around 500kg, it’s nigh on impossible to make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do but that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after watching a small boy leading a large farm horse and wondering how someone who could so easily be overcome stayed in charge. Power is a kind of trick that you play by convincing someone that doing your will is the easiest option. You can force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do – look at the ironmongery in a dressage horse’s mouth. And don’t get me started on what show jumpers are allowed to use. A horse might find piaffe uncomfortable, so the rider ensures that not doing piaffe is even worse.

If horses really resist, if they really attempt to hospitalise us, they’re either beaten into submission, sold on repeatedly until if they’re lucky they find someone who understands them, or euthanized. And on the whole very few of them get to this stage because actually, they like us. The only reason we’ve been able to domesticate horses is because they do seem drawn to us and we’ve only bred from those who are more tractable. We don’t ride zebras (on the whole) because they’re a lot less willing, and I can’t say I really blame them. So yes, we can coerce or force horses into doing something they don’t want to do.

So where does this leave dressage? Some people take the view that we shouldn’t ride horses at all; that any time we do ride them we bully them into a state of learned helplessness. Others think we can but it should be with very minimal tack, excluding even bits. I don’t go that far but I have found over the years that it’s wise to pick your trainer carefully. I will no longer use any trainer who thinks that draw reins and tight flash nosebands are the answer to a horse resisting when the answer for me is to assess why the horse is exhibiting that level of discomfort, not to say pain. If Charlie wants to open his mouth he can do – it’s my job to find out why, not just to mask his symptoms of pain.

But at the higher levels of dressage, and all other equestrian disciplines, there is a greater perceived need to push horses into doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. Once someone is trying to make a living riding horses, they don’t really have the option to say “oh OK today is a bad day for this, spend it in the field, I’ll do something else”. Owners push riders to get results and if the riders don’t achieve these quickly enough, owners move the horse onto another rider who will push the horse. I don’t think high-level competitions necessarily have to include cruelty but we do need a major rethink and a huge effort to ensure that horses are not abused. They’ve evolved to be cooperative herd animals and these immensely powerful, graceful and generous animals should be celebrated, not tortured into submission.

Leadsom, May and the mother of all rows

If you’d told me a month ago that two women would shortly be battling to be Prime Minister and there would not be one thing that I liked about the situation, I would have thought you’d had too much Beaujolais. Followed by a hallucinogenic chaser. I never thought I’d be half hoping that Theresa May would become PM even if it is solely on the grounds that she’s better than the alternative. And yet here I am, and there are May and Leadsom, engaged in a scramble to the top. Part of me doesn’t want to think any more at all, about any of it. And yet I’m still contemplating why this feels so bad.

And then I hear the news that Leadsom’s prime qualification for PM, her big advantage over May as far as she’s concerned, is that she’s a mother. To quote Leadsom “genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country. A tangible stake”. I’m 44 and don’t have children. The chances of me becoming a mother are roughly the same as the chances of me winning the lottery, particularly since I don’t buy tickets. In essence what Leadsom is saying is that this makes me less able to empathise, that it makes me less able to think about the future, because I won’t have a stake in it. Thanks, Andrea. Thanks for that.

Now there is the fact that this is hideously insensitive. There’s also the fact that being hideously insensitive makes Leadsom more likely to win a campaign for Tory leadership, not less. But what really alarms me about this is that it seems Leadsom can only invest in the future if that future involves her direct descendants. When it boils down to it, this is a selfish attitude. Personally, I fear for what is happening in Britain because of the effects it is having on society as a whole. And I do see that society as a whole. I worry that anyone who is slightly different, whether that be a difference of race; class; sexuality; age; health or gender will suffer as our political and economic systems implode. I worry that people will suffer prejudice against them and that they will experience genuine hardship through no fault of their own but by sheer luck of the draw. I fear for these people. The fact that they aren’t my direct descendants is neither here nor there. They are fellow human beings and I’d rather they didn’t suffer.

Contrast this with Leadsom, who seems to think that you will worry more about your future if you have children, as if the only way one can empathise is by projecting forwards into your own personal lineage. And in this it seems to me she is highlighting the worst of the Tory party – they will protect their own, they will care about their own, they will see nepotism as normal. They will not be able to understand how you can really genuinely care about the future of society as a whole rather than just your own part of it. It harks back to fiefdom.

Mulling this over, it’s not that I want a female PM per se. It’s that I thought that for us to be in this situation, where not one but two women had got to the top in politics, we would have a more egalitarian society. I would have thought that managing to juggle motherhood with this would be a positive. That having two women reach the top would show that women do not have to chose between career and family. But what Leadsom and May demonstrate is that actually, we have the same political class. The women that succeed are drawn from the same fairly narrow sector of society as many of their male counterparts. True, they are not the products of Eton, but their privilege nonetheless stacks up. And Leadsom’s comments about motherhood confirm this for me. We aren’t entering an age in which we are judged by merit rather than class, age, race or gender. We’re going back to a time when all that really mattered is who your parents were and how much privilege they managed to gain for their own very small part of the social spectrum.


Because the rant is never over

Sometimes I get annoyed. I get angry. I rant. I do things that would be normal in a man. In a woman? Oh no. That’s undignified. It’s shrewish. It’s strident. It’s outspoken. It’s hysterical (and I don’t mean funny. I really do not mean funny). It’s all these things but for a woman it isn’t fucking normal. Apparently.

What do I get angry about? Oh bloody everything. All the bloody time. And then I get told I shouldn’t be angry and guess what? That really pisses me off. I get angry because it’s 2016 and apparently some employers have only just realised that you can’t force women to wear high heeled shoes. And I get angry at that advert that says women expect their feet to hurt in heels and they should wear these gel inserts in their shoes when really what I think they should be doing is buying brogues. Or trainers. Or anything that doesn’t cause them actual pain. And painful footwear shouldn’t be normalised with gel inserts. Although the good news is that the review that said they will melt and ruin your shoes did make me smile for a second or two.

I get angry when I’m trying to find a film to watch and I see a listing that describes Fifth Element as a film starring Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman as if Milla Jovivich doesn’t fucking exist except as window dressing. Which let’s face it is what Hollywood thinks women are but I don’t want my TV channel guide bloody well colluding with them and writing women out of the cast altogether. And Leeloo is key to the damn plot so include the actor who plays her as one of the stars ffs.

I get annoyed that female Disney characters get so little dialogue even when they’re main characters. And I get really, really annoyed at the way women’s voices are so appropriated that everyone thinks they talk more than they actually do. And I get annoyed that the Bechdel test exists and that even though all it asks is that a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man half of all films fail it.

And I get annoyed about CVs and publishing and research track records. Because by putting “Helen” on my CV instead of “Henry” everyone will downgrade it. Because even J.K. Rowling couldn’t publish under a female first name. Because my research funding and every other bastard thing will be curtailed and judged more harshly because I’m female.

Of course this makes me bloody furious, although being a woman I’m not allowed to be bloody furious. Which makes me incandescent.

I get annoyed when someone says Man when they mean Humans. Except apparently I’m not supposed to be angry about this because it’s just a word and I’m being Over Sensitive. The same way that I’m Over Sensitive about bikes and women’s bikes. About sport and women’s sports. About always being the add on, the outsider, the thing outside the norm. The bloody fucking other instead of the “neutral” template. I’m never the normal. Never the established thing from which others vary. I’m the bloody variant. And yes, “bloody” in that last sentence is not necessarily a swear word. Also, I find none of these things funny. If you want me to be a humourless, joyless, hairy-legged feminist I’ll embrace that with pride. Because I don’t care if you judge my looks positively. I don’t care if you judge my looks negatively. I care that you think a woman should be judged for her looks when I am so much more than that.

And you know what puts the tin lid on the whole damn thing? When someone says “I get annoyed with feminists blaming the patriarchy. Women are their own worst critics”. Really? Really? You think I hadn’t noticed that? You think I’m unaware of the extent to which we internalise the patriarchy? Of the ways in which we imbibe it and spew it back out again? Oh I know full well that women have agency and could stop wittering on about each other’s bodies and looks. But when tabloid newspapers portray them as pouting, static, supine, passive beings, when that famous sporting “newspaper” the Sun cannot include a single picture of a woman actually doing sport, do you not think that maybe, just maybe, that informs my thought patterns? That however much I want to escape from this, to see myself as active, to realise that I am more than how I look, just as every other woman is, it’s pretty fucking difficult to achieve when all the propaganda out there effectively tells me I’m just window dressing and I’d better dress properly. And get out of the window when I’m too old. And keep quiet. And not be angry. And wear 2-4 inch heels.

Except that I am angry. I am furious. And frankly, I have reason to be.

Strictly 2015 – the year they broke the script

I’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing since 2007 when, whilst channel hopping, I happened upon Alesha Dixon dancing with Matthew Cutler. I knew the format of the show but not knowing much about celebrity, and still less about ballroom dancing, I struggled to work out which was the pro and which the celebrity. From then on, I was hooked. Each September, as the nights draw in and I know the gloom of winter is approaching, I look forward to my weekly dose of sparkly, besequined escapism. I know it’s tosh. I know ballroom dancing is sexist. I know it should be fluff but boy do I take it seriously and so it seems do thousands of others.

Over the years, I’ve grown used to the sense that there is a story playing out that’s gently scripted. The producers pick the celebrities so we get certain characters in each show and then steer things to produce highs, lows, dramas and online spats. We get the comedy act, who we obligingly vote for until Blackpool week because we want to see Ann Widdecombe dragged around the floor like a giant yellow dishcloth, but not at the expense of someone who really can dance. There are those clearly destined to go out in the first few weeks as lacking any dancing ability, comedy value, or even vaguely memorable characteristics. There are the clear mid-tablers, who sometimes provide a sort of shock-exit when they lose out to the comedy act. Then there are the genuine shock exits (Pixie Lott, Helen George) who end up in impossible dance-offs, or the people like Scott Marsden who start brilliantly and run out steam. And there are those who snatch victory from better dancers just by doing Charlestons (yes Chris Hollins, I still haven’t forgiven you).

Through all this, Craig Revel Horwood plays the harsh but fair pantomime villain who possibly has a heart in there somewhere. Darcey provides helpful critique; Len spots fleckerls and Bruno just sort of madly gesticulates on the end of the judges’ table (they put him there so he can only hit one judge, and since it’s Len and he’s been getting increasingly curmudgeonly nobody really minds. Except Len).

The problem this year has been a growing sense that something’s gone wrong with the script. Usually you can enjoy the story whilst being vaguely aware of but not minding the steering. This year the steering has felt much more like manipulation and the story has become much darker and less enjoyable. The characters haven’t been doing what the producers want and their attempts to haul them back into line have revealed something almost rotten underneath the greasepaint.

It started gently enough, Carol – easy cannon fodder, minor character, should be voted out 2nd or 3rd – turned out to be incredibly likeable and when paired with Pasha saw off five other dancers. Jeremy, comedy turn, let’s put him on a plastic horse and dress him up like Woody from Toy Story. And make him dance a tango. To Go West. No, I’m not joking. And neither really was Jeremy, who it turned out could probably dance reasonably well, if the producers had had the grace to treat him with some dignity.

Then there was Peter, destined to be the star turn. The one who could really dance, though not trained in ballroom, a shoe-in for the final. Except that he plateaued, his technique stopped improving and whatever the judges did, the audience weren’t really convinced. So they put him in the DO, against then 4-time DO survivor Jamelia (also not in the script, you’re only meant to survive three at most). And then she really departed from the script by out-dancing him, getting voted out by the judges anyway, and causing a media outcry amongst people who didn’t like her enough to vote for her but didn’t want her booted out in a DO when she’d danced well.

But the one who really broke the script was boyband member Jay McGuinness – hairy, walks a bit like a caveman, too shy to talk properly on camera, spent the first two weeks shaking. Definitely supposed to go out early. Except he really could move. Aliona got his hair cut and changed the way he walked. In week 2 he did a lovely waltz that the judges praised to the heavens, so his nerves eased up. And in week 3 he did THAT JIVE. A jive that many people see the need to capitalise as a shorthand way to distinguish it from all other jives before (except maybe Jill’s). And from then onwards the judges were stuffed and didn’t know what to do with someone who became odds-on favourite in week 3 and then stayed there.

There on in, things got sour, so I have some suggestions as to what to do next year, in the hope that we keep SCD as the amazing show it is, but make it more escapist, and less Grimm tale.

1 Keep Tess and Claudia. I know one is bland and the other quirky. It works. Leave it.

2 Sack two of the judges. I don’t care which two. If you can’t decide, pick them out of a hat, they’ve all pissed me off at some point. Inform the remaining two that telling someone they have no personality is just bullying. It’s a light entertainment programme for fun and watching people get torn to pieces is neither fun nor entertaining.

3 You know the rule book that you threw out for the show dances? Where did you find it? Because you haven’t bothered with it much this year. Work out the rules and stick to them. FOR EVERYONE. If Gleb can’t lift Anita in the rumba, then Kevin (or a backing dancer) can’t hoick Kellie onto a table during a VW. I might not know a reverse fleckerl when I see it, but I can spot that.

4 Don’t give primetime TV slots to siblings for them to comment on finalists. If you do, make sure they don’t say the opposition was over-marked in the semis. Other people get sacked for less. And look up “conflict of interest” whilst you’re at it.

5 Replace Anton as a pro dancer. He will never find another woman to dive backwards off a stage into his arms. Give him choreography corner. I like Anton but he resembles fortified wine – enjoyable in small doses but if you keep glugging it you start to feel sick.

6 Give Brendan a partner that’s good who he likes. He’s looked pissed off for years. If that doesn’t work, give him choreography corner with Anton in 2017

7 Go back to basics. Watch Jay and Aliona’s showdance. He’s all in white. After the entrance there are no props. They just dance. And they won like that, despite continual negative comments; the subtle and not so subtle digs on the show and on ITT and the remarks about his face that would have been laughable had they not been at root cruel. The public have spoken. They want people who perform well in the Ten Dances, not a manic Lindy Hop that however skilled, was not strictly speaking ballroom.

8 And on that note, make sure that in the final, couples have to dance one Latin and one ballroom to start with, not the specialty dances. If they want to do those, they can do them in the show dance, where there are no rules.

As it was, during the finals this year I switched over to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because it lived up to its name whereas Strictly had become too predictable and I knew the scores before the couples danced. I want to get back to escapism and if Strictly is riddled with unfairness, nepotism and spite, I might as well walk out of the front door into the dark, wet reality of a British winter where I can find all those in spades.

And in the end, remember this. As Terry Pratchett used to argue, stories have a way of writing (and righting) themselves no matter how much you try to interfere with them. By continually sniping at Jay, the judges somehow made him both the bookies’ favourite and yet an underdog too. If there’s one thing the British love more than a favourite, it’s an underdog, so as soon as Craig said “you had no personality”, Jay was certain to win. I don’t know what the producers and judges were up to but I do know that Jay and Aliona got their happy ending in spite of it.

Mum’s the word

On It Takes Two, that font of wisdom Richard Madeley predicted that Jay just might win because of the “mum vote”. Since then I’ve heard it said that Jay won because of the granny vote, and because of the teenage girl vote. To which I have to say: so what? Why is the female vote, across all ages, perceived as less valid and less worthy? I voted for Jay because I liked watching him dance, not because I want to mother him (he has a perfectly good mother of his own) or because I fancy him or because my hormones told me to. Women can actually make rational decisions about who to vote for. So pack in the denigration of an entire sex by insinuating that our decision to vote is based on something less worthy than men’s decisions are. It’s 2015. We can vote. Deal with it.