Inside the story tent

On Sunday our road held its annual street party and we did something new – a story tent which I was lucky enough to put together, with help from some other lovely neighbours, most notably Dorothy Newton.


You can hear the recordings here:

There were several strands behind the story tent, but I think the seed was planted several years ago, when my daughter had to do a school project on the Second World War and we thought it would be interesting to interview all her grandparents about their memories, which she recorded on the tape recorder I used at that time for my interviews for my own journalism. My mum came from war-time Yugoslavia as an eight year old girl after the war with her mother with just a suitcase, which I wrote about in the recent anthology, A Country of Refuge. She remembered the Allies bombing Belgrade, where she and her family lived during the war. My dad grew up in Yorkshire, and had vivid memories too. Her other grandmother lived in Brazil during the war, and grandpa Gordon in London. We also interviewed Amy and Dave, our neighbours, who had excellent recall of the war in London, and of the railings in our road being taken away for the war effort, and of the bombing in the area.

That led me, years later, to think of howe we could tell an intimate history of our area, perhaps through the memories of older people. But there were other threads too. One was the sense of separation after the Brexit vote. Nicolette Jones, another neighbour, wanted to bring people together again, and asked in our local newsletter, which she edits, how many nationalities lived on our road (she’s just published the results and there are 43 countries represented). We live pretty harmoniously together here. Then there’s the present-day of Islington people, celebrated through the Islington Faces Blog, written by Nicola Baird – an amazing archive of over 200 interviews.

I worked with my neighbour, Dorothy Newton, to find people who would be willing to share their stories of where they came from, why they left and what it was like to arrive here. Many of them take tea on Thursdays at St Thomas’s Church, just around the corner, and we chatted about their stories before the street party. Many contributors said that there was nothing particularly interesting about their story – but there was.

Sunday came, and we put up the gazebo, with sides, and set up the recording equipment – all the contributors have agreed to be recorded, as we would like the recordings to be available for local school-children for school projects in the future. I have uploaded them via Soundcloud on this website (see above).

There was Dorothy herself, who talked about the early history of Plimsoll Road, which was once just a cornfield, without a name. She gave a fluent explanation of how this area was urbanised and talked about the main owner or developer of the land, Mr Rock. She thinks that the houses in this area were then built on by a great number of different builders – small firms who maybe did at the most one terrace at a time.  In just 25 years, between 1864 and 1895 this area went from being fields to the inner city. The pace of change must have been dizzying.

Then came Nicolette, talking about our own local hero, Samuel Plimsoll, after whom our road was renamed – he saved the life of thousands of sailors, after inventing the Plimsoll Line on ships, so that they were not overloaded.

Malcolm then talked about a local World War One sailor, a man of 45, who enlisted and died after just a few weeks service after being torpedoed. He lived in the neighbouring road.

Then we heard some stories from further afield – John talked movingly of his mother, who was born in what was then Prussia, and who had just given birth at the end of the Second World War. Her German husband was missing in action, presumed dead. The Russians were advancing and were raping and killing. Her father, a local dignitary, tried to reason with the troops as they entered the place they were staying. They beat him to death. She survived, and fled with her newborn, in terrible circumstances, and eventually got to Hamburg, to the relative safety of an Allied area controlled by the British. She met a British Army major, who fell in love with her. After a period of time, and after her German husband was declared dead, they married. John, the baby, as he was, came to England at the age of about four. Life was not easy for a German woman, who was spat at in the street, and he was not allowed to play with other children at first. A spell-binding story (and a true Plimsoll-roader – he has lived in the same house twice over).

Then Uli spoke of growing up in Vienna, around the same time, and her life in very difficult circumstances during the Second World, complicated yet further as her family was partly Jewish. Uli also gave a vivid account of living in Barnsbury in the ’60’s as a young married woman. ‘We were the only ones without lace curtains’ and therefore they got knocks at the door. Uli moved to Plimsoll Road in the ’70’s and has lived here happily ever since – she decided to move here because of the nice long gardens, chosen with the help of Ordnance Survey maps.

Then came Mickey, who described coming over from Trinidad, in the ’50’s, and gave a vivid description of the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs outside boardings house. But, for Mickey, it stiffened his resolve to make the best of his life, and he joined the British army and did well for himself, later joining BT and also doing well in that company too, and buying and selling houses so that he did not have to abide by the rules of racist landlords.

Lastly, Nicola, from the Islington Faces Blog, gave a great description of some of the characters she had interviewed over the many years she has spent, writing the blog – over 200 interviews and counting. It is a great resource for local people – and well worth a look. There is a  huge amount of content there.

I summed up the very moving story tent session, with a thank you to all the wonderful participants. Oral histories are a very special way of sharing memories with the community, and we are lucky to have a really great community on Plimsoll Road. This is a way of looking at history at the micro level. People have come and gone from this area – the builder himself, Mr Rock, may have had Hugenot, (refugee) roots, with a name anglicised from Roche. This is one of those areas that welcomes people from different races and communities – it’s one of its strengths. This mini-project, I hope, will start to build up an archive of voices of those communities.






Three new books

It’s a bit unusual to have three publications out in one month, but very exciting – and they are all collaborations with lovely people.

The first two are picture books, co-written with the English Traveller, Richard O’Neill, and are published to coincide with Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. Yokki and the Parno Gry, about a magic horse and its relationship with a Traveller family which has fallen on hard times, is a really lovely story and was great fun to work on with Richard, turning it, with his blessing from an oral story to a picture book. The other, Ossiri and the Bala Mengro, is a more comical story about a monster, and a girl from a Travelling background who yearns to be a musician.

Equally, it was an honour to contribute a chapter, ‘Becoming English’ to A Country of Refuge, edited by Lucy Popescu and published by Unbound this month. This was a book that celebrates the contributions that refugees have made to this country. I wrote about my mother and grandmother coming to the UK just after the war from what was then Yugoslavia.

I’m so proud of all three books, which have at their heart a respect of difference and diversity. We need publishers who fund such books at a time when refugees are being turned away at the borders of Europe. My mother and grandmother were welcomed when they arrived at Croydon airport in 1946, with the aid of the Red Cross. Things are very different now. They don’t have to be. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are still persecuted across Europe. They don’t have to be. As Jo Cox said, we have more in common than divides us.



Statement from the Disability Hate Crime Network (Contempt of court and other reporting issues for the Jo Cox killing)

From the co-ordinators of the Disability Hate Crime Network:


We are all saddened and shocked by the killing of Jo Cox and we would like to extend our sympathies to her family, to her constituency and to all those who knew her.

A local man has been named as her alleged attacker and his family has made it clear that he may have had a long-standing mental health condition. In addition, it is being reported that he may have had links with extremist groups.

As co-ordinators of the Disability Hate Crime Network, we would urge, as we would always do, pre-trial, caution in reporting, on social media and in the press generally. This is so that there is a fair trial and that it does not break down. The family of Jo Cox deserve nothing less.

The alleged attacker, also, deserves a fair trial. As a person who may have a disability, he may need, and be given, extra support during the trial process. Uncomfortable as it may seem at times, given the tragic nature of the circumstances, reporting of his disability should be done within the usual reporting guidelines of mental health.



Women, violence and prevention

Women and violence – some more thoughts on my article for Mosaic Science


The long feature that I have just written for Mosaic Science on women and violence has, in truth, taken a long while to write. I have reflected long and hard on our place, as women, in the history of power and violence. My own interest in violence may well have started as a child, when I was mocked by some other girls at secondary school for being different. I don’t think that kind of visceral experience ever quite leaves you. But it’s useful too.


However, on a journalistic level, my study of violence began in earnest when I visited Rwanda in 1997 with the BBC, three years after the genocide, in which some 800,000 Tutsis and others caught up in the slaughter, such as the Twa hunter-gatherers, were murdered. We interviewed survivors and perpetrators. It was clear that women and children, just like men, had been involved in the killing. Some women had been chief instigators – although the stories we were pursuing were mainly about male perpetrators. That knowledge did not form any significant part of my journalism, until around 10 years later. It sat at the back of my mind.


In 2007, I started to research hate crimes against disabled people, culminating in a book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people, published in 2011. I have since gone on to investigate perpetrators of disability hate crime in some detail. I then found that women are over-represented, as perpetrators of such crimes, compared to other forms of hate crime, where the victims are perceived to be less ‘vulnerable’ and more likely to defend themselves. One of the many findings I took away with me from those heart-rending interviews with those bereaved by hate crime was the deeper sense of betrayal felt by those where the murder had been committed by women. They had committed not only a horrific crime – but one also against nature (it seemed even worse where the woman perpetrator was also a mother).






The latest data on convictions from the Crown Prosecution Service shows that women are convicted of 25% of such crimes, compared to 15% of other hate crimes.[1] This high proportion is mirrored in crimes against older people, in which women are convicted in 23% of cases, (although not all those crimes are violent). In safeguarding cases, which rarely reach the criminal threshold (around 1% of cases are referred to the police – most go to safeguarding boards for action of some lesser kind), although the gender of the victim is recorded, the gender of the perpetrator is not. The Department of Health and charities in the field do not record gender. But when cases are reported in the press, it is striking how many women are represented as perpetrators of financial and other forms of abuse and neglect in care homes where disabled and older people are residents. Journalist John Pring, who runs the news website, the Disability News Service, and who has investigated institutional sexual and physical abuse in a number of settings, has identified an even gender split amongst perpetrators in the cases he has investigated, although women are over-represented as victims.

I was struck by much the same pattern when I carried out a small survey on disability hate crime for the Disability Hate Crime Network, for which I am volunteer co-ordinator, last year. It was a small, online survey of 100 disabled people last month to ask them more about the perpetrators of hate crimes. We asked about the gender, race and age of the attackers, location of the incident, whether the attacker acted alone or in a group, and about perceived motivation.

More than half of respondents (57%) said they were attacked on the street, and one-fifth on public transport. A quarter of incidents occurred at home. Other people were attacked in pubs and shops, with some mentioning social media. Perpetrators were overwhelmingly white. Strikingly, around half of all attacks were group based and women were involved in most of those group attacks. The attacks can be vicious. One victim reported that they were: “Pushed from chair by women; verbally abused by both men and women.” Another reported: “Worst incident – an older white woman. Otherwise mostly men.” Another said: “Young mother with child abused me in a shop car park.”

You can read more about my survey in the Guardian report I wrote on it here:

I was also surprised, when researching a book last year on so-called ‘honour’ violence, to find that it was not unusual that women relatives would be involved in attacks on girls or women who refused to conform. I talk about this in some detail in the main article, and the report by the Her Majesty Inspectorate Of Constabulary which found that women were not only involved in planning, but sometimes in physical attacks on relatives. “Female family members can be involved in facilitating violence and abuse through informal conversation, pressurising males of the family to undertake HBV acts or assisting in arranging violence, or actually being involved in the violence or killings”, the HMIC report stated.[1]

[1], p30

Diana Nammi, the director of the women’s rights organization, IKWRO, which campaigns against ‘honour’ violence, says: “Although it is rare for women to be prosecuted for “honour” based violence, many perpetrators are women. Perpetrators have included mother-in-laws and female in-laws, as well as any woman directly related to the victim.”

This has been difficult to believe in the past, but we have to do so, to protect other women. We find it difficult to believe that women are violent – but we also find it difficult to cede any kind of power to women per se. Things change slowly – too slowly. Perhaps the current discomfort with women occupying a violent position has more to do with displacing 1950’s ideas of women in the home once and for all. After all, women have a hard time of it, displaying any kind of legitimate power at all, let alone illegitimate power. This was the subject of a panel discussion at the Fortune Theatre in London, in which an array of leading women from professions ranging from journalism, business and law, rostered by Women in Journalism, (of which I am a member) discussed the theme of Women and Power. It’s still a problem – how to project authority without being seen as aggressive, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, rated as a top business thinker and an authority on the gender wars, told the audience. Her organization, the Center for Talent Innovation, she reported, carried out a wide-ranging study into why women do not advance as far as men in their careers. Only 26% of women interviewed would go for a top job if offered one, she said, because they were frightened of the consequences for the rest of their lives. Hewlett, and others on the panel, is trying to change that, by stressing the agency that power can give women – and the ability that agency can give women to empower others (men and women), and to determine their own working hours, and so on and so forth, and to change the ethos of their organisations. It is an uphill struggle, but a worthy one. Hewlett stresses that “women without babies are also conflicted about power. Women seem not to understand that they can bend power to their purposes.” She adds that her study found that only 15% of women in their study liked the word ‘power’ compared to 85% of men. But, she added, this was not true across all racial groups – African American women were much more comfortable about reaching for power, as were Latino women. She concluded: “The problem is most acute for middle class white women” – who seemed most uncomfortable with reaching for power.


To summarise, Hewlett’s research does seem to suggest that the interplay between culture and how woman and men perceive and are perceived when they reach for power is key. For if women, who all share the same gender, perceive power differently across the racial divide, culture is clearly key, rather than men’s brains and women’s brains.


We can definitely all agree on one thing: violence, whether perpetuated against ourselves or those we purport to love, has long-lasting consequences. This was obvious in Rwanda (and has been since, talking to survivors). It was also the theme of a play I saw during the course of my research into this article.


In a packed lecture theatre at the Tavistock Centre in north London, famed for its work on mental health, two women act out scenes from a play about self-harm. The work is located in some kind of unit, although whether it is a hospital or prison is left deliberately unclear, the director, Sally Willis, explains later. What is clear is the overwhelming savagery of violence against the self. “The devil wriggles down the generations’ observes Suzi, one of the characters, if the cycle of violence against the self and others is not broken. After Dot, the other character, has slashed one of her wrists, she talks about the focus of the play: “It’s about the violence inside of me”. Uncomfortable as it is to see, such a play makes sense: when we connect the words ‘women’ and violence’ most of us think of self-harm, or the violence that men do to women.


However, the work of forensic psychologist and psychotherapist Anna Motz, and the consultant psychiatrist who inspired her, Estela Welldon, who were both in the audience to respond to the play, goes far further. Between them, they have been largely instrumental in breaking what has been, largely, a de facto taboo on discussing female violence against others. As Welldon explained, when she responded to the play, her own practice at the Tavistock, where she is now an honorary consultant psychiatrist, was about listening and hearing differently, because “the voices of some women were not heard”. Those women had a conflicted and ‘perverse’ attitude towards their own children. Until Welldon broke that silence, “the therapist would shut them up”, not wanting to believe that some mothers hated their children.


Motz, too, who trained with Welldon, is key to this story. In her response, she talked about the violence of self-harm and despair; how women are born into bodies by mothers and that, for some, it can be a toxic cycle in which self-harm becomes an attempt to cut the mother out of the body, in a symbolic attack on her. This is grim work, but, as she concluded, the job of the psychologist and psychotherapist, is, at its base, very simple. “We aren’t appalled. That is the journey of psychotherapy.”


Is it too tempting, however, to try and understand violence through the prism of art and literature? Does it refract and distort our clean vision of it? Does it mean that we never see the woman offender in front of us as she is, without cultural stereotypes?


One myth, upon which we often hang our understanding of violence amongst women, is that of Medea, a play written by Euripides almost 2500 years ago. In the play a warring couple, Jason and Medea, are divorcing; he has left her for a princess of Corinth. She retaliates by killing their children, before escaping to a new life. At no time, however, is she described as mad. I went to see a new production of the play as part of the Almeida Theatre’s Greek Season, rewritten by the author, Rachel Cusk. This was a modern Medea, in a contemporary setting, with a chorus of yummy mummies and Medea reduced to a one-note vindictive woman. Although the acting, particularly by Kate Greenwood in the leading role, was extraordinary, the ending failed, in my view, as the children take an overdose, instead of Medea killing them. Cusk said, in one interview: “I couldn’t write a play in a modern setting about a woman who kills her children.” However, women still do kill their children – and not just out of ‘mercy’ or madness. Making women merely victims of men made me feel uncomfortable – as if women, today, have no agency or power.











A similar elision of the pivotal role of Lady Macbeth in inciting the violence in Macbeth occurs in this year’s film version, in which Michael Fassbender, as Macbeth, dominates the action. Even in art, at times, it seems as if we find it difficult to contemplate our own power, for good and ill. Yet, going back to the text, Lady Macbeth tramples on gender stereotypes of both women and men, saying to Macbeth that she would dash a breastfeeding infant from her own body and kill it rather than go through with the murderous plan, and mocking Macbeth for being unmanned for not wanting to kill. We seem to be even more essentialist now, about gender, than we ever were, despite increasing evidence of the blurring of boundaries.


I write fiction, as well as non-fiction, and indeed I have written fiction about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. I wrote a short story about a vision that haunted me – a true story, of a young woman I saw, on Rwandan TV footage (never broadcast, thankfully), whose throat was cut and who was then filmed, dying, to encourage the killing, by the Hutu interhamwe (militia). Luckily the TV station was liberated before the footage could be shown but that sight, of a young woman, in a yellow dress, dying, gave me nightmare for many years after I returned. I wrote a story about her to cauterise my own reaction to violence.




Fiction, of course, enables us to myth-make and shape reality in a way that non-fiction does not allow us to do. It is a powerful medium, and risky because of that. Women who commit crime are not seen individually – they are seen in the context of myth, art, literature and history. How do we hear their individual stories and in doing so, understand them better? And, if we can see and hear more clearly, as the brave, empathetic and kind women I interviewed in the main piece for Mosaic Science stressed, that may go some way to putting together the jigsaw as to why some women commit acts of violence. Then, perhaps, we can start to construct a prevention strategy.





Scapegoat: why we are still failing disabled people


In today’s blog-post, I want to link back to a chapter I wrote in my 2011 book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people. In this book I investigated disability hate crime, but I also wanted to set it in its wider context. This chapter looks at that wider context – how our society views disabled people. I’m sorry to say that it’s still relevant today – no more so than at this time, when disability benefit cuts are in the news, and disabled people are protesting in the Commons.





Extract from Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011)



Not Them but Us – society’s challenge



And then there is the whole vexed question of disability benefits, which have come under fire under successive governments, but never more so than now. Language about benefit “scroungers” is bandied about by politicians and tabloid journalists. As the Minister Iain Duncan Smith says, eagerly, work is “good” for you.[1] And so it is, in many circumstances, but it should not define our humanity. Not all disabled people can hold down a full-time job, but that does not mean that they do not contribute to society in other ways. As Sir Bert Massie, the former head of the Disability Rights Commission, says: “I think there is a strong argument to be made that there is an obligation to support those who need support and that should be unconditional, you can do what you want to the scroungers, but by and large, there are some people who cannot work, it is fanciful that everyone can work – you support them and you do it with magnanimity, this should be a right.”


Sophie Corlett from the mental health charity, Mind, says that many people on their advice lines are talking about changed attitudes towards them, since the government launched its crackdown. One person with a mental health condition told the charity: “Tabloids […] are actively […] encouraging people to shop the apparent easy-to-spot cheats directly to the paper. With mental illness, it is not that easy and this targeting feels unacceptable. I fear this will increase hate crime and further alienate those with mental illness who are on benefits.” Another said, movingly, that life was now “barely tolerable” and added that they felt like an “object of hate and derision with no escape. I worked for as long as my body could stand it and I do not need someone with no comprehension of my daily life, telling me that I am a ‘scrounger’ and languishing on benefits”, adding that many with hidden disabilities now find themselves “the victims of an orchestrated hate campaign and what I can only describe as institutional bullying.” As Mind’s submission to the EHRC inquiry puts it: “People with mental health problems already face disproportionate levels of crime and discrimination and now appear to be the scapegoats for the Government’s welfare reform programme.”


It is easy to see, in the light of such comments, why some disabled people are so afraid at the moment. They feel that the population is being softened up for ever more punitive action against them as a group. For many, this has a historical resonance with what happened in Germany, before the Holocaust.


When the Treasury website invited comments from the general public on how to reduce welfare spending, the comments about disabled people (which were not moderated) were vicious. One argued that all disabled people should be sterilised. Another said: “depression is not a disability, neither is stupidity.” Many suggested that disabled people got too many perks and were particularly exercised about disabled car parking spaces.[2] Another suggested, extraordinarily, that disabled people should be used as weapons of war. “Those who can work that upon rigorous medical examination turn out to be just thick or bone idle to undertake intesnive (sic) course in employability, where they will learn to be punctual, meticulous, smartly dressed, articulate, and gain working attitude. Those who repeatedly fail the course to be deployed in Afghanistan as IED deterrents.”


Although, after repeated requests, the website was closed down the comments removed, they shed light on attitudes among many in society.[3] Disabled people are not seen as equal citizens. They are seen as a useless burden. Small wonder then, that so many of them are attacked – the perpetrators are merely acting out the unconscious wishes and desires of many in society.[4]


From the moment they are born, as the psychotherapist Valerie Sinason has said, eloquently, they are told that their lives are not worth living – they face what she calls an “internal and external death wish”.[5] If they want to have sex, marry, or have children, their decisions are seen as controversial, and their children are more likely to be taken away from them than non-disabled families. Then they are told that they should not have benefits wasted on them. That they should go into a home, or if they can’t work have their benefits cut. If they can work they should also have their benefits cut, as they clearly don’t require extra support. Then, as they get older, they are told that they are a burden on society and should die for the sake of others. If we do not understand these widely held views, the spirit of our times, in which hate crime has flourished in our society, we are never going to be able to understand it, and we won’t be able to find solutions.







[2] Personal communication, John Pring and Anne Novis, November 2010



[5] Sinason, Handicap and the Human Condition, 38


Chapter 19: Ways Forward

Sherpa film review and remembering a trip to Nepal

In August 1975 our family flew to Kathmandu to visit my uncle, Andrew Quarmby, an aid worker and film-maker, his wife Diana and our cousin Sarah. Andrew and my dad, Michael, had been keen walkers since their days growing up in hill-country in Yorkshire, as sons of farmers. Now they wanted to take all of us on a trail that was only just unfolding – all the way to the village of Kunde, near Khumjung, nestled just a few miles below Everest Base Camp. My dad and uncle were to walk on to Base Camp, whilst the rest of us stayed there.

We had moved to the flattest of counties, Norfolk, when my dad got a headship there, a year or so earlier. This made training for walking in the Himalayas a little tricky. There was one slope, which my mum and dad thought would do. We would trek up and down it, twenty or thirty times after school, and if we did well we would be given Maryland cookies as a reward. We had to save our money (our parents were teachers, so didn’t have a lot of cash) so we had very small baths for many months before the big trip. We took with us a lot of Beanfeast dried food (mmm) and dried porridge. (This later became my moment of triumph, as a porridge refusenik. As I rejected it, near starvation, consistently, every day on a 20 mile trek in the Himalayas, I was eventually allowed to bow out of daily porridge at home when we returned. I have never eaten it since.)

We arrived in Kathmandu in summer 1975 – monsoon season. We were staying with Andrew and Diana, and their housekeepers, Nema and Pemba, who were Sherpas. They were to accompany us on our travels to Khunde and Khumjung, and hired other Sherpas to come with us as well. I loved Nema and Pemba, who became real friends to us, as they were to Andrew, Diana and Sarah. I don’t remember when we set out from Kathmandu, but I remember that we walked around 20 miles a day. I was nine years old, and my cousin Sarah, only seven. My brothers were just a few years older. Sarah, the youngest, never complained and like me, was only ever carried across rivers where the current was too strong for us to ford. I can still remember Sherpas fording them for us with a rope and then my dad and Andrew and the boys using the rope to guide themselves across. I remember one day, my foot covered in blisters, feeling too sore to carry on, on a high mountain track, and stopping with my dad. I don’t know how long we were on our own, as the others walked on, but I was grateful for that time he spent with me, when I just couldn’t walk any further.

Then there were the leeches, which sucked our blood, voraciously. My mum, being close to a Buddhist, would let them take their fill and drop off. The Sherpas would touch them with a cigarette and watch them drop off. My brother John, now a doctor, would watch them approach him, half horrified, half fascinated. My brother Chris, who was always hungry, was particularly interested in explorer Chris Bonington’s expedition, hurrying along ahead of us, and dropping Spangles wrappers as it went. Sometimes he would catch them up and beg them for food. There were a few bad days when ‘our’ Sherpas went on strike as Chris Bonington was paying ‘his’ Sherpas more, apparently. It all got sorted out, but even then, money and fair conditions were an issue. As of course they should be.

Which brings us on to the wonderful, evocative film Sherpa, which is rightly nominated for a Bafta (winners to be announced on 14 February). This beautifully shot and observed film gives Sherpas back their rightful place in Nepalese history and culture, centering on the 2014 climbing season, from the Sherpa point of view. That sharpened when an avalanche down Everest’s Khumbu’s Icefall killed 16 Sherpas. The government reaction (at first) was inadequate – even pitiful. The film also discussed the confrontation the year before between Sherpas and climbers and went back in time to the first ever ascent of Everest (at least by a Westerner with a Sherpa) in 1953, by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. We don’t seem to have matured much since then. I certainly felt, at the film’s end, that we in the West need to step back from our interest in ‘conquering’ Everest, or Chomolungma as the Sherpas call it, and ask ourselves why some think they need to get to the top – especially when it means risking lives. Why can’t tourism be more sustainable? Why can’t there be more treks in the Himalayas that don’t go all the way to the top? Why do the tour guides refer to Sherpas as ‘boys’ – which certainly resonated to me, and not in a good way – with one person who had been paid to get to the top even asking about why a tour organiser couldn’t speak to the ‘owner’ of a supposed trouble-maker?

I realise, looking back, how lucky we were to have an uncle and parents who didn’t have money, but who did give us the opportunity to trek in the Himalayas as children, albeit on Beanfeast and local food, rather than shelling out £50,000 for an organised tour. I still remember so much of what we did – playing for hours with local children in Kunde, with bits of film rejected from the local hospital, staying in local houses where the smoke got in your eyes, eating chickens that you had seen killed just a few hours earlier, drinking the local salty tea, the beautiful local temples and prayer flags and the lush green scenery that always, always hid a leech. My dad and uncle never made it to Everest Base Camp – my uncle developed malaria. They got within sight of it, and then they turned back, and my dad helped his younger brother off the mountain, as he sickened. They both made it down alive.

Sherpa deserves to win a Bafta, because it treats the Nepalese people with respect and it sets Everest and those who want to climb in a wider, more universal context. The struggle the Sherpas are going through to determine their destiny is mirrored in other struggles around the world.  This beautifully crafted film captures the perplexity of so many of us in the West when we are faced with old stereotypes – ‘happy smiling Sherpas’, as one organiser put it, falling away and being replaced by reality – Sherpas demanding what we demand for ourselves – respect.







Remembering the Holocaust – and the disabled victims who died in the T4 programme

Katharine Quarmby

In this extract from my book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011), on Holocaust Memorial Day, I am sharing my analysis of how the T4 Nazi killing machine was inspired by eugenics enthusiasts in the UK and the US. It’s a grim read, I’m afraid, but important to remember why so many people died. Never again.

Extract from: Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011)

by Katharine Quarmby

The legitimisation of eugenic views through Europe and American ended in a logical, if horrifying outcome: the systematic murder of thousands of disabled people in Germany, after the Nazis came to power in 1933. The National Socialist Party wanted to create a pure Aryan nation, and eradicate the taint of the Jewish people (as well as homosexuals and gypsies) But a lesser known part of their moral thought was that “degenerate”, impaired Aryans should also be eliminated…

View original post 2,333 more words