Loving and losing Nutkin

My grandmother used to tell me a possibly apocryphal tale of my return home from the hospital as a newborn. Apparently, my mum placed me on the bed and nipped out of the room to get something, but on her return moments later I had vanished. Panic ensued until I was found down the side of the bed with the newly acquired boisterous Rottweiler puppy, happy as a clam. So began my love of dogs, or so the story I like to believe goes!

Heidi, me & mum

The Rottweiler puppy, Heidi, grew into a strong and fearsome beast whose lead would be attached to my pram to help my mum haul me up the steep hills of our Kent home. Heidi would also guard me in the days when it was still normal for mothers to leave their babies outside the high street butcher or baker. When Heidi eventually succumbed to cancer, another Rottweiler, Tilly, came to live with us. Tilly truly was a queen amongst dogs. We children were able to wrestle with her while she only ever moaned gently in mild protest. She was the softest, sweetest creature you could ever meet but try to enter our home uninvited and she took on the appearance of a hell hound! All it took was “it’s ok, Tilly” as any of the family opened the door and she would return to complete docility. Tilly absolutely hated thunder and during storms would be found trying to cram her bulk into the back of wardrobes.

By this time we were living on the edge of a windswept moor in Yorkshire and black clouds were gathering in the form of my mum’s breast cancer. During the course of my mum’s five year long illness Tilly’s black furred neck absorbed buckets of my tears. I clung to her and she pushed her strong body back against mine to let me know she was always there for me. When my mum died, a confused Tilly’s basket was often surreptitiously moved into my bedroom and when my dad was away with work we would be virtually glued to one another.

I went away to university completely unmoored by mum’s illness and death. I was like a tiny boat tossed around on a wild sea and would remain so for many years. While I was away Tilly became gravely ill and my dad had to do her the kindness of ending her suffering from bone cancer. At this stage of my life I had effectively stopped myself from feeling anything, as a defense mechanism, so I can’t actually tell you how I felt. Feelings were far too painful to allow. In a decision characteristic of the stupidity of many I made around this time I allowed myself to be persuaded to seek comfort in the form of a tiny abandoned brindle Staffy pup that I was to call Pickle. I let myself love her but I should never have taken her on as my life wasn’t set up to give a dog the care and attention it needs. I came to London to find work and secreted poor Pickle in my rented home, unknown to my landlord. It broke my heart to have to leave Pickle at home while I worked, as Staffies are very needy dogs who don’t do well in their own company for extended periods. Her reproachful eyes when I returned home filled my already guilt filled soul to overflowing. Eventually I split with my boyfriend of the time and Pickle had to be rehomed. She went to live with a family who ensured she was never alone, but for years after I would have constant nightmares where I had to try to save her from peril. I resolved that I would have to wait until the time was right to get a dog.

Many years passed as I spent my 20s and 30s living a wild London life and finally getting the mental help I had needed for so long to deal with my mother’s illness and death. Then I met Tim. They say things happen when you are finally ready for them and when I met Tim that was certainly true. Years of damaging relationships finally gave way to real love and care. One of our favourite pastimes became weekend walks in Greenwich Park “stalking” dogs we loved. I see couples doing this now and am frequently approached by them, so now realise this wasn’t as nuts as it felt at the time! We married quickly and hoped to start a family. However, it was not to be. Within months of our wedding we discovered that I could not have children. The sudden and hopeless diagnosis was shocking and my heart was broken. The discovery of my infertility also coincided with things going very wrong at work. In the end I accepted redundancy and left. At the time we were living in a rented house and Tim, being the loving man that he is, was immediately on the phone to our landlords begging them to let us have a dog. A cat was deemed acceptable but Tim asked whether a dog as small as a cat would be ok and this is how we ended up falling in love with miniature dachshunds.

Searching for a puppy was the beginning of my putting my broken heart back together. In short order I found someone who had a little girl puppy dachshund and I went up to be interviewed by the breeder (exactly as it should be!) to check I could provide a good home. Luckily I passed the test! In February 2010, just after my 39th birthday, Nutkin came to live with us. She was a thing of utter beauty and I fell head over heels in love with her. Here, at last, was something I could love totally unconditionally. We became inseparable. A year later our little family grew as we brought a second dachshund puppy, Snake, into our lives. We felt like a slightly odd, but very real, little family. We were healing after all the pain.

nutkin 3

I should have known it was all too good to be true. We were too happy. Life was good. Nutkin was such a character. Greedy and lazy, she loved to be held in my arms and would stay there quite contentedly for as long as I could hold her. Her warm, slightly rounded body filled the space where a child should have been and she was just fine with that. A few weeks ago I had a little chat with Nutkin about how she had to promise me to live to a ripe old age. I wanted to see her face go grey and for her to finally, painlessly succumb to old age many years from now. This wasn’t to be.

A week and a half ago Nutkin tripped on the stairs and had a fall. She seem a little shocked but fine physically immediately afterwards. But when I came home from shopping later on she was subdued and not herself. I took her straight to our local vets who said she was probably just bruised. Oh, if only I knew then what I know now. It haunts me, tortures me, but I wanted to believe the vet. Why didn’t I insist on a referral to a specialist there and then? But I didn’t. I wanted to believe she was ok.

In the evening Nutkin seemed fine. She was walking ok, ate her dinner hungrily and snoozed in her sleeping bag as normal. However, when we were woken by the alarm the next morning Nutkin didn’t leap up to attack our faces to demand her breakfast as she usually would. Her back legs were completely useless and she couldn’t stand. My insides turned to ice and I rushed her straight to the vet. He examined her and immediately referred us to Fitzpatrick Referrals, aka channel 4’s Supervet. By the time we got Nutkin to Fitzpatrick’s, which is over an hour’s drive round the M25 from our South East London home, she had lost any sensation in her back end. Colin the vet, told us that she had a burst disc and it was pressing on her spinal cord. Surgery at this stage would give her a 50/50 chance of being able to recover enough to walk again. It was a no brainer. Just do it. I’d have sold a kidney to pay for it if we hadn’t had insurance. Not operating because of expense was as inconceivable to us as it would be if it was your child. She is, was, our child.

After surgery Colin called me to let me know that she had come through it ok and her spinal cord looked healthy. That said, because she had lost all sensation in her body below the burst disc she would need to stay at Fitzpatrick’s for a couple of weeks to see if she stood a chance of the spinal cord recovering from the compression and Nutkin being able to walk, or at least go to the toilet by herself. In the first few days after surgery there was not much change but she seemed to be recovering well from the operation. Seeing her was heart breaking as she didn’t understand a thing of what was happening to her. We had to face the fact that she might never walk again and may, in fact, always be incontinent. This was scary but I told myself that, if a vet nurse can learn how to express a dog’s bladder, I could too. I researched other dogs with paralysis and saw how happy they were. All that mattered was giving her as happy a life as we could. I could do it. When I got the news that Nutkin had recovered an inch more feeling down her back I was overjoyed. Any progress was a brilliant, brilliant thing.

Then on Friday morning I got the phone call. I have always hated phones. My reluctance to answer phones frustrates my husband immensely. But when my mum was ill every ringing phone seemed to bring more terrible and terrifying news. So it was on Friday. Colin said he had examined Nutkin that morning and, after how pleased he had been with her progress the previous day, she seemed suddenly worse. There is a very rare condition called myelomalacia where the spinal cord starts to die after injury. It’s excruciatingly painful and results in death within a few days. We had three choices: an MRI scan, wait and see or euthanasia. The world stopped. I stopped breathing. We gave the go ahead for the scan and waited for a return call. Two hours later the call came that was to break my heart into smithereens. My dearest, darling baby girl, my love, my life, was dying of myelomalacia and there was only one choice left, to end her pain.

So she’s gone and I am broken. Tim is broken. Snake is alone for the first time in his life. I am no stranger to grief and grief this is. As real as any I felt for my mum or the children I will never have. I feel like I am walking around with my chest cut open. I don’t know how I will cope. She’s everywhere and nowhere. My arms are achingly empty. But cope I will because that’s what we do. I’m sure this piece feels like it ends abruptly but that’s exactly how I feel right now. A sudden stop. An unwanted end.

I wrote this to try to help myself a tiny bit by expressing my grief and to try to explain to those whose first instinct is to think “it’s only a dog” why, for me, such a statement is a nonsense. Dogs are my life as people are my life. My love for them is no less real, no less important. Nutkin saved me in a way no human being ever could. She helped me put my shattered heart back together. Now I have to try to do so again.


March 23, 2015 · 10:38 am


As I’m off on my much anticipated hols tomorrow, there will be a two week intermission before I pick up “What it feels like to be a fertility statistic” again. See you soon!


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Think we don’t need to discuss fertility issues publicly any more? Think again

This week Kirstie Allsop has caused a stir with her admission that, if she had a daughter, she would tell her to delay university for a time, consider having children young and focusing on a career later on. She didn’t say, as many have claimed, that women should forget about educating themselves or having a career at all and to focus only on finding a man to marry, before popping out kids. She merely put her thoughts out there. The one non negotiable in woman’s life is that her fertility will end long, long before her life. Better health and much longer life expectancy hasn’t seen our fertile years hugely extended. Yes, some women are lucky and are very fertile well into their 40s. Many, most, are not. Kirstie’s very reasonable point was that university is moveable. Our fertile years are not.

Now, some women will decide that they don’t want children at all. Some that they aren’t at all ready in their 20s, for whatever reason. That’s all fine. At no point in the interview does Kirstie claim that women should not do what feels right for them. The key question we all must face as women is: what will I regret not doing most? If you are certain that having kids matters to you then maybe the powerful social pressure to go straight to university from school might be worth resisting. I’m 43 and there was never any question that I would go to university, as soon after school as possible. Far from allowing women greater freedom to choose the life we wanted, it felt like we simply exchanged one set of expectations for another. How about feminism embracing the idea that having choices is what truly matters?

The reaction to the piece has included some entirely predictable, and entirely unsisterly, attacks from journalists Zoe Williams and Hadley Freeman. Mother of two, Williams rolled her eyes and affected ennui at the mere mention of a fertility window. Apparently, it is all that has been written about since she entered journalism. Right, Zoe. Right. Freeman wrote a hilariously disingenuous piece attacking Allsop for presenting a view that differed from her own and for talking about something which women all apparently already know. So we have all the solutions do we, Hadley? Everything is rosy in the garden of fertility and it doesn’t need to be discussed by anyone anymore?

The thing is, it does need to be discussed. Going to university straight from school, when we will be working til 70 and have zero idea what the world of work is like, is insane for both men AND women. Yet bright kids are still pressured into doing it. Women are still very much looked down upon for having children young, particularly if they show academic promise.

Then there is the whole fertility issue. The NHS actively discourages women from taking any other control over their fertility beyond offering contraception. Want to be proactive about your fertility? Try asking your GP for a blood test to work out the state of your ovarian reserve and see how you get on! Maybe if all women had access to, at the very least, cost price fertility services through the NHS, we could consider the topic of the fertility window to be old news. But we don’t have anything like this. Women are still very much in the dark on most issues relating to fertility and all too often are forced to navigate the quackery of the internet rather than get sound advice and help from a medical professional.

So, sorry, Zoe and Hadley, until these issues are resolved I think that all contributions to the debate are very welcome. You might want to have a bit of a think about why you are so keen to shout another woman down.

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What it feels like to be a fertility statistic – part 2

I did eventually peel myself off my living room floor, but I was in deep shock. Mercifully, my job came with the perk of private health care so I was able to make an appointment to see the consultant recommended by the GP within days, rather than the weeks or even months I would have had to wait with the NHS. The hospital was only a five minute walk from my house and within a week of first hearing about my blood tests I was sitting in front of a very kind man who had the unenviable task of explaining to me that I most likely had premature ovarian failure. More blood tests and a scan to check that I didn’t, in fact, have ovarian cancer, confirmed this diagnosis.

I remember reading about women who had had an early menopause and thinking “how awful” but never in a million years had I thought it would happen to me. The average age for a woman to go through the menopause is 52. Under 30 you have a one in a thousand chance of premature ovarian failure. Over 30 that rises to one in a hundred. As it turned out being on the pill, as I had been, on and off, since my late teens, had masked what was going on. My menopause had actually begun some years before, which at least explained why my skin had got bad, I’d gained some weight and I’d developed PMT. It turned out that, incredibly, at 38 years old I was post menopausal. I would never have another period. My ovaries were completely non functioning.

All my adult life the comforting thought of IVF had lingered in the background. It was the fertility insurance policy. The media was chock full of celebrities conceiving “miracle babies” thanks to IVF. When I’d been single my friends and I had often joked that there was always IVF if we didn’t meet the right guy until 40 was in sight. Even if it meant financial penury at least you would most likely end up with a baby. Except, I wouldn’t. In order to have IVF you have to have functioning ovaries and I didn’t have them. IVF was completely and utterly out of the question. No clinic would touch you with an FSH reading of over 12 IU/L and mine was a spectacular 74 IU/L. This sudden absolute stop to any thought of ever having my own child was physically shocking. We had only been trying for a baby for 5 short months and the end of the road had been reached at breakneck speed. Despite the kind and gentle manner of my consultant, it was almost impossible to process all this. I think my husband and I were in some sort of suspended animation, going through the motions of functioning, but not really fully present.

There was one option: egg donation. Despite the fact that my ovaries had packed up shop early doors every other part of my 38 year old reproductive system was apparently in working order. If I could procure an egg it could be fertilised by my husband’s sperm and, with the aid of a load of hormones my body could no longer produce by itself, I could carry a pregnancy to term. Initially, this option gave us hope. Although the baby would not be genetically mine I would have carried it, given birth to it and even influenced which genes were switched on or off, thus creating a child that would be ever so slightly different to if its genetic mother had carried him or her. From having spent most of my adult life being terrified of giving birth I was suddenly desperate to experience it. Egg donation wasn’t perfect but it would give my husband his own genetic child and I would get to experience most of what other mothers do when they have children. I was given a referral to one of London’s most prestigious fertility clinics.

There were, however, some obstacles in my way. Firstly, where on earth would the egg come from?? The ideal scenario would have been for me to have a sister who could have donated an egg. Or a female cousin. I had neither. Women did donate eggs either to get IVF at a reduced cost or through sheer altruism, but this was rare. If I went for this option I would have to go on a waiting list and it was not clear how long this would take. Unlike in the US or Spain, in the UK it is illegal to pay someone to donate eggs or sperm and those donating are not allowed anonymity. I could have tried a clinic in Spain but this didn’t sit right with me. I wanted my child to be able to find out who its genetic mother was. It seemed very unfair of me to bring a child into the world and deny them this right. Others feel differently about this, but that’s how I felt and how I still feel. I was also worried about the idea of women being coerced by poverty into selling their eggs. The Spanish clinics cannot guarantee that the women who donate to them are not in this position. It didn’t feel right at all. One thing I was realising was that I would have to confront a lot of questions about morality. How far would I go to have a baby? Most people never have to give any of these questions any thought.

In my constant trawling of the internet in research on egg donation I came across an article written by a British fertility specialist saying that if women wanted to have any hope of securing an egg they would have to cast their net wide. All social interactions with fertile women had to be considered potential opportunities. When I think back on this now I feel sick, but at the time, in the grip of one of the most powerful urges I have ever felt, it seemed acceptable. That said, I didn’t go that far. Instead, some women I knew were pretty quick to offer. It’s a kindly reflex to want to help a friend who is suffering infertility in this way but the problem is that the offer is usually made impulsively and, on entirely understandable reflection, rescinded. I understood completely and bore not a shred of ill will to anyone who did this. It was very kind of them to even have wanted to help.

These were dark days for me. As a woman I felt like I was slowly fading away. I remember during an appointment at the fertility clinic being told that I had a very healthy womb lining and being pathetically grateful for this meagre evidence of functioning femininity. We went from highs at believing we might actually have a baby to terrible lows. I desperately wanted to do everything I could to help my dear husband have his own child. After all, he was fully functioning. He could have a child with, gulp, another woman.

However, I was starting to experience a rising anger with fertile women. The whole sorry dance over procuring eggs was starting to make me feel awful. I felt like I was begging fertile women for crumbs from their table. It was beginning to poison me. The much talked of waiting list for eggs transpired to be a myth. You had to pay a few hundred pounds to even put your name on the list but it might be years before you heard anything. Then there was the cost of the process. The NHS doesn’t fund any aspect of egg donation. Not even the normal IVF part. We had some savings that we had been intending to use as a deposit for a house but obviously it is a big gamble. Each go would cost over £10,000 and it often took a few goes to even get a positive pregnancy test.

Very suddenly I knew what I had to do. I told my husband it all had to stop. I couldn’t go on with egg donation. We’d been married less than six months and life was wretched. Even if we could find an egg, fertility treatment itself puts relationships under enormous strain. I had reached rock bottom and the only control I had left was to say “no, stop”. It made me feel strangely myself again to take some form of control over my life back. I didn’t want to feel so obviously like a lesser woman any more. I wanted to try and get some of me back.

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What it feels like to be a fertility statistic – part 1

So it turns out that I am a demographic. I am extremely zeitgeisty. No, this doesn’t involve full sleeve tattoos, an enormous Victorian gentleman style beard, or even living in Haggerston. Instead I am part of a rapidly growing group: women who will never have children. Now a fifth of all women will reach the end of their childbearing years without having procreated, something which last happened when a sizeable proportion of a generation of young men were wiped out in the First World War. And this group is growing in size. If you are a graduate the likelihood you will never have kids is even higher, with a quarter of all grads now reaching their mid 40s without having had a family. A quarter! It’s also worthy of note that nearly a third of men will now never have kids.

I don’t know about you, but if I had been asked to guess these stats before I researched them I would have put them much lower. Families are everywhere. When I married at 38 five years ago I was certainly very keen to be part of this culturally dominant group. My peer group were having no problems starting families. Time and again friends and acquaintances in back end of their 30s conceived with quite staggering ease. Pregnancies followed weddings sure as night followed day. Now, I’m not daft, I knew that I had “left it late”. I was fully aware that I was skidding into the casino in the minutes before it closed finally ready to roll my dice. I just didn’t know they were loaded against me.

How did I reach my late 30s without having had kids? Many reasons. Lives are complex. Mine had been especially so. Maybe more of that in another post. Suffice to say I hadn’t been lucky enough to find myself with all my ducks in a row until I met my now husband at 37 yrs of age. To me having a family was the biggest thing I could do. It was a commitment that deserved sturdy foundations. I needed stable finances, a job that allowed me paid maternity leave and, most of all, a decent, reliable man in whom I had a high degree of confidence would hang around to be a good dad. I don’t think any of those are wildly outlandish requirements. Do you?

We married on a perfect, blue sky day, somewhat improbably, in March in North Yorkshire. We felt extraordinarily blessed. I’d timed coming off the pill so that conception on our wedding night wasn’t out of the question. By the middle of our amazing Argentinian honeymoon I knew that I would possibly already be pregnant. But I wasn’t. No matter. I’d do what I was good at: research the hell out of the mofo and do everything I could to optimise our chances. Out came the ovulation prediction sticks and the cycle tracking. In I dived to the online fertility forums. Who knew conception was such a tricky business! At school we had been led to believed that a lad getting mildly excited in our general vicinity was fraught with pregnancy danger. I had no idea that conception was only actually possible within a window of hours each month. But even with this military style organisation and planning it didn’t happen. Also, I was becoming aware that something wasn’t right.

I didn’t feel great. My moods were all over the place. I put this down to the stress of getting married, moving house and trying for a baby. But then my ovulation sticks started telling me that I was permanently ovulating. Of course this couldn’t be possible. Separating the medically factual wheat from the quackery chaff in many Google searches I discovered that a couple of conditions could cause the sticks to show positive all the time. One of them was polycystic ovary syndrome. My super regular cycle had also started to go a bit haywire. My periods were slow in arriving. So I booked in to see a GP for some tests. Getting fertility blood tests on the NHS isn’t straight forward. In order to get approved for any kind of investigation you have to have been trying to conceive for a while. Even over 35 they won’t do any tests until you have been trying for at least 6 months. So I had to lie.

Two weeks after my blood test, and 5 months after my wedding, I returned to see the GP. He told me that my numbers (he didn’t specify which) were “a bit high” but nothing much to worry about. I should leave it another 3 months and if nothing had improved I should come back. OK, I thought. He’s a medical professional. I trust him. Almost as an afterthought I asked for a copy of my test results. Once home I popped the numbers into Google. In less than 30 seconds I was reading something that nearly made my heart stop in my chest. It had to be wrong, I thought. I tried another site. Same information. They both said that my follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels indicated that I was menopausal. Menopausal. MENOPAUSAL. At 38. The GP had said that my levels could drop but everything I read said that once FSH levels rose they did not ever fall back. Follicle stimulating hormone is what the brain produces to tell the ovaries to produce eggs. Normally, these levels rise and fall during our cycle. When the ovaries start to fail the brain produces more and more FSH to try and get the ovaries to do their job. But it’s a hopeless task. Highest normal level for a fertile woman would be about 17 units per litre. At 19 IU/L you are considered menopausal. My FSH reading was 74 IU/L.

I began to panic. I grabbed the phone and asked to speak to the GP. The dissonance between his “you’re probably fine” and what I had just read, muliple times, was too great. I was told he would ring me back. I tried to stay calm, but I was shaking. As I waited I read more. I’d been having hot flushes and night sweats for a couple of years. It seems mental now but I had just assumed everyone got them. Now they made sickening sense. I have a vague recollection of speaking to the GP when he rang back, sounding annoyed to be bothered. He told me off for not mentioning my hot flushes and said, somewhat irritably, that, yes, it was possible that I was menopausal, but unlikely as I was far too young. He said that if I really didn’t want to wait 3 months they would “allow” me to come back. I made an appointment for the next day with one of his colleagues.

That was how I found myself sitting in front of another GP the next day with hot tears pouring down my face as he, gently, told me that, no, my FSH levels wouldn’t fall and, yes, I was most certainly menopausal. He told me he would refer me to a very good consultant, at the time I had no idea of how fortunate this specific referral was to be. I left the consulting room and managed to get home somehow. I spent the next 5 hours lying on my living room floor unable to stand up.


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What it feels like to be a fertility statistic – an introduction

In a few days I head off on what I am grandly describing as a second honeymoon. It’s a trip that has been long in the planning and I can’t quite believe it’s about to happen. It’s been just over 5 years since I got married and the intervening years have, at times, been very tough. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, but the time never felt quite right, and I was apprehensive about penning one of those autobiographical sob stories so frequently found on the internet that come across as emotionally parasitic to me. I wanted to write something positive but, until now, I hadn’t found myself in quite the right place. Now suddenly I feel like I’m ready.

It was August 2009 when I found out, definitively, that I would never have my own child, as I was unfathomably post menopausal at a mere 38 years of age. Since that day I have fought to deal with both the knowledge that I would never have children and also the health problems associated with the early failure of my ovaries. It’s been a long road, but finally I genuinely feel happy with who I am, where I am in my life and optimistic about the future. Maybe some of my experiences could be useful to other women? Or even men who are doing their best to support them. Who knows. Maybe no-one will read any of it and the only thing that happens is I experience a vague feeling of catharsis. I’ll take that!

So, school’s (or the OU) out for summer and I’ve got the time to write a series of blog posts about the things that have gone on over the past 5 years. I’ll post when I can. Apologies in advance for any gaps! Feel free to comment on any of the posts. It’s always good to get feedback.  

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Why is it ok for men to threaten and diminish Louise Mensch online but not Caroline Criedo-Perez?

There is something I have become confused about in this maelstrom of online misogyny we seem to be experiencing and that is the inconsistency with which it is being identified. I am all for men being called out for sexist or misogynistic comments. But shouldn’t we make sure we are consistent when we do this?

In order to make my point I am going to use Louise Mensch as an example. Now, you can vehemently disagree with everything Louise Mensch stands for as a human being and still be clear that using sexism or misogyny to diminish her is wrong. In fact, it’s vital that you do, if you are really serious about combating what is deemed to be a swelling tide of online intimidation of women. Tolerating misogyny from men you may happen to admire or used on women you may happen to despise is always wrong if you claim to be serious about dealing with it as a general social problem.

In March this year Rufus Hound called Louise Mensch a cunt. You can see it here. For saying that she admired Michael Gove. Now, you could argue that he is entitled to call her this, and he is, but does not the vehemence of his response to her statement strike you as odd? Rufus followed up this insult  in May by asking Louise how salty Rupert Murdoch’s cock tasted. He justified this at length here. It’s very angry isn’t it? Hate filled. As far as I am aware Rufus Hound has not asked any men who work for Murdoch how salty his cock tastes or any of the many other women who work for him about the relative saline content of his semen. It’s only Louise Mensch. Seems odd to me. Can you imagine if, say, James Delingpole asked, say, Stella Creasy how salty Len McCluskey’s cock tasted?

Writer Jon Niven also seems to imagine that Louise Mensch must be intimately acquainted with Murdoch’s penis. He tweeted his imaginings here, in response to Louise’s tweet about going on 5 Live to defend press freedom. As far as I am aware he has never tweeted his friend and Murdoch employee Caitlin Moran about her intimate acquaintance with Mr Murdoch’s member. Which leads me to question why these men are being allowed to shame and diminish Louise Mensch in this way? It seems pretty clear to me that Rufus and Jon are using sexist and misogynistic language to attempt to ridicule a woman with whom they disagree politically. Toby Young was taken to task over a comment he made on Twitter about an MP’s breasts. After having the point made to him that this was both sexist and crass he apologised and expressed contrition. However, that single comment has been used as an excuse to disregard everything he has to say on free speech. Why are not Rufus Hound and Jon Niven held to the same standards? I’m not aware of them demonstrating any contrition.

Louise Mensch hasn’t just had to put up with queries about the imagined experience of fellating her boss. She has also had to put up with violent tweets. Is saying “I’d love to hit Louise Mensch in the face with a hammer” wrong or not? If it was said to Stella Creasy, Laurie Penny or Caroline Criedo-Perez would it somehow be more wrong? Would they be told to shut up and take it? Told that it was “misguided humour”? Well, that’s the defence disability rights campaigner Sue Marsh gave for saying we should tolerate such statements. You can read her comments here in a blog post entitled “Sticks and stones”. Apparently, Louise deserved the hammer to the face comment because she was “silly”. What’s really bad here is the banter defence is being used. Get a sense of humour, Louise! That wag with the hammer is joshing with you! Would a man be able to use the same defence if he said the same thing to Caroline Criedo-Perez? If he deemed her campaign to get Jane Austen on a bank note “silly” would be be excused in sending her violently threatening “humorous” tweets?

So, here’s where I am with this: there is huge inconsistency with how we are identifing and dealing with online sexism and misogyny. Some women are being deemed more deserving of abuse than others. Some men are being more vehemently condemned than others. If we’re serious about dealing with sexism and online intimidation then this has to stop.

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Twitter is not a metaphorical Shoreditch House

Earlier today I asked Caitlin Moran a polite question. Caitlin had issued a statement explaining that she understood that some of the language she had used in the past in tweets (eg “mong”, “retard”, “tranny”) could be cause offense and stated that she no longer uses these words. Caitlin made the very reasonable statement that she was “learning all the time”, that we shouldn’t expect people to be perfect before allowing them to speak up and hoped that people would understand that. I totally agree that we should cut people some slack and I also totally agree that threats of rape and violence should be taken seriously. We should think long and hard about how we try to make social media a place as free from violent intimidation as possible. My issue is with the proposed solution of an easy to use “report abuse” button. I am seriously worried that it will be used to silence people other than the rape and violence threat makers and will destroy the democratic nature of Twitter that has made it such a communication revolution. So I asked Caitlin whether she was worried that the abuse button could have been used to silence her in the past while she was going through the learning process that we all go through. I have not received a reply.

Here’s the thing: do you think Twitter will deploy the manpower to look into every instance of the report button being pressed to make a fair assessment of whether the tweet was truly abusive and threatening? Or do you think that they will have to use a system based on the volume of instances of the report abuse button being pressed? Now, if someone with 10 followers receives several rape threats, say 5, they are going to feel pretty threatened and intimidated. They will report each instance and probably ask their followers to report the offending tweets, too. Will this be enough to trigger any algorithm Twitter decide to use to separate real abuse from spurious and vindictive reporting of users that some just want to shut up? Now what happens if Caitlin Moran receives much more minor threats? Something a bit nasty, but not genuinely threatening. What if she retweets the offending tweet to her 441,000 followers? Even if she doesn’t explicitly ask for her followers to report abuse I suspect that many will do so, as I have found that few like to see their heroes or heroines slighted on Twitter.

I have first hand experience of this as a result of a tweet in which I made the error of @ing Tom Watson, accusing him of grandstanding over Murdoch. It wasn’t threatening or intimidating. It was just a criticism of a public servant. One of the things that makes Twitter so great is that we finally get direct access to the great and the good. It’s finally a two way conversation. That is the essential democracy of Twitter. So, anyway, Tom decides to retweet my criticism to his 100,000 odd followers. The messages I received from his followers went on for 8 hours. Many were very insulting to me and they made me feel distinctly harassed. My response was to block the really bad, repetitive ones and I learnt a valuable lesson. If you want to say anything critical about a popular tweeter, subtweet without the @ key! Point of this tale is that some of Tom’s followers would probably have reported me for abuse. Was I abusive? No. Did I misuse the privilege that Twitter affords us to be heard by those who have power over us? Not at all, in my opinion. However, Tom had the power to marshal forces that could have silenced me by their sheer volume. That is power. I don’t have that kind of power. Most of us don’t. Most of us will be at a distinct disadvantage once a report abuse button is made available on every tweet.

I really, genuinely don’t think that many of the high profile tweeters calling for an abuse button have thought it through if they are genuinely worried about either rape threats or women being silenced. It might deal with rape threats sent to high profile women and might silence women without a profile. That does not seem to me to be a good solution. Really committed, tech savvy threat makers can disguise their location and immediately register under a new user name after a ban. Within minutes they can be sending another threat. We need to put more thought into this. I don’t have the answer myself. Maybe it is to ensure, as Mic Wright suggested, that we get better at the police response to genuine online threats?

However, I suspect that some high profile users of the site have an odd idea about what Twitter really is. Caitlin Moran was understandably upset that some of her friends had been threatened with rape, violence and bombs. She wanted something done about it. My request is to please reconsider whether this solution will work for all women, or just a powerful in crowd. Twitter isn’t a metaphorical Shoreditch House with a big window onto which we proles are allowed to press our greasy noses and enjoy the cavortings of the gilded few, even if India Knight seems to think it is. You butt in on her chats with other bona fide newspaper columnists at your peril! It’s a far more inclusive place than that, where the voices of those of us without ready access to the national press can be heard.

To me, a report abuse button represents an opportunity for those with power to abuse that power. It threatens to make Twitter less democratic and more elitist. Free speech matters. Those who protect it should never be belittled. It is too precious and too hard won for that. I doubt I will receive a response from Caitlin to my polite question. After all I am a nobody and I only have this crappy blog on which rarely post, rather than an actual newspaper column.

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Does Megan Stammers’ disappearance raise uncomfortable questions about trust in schools?

The story of 15 year old Megan Stammers’ disappearance with her 30 year old Maths teacher has brought back some uncomfortable memories for me. Particularly when I read that the school had reason to suspect a relationship for many months without informing Megan’s parents or the police. To right thinking people this scenario seems incredible, especially when one considers that only three years ago a teacher from the Bishop Bell, Megan’s school, had been sentenced to four years in prison for grooming two girls aged 15 and 16 for sex, via social media. Sadly, when I think back to my own school experience it seems all too predictable.

The state comprehensive I attended throughout the latter part of the 1980s was a high performing school in a resolutely middle class area. During my time at the school it ranked in the top ten state schools for A level results. To the casual observer, the role taken by most parents, everything seemed fine. No-one would have guessed the extent of the grooming and sexual relationships taking place in the school. Teachers openly flirted with each other and pupils. Sexual relationships were barely concealed. I remember going to hand an essay in to one of my teachers after school only to have my knock on the door met with a panicked “Hold on a second!” from within, despite this being a prearranged meeting. When I was allowed to enter I saw my teacher and another teacher affecting nonchalance. However, while my teacher was wearing her jumper, her blouse was on the floor under a desk.

A friend was once discussing an A level project with a teacher in his office when they became aware of a couple having sex in the neighbouring room. They spoke more loudly to try to cover the noise. The teachers involved in this tryst were married to other people. One of the pair, a man of in his fifties, would later go on to have a lengthy affair with a six form girl. The female teacher involved would later go on to stalk a 15 year old male pupil, after the breakdown of her marriage, while he tried to carry out his part time job at a petrol station. She would return to buy petrol several times a day.

Another teacher was well known to have revealed himself in the school building to group of girls. He went on sick leave for an extended period. We were told he had hepatitis. He later returned to recommence his flashing career. This time on a coach during a school trip. He was in his late fifties.

A particularly grisly incident involved a teacher in his forties who had been giving a female pupil private lessons since she was 13 years old. Two years later it came out that they had been having a relationship and she had been on the pill during that time. She was a very withdrawn, physically immature looking girl who had few friends. The situation was made worse by the fact that the teacher’s own son was also a pupil at the school and he had to endure everyone knowing about his father. I couldn’t remember what happened to this teacher, so assuming he was reported as everyone knew about it, I googled him. It transpires that he merely moved to another school a few miles away.

How on earth was this situation allowed to continue? I have some idea. Some of the most popular teachers in the school cultivated an insidious ‘them and us’ atmosphere, with the ‘them’ being parents and the ‘us’ being teachers and pupils. This was particularly noticeable in the open mockery of parent governors. The suggestion was that parent governors were out to make life harder for pupils but the teachers would protect us from any such attempt. We would receive treats such as being allowed to leave early or just sit and chat in class rather than do any work. We loved it! Of course, looking back on this now, the teachers were looking to protect themselves, not us, and we were being duped into believing that they were on our side.

One of the main culprits was my form tutor. He taught a cool, edgy subject and was an avowed Marxist who used lesson time to mock the lives of our middle class parents. A charismatic man, he had quite a fan club amongst female pupils despite wearing Jesus sandals with socks and carrying a haemorrhoid cushion into lessons. At one sixth form party he spiked the non alcoholic punch with his home brew which resulted in some of us getting into quite a state. Gradually, I had become aware of his expressing more than a teacherly interest in me. It was an uncomfortable feeling. We didn’t wear uniform in the sixth form and I had a top with the Warehouse logo across the front and my tutor loudly declared that he had misread it as ‘Whorehouse’ before looking markedly at my short skirt. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, even though I had done nothing wrong. During my entire secondary school career my mother was gravely ill, eventually succumbing to her cancer in my final A level year. I returned to school after my mum’s death to discover he had made an appointment to offer me ‘pastoral care’ in his narrow office. After a brief chat I got up to leave but he stood up and stepped forward, forcing me to squeeze bodily past him to get to the door. There is no doubt in my mind now that he was trying to take advantage of my vulnerable state. Later, at a leaving party with teachers and pupils, some friends were flirting with him when he openly declared that he wanted to have sex with me. Thankfully, the idea made me feel ill. He was in his late forties at the time. I was 18.

Some would say that there is nothing wrong with that type of behaviour. Some have said that about Jeremy Forrest. Megan Stammers looks pretty womanly in some pictures but inside she is an inexperienced child. The danger to her is less the physical relationship, that she could well have had with a boy her own age, and more the mental pressures that a much older man with the baggage of failed relationships can exert on her. He does not seem to have her interests in the forefront of his mind. Rather, she appears to be being used to make him feel better in the wake of his failed marriage.

There are many questions to be answered by Megan’s school and this is an issue that deserves the sharpest focus. It is my fear that incidences like this all are too common. I have been left with a powerful residual anger at my school for failing to protect pupils from harm, but it was in the interests of most in positions of power at the school to continue to conceal their failings. We cannot allow power to continue to be abused in this manner in our schools.


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The Lib Dem conference and tax myths about the rich

The Lib Dem conference has been in full flow this week and they have left us in no doubt as to who they consider to be public enemy no.1: those pesky, tax avoiding richies! Damn their hides, they do everything they can to squirrel their funds away to avoid the noble duty of contributing to our government spendathon. They probably eat money. Further spending cuts are rejected as they will “harm the poor” so the richest 10% have been singled out for the shouldering of a greater tax burden to deal with the deficit. No mention of cutting the needless benefits paid to this financially comfortable group, such as winter fuel and disability living allowance, it has to be in the form of new taxes, we are told.

“And why not?”, you might chunter, “we know they don’t pay their fair share. We’ve seen the reports about Jimmy Carr!”. The problem is that the odd high profile case of serious tax avoidance is not representative of how the wealthy approach tax. The facts, I am sorry to tell you, paint a rather different picture. So let’s take a look at a couple of tax myths I have heard from the podium at the Lib Dem conference this week.

Myth no.1: Unlike the poorest the rich all use tax optimal self employment structures to avoid the yoke of PAYE

This simply isn’t true. The ratio of self employed to employed at the very bottom of the income scale is very similar to the ratio at the top. In the income bracket £6,475 – £7,000 the split is 22% self employed to 66% employed. Those at the very top, earning over £1m per year, are split 29% self employed to 68% employed. So the bulk of the income of the very wealthiest people in society is paid through PAYE and subject to the highest rate of tax.

Myth no.2 The rich don’t spend their money in the UK. It is all hidden in offshore tax havens.

Quite apart from the fact that even if money is invested in tax optimal offshore structures it does not mean that it is not being spent on UK goods and services, it is not true to say that the rich do not invest in the UK. The richest in the UK are the biggest investors in UK businesses. 80% of investment income paid to those earning over £1m per year comes from dividend payments from UK companies. The more people earn from investment income in the UK, the more they are investing in UK businesses.

Once you actually start digging into the details on these issues you find the same thing again and again. Politicians love to misrepresent the facts to get you to believe that the spending taps can be left on without you personally being harmed. The rich will pay, right? Only they won’t. Ultimately you will. If you want to tax people more the money has to come from somewhere. It will have to come from reducing spend on goods, services or investment. All of which harms the UK economy and destroys jobs. Does that really sound like it will ultimately result in a reduction of the deficit?


Source: HMRC personal income statistics


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