Melissa Benn

IN CONVERSATION WITH OWEN JONES

September 29th, 7 pm. I will be in conversation with Owen Jones about his new book The Establishment: And how they get away with it

Location: Sutton House, 2-4 Homterton High Street, Hackney, London E9 6JQ

The event is put on by Pages bookshop in Hackney. Go to their events page to book tickets for this event.

HENLEY LITERARY FESTIVAL

Feminist writer and activist Laura Bates and I will be in conversation with Monisha Rajesh, talking about young women today, fourth wave feminism, sexism today and much much more.

2pm Town Hall £9

Box Office Mon-Fri 10am-2pm 01491 575948

SYMPOSIUM ON EDUCATION AND RUSKIN.

I will be taking part in an education panel at a symposium put on by the Guild of St. George and The Ruskin Library and Research Centre (Lancaster University) entitled: Education for Education’s Sake? A Symposium on Ruskin and modern education at Toynbee Hall 28 Commercial St, London E1 6LS United Kingdom 10.00 a.m. 4.30 p.m. Saturday, 11 October, 2014


WOMEN’S THERAPY CENTRE: ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING

I will be speaking about mothers and daughters, and my recent book at this event. Also speaking will be Dilek Gungor, senior psychotherapist, who will talk about a new WTC initiative for Mothers and Daughters.

11 am – 1pm, Friday October 17th, 2014

Islington Town Hall, Upper Street, London N1 2UD ( Committee Room 5)

OUR COMMUNITY, OUR SCHOOLS

I will be speaking at a meeting in Walthamstow on ‘What do we want from our schools? A Charter for Schools’ on Tuesday 21 October 2014

7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow

For more details, go to this website.

Below, my contribution to a recent discussion in Prospect, reflecting on the publication of a recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

The big question: Social mobility

Is Britain still too elitist?

A new report states that people educated at Oxbridge have created a “closed shop at the top”

Each week, Prospect asks a range of experts, as well as our readers, to come up with answers to the questions defining the political agenda.

This week, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission into the social makeup of Britain’s leaders in business, media, politics and public service found that elitism was still deeply embedded in British society. Alan Milburn, the Labour former cabinet minister who chairs the commission, concluded that Britain remains a “deeply divided” country.

Read more here including my contribution to this discussion ( reproduced below..) Other contributors include Simon Jenkins, Toby Young and Anthony Seldon.

‘Liberal’ attitudes mask a war on the poor

The findings of Milburn’s report are pretty unequivocal. Britain is still ruled largely by those who come from educationally privileged, and therefore affluent, backgrounds. Today’s elite combines covertness about privilege with an extraordinary carelessness about the lives of others—this is typified by leaders like Cameron and Clegg, who have prosecuted a ruthless war against the poor, cunningly masked by a modern “liberal” attitude. Among the most pressing reforms needed now is a genuinely fairer education system and more diverse political representation. I particularly like the idea of university-blind job applications.

Melissa Benn is a writer and campaigner and founder member of the Local Schools Network

My session at the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival ( August 17th) was filmed. There is also an added bit at the end, talking to members of the audience about their reaction to the session and the festival etc.

Below, my piece in today’s Guardian Comment page on the sudden demotion of Michael Gove.

One could hear the gasps echoing around the political world yesterday morning. Gove demoted to the whips’ office? Unthinkable.

Or was it? For experienced Gove watchers, there were a few signs in the air. At last month’s Wellington College festival of education, I sat with more than 1,000 people in a marquee waiting for the secretary of state. This was the minister’s natural habitus, an annual jamboree of new-right education reformers sponsored by his old employer the Sunday Times and hosted by a key Gove ally, Anthony Seldon.

But the minister was well over an hour late. And the crowd was getting restless. Gove was apparently stuck in traffic – a poor excuse for a man who is driven everywhere, but an indication perhaps of his less impressive qualities: accident-prone, a touch hapless, careless – even of his most loyal following.

It didn’t help that so many of Gove’s policies were beginning to fray at the edges. Once hailed as the democratic vehicle of parent power, too many free schools have got into a shabby sort of trouble over the last year. The evidence on sponsored academies, the supposed “silver bullet” for school improvement, has also worn thin, thanks largely to the diligent research of my Local Schools Network colleague Henry Stewart. Only this week, it was acknowledged in the high court that results at academies are frequently swollen by vocational equivalents that the minister himself long ago repudiated…

Red the rest of the piece here.

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – my latest review in the Guardian.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933″.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.

In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.

Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.

O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.

Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.

By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.

O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.

Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.

What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.

Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.

• To order Harry’s Last Stand for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) and Austerity Bites for £15.99 (RRP £19.99) with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk

Below the first of a number of short extracts, that I will be publishing on this blog, from ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ – now out in paperback, and available from all good bookshops and, of course, from Amazon.

……………………………………………………………………..

What about sex? Even young children realise, if only subliminally, that they owe their very existence to the act of sex; they are born from their mother’s all-too-human body. Eeeew. Disgusting. Etc. It does not prohibit discussion of ‘the facts of life’ but it certainly throws up a barrier between mothers and daughters (and even more so between fathers and daughters).Talking recently about coming out to her mother, the actress and comedian Sue Perkins said that the really difficult thing about it was the introduction of the idea that she was actually having sex, regardless of who with. That is the mortifying, if utterly obvious, fact in play. Despite these embarrassments, it is vital to get across the simple message to our daughters that only they can decide what to do, and with whom, and that a young woman who values herself is more likely to be valued by others.

I asked four friends, all of whom are involved in ‘communications’ in some way, how they dealt with this delicate issue:

Friend number 1: I answered any questions directly put to me about sex but didn’t talk about the act itself, or its effect on me, or sexual pleasure etc., and recently, a newspaper asked me to write a piece about my first sexual experience and I turned it down specifically because of my daughter. If I hadn’t got her, I would probably have written the piece. I told her about the commission and she said she’d be fine about me doing it, but I felt inhibited. I don’t think it’s part of the parent–child relationship, to talk about intimate experiences, UNLESS they come to you and ask. In which case, I would feel duty bound and indeed willing to discuss it. Something about boundaries here, I think.

Friend number 2: Despite having what I’d describe as a very open relationship with my children they were always very guarded about their private lives. And so as my two daughters were growing up I found myself wary of saying anything; since I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment and they didn’t. There was an unspoken understanding that in a way they knew MORE than me. Also they were both always ‘sensible’, late-ish developers, so no boyfriends till twenty-odd. They also read a lot, debated things like safe sex at school, and so I felt I had permission to have a very hands-off approach. I never felt I was ducking out. Instinctively I knew if I raised the subject of sex with them they would either shrug, laugh or scream. Oddly, I feel I can be more open with my teenage son on all these matters. He’s not as embarrassed as they were.

Friend number 3: When they were little, I gave them the basic facts of life – and tried to be quite honest about it. By the time they got to the early teen years, I was passing them basic material – booklets and things – on ‘what happens to your body in puberty’ but in a slightly shifty manner. I would sometimes sit with them when certain programmes were on late at night – those entertaining but ghastly shows about sex and bodies. I found them almost shockingly frank. There was this one TV journalist called Anna who took a sex education show around schools – and she would put naked men and women, of different ages, up on a stage – and get the children to talk about it. It was great actually. My daughters and I sniggered a bit but it was very instructive and I felt a weight taken off my shoulders. Once my elder daughter got involved in a relationship, at seventeen, it was harder. More books, I’m afraid. So I ordered a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, the American bible of self-help feminism of the second wave (one of the very few available from Amazon) and said, ‘OK so I think this has important information which you need to know about.’ More laughter – but I noticed that they would flick through it and I heard them talking to each other. ‘Look at this chapter heading “What if I can’t come?” ’ and ‘Oh my god, there’s a chapter on masturbation’. And Iwould say – ‘Yes, very important theme’, and then run out the room. That was the best I could do – I mean, what parent is going to show their child how to masturbate? Or even say those few magic words, ‘Find your clitoris and make it work for you.’ I guess, if I’m honest, that’s the one message I would really like to get over.

Friend number 4: Looking back, I probably should have talked more about sex when they were younger. To tell them they have a right to sexual pleasure, a right to say no, that you’re not a slut if you sleep with a boy. They should learn how their bodies work. They should not be ashamed to ‘get to know their bodies’. I suppose one of the most important lessons is that there are different kinds of sex. And while I would say, ‘learn to masturbate’, because then you will know how to show others how to give you pleasure, it’s also OK to have sex, and not to come. Maybe you can only come fairly intermittently. The point is, there are different kinds of sex. I feel it is my duty as a parent, if I want to promote real happiness for my daughters, to be more honest about this stuff.

Welcome to my website. I am a writer, novelist and campaigner. Follow the link below to my latest book. Join the conversation on Twitter. Or comment on this blog......

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