Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A walk down Regent's canal

My brother and his friends outside the lock keeper's cottage (photo not mine)

I first discovered London’s canal network when I moved to east London in June 2016. I grew up in the south of the city, where the canal networks have largely been filled in but I was still surprised to discover this rather large stone left unturned. That summer, my brother was also living east, renting the lock-keeper’s cottage on Regent’s Canal next to Broadway Market, and I spent several sunny afternoons sitting on the lock — East London’s beach — greeting passing narrowboats and doing what English people do best in the sun: smoking roll-ups and drinking cheap beer.

The canals once spread over London and the rest of the UK like watery veins, extending the naturally existing river networks and linking supply and demand in the years before the industrial revolution. Narrowboats were pulled by horses walking on the towpaths adjacent to the canals. Now there are over 10,000 people living on narrowboats on London’s canals and many land-locked Londoners enjoy the scenic towpaths all year round.

Canals sometimes have a nefarious reputation — Victorian relics used for dodgy dealings, dumping dead bodies and prostitution, if you travel along any of London’s canal towpath late at night it’s easy to see why. Despite the fact that many of them are situated in central London there are corners here that have never been touched by the bright lights of the city. However, I’ve found that this sense of being removed from the rest of the city can also lend itself to a sense of magic and uninterrupted nature.

Image: @celeste_due

One chilly and wet January day, I decided to take a walk down Regent’s Canal again. It’s immediately clear that towpaths in the winter are decidedly less jolly, the steely skies make the cold industrialism they represent even starker and more apparent. Starting at Granary Square, which used to be a water basin from which barges carrying grain would enter to load and unload, I headed west towards Little Venice via. Camden Lock along the towpath. On this day the water, which you’d probably touch with a barge pole but that’s about it, looked particularly scuzzy — ducks and geese swum between discarded takeaway boxes and floating coke cans and a film of dirt and oil was clinging to the surface.

Equally as interesting as the history of the canals, I think, are the amphibious folk of London — people who have foregone plumbing and central heating for a quieter, damper life in a narrowboat on London’s waterways. Despite the inevitable inconveniences of living on a boat, there is something appealing about this lifestyle. A relic from the 19th century, the canals have remained at sea level even while the rest of the city has built up around them, because of this entering the towpath can feel as if everything has slowed down, people walk slower, talk slower and greet each other hello. One warm evening last summer I was cycling home along this towpath and saw a man smoking a leisurely cigarette over an open fire on his stern, the flames the only light on an otherwise dark towpath. We could have been in the middle of the countryside, and this moment seemed almost absurdly peaceful considering that not too far away (and possibly under our very feet on the tube) the rest of London was competing for square inches.

Anyone thinking of avoiding extortionate London rents by pursuing a romantic life on the water might be disappointed, though. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, and no doubt there are many exceptions, but weekly rent on a narrowboat is in the region of £400pw. Relatively cheap for central London, but expensive considering you’d have to empty your own toilet.

Image: Source

On this typically grim and gloomy January afternoon most narrowboats I pass seem as if they could be empty, mournfully bobbing up and down, although the bags of litter on the roof of many of them suggests otherwise. It is 2pm on a Monday, but to take the logical conclusion that most of the residents are probably at their 9–5 seems a bit unsatisfactory. So much for bohemian living! Things look up as I approach the Camden visitors mooring spots, where a sign indicates any boat can moor for up to 7 days free of charge. Although many narrowboats will stayed moored in one location permanently, some embrace a roaming gypsy lifestyle and cruise between temporary mooring spots, like the one in Camden. Two young guys are fiddling around with something on the stern of the boat whilst reggae music plays out of some (battery powered) speakers, and on another boat a girl with bright green hair is preparing to leave.

Regent’s Canal flows through Regent’s Park and from the towpath there is access to the back of London Zoo via a water bus from Camden market. At the waterbus station, a sign says ‘do not moor when beacon is flashing! Animal escape procedure in operation’. A bit further along you can get a piece of the zoo for free as the path passes the enclosure for the Painted African Hunting Dogs. Five minutes later the green-haired woman passes me on her barge leaving a plume of toxic black smoke in her wake, although we are moving at the same pace for a minute or so. Canal barges are not known for their speed, pre-industrial revolution they were practical because boats could carry heavy loads — up to 40 tonnes of coal or iron — once the railways came along and made life faster forever (70mph faster to be precise) then canals quickly fell into disuse. As the green-haired woman passes I try to ask her where she is headed but either she can’t hear me over the sound of the engine, or she’s tired of curious pedestrians because she ignores me. My question is answered a bit further down anyway though as I spot her reverse parking her barge into a small space near Little Venice.

Winter is not kind to the canals, what I remember as cheerful and charming has turned to sludgy and deserted. However, whatever the season, exploring London’s canal networks is a peek into Victorian London and the chance to explore the city from a new perspective.

Reposted from my Medium profile.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Piers Morgan and the genderization of protest

Today on Good Morning Britain Owen Jones and Piers Morgan debated the recent petition to cancel Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK. The Huff Post transcribed the exchanged here.

The gist of the argument is that Piers Morgan, like Trump and the rest of the right wing press, thinks that protestors are being hysterical. Everywhere you look at the moment the word is being evoked, 'hysterical protestors', 'hysterical reaction to the Trump administration', 'hysterical rhetoric' etc. etc. etc.

The intention behind the use of this word is curiously gendered. After all, it’s manly not to care. Too much emotion is distasteful, and worse, it makes you ‘hysterical’ - a term which literally stems from the Greek for uterus. Hysteria has a long, dark history of being used against women - in the 16th, 17th and 18th century women were thrown into asylums en masse, 'hysteria' was the catch all term for women who exhibited pretty much any behaviour that was considered threatening to normal order. 

Today, branding a person or a movement as hysterical is a way to pathologize emotion. What's more, by applying ‘hysteria’ to Owen Jones and other male protestors, Piers is attempting an attack on their masculinity. He’s the bully in the playground who’s just called the other guy a pussy.

Of course, feminising someone or something you don’t like as an insult is not exactly new, but what’s interesting about this particular example is the insidiousness of it. My old French teacher once joked that when it came to gendering nouns “the bad things are usually feminine” and like gendered nouns, the sexism at play here is of the unembodied, 'read between the lines' variety. Accusing protestors of hysteria is a way of devaluing righteous anger along gendered lines.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is is possible to be a pro-life feminist?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Abortion has been on my mind a lot recently, as I’m sure it has with the tens of thousands of other women who marched on Washington, London, Toronto, Delhi and all over the world last weekend, demanding for the rights of women, including the right to safe abortion, to be protected. The news that a ‘pro-life’ feminist group New Wave Feminists were removed from the list of official partners of the march raised an important question. Can you be a feminist and be against abortion?

New Wave Feminists argue that women wouldn’t need to turn to abortion if we had a culture that was more supportive of motherhood generally. In some ways, their vision of the world is far more ambitious because what they are striving for is essentially a matriarchal society where motherhood receives the respect it deserves and fertility is treated as a “superpower”. They don’t want to deny women abortions, they want to create a world where women don’t feel like they need to have them. It’s almost a Herland level of utopia, and I admire them for it.

But in this world, the real world, access to safe and legal abortion is central to women’s equal rights - there’s just no getting around it. And here’s why.

A few days after the march the world was informed that as his first act as President, Donald Trump was reinstating a gagging order on NGOs, preventing them for discussing abortion with women without losing their right to US foreign aid. The effects of this could be devastating, especially to teenage girls in developing countries, and it’s predicted that thousands of women across the world could die as a result.

I believe that the fact that a man like Trump was charged with making a decision like this highlights just how integral pro-choice is to the feminist agenda. Because regardless of whether you as a woman feel personally comfortable with it or not, restricting abortion has been, and will continue to be a means to exert control over women’s behaviour and lives.

I tweeted New Wave Feminists to ask what they think about the gagging order and here’s the reply I received:
The link is to a blog post on abortions in the developing world. It essentially argues that abortions are simply a band-aid for a society blighted by patriarchy, and the solution to these problems is not to offer abortion, but tackle the root causes of poverty, rape and injustice.

In this respect, they may be right. To use their example, offering a “poor Brazilian woman, sitting outside a hut, no running water, no electricity, only the food she can grow or kill, with seven children playing around her in the dirt” an abortion doesn’t really get to the root of her problems, but no one is forcing her to get an abortion if she finds herself pregnant again, the hope is just that if she does decide to terminate a pregnancy that she will be able to do it safely without risking her life.

In Latin American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, restriction to abortion comes coupled with some of the highest levels of violence against women and femicide in the world. Denying women access to safe abortion is a weapon of patriarchy. It oppresses women, belittles their ability to make an informed decision for themselves and it assumes that lawmakers know better about her situation than she does.

Until women all over the world have access to safe and legal abortion, we will not have global gender equality.

N.b I asked New Wave Feminists what they are doing to fight the root causes of female oppression in Brazil, and I haven’t received a response yet.

Life lessons to myself

Always remember that other people are just as real as you are

Your angle on things is just one angle.

Run up the stairs

Do it, every day if you can. It keeps your heart healthy and you’ll get places quicker.

Make your own success

Don't wait for other people to hand it to you on a plate. Send emails, shake hands, try to brush off anxiety.

You have to go to the party to say you don’t want to go to the party

This was a ‘lesson’ that came to me whilst tripping on magic mushrooms, aged 18 on a beach in Asia. I had been feeling torn about whether or not to go to the Full Moon Party. I went. I can now say I wouldn’t want to go to the party again. Also, try everything at least once - even magic mushrooms.

Happiness isn’t materialistic

A platitude, but an important one. Don’t get trapped into thinking you need stuff to make you happy.

Change your mind

One from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Only an idiot won’t change their mind because of a fear of accepting they’re wrong. Accept your wrongs. Say sorry. Change your mind.

Trust in the goodness of other people

A lesson from my dad who’ll often leave his bike unlocked to go into the shop and it’s not been stolen (yet). People are 99% good, don’t let the other 1% give you a reason to close yourself off to world.

Enjoy learning

Another from my dad, who always said that as long as my brother and I left school still excited about learning then his job was done.


Even if it's just within the pages of a book.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Spirit of Place

I first visited Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead in November of last year. Although it's a small and unassuming place, tucked above a pub near the station, as soon as I entered I was fascinated by it's unique and eccentric character. The theatre itself is a personification of its founder, Léonie Scott-Matthews, an actress, poet and playwright who established Pentameters in 1968 and has run it ever since. In its 49 years the theatre has seen performances and poetry readings from renowned authors such as Dannie Absie, Edna O'Brien and Ted Hughes.

Through this video I wanted to capture a philosophy of Léonie's which she calls spirit of place. As a philosophy, this seems to perfectly encapsulate Hampstead generally - which has a rich literary history - but also the theatre itself, which is now a protected asset of community value.

This video is a homage to Léonie's own eccentricity and creativity.

Embracing scruffy

Aka. the joy of not giving a shit

By all accounts, I was quite a typical girl child who loved princesses and pink, but when I was eight I decided that I was going to wear my brother’s clothes all the time. In actuality it only lasted for a day or two, but I remember bouncing down the road feeling like I now had permission to be boisterous and loud, even if it was only from myself.

Grunge, tomboy, sloppy… what ever you call it, wearing comfortable clothes in generic shapes (aka. jeans and t-shirt) and no make-up is not always seen as the most feminine of aesthetics.

As a teen, I spent a lot of time feeling anxious about the way I looked on a day to day basis. High waisted skinny jeans, crop tops and American Apparel leotards all brought along with them worries about VPL (that’s visible panty line), logistically difficult trips to the bathroom and the need to slyly undo the top button of my jeans to make it comfortable to sit down. I imagine most girls are familiar with the feeling of dread when you’re on your period and there is literally no air space between your crotch and the outside of your light wash Topshop Jaime jeans. And don’t even get me started on the chaffing.

My granddad calls it scruffy, I call it being fucking comfortable. For years women have squeezed, slipped and zipped themselves into uncomfortably tight clothing with little thought about it. Sure, feminine clothing has the capacity to make you feel sassy af but sometimes you just want to be able to chill without worrying that your skirt is going to blow up.

Throwing on comfortable jeans and a baggy t-shirt these days feels the same way as it did when I was eight years old. Call me what you will, but it’s liberating to know that I can go about my day and my clothing isn’t going to stop me from riding my bike, eating a big meal, or just sitting down comfortably. Because life is short so why not make the small space you occupy a comfortable one.

Reposted from my Medium

Hampstead Heath ladies' pond, August 216

Source: littlezosienka.wordpress.com

London is a city that refuses to be ‘done’. However tired you think you are of it, you’re still guaranteed to find something to make you gasp just around the corner.

For me and my friends Hampstead Heath proved to be one of these places, arriving exactly when we needed it — on a warm and sticky September’s day that promised to be the hottest in record. As old as the city itself, the Heath spans over 700 acres, housing insects, wildlife and protected woodland. It’s existence is utterly antithetical to the roaring, intestinal roads of central London just a few miles away.

The Kenwood Ladies Pond is one of three bathing ponds on the Heath. In the age of lads mags and nude photos the concept of having a female-only pond to protect modesty seems laughable at first, but on this day it seemed like a exquisite blessing to only have to compete with half of the population in escaping London’s throbbing heat.

Entering the pond vicinity via a leafy secluded path and a sign that reads ‘men not allowed beyond this point’ feels a bit like finding your own secret garden. Mobile phone signal disappears as you enter an enclosed area lapped by a thick covering of trees and shrubs. The pond itself, accessible by steps attached to wooden decking, is surrounded by weeping willows — branches skimming the water.

‘Bathing’ implies a luxurious, leisurely activity. ‘Ladies bathing’ even more so, but launching yourself into cold murky water of unknown depth for the first time requires a bit of stiff upper lip, despite the heat. Once you’re in, though, the exhilarating feeling of sailing through the the pond beats a chlorine-laced swimming pool hands down. Unchained to pool sides and laps, you’re free to swim in any direction you choose, at eye level with the occasional passing duck.

Separated by shrubbery is a sunbathing area called the meadow. Although not lush and floral as the name suggests, the meadow is an important part of what makes the pond so special, and on this day towels occupy every spare inch. Sunbathing topless has been permitted here since the 70s and given a few hours it’s hard to imagine that even the shyest of women wouldn’t feel at ease abandoning her bikini top. The feeling of sun on naked chest is a wonderful thing, and here, free of judgement, women of all shapes, sizes and shades can let go and relax into themselves.

After several blissful hours and fully charged with positive energy we leave the pond and begin walking home. The late-summer heat hangs soft and heady over the heath. Almost immediately some boys on bikes shout something vaguely sexual at us.

And just like that we’re snapped back to reality.

Reposted from my Medium