Archive for July, 2010

These Red Shoes

July 17, 2010

These Red Shoes

Saturday July 17, 2010:

“It’s my dead father’s 88th birthday,” I tell the gathered women. We are in Springfield Park, hackney. Inspired by a rethinking and reworking of the Red Shoes fairy tale in which the young girl finds power and release, we are gradually adorning a pile of shoes with a range of colorful acrylic paints. The sun is shining and a sharp paint-drying breeze is blowing.

I continue to speak of my father, his life, what being forced to fight in the second world war did to him, his ambition to write and to improve himself, his discontent with his dull humdrum low paid low status job, his souring mood and deepening depression.

He retreated into bitterness, to sneering at and belittling my twin brother and my mother. I, his little girl, was mostly exempt from his contempt. I think of how the red shoes in the original story confined and punished and feel the connection with his life.

My fingers crusted with already drying red acrylic paint, I daub the smooth, shiny patent heels. Their curves, I stroke gently, massaging in the paint with my fingertips, lovingly, tenderly as though soothing sore feet.

The little girl in the original story loses her feet and has to dance on bleeding stumps. What agony must that have been? And what damage did these shoes I paint do to the woman who wore them? I imagine her, tottering unsteadily along the uneven pavements, her body thrown forward, her hips jutting in order to balance her gait, her back curved and aching.

My long hair swinging around my shoulders, I dance on high narrow heels. I marvel at the fancy footwork, ride the unsteadiness of my feet as I twirl and pirouette. As long as nobody stops me, I won’t fall down, I think, dancing on and on.

I pierce the shoes through the lace holes with wire. I hold up my shoes. They dance and jiggle on the wire.

I’ve never danced on gleaming stilettos that bit the tender foot like a knife. I’ve danced on clumpy platforms, I’ve clomped down steep hills in them, my ankles turning, hair and bag of books flying as I tumble down like a limp rag doll.

I sit on the ground and feel the stiffness growing. I massage my sore ankles before shifting, slowly lumbering up onto my feet to turn and help to make a bigger circle of women. We’ve mostly finished our painting, and now it’s time to eat.

A tripod of shoes tip-tap, heel-toe-heel-toe in the breeze, glimmering defiance in every color of the rainbow in a dance of rage and freedom.

How can anyone run away wearing these shoes? I say to myself as I examine the dangling painted shoes. So many are narrow, confining, demanding that the foot is angled callously, impossibly, pushing the toes into the ground viciously, compacting joints that in years to come will scream with pain.

How can anyone dance for joy in these bitter, narrow shoes? Who first decided that women should wear high heels like these?

I hear my grandmother moan that it hurts to walk barefoot, her toes pinched and pressed, the pain of her swollen big toe joints throbbing. And I hear other women demanding the right to wear such shoes, arguing that surely a feminist perspective should allow women the freedom of wearing what they want. And I think how incredible it is that those women are asking to be bound, indeed demand it as a right!

Freedom aside, patriarchy has dictated that women’s feet be confined, whether in broken boned foot-binding or impossibly high heeled narrow shoes. How can you dance when your feet are bound? How can you run away when they are so crushed?

Later . I turn on the radio in my kitchen. They’re talking on the woman’s hour Omnibus about high heels for men! I rub at the red paint on my fingers. Oh will my hands ne’er be clean? I’m red stained but not guilty.

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The seamless assisted journey?

July 14, 2010

The seamless assisted journey?

Wednesday July 14, 2010:

“If you’d bought your ticket through us we could have booked assistance at the time”, says the nice chap from Spanish Rail mildly. We’d spoken the day before and he gone off very helpfully to find out info. He promised to ring me back this morning and he has.

“You’ll have to go to the information desk at each station you are leaving from and ask them to help you.” he advises.

“So is this another turn up and go service then”, I ask, disbelief and anxiety edging my voice.
No apparently it’s not as it is possible to book assistance or so it seems, but only if you book through them. Booking through them would have meant I would have to make three separate transactions with three different companies and risk all the interface slips and possible additional charges that this might entail.

“Okay,” I say, checking the message, “so I go to the train station and find the information desk and ask for help. The fact that this is the first they know of my travelling isn’t going to freak them out then?” I ask.

He doesn’t know. I thank him for his help. At least he doesn’t try to make up the answer as is sometimes the tendency.

I ring Rail Europe (the folks I bought the ticket from) I am intent on checking out that the person booking my tickets didn’t leave out the opportunity to book assistance.

Gently, I probe the telesales woman. No, the original sales person didn’t miss a trick. There is no opportunity to request access assistance.

She stops and thinks. There’s a bit of a shuffling noise on the end of the phone and then she says that if I were a wheel chair user, they’d have to go to a different screen as I would have to have certain seats on the trains. I pounce and ask if that screen might also ask about other access needs. It doesn’t.

We then have a conversation (well actually I give her a bit of a lecture) about how beneficial it would be for Rail Europe to ask customers about access issues. She continues to tell me that there are no facilities in their booking system (nice to know I’m being listened too!) I continue to suggest that this is a customer comment to management and could she kindly pass it on.

During the conversation, she reveals that Rail Europe is owned by SNCF, who run the Paris transport system.

“Aha”, I say, “I’ve got an email address for access travel help in Paris run by them!” She says she knows nothing about that.

Oh for joined up thinking, I muse. The lack of it is often one of the biggest barriers to an accessible service. Facilities do exist, it’s just that none of the staff know about them and consequently, they never get used!

I’ve now given this company about ten minutes of free disability consultancy, enough is enough. I give up and courteously ring off. I need to talk to the organ grinder.

I march into the kitchen and riffle through the cupboard in search of chocolate rice cakes. Shoving two into my mouth at once, I open the back door and pad round the damp garden. It will rain soon, if the thickness of the air and its sharp coolness is anything to go by. I stroke the shiny wet leaves of the choisier, breathing deeply its sweet pinky aroma.

I contemplate the issue of turn up and go. Again, I reflect that this is what disabled people want. The thing is, it would be fabulous if only I could trust it will happen but countless incidents of being abandoned in numerous rail and air terminals have testified to the contrary.

It would be so much easier if I were not travelling alone, I think in a moment of weakness. I’m pretty sure it’s not deliberate, this indirect inference that disabled people can’t and should not be let out alone. Life is so much easier if we have a minder. And of course, when we rock up alone someone has to “deal” with us and that takes extra time.

I reflect upon how systems can remove power from and oppress those who don’t fit the mould. How soon it is that we turn it in upon ourselves. Firstly it’s with anxiety about not getting help and then with fearing to travel because we might not get help. Soon we don’t go out any more.

Thirty-five years ago, I picked up my rucksack and climbed upon a Harridge bound train at the beginning of a two months solo adventure across Europe. I travelled hopefully and fearlessly in that way teenagers do, despite being blind. Although sometimes I was a bit scared. I got there, not necessarily without an adventure or two but usually more or less in one piece.

“How did I do that?” I enquire of the rowan tree. The wind ruffles her leaves and she showers me with cool droplets of rain. Dismissing my self-limiting thoughts, I turn and walk back up the garden path. Already, my mind is turning over possibilities. If only I can capture some of that teenager’s careless courage. This could be such an adventure!

Access sans Frontiers?

July 11, 2010

Access sans Frontiers?

Wednesday July 7, 2010

It’s a full time job this sorting out access for a relatively simple journey across Europe! Doing “compliant crips) I decide to ring all the train companies and let them know that I will be travelling with them, that I’ll need assistance and what it is that I need.

I ring Euro star. The customer service assistant tells me that assistance on Euro star can’t be booked in advance, it’s a turn up and go number.

“Oh ye of little faith” I say to myself noticing that I am feeling a bit anxious about not being able to book help. I must learn to trust! The thing is, I’m so used to being required to book that when a turn up and go service is offered, I’m a bit thrown.
Anyway, the Euro star woman tells me to find a member of staff and they will sort everything out when I get there. Simple!

I ask the helpful Euro star woman if she knows about assistance for the trains on my onward journey. How might I get in contact with the train companies to let them know I’m travelling with them? She says that as of now, there’s no integrated service but it is something that Euro star are looking at.

She interrogates the web and discovers, as the Euro Rail bloke did yesterday thatElipsos, the company running the hotel train doesn’t like to be too available to its customers and there’s only a general email address. Aha,. But I have the UK number for the company running the Madrid to Malaga train. Apparently they part own the hotel train. I’ll ring them …

But I get distracted. There’s something better to do than ring up and perhaps find out that they’re not interested, there’s no support and it’s tough but I’ll just have to manage. I dance with my own form of procrastination before running out of time. I have to go to a meeting.

I mention my forthcoming train trip to my colleague at the meeting. He’s a wheel chair user and tells me that he travels frequently on hotel trains in Europe, this being his preferred way of getting to Italy. I learn that the sleepers are just like ours (somewhat inaccessible).

He describes having a miracle cure and staggering around on crutches in the narrow corridors. The staff are helpful though. He recommends that the best way to survive the trip is to drink a lot of wine at dinner and not worry about washing!

So there’s a restaurant car, I learn. I wonder what the vegetarian option is like and whether my bladder will survive a belly full of wine at dinner.

“Everyone’s very helpful,” he says reassuringly. He tells me the French are efficient but that the Italians regard him with curiosity and wander off until he yells at them to come back! I suspect the assistance is as individual as the person you encounter, although my experience of Spanish help at airports is that they are bossily casual! And if that seems a contradiction in terms, try the kind of assistance provided in the UK. When it turns up, it’s generally good. When it doesn’t, you’re stuffed!

When travelling in the UK, I am able to more easily get what I need because we share a common language. It’s the subtlety of negotiating that is difficult when speaking across language barriers, especially if either or both parties are not particularly skilled in the others’ language.

Now, I wonder, what would be the kind of handy French and Spanish phrases might I need to have about me as I travel across Europe ..

Let the train take the strain

July 6, 2010

Let the train take the strain?

I’m a frequent visitor to the South of Spain. I fly there. I hate it, the bustle and panic of airports, the demented passengers who lose all sense of courtesy and reality and are frankly lethal to encounter.

Airport staff seem to lose the ability to behave reasonably when confronted with a lone blind traveler. I don’t appreciate being confined to some out of the way place to fret about being forgotten and then frog marched via the back of the dustbins onto the plain. There I sit uncomfortably dwelling upon how and if I’m going to get off and whether I’ll ever find my luggage again!

So I thought I’d take the train! Since the advent of high speed trains across Europe it is now possible to get from London to Malaga by train in 24 hours. I take the Euro star to Paris, the overnight train to Madrid and the high speed link down to Malaga. I have to cross two capital cities and get to a hotel in Malaga to get the transfer up to the mountain (my final destination.)

The first point at issue is whether and or how to let the train companies know I am blind and need assistance or whether to trust to the kindness of strangers. Now I’ve done a lot of travelling across Europe by train in my youth. I would get on at Liverpool Street and arrive somewhat grubby and crumpled in Helsinki or somewhere else, some days later. I travelled hopefully, trusting in fellow passengers, negotiating assistance as I went. Aside from a certain incident in Eastern Holland where I was taken into protective police custody, (ahem) my travels were relatively uneventful and I usually arrived unscathed at the specified destination and time.

These days, I’m a lot more compliant and a little less trusting. I’m now working out how to book assistance. There’s no one stop shop for arranging disabled travel help across borders. I will have to negotiate with three train companies between trains, there’s the getting across two capital cities to contend with too. If it is anything like in the UK, there’ll be demarcation lines between companies I’ll have to breech. And since I went blind instead of taking my French and Spanish ‘O’ levels way back in the mists of time, I can’t rely on talking my way out of any difficulties.

So it’s not going to be as simple as getting on a train and getting off again. I’ve got a lot of preparation to do to make it possible to get where I want to go, without stress and mishap. But I tell you, the thought of not having to deal with airports and all that they contain, makes the idea of the train really quite exciting. It’ll be an adventure just like when I was young!

Our absence is required?

July 5, 2010

Our absence is required?

Twitter brings an immediate commentary to everyday and extraordinary happenings. Having learnt how to tweet on my mobile, there’s no stopping the chitter-chatter. Mobile phone in hand, I make ready for a day at the London pride Parade.

“Nothing, not even a * bottom * situation will stop me going to the London Pride Parade.” I tweet as I make my preparation.

“What a beautiful day for a show of Pride.” I enthuse, marching round the garden with a steaming cup of Lady Grey. “The sun is doing us proud.”

The phone rings. My pal announces she is not coming to Pride. It’s hot and the air is polluted, and she has breathing difficulties.

I am disappointed. Pride is a time to be with one’s sisters and brothers in struggle. I wonder whether, had she been certain of her access needs being met, she would have struggled through the discomfort to be there. I imagine it probably has partly informed her choice, though it is true, the unusually hot whether this last week has thickened and poisoned the London air to make those with breathing difficulties think twice about venturing out.

I set off to meet the PA I have hired to help me be at the event today.

We march briskly through Oxford Street. We follow a drag queen resplendent in ruby red. Her acolytes, (also bedecked in a variety of reds) guide her ceremoniously through the already hot streets.

I arrive to find orange clad access stewards aggressively defending the “safe space” against all comers.

“Alone in the safe space.” I tweet. “Where are all the crips?” I wonder.

“Can’t get here on account of any blue badge parking! I speculate, rightly as it turns out.

My phone buzzes. A text arrives. A sister “Regarder” can’t find anywhere to park and has given up and gone home. How many other disabled LGBT people have done the same, fearing the support and structures won’t be there?

“It costs $4k to suspend a parking bay in Westminster,” the head of access says a little defensively. “Twenty spaces will cost $80k. That’s out of the question.” We talk of alternatives, but this is not the time and the place. Disconsolately, I go in search of something to eat.

Someone I know rolls up. We chat for a while about this and that. “We’re one to one access stewards to crips in March safe space.” I tweet. “I feel like I’m the only blind dyke in the world.”

And I do. I think about the first march, “lesbian Strength” in 1983. Arriving alone at St Paul’s, I found a cohort of sisters led by the late and wonderful Jacquie Forster, assembled under the Sappho banner, welcoming and happy to have me with them. My community was gathered around me, although I felt I was the only blind dyke in the world, I also felt I had come home.

“Emotional as March begins.” I tweet. “Crips behind the rainbow flag, armed and emergency services in full fig behind us. Crowd cheering. Proud moment.”

I analyze my feelings. It’s something about the right to be here, about acceptance, admiration and honoring who we are. I know that I will move heaven on earth for the privilege of marching through the streets of London on this day every year. No matter how difficult it is made, whether deliberately or through ignorance, I claim my space, my right to be here.

“40 years since Gay Liberation Front began. How far we have come.” I tweet.

27 years on from my first pride, LGBT people have a level of equality. We are much more visible in all spheres of life. Equality now is about having what straights have. But is that what the GLF were about?

What happened to challenging patriarchy, to building a world where our difference could be honoured and celebrated? It’s not about “gay marriage”, well not for me it isn’t. It’s about breaking down the bricks and mortar that is the prison of established accepted hetero-normality.

Oh what a brave new world we dreamed of, way back then! Where is it now?

“I miss my pride friends. Not here because of lack of access, locked away in homes, too ill or poor to come. I tweet.

I march so that others can be free. I march on behalf of all those who can’t. I march for my friend who could not struggle through the thick polluted air only to meet inaccessibility and lack of support. I march for all those who can’t be here because they don’t have help to get here, or are locked away in residential institutions where their human rights are regularly infringed, and for those detained by the state whether in hospital or prison.

“Mostly I miss the ones who are dead.” I tweet. “Our fallen warriors. Dead by their own hands, by another’s or felled by that fatal disease.”

The suicide rate particularly amongst young LGBT people is shocking. Young gay people are homophobically bullied at school. LGBT adults are attacked and killed because of who we are.

Hate crimes are much more recognized than in the past. The police reach out to the community to try to police by consent. Yet a young police officer killed herself recently because she was homophobically bullied at work.

I remember the friends dead because of AIDS. The bright, fearless ones, laughing until they could no longer breathe. The quiet scared ones, gathering their courage to speak out about their lives so that we might all live. I IMAGINE A pink triangle of flowers, bright against the dark shiny wood of A coffin lit by the sun streaming through the tall church windows.

“The Christian Institute spills its bilious message of hate across a defiantly chanting parade. Our jeers drown their poison!

The fanatic with the megaphone sounds like every other homophobe and bigot. We’re all bound for hell. Well it’s as hot as hell on this street right now, I think, wiping sweat from my face and following my PA onto the crowded pavement.

We stand as the march goes by, she describing the sights. Here is our community in all its variety, colorful, loud and proud. Part of me wants to rush back in amongst the marchers, to claim each cause as mine with my physical body.

“But what did we struggle for?” I tweet, “To bop like disco bunnies? Where IS the politics?”

Away from the union banners, on the stage in Trafalgar Square, some unknown bloke from a reality talent show sings cover versions of chart pop songs. The crowd sings along. We push our way through the heaving sweaty “homomanity” in search of the stalls . but there are none.

“The access viewing platform is nearly non-existent. Is that a message to the LGBT crips? I tweet. “I’m going home.”

Lesbian and Gay Pride was the first ever major community event to take on access issues. What happens in events up and down the country by way of access, happened first here in London, here amongst LGBT people? But not today? The lessons of the past have been forgotten. Why?

The organizers don’t talk to Regard, (National organisation of disabled LGBT people). The rumor on the street is that they are uncomfortable with our anger about exclusion. Even so, each year, we offer advice. Each year, we ask to meet soon after the day, to review, to plan, to work together to make the next one better. And each year, there’s a deathly silence and they get on without us.

Some disabled colleagues talk of boycott. Some have simply given up. Some try to engage and get sidelined or worse.

The homophobes would like all LGBT people off the streets. Perhaps some of our non-disabled LGBT brothers and sisters would also rather we were not visible either.

Every Pride morning, I wake with a thought that perhaps today, for once, for the first time, it will be good, we will be included and everyone will have a great time.

No homophobe is going to keep me off the streets, and nor are my own community I declare to the kitchen table for want of anyone else to say it to.

I get out my mobile phone. Damn! My tweets are jammed in my outbox. I set about releasing them into Twitterland.

“Am home.” I tweet. “Feeling flat and disconnected from my community. Feel old, excluded and unwanted.”.

And into my head comes a song I wrote more than twenty years ago. The words spin round in my mind as I sit and review the day. I begin to sing, at first softly and hesitantly, then louder and more defiantly, my voice shaking with emotion as tears begin to roll down my face.

“There’s a street filled with gay people having such a ball
Skinny dykes sporting black leather and queens decked in tulle Now unless you’re able bodied and symmetrical
Well your absence is required, its time you learned the rule

And it comes as no surprise to us, it happens every day
It’s an ablest society that tries to make us pay
For being disabled lesbians and gays
But like a pain in the backside we won’t go away”