Roy Deane and Whilton Marina where does the truth lie?

I am sceptical. It’s in my nature, so when I became aware yesterday (27 November 2012) of a story of Facebook my scepticism kicked in.

The story came to my attention due to a tweet from Roy Deane’s twitter account (@RockmineInfo), this tweet contained a link to a status update on Facebook, containing a story about Deane’s experience attempting to buy a boat from Whilton Marina.

My initial response to this story was to be appalled that such a thing could happen, it appeared to be a clear case of abuse of process on the part of Whilton Marina.

He states that:

When I saw [nb Manu Tahi], the asking price was £ 19,950. Several weeks after first seeing it, I found it was still available. To me, it offered everything I wanted and above all, it had a good “feel” about it. I’d discounted dozens of other craft and was happy to put an offer on the boat. My first offer was refused but my second accepted – £ 17,950. It had a homely feel to it but was tired and in need of work on the interior which I accepted.

The asking price (£19,950) is consistent with Manu Tahi’s page on Whilton Marinas website, which Deane links to in his status update. It also states on this page that the price has been reduced from £21,950 and that the boat is under offer whether this is by Deane I have no way of knowing.

It’s a 50′ boat from 1978, there’s no mention of overplaying in the advert so it would be fairly safe to assume that some is likely to need to be done and that the boat has been priced accordingly. The inside, as far as I can see from the pictures is as Deane said “a little tired” but there doesn’t appear to be anything startlingly wrong with it. Of course I would never buy a boat from photographs alone so this doesn’t mean much, it just means that if I were looking for a roughly 50′ cruiser stern narrowboat that needed some TLC, this might be one I’d go and see.

At this point Deane has had an offer of £17,950 accepted and has put down a £1000 deposit to secure the vessel subject to survey (so far so good).

I booked a survey with an independent surveyor included in a list provided by Whilton. The surveyor, Craig Allen even said I could be on hand when he looked at the boat. As it would let me see all the problems first hand with an expert safety examiner, I jumped at the chance.

On Monday, 19th November, I met Mr Allen at Whilton. We were unable to start with the hull survey as a crane would using the area adjoining the slipway but as I had travelled down from Perthshire in Scotland, someone at the marina made sure we were able to start on other elements of the survey.

It was an eye-opener. Behind a pleasant enough exterior, a series of major issues needed to be dealt with. The boat failed its survey on several safety issues but also a major insurance one. The hull needed to be re-plated.

I have watched boat surveyors in action on more than one occasion and it is a fascinating procedure, the “hit it with a hammer” school of testing is particularly dramatic. At the end of the survey you get told what the examiner has found and whether or not, in their opinion, the price is a fair one. Before we booked our survey we did a bit of research into the surveyor recommended by the Marina and of course we were there on survey day poking our noses in and generally getting in the way as the potential purchaser is meant to.

With that in mind I started by having a look to see who Craig Allen was: he is listed online as an independent boat surveyor and boat safety scheme examiner. There is no evidence of his company number on his website nor is there any reference to his qualifications. However, a quick search using the Boat Safety Scheme Find an Examiner page pulls up his entry so far so good.

Next step, finding his entry on the International Institute of Marine Surveying’s site. This proves more difficult although I can find Steve Hand MMIRC, the guy who did our survey, with very little difficulty. When I do find Allen I discover that he is listed as SuppIIMS. I know enough about membership of professional bodies to wonder what that means so I go and look at the various different types of membership that are available. It appears that SuppIIMS means Supporting Member of the IIMS a supporting member is defined on their website as:

Individuals having an interest in Marine Surveying and who encourage and approve of the aims of the Institute.
Past, Full or Associate Members who have retired and retain an interest in Marine Surveying and Consultancy, but no longer carry out surveys.

If alarm bells aren’t ringing by now they should be. On the other hand it is fairly normal to ask the marina you’re buying the boat from to recommend a surveyor so the fact that the two surveyor’s listed on Whilton Marinas website are a SuppIIRC and GradIIRC (he’d be the one to go for) is in itself slightly worrying.

**

Oddly, I wasn’t undaunted [sic] and went back to the marina office to give them an update on the surveyor’s verbal comments. A couple of salesmen gave me a price per foot for re-plating but pointed out they were not necessarily the cheapest and there were other companies who could do the work.

By the end of the week, I had the full survey report and a copy had per my instructions been sent to Whilton. After a couple of days, they put a cost on the safety and insurance work of £ 14,010 inclusive of V.A.T. The surveyor’s Conclusion & Valuation had stated, “Upon completion of all Insurance and boat Safety works, I feel the offer of £ 17,950 to be a reasonable one.”

I find that last sentence quite interesting, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to force the vendor to do the work (which would almost certainly be undertaken at Whilton Marina who have admitted that they are not necessarily the cheapest, and it subsequently turns out couldn’t do it in a time frame suitable to the purchaser) and then stick to the original price. The purchase was “subject to survey” and it failed the survey, this is the moment to either walk away or renegotiate the price based on the results.

I was told by Whilton that after commission, the vendor would get £ 2,240. Someone had mentioned that the boat was his pride and joy and as such, news of the work needing undertaken must have been heart-breaking. I really felt for the seller and was prepared to increase my price to cushion the blow slightly. That was how things were left on Sunday.

This is clearly guilt-tripping, the state of the vendors finances and feelings are not, at this point the purchasers problem. It was very nice of Deane to consider raising his offer a little to “cushion the blow slightly” but not good business practice. It could be this admission that caused him to be taken for a ride.

It is now the 25 November.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 27th November I was contacted by Whilton and told that the vendor was not prepared to sell at the agreed price but wanted their original price of £ 20,950. I had already paid a £ 1,000 deposit which is meant to stop gazumping and yet, here I was effectively being gazumped. I countered with a verbal offer of £ 19,495 which a short time later I was told had been accepted.

At this point it becomes clear that Deane really wants this boat and is being taken for a ride. Personally I would have walked away before this, you wouldn’t put up with this kind of behaviour when buying a house or a car. This is not an auction, you’re not supposed to be fighting to pay the most. If the vendor wants more for the boat than it’s worth then so be it. Walk away, you’ve lost £500 but saved a whole lot more.

That was when things took an unexpected turn. A salesman called Robert from Whilton told me that they had bought the boat from the vendor and waived their commission as they would make their money on doing the re-plating work. I was suddenly in a situation where I was no longer able to consider other companies but being forced to accept Whilton’s price and their terms.

This is all very odd, why on earth would anyone from Whilton Marina tell a purchaser this kind of information? Come to that why would the buy the boat and waive the commission when they could have had the commission and the remedial work?

They do buy boats for cash and it is possible that the vendor decided just to hand the boat over because they would get more for it that way, it’s unethical but could be worth the vendors while in the circumstances.

They made it clear that the plating could not be started until late January or February which I had stated was unacceptable. As my plan had always been to have the boat transported to Scotland by road, I saw no problem in taking it to anyone who could do the work. Needless to say I remembered the words of the salesman who had said there were other companies who could re-plate for less.

What is not made clear here is how much Whilton Marina wanted for the boat at this point.

I’m assured by Whilton that these are standard practices which I would love to doubt. Setting that aside however, there is the issue of Whilton buying a boat at a knock-down price based on a survey that I had paid for. I asked if the survey money would be reimbursed as a result but was told they would only ever do a hull survey which would cost £ 250 (not the £ 500 I was charged). My reaction was to ask for that but was told it would not be forthcoming if I decided not to proceed.

This does not seem like standard practice to me either, although Maffi has stated that he thinks he remembers something like this happening before with Whilton Marina I haven’t heard of it. There does seem to be a problem of procrastination here, and of Deane admitting that he could afford to spend more than he’d offered. Had he walked away after the survey and gone looking for another boat there’s a fair chance that Whilton Marina would have acquired the boat for cash on the basis of the survey that Deane had sent to them anyway. The only difference is that Deane wouldn’t have known about it. It also would, no doubt, have popped up on the “recently surveyed” section of their website.

**

So far, so tragic. But, having read it through a second time and gone to Deane’s twitter feed I suddenly realised there were inconsistencies.

I settled after several months of looking, on a boat called “Manu Tahi” being sold at Whilton Marina[.]

This statement, that he has been looking for a boat for several months doesn’t map with Deane’s Twitter statement on 20 November:

After 6 months tweet

Although to be fair he does post this about an hour later:

Update tweet

That’s just 8 days ago. It is 6 months since he mentioned that his house had been sold though:

House sold tweet

So lets assume, for the sake of argument that he has been looking for a boat to “make the ultimate pad” for most of the time that he’s been living between the “rental property” and France.

He also tells us that the survey happened on Monday 19 November, which is the day before he announces on Twitter that he’s looking for a boat.

The third major inconsistency is the claim that the vendor is looking for the original asking price of £20,950. The Wilton Marina page states that it was originally £21,950.

**

There seem to be gaps in this story. Why did Deane wait so long to confirm the purchase in the first place? Why doesn’t he respond to @ mentions on twitter individually. There were if I remember only two of them in the first place.

So, the survey had actually happened when he tweeted that he had put an offer on a boat and would be re-negotiating subject to survey, was he thinking about going public with this story even then?

If true this is a horrible thing to have happened, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are two sides to every story and that it is unlikely that Whilton Marina will be able to comment on this case.

**

Incidentally, I have satisfied myself that Roy Deane is a real human being – I can tell you the address of the house he sold in Perthshire (along with the date he sold it and the price he sold it for), his private phone number and the name of the woman who he lived with (though I have no idea of the relationship). I have not spoken to him other than the tweets wanting to know if he’s real or not because it all seemed a little too convenient. Mr Deane if you happen to read this and would be happy to be interviewed then please let me know and I shall contact you using one of the methods above (or possibly your email address).

Continuous cruising and access to primary healthcare

As those of you who’ve read previous posts on this blog will no doubt be aware, I am a traveller. Specifically I am a live-aboard boater who continuous cruises. There are all sorts of problems with the continuous cruising guidelines, not least that CART are attempting to make my way of life if not illegal at least impossible. Like most younger continuous cruisers I (and my partner Skippy) have to work – if we’re lucky then we don’t have to work all the time or we can arrange to work in such a way as to allow our lifestyle to carry on regardless but, for both of us, working means staying around an area for a year or so while we work through our contract(s). What this means in reality is that we are tied to an area within two hours commute of our places of work for a year or so, then we move on. I’ve been doing this since 2006, Skippy joined me in February, in the time I’ve lived-aboard I’ve lived/worked in Reading, London and Bath with significant amounts of cruising in-between (if you’re following Miss Inexperience I will be taking the journey across to the west country fairly soon I promise).

Today, having been without a GP for the last three months I registered at my local practice. It just so happens that my local practice is near to my registered address. It’s a sad fact of life in the 21st Century that you are not really allowed to be a person “of no fixed abode” so an address on the land is essential as is pointed out in this RBOA quote from an article about living aboard – it seems to be under the impression that all itinerant live-aboard boaters are elderly, however this is not the case, Skippy and I use our parents addresses (as we always have done, they’re never going to get rid of us):

Once on board permanently, you will be a person of no fixed abode. This is not acceptable in today’s Britain where the first piece of information you are always asked is your postcode. To have a credit card, a bank account and a British Waterways licence you will need a permanent address on shore. This is why you have children. They’ve used your home as a convenience for years, it’s your turn now. (From RBOA article “Life as a Continuous Cruiser”).

My registered address is the one I use for the usual suspects (bank account, mobile phone contract) it puts me in an interesting position but most of the institutions I deal with are very tolerant of my itinerant lifestyle, as all of my interactions with them are online or over the phone it’s not really a big drag on my life. When I’m sure I’m going to be in an area for long enough (i.e. I’m looking for a job there) I arrange a Mail Boxes Etc account in the local area so our post can be forwarded to us and we can arrange for things to be delivered to a local address, and, of course we can register with a doctor.

The NHS guidelines regarding registering with a doctor state that the first thing you should do is:

Choose the GP surgery that you want to register with and check it covers the area where you live.

Well that’s all very well but the CART Guidance for Boaters Without a Home Mooring [PDF] state:

“Place”
The law requires that stops during such cruising should not be “in any one place for more than 14
days”.

“Place” in this context means a neighbourhood or locality, NOT simply a particular mooring site or
position.

Therefore to remain in the same neighbourhood for more than 14 days is not permitted. The
necessary movement from one neighbourhood to another can be done in one step or by short gradual
steps. What the law requires is that, if 14 days ago the boat was in neighbourhood A, by day 15 it
must be in neighbourhood B or further afield
. Thereafter, the next movement must be at least to
neighbourhood C
, and not back to neighbourhood A (with obvious exceptions such as reaching the
end of a terminal waterway or reversing the direction of travel in the course of a genuine cruise).

What constitutes a ‘neighbourhood’ will vary from area to area – on a rural waterway a village or
hamlet may be a neighbourhood and on an urban waterway a suburb or district within a town or city
may be a neighbourhood. A sensible and pragmatic judgement needs to be made.

It is not possible (nor appropriate) to specify distances that need to be travelled, since in densely
populated areas different neighbourhoods will adjoin each other and in sparsely populated areas they may be far apart (in which case uninhabited areas between neighbourhoods will in themselves usually
be a locality and also a “place”).

Exact precision is not required or expected – what is required is that the boat is used for a genuine
cruise. [emphasis mine]

Even ignoring issues regarding the exact wording of the British Waterways Act which merely states:

the applicant for the relevant consent satisfies the Board that the vessel to which the application relates will be used bona fide for navigation throughout the period for which the consent is valid without remaining continuously in any one place for more than 14 days or such longer period as is reasonable in the circumstances.[British Waterways Act 1995 Section 17.3.c.ii]

without any guidance as to what constitutes a “journey” (although I personally would argue that moving backwards and forwards between neighbourhood A and neighbourhood B as I know some so called continuous moorers do, does not in fact constitute a journey, except perhaps, in the sense that one might take a journey to and from work/school/university). That aside, the requirement to remain in one place for “14 days or such longer period as is reasonable in the circumstances” is well known amongst the live-aboard community if not well respected. According to CART

Circumstances where it is reasonable to stay in one neighbourhood or locality for longer than 14 days
are where further movement is prevented by causes outside the reasonable control of the boater.
Examples include temporary mechanical breakdown preventing cruising until repairs are complete,
emergency navigation stoppage, impassable ice or serious illness (for which medical evidence may
be required).

Such reasons should be made known immediately to local Trust enforcement staff with a request to
authorise a longer stay at the mooring site or nearby. The circumstances will be reviewed regularly
and reasonable steps (where possible) must be taken to remedy the cause of the longer stay – eg
repairs put in hand where breakdown is the cause.

Where difficulties persist and the boater is unable to continue the cruise, the Trust reserves the right
to charge mooring fees and to require the boat to be moved away from popular temporary or visitor
moorings until the cruise can recommence.

Unacceptable reasons for staying longer than 14 days in a neighbourhood or locality are a need to
stay within commuting distance of a place of work or of study (e.g. a school or college).

This document was significantly changed in 2011 following the judgement [pdf] in BW vs Davies and has been subsequently amended during the BW/CART handover to make the definition of both place and journey clearer.

So what is the relevance of this to my attempting to register with a GP? Well, not a lot if I don’t tell the GP that I live on a boat however it’s quite hard to avoid doing this as it permeates every aspect of my life. If you’re lucky, as I have been on several occasions it’s possible to get yourself registered with a GP who realises that live-aboard boaters without a home mooring are unlikely to ever be within the catchment area of the surgery for more than 14 days at a time (given that catchment areas for GP’s surgeries and neighbourhoods tend to be of a similar size). Since requiring an individual to register with a new GP every two weeks is ridiculous as a proposition there tend to be surgeries in areas near the canal who will take on continuous cruisers without issue, aware that their situation is not comparable to that of the static community. In fact, for those of us who try to cruise within the spirit of the legislation and keep ourselves moving over large distances for large proportions of the time our situation is closer to that of the Roadsiders in the land-based travelling community who

have great difficulty accessing primary health care and it is almost impossible for people to access secondary care without a referral from a GP. Many Roadsiders will only access health care at the point of crisis as homeless services are heavily over-subscribed and waiting times can be extremely long. This results in an overdependence on A&E Departments with many people opting to use these instead of crowded and sometimes culturally inappropriate Walk in Health Centres. At A&E departments people know that they will not have to explain their housing situation, will be guaranteed to be seen that day or at least within a few hours and will generally receive a good level of care. It must be stressed however that this is not an “easy option” for many Gypsies and Travellers, but one taken by many because they feel they have no other choice. [1]

I don’t have the cultural barriers to healthcare access and, as a middle class, university educated woman with an RP accent (when I try anyway) I’m good at getting access to the services I am entitled to use even given my itinerant lifestyle. The problem here is not in fact my ability to find a surgery who will be reasonable about my lifestyle and will give me the assistance I need but that not everyone has access to that. In theory it doesn’t matter where you live you should be able to walk in to any GP’s surgery and make an appointment if you need it. The problem is, that if you don’t have an address you can’t get registered at that first point. This situation has lead to me being without a GP for nearly 6 months, it doesn’t massively matter to me, I’m not on any regular medications (other than contraceptives, and there are ways round picking those up) but itinerant lifestyles are not just for the young and healthy, in fact most true continuous cruisers are in their later years and as a result are more likely to need regular access to primary and secondary healthcare. It’s time the NHS stepped up and did something about this terrible state of affairs, no one should be told as I was earlier today that there was basically no point in my registering as I’m going to be moving my boat soon and therefore will be moving out of the catchment area of the surgery, and will no longer be allowed to use their services. Of course if I move far enough away for it to be impractical to go back to my surgery for an appointment I will move my GP, of course I will, but in the mean time I should be allowed access to primary healthcare without being made to feel like a freak for not wanting to live in a house or a marina (which tbh is the “respectable” way to live-aboard).

1. Friends, Families and Travellers, Fair Access for All? Gypsies and Travellers in Sussex, GP Surgeries and Barriers to Primary Healthcare [pdf]

0845 and 0870 I don’t think so

Regular readers of my other blog Miss Inexperience will be au fait with the concept that I live on a boat. As a direct consequence of living on a boat my main phone is … yep you guessed it, a mobile.

Screen Shot 2012 09 25 at 21 10 21My mobile contract is with t-mobile UK (soon to be everything everywhere) which means that if I wanted to I could pay an extra £2.50 per month to get 30 minutes of “free” calls to 08 numbers or I can struggle on using saynoto0870.com to attempt to locate geographic numbers (01 or 02 numbers), other peoples land lines or swallowing the cost of ringing the euphemistically named “lo call” numbers only to spend quite a lot of money hanging around listening to poor quality music in order to talk to say … my insurance company (MCE insurance only list 0844 and 0871 numbers on their site, as do e bike) or fabulously my GP Surgery (the offender has now gone back to a geographical number presumably as a direct result of customer feedback).

Calling a non geographic number from a mobile costs, we all know that, what it is difficult to find out is how much it costs. No where on the t-mobile website is it actually listed, instead there is a page where you can type in your non-geographic number (070, 08, 09, 116 or 118) and a captcha and find out what it will cost you to call that number (if you happen to have a computer with internet access at the time). As an example here’s the main contact number for MCE insurance with the costs for ringing it from a t-mobile phone:

Screen Shot 2012 09 25 at 21 45 57

While I was playing with the form I decided to check an 0800 number, this is the one to call if you need to claim Job Seekers Allowance (which you can do for free from the job centre or a public call box if you can find such a thing and it’s clean enough for you to feel you can use it). It seems from this that T-Mobile have finally acquiesed and made 0800 numbers free, although I notice my current contract is excluded from this. I hope when I renew it they will waive the 7.4p per/minute charge or I might think about not renewing my contract after all.

Screen Shot 2012 09 25 at 21 57 51

Skippy as readers of his blog will know, is with O2 (poor O2 is all I can say to that), so for comparison I went looking for the equivalent tariffs on his network. This is what I came up with:

Screen Shot 2012 09 25 at 22 14 42

As you can see there is no mention of 0845/0844 numbers on there, but I do find this format easier to understand (and considerably more useful) than t-mobile’s take on it. According to OfCom calls to 0843 and 0844 numbers which are used by businesses for sales, enquiry and customer service lines as well as some pay-as-you go internet access services should cost:

between 1p and 13p per minute for landline customers. Calls from mobile phones are typically
charged between 15p and 41p per minute, depending on the provider and the number called.

0845 numbers are slightly cheaper varying from 1p to 10.5p per minute from landlines to between 12p and 41p per minute from mobiles. While 0870 numbers vary massively even from landlines

Calls from some fixed networks cost no more than a geographic rate call (01 or 02, between 2p and 10p plus a call set-up fee in some cases) and may count towards any inclusive minutes in the same way. Calls from other fixed networks typically cost up to 10p per minute. From some mobile networks calls typically cost between 12p and 41p per minute.

Recently some other providers have also included calls to 0845 and 0870 numbers in call packages, making them free at certain times of the day.[1]

So, what is the advantage of having a non-geographic “lo call” number in the age of the mobile phone?
Anyone? No, I didn’t think so. In fact if you search the OfCom website for “0845 numbers” or “non-geographic numbers” you will find a lot of evidence that the general public are most unimpressed with them, so why are they hanging on when people don’t like them? Well, people don’t like automated call handling systems either but there doesn’t seem any likelihood that we’ll be getting rid of those in a hurry either. So, are non-geographic numbers really that much of a problem?

Well yes, actually they are. They are when you have an accident, and need to claim on your insurance and have to spend over half an hour on the phone to the insurance company (quite a large proportion of that on hold), or when you have to ring the RAC (which you’re inevitably going to be doing from a mobile). The extortionate charges for calling these numbers is ridiculous (yes, I know that the out of allowance call rate for geographic numbers (01/02 numbers) is similar, but the difference is the ability to bundle them. Calls to non-geographic numbers (not premium rate numbers if you want to ring those that’s you’re own problem, I’m talking about the numbers for service providers) are to my knowledge outside the scope of all mobile phone contracts inclusive minutes. Some of this is a problem of mobile phone companies charging unfairly for use of their services, but that’s a whole other blog post. In the mean time it is possible for companies to circumnavigate this problem by always providing an easy to find geographic alternative to their “lo call” number.

The continuation (perpetuation) of “lo-call” rate numbers could be down to the fact that these numbers are “revenue sharing” where part of the call cost is paid to the recipient of the call (the way these numbers are administered is due to change in 2013). Whatever the reason behind their perpetuation in a world where there is no difference between the cost to call a number within your area code and a number outside it, they seem like an extremely unfair way of generating extra money from a consumer who has no choice but to call because they require the service that is being provided (i.e. insurance) and who cannot vote with their feet because they are only calling because they have to and not because they are trying to buy something from the company in question.

I don’t have an answer to this other than to say please, give us a geographic alternative.

[1] data from Number Crunching: How much does a phone call really cost? [PDF], (prices correct as of 18-07-2012)

The Art House Gallery Café

A few days ago Skippy and I went to Southampton to meet C. We were a little late arriving (no change there then) so C went looking for a good coffee shop to meet us in, my coffee addiction if not well documented is at least notorious. I’m a little unclear on the specifics of how she ended up with a recommendation for The Art House (I so often am when C is involved) however, to whoever it was who gave her the directions thank you.

At first their opening hours seemed a little odd (I had received a slightly garbled phone message from C telling me that she’d found a café but it didn’t open ’til 12 and she was going to wait in the park just off Commercial Road), however once we got there it made a lot more sense. The problem was that neither Skippy nor I know Southampton very well and as you can see from the map that’s one big park:

20120816-014856.jpg

Fortunately Shouty Lady and mobile phones are my friend, so we found her and subsequently the café without getting too lost. Whether we’d ever find the car again of course was an entirely different matter (a smart person might have “favourited” the position of the car before leaving it, I however, am not that smart). Even with our tardiness and C’s having checked the opening hours we still managed to arrive at the café early and therefore hovered outside for about 10 minutes while the staff (or as I realised later possibly volunteers) bustled within. I’m glad we waited, it’s a lovely café and a vast improvement on the clone town chains that are often the only option for a visitor due to their prominence and dominance over high footfall areas such as high streets and proximity to common tourist attractions.

We actually ended up going to this café twice, initially for a hot-chocolate and some lunch (they have a small vegetarian and vegan menu offering a selection of well presented and tasty dishes) and later for a cider and to kill some time before we headed off to meet a mutual friend for dinner. We were a little early, so we’re warned we may have to wait a little longer for our food to be prepared as they weren’t quite set up for the day but they were lovely about it and still remarkably quick.

I had a portion of “Naughty Nachos” which were billed as “Organic corn chips, topped with melted cheese and served with a mild salsa” the salsa was indeed mild, but flavoursome, and there was plenty of cheese scattered throughout the nachos.

Skippy and C had “Art House Sandwiches” with Cheddar Cheese and Hummus respectively. Slightly oddly these “sandwiches” only have one side and some filling, their paper menu (although not their web site one) state that this is because they’re too thick to put together – something which Skippy would dispute however semantics aside it was a very good sandwich.

We sat outside on our first visit enjoying a rare moment of sunshine, here their website is a little out of date as it claims they are still raising money for the chairs we were sat on to eat lunch:

20120818-110734.jpg

I can’t actually remember what their current campaign is however as a small mainly volunteer run café I think it’s probably not that surprising that it occasionally takes them a while to get their site updated.

At the back of the café is the Trash Cocktail Boutique selling young, funky pre-loved clothes and handcrafted one off accessories from small scale makers in the UK. While I was waiting for Skippy and C to use the toilet (there’s only one so if you all need to go at once you have to race for the back of the café) I had a quick peruse of the rails and actually managed to find a top that I liked and that fitted me (this is something of an achievement in any shop and, as I discovered when I lived in Bath, nigh on impossible in second hand shops in some areas of the country).

Overall it’s a lovely and very relaxed little café, I would encourage anyone visiting Southampton to wander off the beaten track a little and patronise this establishment. If only there were more like it. I leave you with a close up of one of the lampshades, the café is full of beautiful little details like this go and find some.

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Big Fat Gypsy Weddings: Series Two: No Place Like Home

Somehow I managed to miss this one.  A whole series went out without it coming to my attention, and even when ‘Born to be Wed’ was on I was off Twitter and although I caught a couple of comments about gypsies I didn’t really put two and two together.  This time however, I came on to Twitter early enough in the evening that I spotted this:

which had been re-tweeted by a friend.

This is where I should have stopped.  But I didn’t, I stupidly wanted to know what was going on even though I knew it would make me angry.  So I found the hash tag and I clicked on it.  It made me angry.  Very very angry.  When I calmed down a bit I decided that I should probably find the program and watch it so I knew what I was getting angry about.  Last Wednesday I did so.  Funnily enough I did not laugh, maybe I’m too serious; I just didn’t find it funny.  This is a program about weddings and weddings are, by their very nature, things that people go a bit crazy over; there have been other programs about weddings, I didn’t watch them either.

**

In the opening sequence the voice-over claims that the documentary team have gained unprecedented access to the traveller community.  I have no doubt that this is true; however, what they’ve done with their unprecedented access is not unprecedented.  The team wanted to create ‘good television’ and I suppose they have done that.  I have no idea what the viewing figures are but there seems to be a fair amount of Twitter chatter around each transmission.  The problem with ‘good television’ is that it inevitably shows the worst of any community.  Things going right, or things which show that minority communities are ‘normal’, are apparently not ‘good television’.  In the twitter commentary I spotted at least one person describing this episode as ‘train wreck television’ which is odd as nothing actually went wrong apart from the destruction of the Hove Field site.  I don’t know what series one was like, but if this particular episode of series two was anything to go by what the producers have done with their unprecedented access is reinforce stereotypes, which will possibly force the traveller community to be even more secretive and the static community even more determined not to let them settle in ‘their backyards’.

The voice-over and the interviewer focus throughout on the differences between the traveller community and the static community, the questions put were often divisive, encouraging argument and bad feeling.  This was particularly true of questions put to the couple whose wedding was being covered: with Sam and Pat (one of whom is a traveller, the other not) being repeatedly asked about the difficulties they would face.  However, they have known each other since they were children, with Sam describing Pat as her best friend, and Sam knows a lot about the traveller community that she will be joining.  Despite Channel 4 stating on their website that “Romany gypsy Pat faces criticism for marrying a non-gypsy” there was little evidence of this in the program itself, apart from in the voice-over where every time Sam was introduced she was prefaced with the phrase ‘non-gypsy’.  The interviewer also made a big deal about the purchase of a caravan, pushing Sam to the point where, having already said ‘I won’t care if I lives in a bin as long as I can be with you’ she ended up getting irritated with him.  The interviewer just didn’t seem to be able to comprehend the concept that she knew what she was getting herself into.  He continued to push the line about a caravan not being the same as a house, even after he misunderstood her comment about bunks, and asked if she meant ‘bunk beds?’.  She then explained that this meant benches (actually the two are often the same thing at different times).  The interviewer also asked questions which caused the traveller girls to vocalise some of the stereotypes that they hold about the static community.  Including that they consider gorga to be rude, commenting in particular about swearing in front of their mam’s and about not caring who’s around them.  Sam has clearly heard it all before and asked them not to have a go at her culture, they stop – having explained that they didn’t mean Sam, that she’s been in the family for years and knows how to behave – but the interviewer keeps asking questions until she is forced to ask him to stop as well.

There were two sets of first communions shown.  The first (an all traveller communion of eight year olds organised by their grandmother Mary Doll) included some who were wearing traditional white dresses with many layered skirts, as well as some who were wearing slinkier lycra style dresses; the second (organised by their mother Margaret) was of two six year olds.  The six year olds were receiving their first communion early as the site they live on, Dale Farm, is threatened with eviction and if the travellers are evicted they will have to split up.  Communions in the traveller community are a large family event including big parties and are described as a rehearsal for the girls’ wedding days – it is important to Margaret that her daughters get to experience a traditional traveller communion, so they are receiving it early.  The communions themselves were barely mentioned in the Twitter commentary (though I did note one commenter who questioned if they understood what the holy communion really meant – I wish to point out to this person that pilgrims are travellers), however the dancing and the makeup was.  Firstly, the makeup: this is a big deal to these children and they will get dressed up for it as would any one for such an event – these girls do not wear makeup every day, cut them some slack.  There were lots of derogatory comments about the decision to give a six year old a spray tan for the event, in what way has this done her ANY harm?  The damage to her hips came from the dress not the tan, and her mother had been trying to persuade her to take it off sooner so that that didn’t happen.  Have you ever tried reasoning with a determined six year old?  She wasn’t sitting under sun lamps cooking her skin for goodness sake.  It’s just a spray tan.  I’ve seen six year olds belonging to the static community wandering around wearing equally revealing outfits and makeup on the streets.  These girls went to church and then had a party.  Secondly, the dancing: the interviewer asked the children where they’d learnt to dance like that and their response was ‘television’.  Yes, that’s right, ‘television’.  Which last time I checked was available to those in the static community as well.  Also remember context, ladies and gentlemen; these children are dancing at family events where they’re being looked after.  It’s only because of the cameras that you can watch them at all.  The way they were dressed was provocative and yes, they’re underage, but many from the static community dress older than they are as well.  Jenny McArdle former editor of Voice of the Traveller puts the style into context:

Most people are familiar with the very distinct fashion of a young Traveller girl; fake tan, hooped earrings, short skirts and belly tops adorn many a Traveller teenager. Some may say their dress is provocative but it’s very much a case of ‘look but don’t touch’. These ladies are proud of their bodies and comfortable in themselves and see no reason to stay covered up, they’re looking out for a husband and want to look their best. However many will admit that they marry as teenagers to get more freedom, desperate to move out of the family home and escape the strict influence of their parents.

Regardless of whether or not this program is good television it is certainly prejudiced.  A fact which is clear from the language used on the Channel 4 website; I found the above quote by clicking the link pictured on the right.  The use of the term ‘these people’ here states the position of the writer without actually breaking any laws.  Sadly, this is the norm, those of us who live itinerant lifestyles get used to it.  We learn who will be accepting and who will not, as Margaret (the mother of the two six year olds and a Dale Farm resident) states when asked.  Different does not mean inferior, just unfamiliar, and racism is racism.  How do we deal with it?  Where possible I get to know people before I let on that I live on a boat (which is really the acceptable end of the traveller world).  Sad isn’t it?  This is the 21st century and I have to pretend I’m something I’m not, in order not to be looked down on.  I don’t want to live in a house.  If you chopped me in half you’d find ‘traveller’ written all the way through me; if it weren’t a boat it would be a trailer, or a tipi.  For the moment I can still move, unlike most of the land based travellers, I can pitch up somewhere for a few months, a year or so and move on.  But it’s getting harder, maybe soon it’ll be me saying “our travelling life is over” as Mary Doll did.

**

Another couple of comments that made me cross were around money: how much do gypsy’s earn? And, how much tax do they pay?  The answer to the tax question is obvious to anyone with half a brain.  If they’re employed, tax is deducted at source, so the same amount relative to earnings as anyone else.  Self-employment is a bit different, and the answer there as in the static community depends not only on the amount earned but also the quality of the accountant and the record keeping.  OK so now we’ve got that one out of the way, the answer to why travellers appear to have so much money is two-fold:

FIRSTLY: This program focuses on special events: weddings, first communions etc. In other words, occasions where there is always going to be a lot of money flying around.  A quick google search will give you an average UK wedding cost of anywhere between £11000 and £21000 depending on the site being looked at; I’m not quite sure why people appear surprised that there’s a lot of money flying around at a wedding.  Remember the travellers being shown are Catholic, there’s no divorce and barring death they’re not going to do this again.  Why not splash out?

SECONDLY: This one is, I’m afraid, going to make you angry but bear with me.  If you live in bricks and mortar you waste money.  Remember, I’ve lived in a house.

  • Houses, even flats, are bigger than trailers therefore you have a larger space to heat therefore you spend more money heating it.
  • Electronic goods – you don’t need three televisions in a trailer and none of them need to be 100 and whatever inches, ditto sound systems, games consoles etc.  I’m not saying travellers don’t have these things, merely that we don’t have so many.
  • Fridges encourage people to buy more food than they can eat, which then goes off and gets thrown away.  I’m not saying this never happens to travellers but you soon get sick of throwing stuff away and buy less, but more frequently.  Fridges in trailers are in general smaller than those in houses as well, so the amount of food you can buy is governed by the space available.
  • Clothes – I’ve lost count of the number of lifestyle programs that go through women’s wardrobes and demonstrate that they only actually wear a fraction of the clothes they own.  Why do you need twenty pairs of identical black trousers?  I own, in total, eight pairs of trousers.  Two are smart, five everyday and one is for painting.  That’s it.  It’s a space thing.  Every item of clothing I buy has to be justified in terms of both need and space.  Go on, count your clothes.
  • Impulse purchases – William Morris said have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.  We all have a little bit of tat in our lives, shoved at the back of cupboards, forgotten about.  Every new thing you bring in to a boat or a trailer has to have a space.  So if your cupboards are full something else has to go which leads to quite a lot of agonising over need.

Of course, not everyone who lives in bricks and mortar will have all of these ‘problems’ but in an age of disposable stuff it’s likely that at least some of the above apply to pretty much everyone who is static, as well as some travellers.  Add on to that that fuel bills are likely to be lower, as every amp or joule of energy is accounted for, and that’s quite a lot of savings that can be made just by giving up the static lifestyle.

**

The episode ended with an event that few people picked up on: the horror of what happened at the Hove Field site; it was here that the program’s claim of unprecedented access to the traveller community really broke down.  Their unprecedented access appeared, in this instance, to mean they could interview two people.  One, a 25 year old woman, watching helpless as her home and those of her friends and family were destroyed by diggers because apparently another way couldn’t be found; who intervened when thugs trying to remove an elderly local woman protesting about the eviction hurt her in the process, while the police on site turned a blind eye.  The other, her 12 year old cousin, whose pitch was currently safe but who watched from the top of the joining wall and talked a lot of sense.  I understand the importance of narrative development and getting to know characters within the community, so maybe Cutting Edge are trying to be too broad here.  If they feel they can only develop one or two characters per site (there are over 1000 travellers living on the Dale Farm site) then maybe they should have focused their attentions on one or two sites and got to know the residents better, rather than jumping about all over the country giving surface glances of one or two individual’s lives.

According to the voice-over up to 90% of planning requests for traveller sites are turned down, something which is not surprising but is saddening.  (I’m not sure how well this is backed up by statistical analysis: of the 76 pitch developments requiring planning permission decisions between July and September 2010 41% were approved.  What the statistics don’t tell me is how many of these were appeal decisions, how long each group has been fighting for approval or what dent this has made in the huge mismatch between pitch provision and number of traveller families requiring pitches.  With something like this, the numbers are well hidden and I don’t have the time right now to do an FOI request to get to the bottom of it.)  What I do know is that without planning permission travellers only have the right to remain on their own land for up to 28 days per calendar year, and it seems to be accepted by most support groups including Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) that “The most likely outcome will be that your [planning] application will fail. You must expect this and expect to have to appeal against the decision.”  When applying for planning permission you also have to prove that you have ‘Gypsy status’ which appears quite difficult to do as it’s getting harder and harder to actually travel any more:

In planning law, anyone is a Gypsy if they travel for work. In other words, if they do seasonal work on farms, travel to fairs to trade, and things like that. It is useful to show that you come from a Traveller background (that your grandparents and parents were Travellers and live a Traveller life) and that you still travel yourself. This can just mean that you go travelling to see family or to weddings and funerals and to fairs throughout the year. But you must show that you do still travel, even if it is not as much as your parents or grandparents might have. (from FFT: Planning Permission).

I can think of places in the country where there are no suitable pitches for either trailers or boats, and where there is no chance of being able to develop some.

Do you still think it’s funny?

**

See also: assumptions

Frequently Asked Questions

Generally when people find out I live on a boat there are a few questions I get asked. So often in fact that I thought I’d write this. Coming in at number one is:

Isn’t it cold in the winter?

I usually answer this with no, but yes actually it can be. It’s cold in the morning when the fire’s not going properly and obviously the colder it is outside the colder it’s likely to be inside. Something which is pretty much true of houses too – think about it, unless you have extremely good insulation your central heating has to work harder to maintain the temperature inside your house when the temperature outside is lower. And, like houses, there is a great deal of variation between boats. I live on an old, poorly insulated one, so my fire has to work pretty damn hard in order to keep the place warm. A lot of the energy I use is wasted, and as a result I don’t bother to try and heat the whole of the boat, I just reduce the space I spend most of my time in. Newer boats tend to be better insulated and have back boilers on their solid fuel stoves (a bit like a radiator) which move the heat around the boat more effectively. A revelation for anyone who lives on a particularly cold boat is something called an ecofan which dramatically improves the area it’s possible to be in without using ANY power or extra fuel. Mine’s old and battered (it’s been knocked off the fire so many times now I’ve lost count) and has a permanent rattle despite my best efforts at reshaping the blades, however it’s still going strong; like Tilley hats they are damn near indestructible.

The alternative to a solid fuel stove is a diesel fired one. I don’t know much about them other than they are noisy. If you hire a boat this is the kind of heating you are likely to have. I suspect they are simpler to use than solid fuel stoves; as anyone who’s ever used one will tell you there’s a ‘knack’ to getting and keeping a fire going and not all stoves respond to the same tricks. Some live-aboards love diesel heaters, some hate them (one I met recently had bought one, used it for a while and has since taken it out).

What do you do about, you know, toilets?

There are two solutions to sewage (actually three but one of them is illegal on inland waterways craft) both of which involve some kind of holding tank. The first and simplest is a cassette toilet like you’d get in a caravan – sounds nasty but actually isn’t. Put plenty of ‘chemical’ in there (DO NOT put bleach in with your toilet chemical, as a friend of mine discovered, this WILL result in an exploding chemical toilet) and don’t think too much about it. There are regular emptying points around the system, however it is worth having a spare cassette as it will almost invariably fill up at the most inopportune moment and (in the winter) there’s always the possibility of being iced in. Solution number two (which I’m not a great fan of but some people swear by) is a ‘pump out’. The toilet looks a whole lot more like the one you’d have in a house and the effluent is secured out of sight below the floor. Most boatyards and some British Waterways (BW) service points have pump out equipment, however unlike cassettes, which are free to empty at BW facilities, there will be a charge for this. It’s a matter of personal taste when building a boat which is put in. Most hire boats have pump-out toilets to avoid hirers having to deal with effluent, this is sensible for a variety of reasons not least that full cassettes are heavy and the chemical put in them is toxic.

BW Waterpoint

For the sake of completeness the third solution is a macerator or ‘sea-toilet’; these are perfectly legal on yachts but not on inland waterways craft with one exception. Not all live-aboards do so on boats that are capable of moving. Static houseboats can have macerators which are connected to the mains drains in the same way a house would be. The macerator is there merely to make sure the sewage can fit through the narrow pipe. Those I have talked to who live with this system find that while it works well most of the time, when it goes wrong it does so properly and leaves them without a functioning toilet. Depending on the facilities available at their mooring this either means using a central toilet or going to stay with someone who has a house.

What about water?

Every boat has a water tank which is filled using a combination of a hose and one of the many BW taps which are scattered around the network and paid for via a boat’s cruising licence.

What do you do with your rubbish?

BW supply bins at regular intervals around the network. Better service points also have recycling facilities which tend to be relatively well used. There are some waste products which cannot be left at these points, for example used oil and batteries have to go to local municipal facilities; however, when you buy new batteries boatyards will take away your old ones for recycling so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. BW also provide litter bins in certain areas (usually around towns and cities), these are NOT to be used for boaters domestic waste and anyone caught misusing them in this way is generally in quite a lot of trouble, often from other boaters. This is our life; we don’t want a minority of idiots ruining it for us.

Where does your electricity come from?

I can’t quite believe we still get asked this one, as a large number of live-aboard boaters now have wind-turbines and/or solar panels and it’s quite hard not to spot these; however we do. So, solar and wind generation aside, most boats use their engines or a petrol generator to create power which is stored in batteries. These are, yes, you guessed it, a bit like the one in your car, just more of them fastened together. So now you know.

Everything inside the boat will run on 12v, or occasionally 24v dc, unless the boat has a very large bank of batteries and runs an inverter which converts the stored energy to 230v ac. A surprising amount of everyday stuff doesn’t actually require 230v in order to function anyway, and mains chargers/leads often step the voltage down, which means that things like mobile phones and even laptops can be run directly from a 12v supply. You know the charger you have in your car to put a bit of power in your phone/laptop while you’re out and about? Yeah, one of those. Increased interest in being able to use things like computers, phones and televisions in cars has actually been a great thing for those of us who live on boats as it’s brought the prices down quite dramatically.

How often do you have to move?

BW Patrol Notice

This is a difficult one; it depends where you moor in the first place. The assumption is that you can stay for a maximum of 14 days unless there are signs stating otherwise (some are 7 days, some 72, 48 or for very popular places even 24 hours). In the winter however, it is possible to purchase a winter mooring which allows you to stay in the same place for 5 months. If someone’s been on a mooring for a while and has a mooring licence which expires in March (BW mooring licences have a large coloured M in the middle of them) and hasn’t been issued with a patrol notice from BW, then they probably have a winter mooring for that location. BW mark winter mooring sites with temporary notices as well, however these are often removed, so a lack of BW notices doesn’t mean a winter mooring isn’t available in that location. If you want to check, I’m sure either a BW employee or a call to their head office will answer your question. That said, not everyone who ‘overstays’ is on a winter mooring and not everyone who has a winter mooring will put their licence up. Strange but true.

How much does it cost to buy a boat?

How long’s a piece of string? It really depends what you’re looking for and whether it’s new/second-hand and how much work you want to put into it. I wouldn’t pay less than £15,000 unless you really know your stuff. Always get a survey done on a second hand boat and check out whether there’s any debt connected to it (the debt belongs to the boat not the owner). The boat should have a current cruising licence and a Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (BSC); don’t forget to find out when they’re due for renewal. It’s also important to know whether any work’s been done on the gas and electricity systems since the last check – remember gas can kill you and electricity can cause fires; water is not so much of a problem, however if you do spring a leak things will get wet so it would be a good plan to give it a once over for glaring problems. Do your research: buy a couple of waterways magazines such as Waterways World or Canal Boat and take a look at reputable websites and forums. And, unless you are actually planning to cruise the whole system or at least a significant proportion of it, for goodness’ sakes FIND A MOORING!

Cost of living – or is it expensive living on a boat?

This is usually a selection of questions that people ask one after another. Like living in a house there are both ‘fixed’ (licences) and ‘variable’ (consumables and temporary licences) costs.

Licences:

  • cruising licence which is payable annually and dependent on the length of the boat and where you intend to use it. There are three main categories – river only (which covers BW controlled rivers), canal and river (sometimes known as a standard licence) and gold (which covers both BW and Environment Agency (EA) water such as the Thames). There are temporary licences available for short periods spent on EA waters and it is possible to buy an annual EA licence for boats permanently on EA water.
  • mooring licence: BW mooring licences are usually dependent on the length of the boat, however private moorings may have different structures (charging more for wider boats or in some cases just a flat rate berth cost). Not everywhere has an annual charge for a mooring, some charge on a monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual basis.

Consumables:

  • Gas: how much gas you use will depend what you use it for – sound obvious? Well, yes it is. Boats can have gas cookers, gas fridges and gas water heating; not all boats will have all of the above and some may have both gas cookers and a solid fuel stove with an oven for winter cooking – you really, really wouldn’t want to use a solid fuel oven in the height of summer. Water heating may be via a calorifier with heat coming from either and/or both the engine and solid fuel stove. I use about 13.5kg of gas a month – my cooking, water heating and fridge are all powered by gas.
  • Diesel: if you have a diesel powered stove you will use more than if you don’t. Either way you are entitled to declare a proportion of your fuel for ‘domestic purposes’ (often referred to as ‘heating’) this is the proportion of your fuel on which you will pay VAT at the reduced rate. The rest of your fuel must be declared for propulsion (unless you are incapable of movement); this portion is subject to both VAT at the reduced rate and fuel duty. The proportions will vary depending on your circumstances and are subject to a declaration at point of purchase, or annually if always purchased from the same location and your requirements are unlikely to change. Prior to 01 November 2008 there was no duty due on red diesel for use by pleasure craft, this is no longer the case so while it may seem sensible to purchase your fuel on the black market it is an extremely bad idea. As ever when VAT or duty are involved this is a very complicated area and the Residential Boat Owners Association do a far better job of explaining it than I do, if you are still confused it’s worth contacting HM Revenue and Customs for clarification. THIS DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL OR TAX ADVICE.
  • Coal: I use somewhere between eight and ten 25kg bags of anthracite a month depending on how cold it is outside. When possible I supplement this with wood. There appears to be some confusion around the use of smoke-free fuels (such as anthracite) on boats. Boats themselves are not exempt from the Clean Air Act however many appliances are. Each country within the UK has different regulations and DEFRA publishes lists of the appliances which are exempt: the majority of solid fuel stoves used for heating boats appear to be included. Please, check these lists before arguing that the Clean Air Act doesn’t apply to you. However, traditional coal, like wood, tends to burns very hot and very quickly so it’s harder to keep a fire in over night with this type of fuel. If you don’t mind getting up to a freezing boat in the morning go right ahead – personally I use a smoke-free coal and wake up to a merely chilly boat.
  • Post Box: unless you are lucky enough to have friends/family who are prepared to take post in for you or you aren’t planning to live on your boat full time and therefore have a house you can use to send post to, you’re going to need a post-box. If you are moving a lot poste restante can be used along your route, however it is only available for 3 months in any one town and PO Boxes are only available to people who have a physical address in the area (PO Box Terms and Conditions pdf). There are several companies such as Mail Boxes Etc which will allow you to take a box for a month, a quarter, 6 months or annually – charges are usually payable in advance and there’s often a surcharge for receiving parcels. Even if you don’t get much post it’s worth it for the safety, and the fact you can give an address in the area which side steps the issue of you being a ‘traveller’. If you live on a residential mooring this won’t be an issue as your mooring will have an address.

How do you claim benefits?

It may be the area I now live in but I’ve been asked this one a couple of times. I don’t, I work for a living. Some live-aboards do, and I’m sorry I have no idea how they manage it – it’s hard enough persuading the benefits agency that you need them when you live in a house, so it must be damn near impossible for those who do need to claim disability or state pensions who live on boats.

UPDATE: This from KANDA makes it clear that it is possible under certain circumstances to claim housing benefit to cover cruising licence, boat safety certification and third party insurance under certain circumstances (normal residency in a particular authorities area). It is also possible to claim mooring fees even under circumstances where planning permission has not been granted for residential mooring at that location. However, I suspect this only applies to moorings where there would be no reasonable grounds for denial. So there you go, that’s all I know about applying for benefits when living on a boat.

Do you pay income tax/council tax?

Er yes. Everyone pays income tax and National Insurance when they’re working and have earned above the personal limit (currently £6,475) – further detail available from HMRC: Income Tax Rates and Allowances. I am not an accountant – just capable of reading.

Council tax: I thought I knew the answer to this one, however the more I look at it the more I realise I haven’t got a clue and, as I don’t have all year to become a specialist I am not even going to attempt to answer it. I am not resident on a mooring which either has residential planning permission or which would not justifiably be refused it if it were applied for and, as I have already stated I am not an accountant, nor do I work for HMRC. So, if you’re interested, details of how council tax is applied to both moorings and caravan pitches, is available from the Valuation Office Agency: VOA Council Tax Manual – Practice Note 7: Application of Council Tax to Caravan Pitches and Moorings.

And finally:

Isn’t it romantic?

Yes, if you think hauling your own effluent around, and running out of water in the middle of a shower is romantic. Yes, in the summer, sitting on the back deck with a glass of wine does seem quite appealing; I’ve even been known to do it. Yes, if I dislike my neighbours I can just move. Yes, I do have a freedom that isn’t truly available to those who live in houses. It’s also hard, physical work, can be cold and I wouldn’t swap it for the best appointed house in the world. Not even for the largest bath you can find. Oh and any relationship which can survive living on a boat, is a relationship designed to last.

If I’m not a feminist what am I?

Until a few years ago I used to refer to myself as a liberal feminist. Most people missed the liberal bit of the phrase, possibly due to lack of understanding that there could be more than one kind of feminist, and focused on the second word. Their reactions tended to fall broadly into two categories: “You can’t be a feminist you’re wearing a skirt.” Or “Oh, you’re a lesbian then.” Clearly neither of these statements is true of all feminists. No, I would respond, I’m a LIBERAL feminist, I believe in equality and anyway feminists come in all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations. Eventually I got so bored of explaining to people that feminism didn’t have to mean lesbian, bra-burning, man-hating, the-world-would-be-better-as-a-matriarchy-with-men-as-the-minority, dungaree-wearing (I like dungarees), anything-a-man-can-do-a-woman-can-do-better, men-are-the-root-of-all-evil philosophy that I stopped using the word. It was easier. And that’s the problem; many people believe in equality and feminist principles but don’t know what to call themselves because they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as the extremist minority. Broad strokes are easy, you can put someone in a box and say fine I understand that person now (all cyclists jump red lights, all ‘travellers’ are thieves etc. etc.).

I actually have a second issue with the use of the term feminist (even when it’s qualified) to describe someone who believes in equality and it’s a purely linguistic one. Feminism as a term suggests that it focuses on women in the same way that the relatively recently coined term masculinism [1] suggests a focus on men. While the discourses suggest that both women and men should be equal, by using gendered terms we are perpetuating the gender dichotomy. So where does that leave us? Queer theory seems like a good middle ground; its name suggests gender neutrality but not sadly neutrality over sexual orientation. For better or worse queer theory is tied up (at least in the minds of the general public) with the notion of same-sex relationships. All of these discourses contain aspects of how I feel about the world and what I believe about freedom and equality but none of them defines me.

To me, equality means everyone having the freedom to be who and what they are – within reason, if what they are is the kind of person who wants to have sex with pre-pubescent humans then they need to exercise a whole lot of restraint, thank you. Is that prudish of me? No, because with freedom comes responsibilities, and one of those responsibilities is not to force your world view on others, particularly others who cannot make an informed choice about it – that includes children, adults deemed to be without capacity, anyone inebriated and animals. However, within these limitations adults should be free to be who and what they like. If they wish to have group sex, same-sex sex, paid for sex (again with reasonable limitations: no under-age prostitutes, trafficked prostitutes or any prostitute under duress and prostitutes unable to make an informed choice about what they are doing such as those who are addicted to drugs), or even merely masturbate then they should be allowed to.

The same applies to issues of gender: if a man wants to wear a skirt or a dress, why not? After all, women wear trousers. If a woman wishes to live as a man, or vice versa, why not? Come to that if some people want to walk around naked (even in the middle of winter) then why shouldn’t they? [2] Let’s face it anyone coming across a nudist in the middle of winter is more likely to shiver than actually be able to see anything to get upset about (especially if the nudist is male). Careers shouldn’t be gendered either. Why shouldn’t a woman be a builder, a mechanic, a plumber, a footballer – those who argue they shouldn’t have been failed by the feminist project. But how about a man being a nursery worker, or a full time parent or a beautician if they so wish? Because we fear: culturally we are convinced that men who want to work with children are paedophiles even though a quick search of the news will tell you that women abuse children too [3]. We fear a man waxing a woman’s pubic area would get an erection at best, or rape their clients at worst. This continued gendering of careers is patently ridiculous: a gay man working as a beautician clearly has no interest in having a sexual relationship of any kind with a female client, and most bisexual/straight men manage to keep themselves under control most of the time. I am by no means belittling the impact of rape here; merely pointing out that not every man is a rapist.

There are some ‘gendered’ activities such as cooking and hairdressing where the boundaries are quite comfortably blurred at the top end of the profession. For example most of the top chefs in the UK are male – only 2 of the 18 ‘celebrity chefs’ listed on caterersearch.com are female and all four of the UK 3 Michelin star rated restaurants are headed by men: Gordon Ramsey, Alain Roux, Heston Blumenthal and Alain Ducasse [4]. Men do not become beauticians at least partially because of the fear of being perceived to be a pervert, yet most gynaecologists are in my experience [5] male, and gynaecology also involves a lot of time spent working with females’ lower abdomens. Sewing is also traditionally a female preserve yet both genders are well represented in the industry (I suspect there are slightly fewer men than women overall), knitting is historically a male activity and I know several men of my parents’ generation who were taught to knit at boys’ schools as part of the curriculum. Which brings us to hairdressing; this is tied up in even further knots than cooking and sewing as it is often perceived as a career only suitable, not just for women, but a certain type of woman. However a quick count of the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame reveals that there are 30 men, 3 couples (one male one female), one team and only 6 women (possibly 7 or maybe 31 men – there is one androgynous name) who have won the same award three times [6]. I have had my hair cut by a variety of professionals over the years, only one of whom fitted the rather silly stereotype. I also incidentally know several extremely successful female boat-builders, systems administrators, accountants, a dry-stone wall builder (one of the few left in the country) etc. These examples are merely illustrative and yes, women are more likely to get pregnant [7] and need time off than men – that’s a biological thing not a cultural one – but that shouldn’t stop them doing whatever they wish with their lives around that time. Why shouldn’t their partner (male or female) be the primary carer?

The gender binary, heteronormativity and monogamy have a good evolutionary basis. It takes a man and a woman to perpetuate the species and monogamy is as good a way as any of keeping the gene pool ‘clean’. When pregnancy is a natural outcome of sex it doesn’t make sense to put women in danger – after all a species can be repopulated with fewer males than females – hence the staying at home. But, and this is a big but, that’s not the world we live in any more. We shouldn’t particularly want the species to continue growing – the world is overpopulated as it is [8]. The contraceptive pill and the condom have freed people to have as much sex as they like with whoever they like without (when used properly) the risk of a) pregnancy or b) STIs (genital crabs are an exception to this rule and I’m sure everyone knows by now that herpes simplex can be passed on when a person has an active sore [9]). So let’s teach everyone to use contraceptives safely and move on, huh?

If you’ve stayed with me this long you’re probably not going to ask this question but it needs answering anyway. Aren’t we freer and more equal than we’ve ever been before? Well yes if equality means that more personal grooming products are being marketed to men than ever before [10]. That currently, according to beat (beating eating disorders) approximately 10% of people with an eating disorder are male and approximately 20% of those identify as gay [11] and the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that this number is increasing [12]. At the same time news reporting, documentaries and a visit to almost any city centre on a Friday or Saturday night would have us believe that ‘binge drinking’ (defined variously as the consumption of 6 or more units on a single day for women and 8 or more on a single day for men, or sometimes subjectively as feeling very drunk) is getting more prevalent, and that more young women than ever before are out on our streets drinking like the boys. Statistically this is quite hard to prove. Most of these drinkers do not require medical treatment and proportionally few of them are arrested, so all the statistics are based on self-reporting which does not allow for lying, lack of awareness of the amount drunk or the intention to get drunk [13]. So in all these things we are more equal than we were before. Naturally capitalism is going to jump on the band wagon of equality if it means more product can be shifted. Whether that’s alcoholic drinks or personal grooming product really doesn’t matter to the principle, and the suggested increase in males with eating disorders is a logical result of increased exposure to images of physically ‘perfect’ Photoshopped (or possibly GIMPed) men that are being presented alongside the impossibly perfect women we’re used to seeing in magazines, newspapers and advertising.

Despite the ‘progress’ we have made in some areas women still earned on average 20.2% per hour less than men [14] in 2009. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission ‘[w]ithin dual parent families, only eight percent of men report that they have the primary responsibility for childcare’ [15] and, while 31% of men state they share responsibility for childcare only 14% of women agree [16]. Only 22% of the members of the House of Commons are female [17] and 21% of the House of Lords [18]. Only 19 MPs [19] are openly lesbian, gay or bi-sexual (LGB) and to the best of my knowledge we have NO transsexual MPs (maybe that’s how it should be – I’m interested but I don’t by any stretch of the imagination NEED to know, after all a person is a person – whether I like that person is a different matter). So clearly we still need a movement for equality, everyone’s equality.

Increasingly I’m seeing and hearing people using the word feminism in a positive sense, both online and offline, so having gone out of fashion it is being reclaimed for the cause of equality. There is a rich history of this being done; some young black men call each other ‘nigger’, though heaven help a person lacking in melatonin if they try it, and for good reason. Meaning is merely an agreement between people, often one propped up by the institution that is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and similar (it is interesting to note that meanings have changed enough to warrant a comprehensive revision of the OED, which has already been supplemented twice [20]). To pick a few re-used words at random: cool, sick and bad are all used to suggest things which are colloquially good but previously meant (if you’ll excuse the use of synonyms) chilly, ill and the opposite of good. Spastic is a medical term [21], which became an insult to be yelled at anyone even vaguely different to the yeller, causing a rebrand of The Spastics Society to Scope in 1994 [22]. Other words have developed an ambiguity of meaning through overuse: manic, starving and depressed for example. They have come to mean busy, hungry and sad respectively but used to, and some would argue more correctly mean [23]: a mental state in which ones thoughts are moving very quickly (usually accompanied by very rapid speech, failing to sleep and a haemorrhaging bank account), a physical state in which one’s body is lacking in nutrition and is transforming muscle into energy, and a mental state lasting for several months in which the sufferer cannot function. As society changes so the way we use language changes and what is ‘acceptable language’ changes.

Despite these laudable attempts to reclaim the word, I think the problem is more complex and that a new word would be helpful. Not only has the word ‘feminism’ become associated in recent years mainly with the radical fringes of the movement (restricting the number of young people who are prepared to describe themselves as feminists – if you dig deeper you’ll find most of them are actually proponents of equality), it is also a word steeped in the very gender binary it was trying to reduce. So what am I? I’m not a feminist after all.

**

Incidentally equality means that trans people shouldn’t have to go stealth as well, see Un-average girl for some explanation of the unexpected difficulties trans people come across when stealth – for example not having had a childhood that matches their adult persona. Having gone for example to an all boys/girls school when in their adult life they are female/male – how is this approached? Does being stealth increase stigma or would telling others put trans people in danger? My personal feeling is that like homosexuality it should be nothing to be ashamed of, equally I’ve been forced to put my 5’ 5’’ size 8 frame between prejudiced idiots and trans friends and go “come on then if you think you’re hard enough”. It shouldn’t have to be like that.

**

UPDATE (01 November 2012):

I’ve found myself thinking about this blog post quite a lot over the last few weeks. The term “feminism” appears to have been hijacked by those who seek to enforce a cultural double standard which limits, and controls the activities of both men and women.

This is a stance which those of us who believe in equality are increasingly having to position ourselves against. I find myself reading blogs that use terms such as “sex positive” to distinguish themselves from those who claim to be “feminists” but who don’t really believe in equality.

I wrote this post nearly two years ago and was sparked off thinking about it again by @liveotherwise via her post about teaching her son to be a feminist (now with some really interesting discussion at the bottom).

A few days later I came across one of a series of interesting pieces on slutocracy (go on, read the whole site you know you want to). Slutocracy focuses on the social and cultural background to issues of gender and sexual inequality including, but not limited to the sexual double standard and gender repression it was this post that got me thinking about the role of stereotype enforcement in modern society. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these thoughts but there may be another post coming out of it somewhere.

The final blog that’s had me thinking about feminism again recently is the marvellous it’s just a hobby this is the blog which has led me to think about the term “sex positive” and the implications of modifiers for feminist discourse. Jemima caught my attention with a post about Kat Banyard who is supposedly Britain’s leading young feminist. If she is then I weep for feminism. The lies this young woman appears to have been told highlight the level of privilege in her life, she truly represents the nasty face of feminism no one wants you to see. Then today, I found myself reading another post on the same blog, this time by notalifestyle (an interesting critical thinker also responsible for this post about false consciousness and modern feminism) about the use of the term sex positive and it’s relation to Christianity/biblical teaching. One of the reasons I read it’s just a hobby is for the odd insight it gives me into the lives of sex positive, equalitarian (forgive me) Christians (these are not questions I feel comfortable asking my friends) so I found this a particularly interesting read.

Anyway there you have it posts from various corners of the internet tackling some of the concerns I have about the modern notion of feminism and the right to do what we like with our bodies. Sometimes I’m glad to know I’m not alone…

**

[1] There are, somewhat confusingly, two groups of masculinists. One group believe men are equally constrained by societal norms relating to gender politics and wish to free them so we can move to a more equal society, the other are using the term in an attempt to re-establish outdated gender norms. In this instance I am referring to the former.

[2] Actually I can think of several very good reasons why not to walk around naked in the middle of winter not least the risk of hypothermia and severe frostbite, but these are based on biology not an inherent fear of nudity.

[3] Most recently Vanessa George, Angela Allen and Tracy Lyons have admitted sexual abuse of children see BBC News’ Timeline: Vanessa George Abuse

[4] See Michelin stars released by the new Michelin Guide and explore by topic under ‘People’.

[5] Of the roughly 20 gynaecologists my friends and I have met only three were female (this is NOT scientific). If anyone knows what the statistics actually are I’d be very interested.

[6] British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame

[7] This sentence left intentionally incorrect for comedy purposes.

[8] According to the United Nations World Population Prospects 2008, there will be 9 Billion human beings on the planet by August 2045.

[9] Information about sexual activities and risk is available from this NHS Choices page. The FPA tend to focus on heterosexual congress however they do have information about how to use a condom correctly: Condoms (male and female): your guide

[10] Even with the assistance of a chartered accountant I can find no evidence to back up claims that women’s and men’s razors have VAT applied differently. I am told that the assumption when reading VAT notices is that if it’s not specifically mentioned as being: a) outside the scope, b) zero rated, c) exempt or d) subject to reduced rate VAT (INPO) then VAT is applicable at the standard rate (currently 17.5% to be raised to 20% on 4th January 2011). VAT can be thoroughly investigated via HM Revenue and Customs: VAT. If you have evidence to the contrary please let me know. I did discover that VAT is payable on contraceptives (with the exception of those prescribed by a medical practitioner which are zero rated and those fitted, injected or implanted by a health professional which are exempt) details can be found here) and sanitary protection. Both have VAT applied at the reduced rate, however the latter did have VAT applied at the standard rate until 1st January 2001 (details can be found here).

[11] beat: Men get eating disorders too

[12] RCPsych: Eating Disorders

[13] A selection of statistics on Binge Drinking are presented by the Institute for Alcohol Studies in its factsheet Binge Drinking – Nature, prevalence and causes, they also produce an interesting factsheet specifically on Women and Alcohol. The Institute for Alcohol Studies produce a wide range of factsheets available here

[14] Details of the gender pay gap are available from: Office for National Statistics: Labour Market: Gender Pay Gap. If you’d like less dry analysis, more detail and more discussion of the implications try: Fawcett Society: Campaigns: Equal Pay – The Facts. (I happen to find the ONS fascinating, however I am aware that I have geeky tendencies.)

[15] Ellison, G; Barker, A and Kulasuriya, T. 2009. Work and care: a study of modern parents Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission p. 35 (available online here).

[16] Ellison, G; Barker, A and Kulasuriya, T. 2009. Work and care: a study of modern parents Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission p. 35.

[17] Numbers obtained by visiting the parliament website: Lists of MPs and searching by gender.

[18] Numbers obtained by visiting the parliament website: Lists of Members of the House of Lords and searching by gender.

[19] Both the Conservative Party and Labour have 8 openly LGB mps each, the Liberal Democrats have 3. Further information can be obtained from the Lesbian and Gay Foundation: 2010 Election sees rise in lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs.

[20] Information about the history of the OED and the updating process can be found on the Oxford English Dictionary Website: History of the Oxford English Dictionary.

[21] Spastic hemiplegia and spastic diplegia are symptoms of cerebral palsy listed on the NHS Choices Website: Cerebral palsy – Symptoms page

[22] Information about the re-launch of The Spastics Society as Scope can be found in this pdf. This paragraph on p18 under the heading ‘Corporate Identity Outcomes’ focuses on the potential for legitimising a term in a negative way even when the intention is positive:

One other outcome is apparent (although has yet to be tested objectively through research) and that is the use of the word ‘spastic’ as a term of abuse has noticeably declined. The removal of the legitimising effect and prominence of the word in our former name must surely have contributed to this shift.

[23] These are neither dictionary, nor medical definitions. They merely express a feeling for the words meanings.

Consideration of ill conceived jokes

You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based. [1]

OK hands up if you’ve ever said or done something stupid. Told a joke you regret, maybe? Got drunk and told your boss what you think of them? Threatened to ‘kill’ someone if they don’t stop, say, kicking the back of your seat during a performance or have upset one of your friends? I know I’ve done it. The thing is most of us don’t mean it. They’re just words, words said in anger and later regretted. If like me, you said these words in the privacy of your own home or to your friends you can apologise for them and take the purely personal consequences. A joke could cause you to lose your job: telling your boss what you think of them almost certainly will but you could ‘just’ get a reprimand and the world will carry on as before; making inappropriate jokes in front of customers/clients/electorate would also probably be a sacking offence (and, yes, that does include public forums such as social networking sites and blogs). You could lose a friend for telling them what you really think and I’m sure social networking, with its illusion of privacy and nasty habit of making your views public knowledge, has terminated several friendships. Social networking sites have probably started many friendships as well (I have at least two new friends as a result of my Twitter presence).

So, you make the stupid joke in the ‘privacy’ of your twitter feed. Unless you have ‘protected’ your tweets it is now available for anyone to see on the public feed AND anyone searching the site for key-words you used. If you also used a hash-tag, it will appear in the feed of anyone currently following that too, and anyone searching for information about something that someone else said using that tag. This is where the problems start occurring, because you didn’t think that joke through and now you regret it. If you’re lucky no one will have noticed, you might have lost some followers or be flamed as a result, and you may have to apologise. Which you do, and think nothing more of it. Remember it was a joke, dark humour admittedly, but now you’ve been arrested because your joke is seen as a threat. This has happened at least twice so far: on 06 January 2010, Paul Chambers was arrested under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and on 10 November 2010, Gareth Compton was arrested under Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003. There are several important differences between the two cases but also several parallels. Both have been arrested as a direct result of throw-away comments on their Twitter sites.

**

PAUL CHAMBERS:

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

This has been widely reported in the media and popping up all over Twitter accompanied by the hash-tag ‘#IamSpartacus’[2] since his appeal was denied. The history and sequence of events in this case has been extremely well documented on David Allen Green’s personal blog.

At the point Chambers sent it he was a trainee accountant, he was arrested in his place of work and has subsequently lost his job. He will struggle to find anyone to complete his training contract and if he does by some miracle manage to find someone willing to complete his training now that he has a conviction under section 127 of the Communication Act 2003, he will almost certainly never work for any of the larger corporations or banks.

GARETH COMPTON

Won’t someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death. I won’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really. #R5L [3]

After the twitter outcry he sent the following by way of apology:

I did not ‘call’ for the stoning of anybody, I made an ill-conceived attempt at humour in response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown saying on Radio 5

Live this morning, that no politician had the right to comment on human rights abuses, even the stoning of women in Iran. I apologise for

any offence caused. It was wholly unintentional. [4]

At the point he sent it he was a Conservative Councillor for Erdington in Birmingham. He has been ‘indefinitely’ suspended by the Conservative party and there are calls from Unison West Midlands region [5] for him to step down as a result of his tweet. These are the personal consequences he could potentially have suffered if he hadn’t announced it in a public forum but had been overheard. Because he chose to tweet his joke complaints have been made and he was reported to the police. From there I’m struggling to find any official confirmation, however, it has been widely reported that he was arrested and later bailed. The circumstances of his arrest (where he was etc) have not been made public.

**

Both of these ‘jokes’ have long since ceased being funny, if indeed they ever were. But I am not debating the stupidity of tweeting wry thoughts. I’m sure I’ve done it myself. Putting this kind of thing onto a social networking site seems very safe when you do it. Of course there is the risk of trolls (the internet kind rather than the ‘lives beneath goat crossing bridges’ [6] kind) but any sort of social interaction (especially social interaction with strangers) opens one up to the risk of being insulted.

There are to my mind some important differences between the two cases.

Firstly there’s the difference in status between the two: Chambers was an unknown (he’s now infamous), Compton an elected representative.

The outcry in Chambers’ case was about his arrest; in Compton’s it was, initially at least, about the tweet itself.

Paul Chambers’ has resulted in a conviction and a long, expensive appeal process. It is, as yet, unclear whether Compton will be prosecuted [7].

**

Neither of these men should have had the full weight of the law come crashing down on them; it is not the job of the courts to deem what is and is not funny, at least I don’t think it is, I was rather under the impression that criminal proceedings were to keep us safe, all of us, including the wrongly accused. And neither of them would have if they’d made the jokes to their friends rather than the world at large. The ‘#R5L’ on the end of Compton’s tweet made it clear that he was responding to the radio program; it was a stupid, thoughtless and extremely unfunny thing to say but he did not intend any actual threat against Yasmin Alibhai-Brown AND he apologised (the apology was considered glib by some, though I can find nothing particularly ‘glib’ about the words he used) when he realised people had taken offence to his ‘joke’. Alibhai-Brown has enough genuine threats against her life without people making idle ones and frankly, dark humour or not, stoning someone to death is not funny. I personally do not want someone who thinks it’s appropriate to make such jokes in a position of power. That’s just not the behaviour I expect from my elected representatives – I know that makes me an idealist and I don’t care. Alibhai-Brown also responded in anger to the tweet telling The Guardian she would be going to the police, though she has reportedly subsequently announced that she does not want him to face charges. [8]

Chambers’ tweet included an apparent bomb threat in a time of considerable fear about bombs. Once a member of Robin Hood Airport staff had found the tweet they were duty bound to report it, which they did. From that point, there was a chain to be followed whereby the ‘threat’ was passed on and assessed. Chambers was also arrested and questioned – which is where it should have ended. It didn’t and it seems unlikely that Compton’s case will end there either.

**

So, to answer those who asked: yes, I will be defending Compton as voraciously as I have been defending Chambers (which I will admit is not very). I do not want to live in a world where people are prosecuted for ill conceived attempts at humour, because it’s a short step from there to living in a world where any attempts at humour are likely to be subject to legal action, where one cannot criticise anyone even when their opinions are repugnant to you.

I found Compton’s tweet repugnant, and, had his account not disappeared I would probably have told him so. But I don’t want tax payers money spent on his prosecution – that won’t change his mind. Instead I want to convince him that I am right and he is wrong. Using words. Because words are powerful, and they don’t cost much. There will be consequences to his actions, that’s as it should be – as Sir Terry Pratchett so wonderfully put it: ‘no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences’. [1]

[1] Pratchett, T. 2004. Going Postal. London: Corgi. p. 25

[2] Some people have been playing with the original tweet, changing the words, word order or airport named. According to ‘cripesonfriday’ Heathrow Airport have reported these threats to the police (as they are required to). It will be interesting to see where this new episode leads.

[3] there is a screen dump of the original tweet at the top of this Birmingham Post article, and also at the top of this blog post by Andrew Reeves.

[4] there is a screen dump of Compton’s feed at the end ofthis Daily Mail article.

[5] Unison West Midlands region’s statement can be found on their website.

[6] As Marcus Brigstocke charmingly put it on Twitter.

[7] As David Allen Green explained in a conversation with Dave Gorman on Twitter and I discovered during a domestic violence case there isn’t an elective element to the decision to prosecute in a criminal case. I don’t know whether the fact that the initial complaint did not come from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown will prove to be important.

[8] her position is reported in the Birmingham Mail and has been rumoured on the Twitter site itself though I cannot find any other reference to this aspect of the case – it appears to have gone unreported in traditional national media. If anyone does know of other sources for this information please send me a link, thank you.

Assumptions

I am other.

I am white, well-educated, middle class and other. 4% of the population of the England and Wales are similar to me according to the 2001 census [1] (which is somewhat out of date; however, if I wait for the 2011 results to post this the moment will definitely have passed). There are always variations in any externally imposed grouping however, so my statement that I am other may seem a bit odd. Surely everyone is different in some way or other? Yes, they are and that is why I am writing this.

You see, what I have missed from my social précis is that I am a traveller. I live on a boat, a narrowboat to be precise, and a rather scruffy one at that. I’ll answer all the usual questions about the practicality of living on a boat later. For now it’s enough to know that I do.

Prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes, against all groups and sub-groups, and frankly I’m a bit sick of it. Some of my friends fight prejudice every day, some of them are in danger if they go to certain places or walk home on a dark night. I am not one of them and I am lucky. I have chosen to live the way I do. Some of my friends are not so lucky, they’re gay, or transgender, or disabled, or Muslim, or Jewish, or black. And, sad to say, there are some places where all of these things still matter. What matters to me is that I love them for who they are, and I enjoy spending time with them. Prejudice is an ugly word and I don’t bring it up lightly, in fact I wouldn’t bring it up at all if I hadn’t just come across some assumptions that bordered it.

So, the point of my starting this: some things that are not necessarily true about travellers:

  1. Just because I live on a boat does not mean that I am unskilled. I have been a manager/senior member of staff in a variety of different sectors. I have also done my fair share of unskilled work – even students and writers in their turrets have to eat/pay the bills. If I’m on a winter mooring I’m not going to doss for the whole time. If I do that I won’t be able to afford to eat and neither will my dogs, which is probably more to the point.
  2. I am not claiming benefits. When you move around a lot it’s very difficult to claim benefits – what with not having an address. I am a traveller, not a bum. I choose not to live in a house; that doesn’t mean I’m a drop out and I don’t pay my way. There are quite a few retired people living on the water, cruising from place to place; their boats are usually shinier than mine – would you assume they hadn’t paid their way?
  3. I do not necessarily have an alcohol problem, abuse/use drugs or have severe mental health issues. Someone who goes out every Friday night and drinks themselves into a stupor has an alcohol problem, as does someone who drinks a bottle of wine a night every night and the person who drinks vodka for breakfast – I bet you know at least one person with an alcohol problem, whether or not you know it. And they probably live in a house, possibly a nice house, in a nice area and have a full-time job and don’t really seem to have a problem. So, drugs. I know quite a lot about drugs as it happens; I used to be a youth worker. That means I know what can happen to you if you take them. And frankly if I don’t know what’s in it, then no thank you. Which leaves mental distress. According to Mind’s website [2] the ONS estimates 1 in 6 people will suffer mental distress at any one time, though the more commonly quoted study suggests 1 in 4. Either way that means someone in your life, someone close to you, will suffer from some form of mental distress at some point. Does that make them any less of a person? Several famous people have ‘come out’ as having or having had mental health issues: Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Gok Wan to name three[3]. Since 1 in 6 people don’t live on boats it’s not that likely that I have a mental health problem is it? Having said that, as a proportion there probably are more people living on the water who have some or all of these issues, just remember not everyone who chooses to live this way does.
  4. I am not a hippy. I do burn the odd joss stick, I travel mostly by bicycle or on foot, I’m an ecotarian [4] (one of many labels for my lifestyle choices) and my choice of abode may be a little less than orthodox. This does not make me a hippy. I’m not entirely sure what would make me a hippy but I’m fairly sure I’m not one. Joss sticks are very common in certain cultures but that doesn’t make everyone who lives on, say, the Indian sub-continent, a hippy. Hundreds of people travel by bike, usually in or around cities and most probably don’t cover the distance I do but again this doesn’t make me a hippy (I can feel a post about cyclists coming on in the near future too). So why the ecotarian? I like vegetables; it’s better for the planet and is an extremely healthy diet. I don’t eat meat substitute, I just eat less of it (I can’t remember the last time I ate meat actually but that’s a different story). As for the boat: I like it and living this way is my choice.
  5. This one’s closely related to two: just because I’m scruffy doesn’t mean I’m poor. Actually currently I am poor, but that’s because I’m an unknown writer rather than because I’m too lazy to work. My clothes are quite often dirty; there is a reason, and if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know what I’m about to say. I live on a boat and canal banks are muddy. I also have dogs, and dog walks are muddy. I’m not dirty all the time; quite a lot of the time you’d never know but if you meet me on the tow path or out with my dogs I’m likely to look quite scruffy. Yes, my dog walking jacket has a hole in it. It’s an old jacket; I use it for dog walking because it’s an old jacket. I bet some of you have gardening clothes, people don’t often see you in your gardening clothes because your garden is your space. My deck is my space, it’s just that you can see my space. I don’t sunbathe naked on my back deck but I do fill my coal scuttle there. This is a dirty job so I’m hardly going to do it in a suit now am I?
  6. For any other boaters reading this: I have a current cruising licence and I’m looking for a mooring. The one I was going to take turned out not to be what I’d been told. Any other questions? Not all live-aboards object to paying to use the water just as not all holiday boaters are happy about it.

It may seem like I’m making a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill here. The prejudice those of us who choose to live on the water suffer may appear to be really quite minor. But the truth is that prejudice is prejudice. It’s not OK to be rude or patronising to me because I choose not to live in a house, I used to and I may do again one day. That’s my choice and I would really appreciate it if you would respect my choice. I respect yours. You may think that my priorities are screwed. I’m sorry that I don’t think owning a 50 inch flat screen HD television and an SUV are the be all and end all of life. You may not either. You may only buy fair trade and organic; I’ve got news for you – I buy local, fair-trade, organic. I’m like you, some of you anyway, I’m not any-woman and neither are you.

[1] Census information available from Office for National Statistics: Neighbourhood Statistics. Percentage of the population calculated in terms of ethnicity, approximate social grade and qualifications.
[2] These statistics and many more besides are available from Mind.org.uk
[3] All three have pledged to help end discrimination against those suffering mental illness on time-to-change.org.uk. Gok Wan has talked about the effects of bullying and having anorexia nervosa in his autobiography Through Thick and Thin (Amazon.co.uk link)
[4] I first came across the term ecotarian in Andy Atkins’ Guardian article: Debate on meat eating does not cut the mustard