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Subversive Cross Stitch, a Primer

  ©Holly Peacock / Flickr

©Holly Peacock / Flickr

In December 1941, when Nazi guards saw Major Alexis Casdagli’s intricate cross stitch of swastikas and eagles they considered it to be so delightful that they framed it and sent it on a tour of four other prisoner of war camps. The British officer was then commandeered into leading a cross-stitch class for forty other fellow POWs interred with him in Warburg-Dössel. In spite of these circumstances Major Casdagli was quietly pleased. Into the seemingly unremarkable border of his craftwork, in a series of discrete dots and dashes, he had cunningly stitched ‘Fuck Hitler’ and ‘God Save the King’ in Morse code.

And so began the anarchic history of Subversive Cross Stitch.

Julie Jackson was not a prisoner of war, separated from family for four years and routinely starved. Julie Jackson was in a regular job in a regular Texan town, but was being bullied by her boss. One day, at her wits end, she stopped by a craft shop on the way home and picked up a sampler. After stitching the ornate border of pink flowers Julie Jackson went rogue.
“I decided to stitch the word ‘Fuck’ right in the centre,” said Julie. “It felt so great!”

The juxtaposition of the petite and the profane was so popular with colleagues and friends that it inspired her into weeks of prolific subversive stitching.

The simple expression of ‘Fuck’ led to a pastel coloured ‘Go Fuck Your Self’, and later ‘Fuck The Dumb Shit’. Once a floral frame or line of ducklings had been completed, Julie threaded whatever felt right: ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ or ‘Bitch, Please!’ or simply ‘whatever’.

“Embroidery is such a traditional craft,” says Julie, “and, especially if you're stitching in public, the sentiments you're stitching are your little secret. You may LOOK very innocent and charming, working away in silence, but if they only knew...”

But the purpose of Julie’s efforts is not to shock or cause offense. There is a multitude of ways in which subversive cross stitch is different from an angrily scrawled expletive, which can be quite impetuous and rash. Stitching the words ‘Fuck Cancer’ takes time and determination and a very certain sense of purpose. And therein lies one of its most immediate pleasures. Catharsis. Release.
And mischief.

 

In addition to the private satisfaction and amusement that this version of the craft can bring, sharing the resulting creations is irresistible. And if there is one thing that the world wide web has taught us over its brief history, it’s that no matter how peculiar or esoteric your interests or desires are, there is a reassuring/disturbing number of people out there who share your passion. Once Julie Jackson uploaded pictures of her craftwork onto the internet people began emailing her for patterns, and then began breaking the rules themselves. It wasn’t too long before the chic purveyor of eccentric taste that is Graham Norton featured subversive cross stitch on his show, and subsequently became the proud owner of ‘Homo Sweet Homo’, stitched and framed by Julie herself.

And then came a publishing deal with Chronicle Books to include her patterns and instructions into a book: ‘Subversive Cross Stitch: 33 designs for your surly side’. Better still, the book was released in Holland. Which meant that a team of academics had to find a Dutch version for every sweary English idiom like ‘Keep Dat Ass Busy’. Unfortunately the inspiration for the technicoloured ‘Pussy Got Me Dizzay!’ sampler came too late for its inclusion into the book, and subsequent translation into Dutch.

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Subversive Cross Stitch
By Julie Jackson

In the meantime, it has become clear that, from cupcakes to comic books, old-fashioned hobbies are being revitalised on a huge scale. Stitch and Bitch circles are bringing together a new generation of young knitters, and websites like Pintrest are devoting pages to ingenious and creative takes on traditional crafts. What sets Julie Jackson and Subversive Cross Stitch apart is the challenge of making something that undermines and contrasts with the nauseatingly twee patterns of the past, and that is witty and refreshing – in a small space. And what keeps Julie going is reading through the submissions from her online community on the group’s Flickr page. One of her recent favourites is a sumptuous and ornamental piece, full of small birds, which reads ‘Nightingales Are Dicks’.

As with many large groups of enthusiasts, subversive cross stitchers sometimes wonder what they could create if they were to join together on a large scale project. Regular cross stitchers have set the world record for the largest ever piece of stitching with a 9.20m x 4.05m depiction of ‘The Battle of Grunewald’. Using 150kms of thread they produced an elaborate, epic and bloody copy of the painting by Jan Matejko, replete with horses, guns and death. If Julie Jackson could find the time and volunteers, she would be tempted to break that record with a defiant 10m x 5m piece which would simply read ‘Fuck War’.

And with the new found celebrity that has come with creating this unique community and business, Julie Jackson is now aware that she has a public image to maintain. As somebody who has found fame with her sharp and irreverent use of words she is now aware that that there will be interest into her last statement to the world that will be stitched onto her tombstone. What does she want her epitaph to read?

‘Fuck’

“Because, you know, I'm dead? Seriously? Fuck. Who's going to mind the store?”

Join in the anarchy at subversivecrossstitch.com

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When The Phone Rings

  ©Atilla Kafell/Flickr

©Atilla Kafell/Flickr

A handwritten envelope is now an unusual thing to receive through the letterbox.

I wonder if the postman notices. I wonder if he’s curious. Or even if he feels a slight thrill at the thought of the personal correspondence.

It’s a letter from the Samaritans. A request for a reference. Somebody that I know wants to volunteer.

The seven questions they have are very exacting:

“Samaritans service is based around key qualities including acceptance, warmth, genuineness and adaptability. How do you think the applicant would meet these key qualities?”

A few months later, on a bitterly cold Sunday evening, after dinner, I ask her Question 3: What skills does she have that would help in volunteering in that role?

She purses her lips, and then wipes her finger across them as if she were rubbing them out. Her hand then falls to hold her elbow.

“Some people don’t actually think about why people are a certain way,” she begins, uncommitted.

“Every single thing that happens to a person you can see that it’s been moulded that way by some event, or by something. I think it’s one of those concepts that if you get your head around it you can understand it. Whereas for some people, it’s like a theory you can learn but they don’t actually understand.”

Most of us have enough trouble deciphering others when they are stood right in front of our face; lips moving, eyebrows twitching, hands tense. Over the phone the only sense that our relative blindness heightens is our frustration.

Each time a volunteer picks up the phone the caller is unknown to them and often in distress.

“I think the hardest thing is probably that you, obviously, can’t prepare what you are going to say to people; because you never know what somebody is going to say on the end of the phone when it rings.”

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when telephones were an anathema to her. Job advertisements were quietly discarded if that word was mentioned prominently as a duty within the first three sentences. For several months after university her CV may as well have read ‘incommunicado’.

But next it would read: ‘Support Worker, Wythenshawe: role included night shifts in supported housing, working with distressed single parent women and persistently ringing for the police and ambulance service’.

After moving back to her parents’ house in a rural village in the North-East she had time away from city life, to switch off, take care of herself, indulge her interests even. But while searching for work in the local area she heard that the Samaritans were recruiting volunteers again. “Being unemployed meant that I had the time to do something like that,” she recalls. “In the past I’ve always been at work or having shifts.”

Shortly after enrollment a seemingly uninspiring job interview is followed an hour later with a job offer: ‘40 hours per week as an Occupational Therapy Assistant at a secure mental health unit’.

Two weeks later I get a phone call. It’s five thirty five. I press accept and hear crisps rapidly crunching. With a finger pushed into my left ear my right can make out the words: “Where are you?!”

“Train,” I complain. “You?”

“Car park outside Samaritans.” She responds

“Already?”

“Finished work late so there was no point going home to come out again.”

When it floods, when it snows, when the older volunteers get patronising one evening, I remind her that it’s a lot to take on with a demanding job.

“I’d understand if you couldn’t be arsed with it...” I actually say.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re looking after yourself first and foremost...” The autopilot in my brain chirps.

“Yeah, I’d love to be able to go home and get a cup of tea!” She smiles. “But as soon as I get [to Samaritans] time goes quite quickly. It’s alright. I enjoy it. But, yeah, when you’ve just finished work and it’s cold, I always think: ‘Ah no!’ But then it’s alright. I’m pleased to have done it.”

  ©Glenn Brown/Flickr

©Glenn Brown/Flickr

On that bitter Sunday I ask her about how she talks to the callers.

‘You need to be aware that you just need to sit and listen, and encourage them to speak and sound really friendly and non judgemental. Some of them haven’t got anyone else to talk to, [it’s enough] just for them to feel like they are being listened to.

“Some might have problems with their family or with work or something and they don’t feel like they can actually say all of the stuff they want to get out.”

It’s seems bittersweet, that they end up talking to an anonymous young woman sat in a non-descript office.

“I think people probably do talk to other people, but then sometimes the responses they get from [them] might be enough to make the situation worse; if they don’t understand them, or if they get angry because they maybe feel implicitly criticised.

“Or they haven’t got anywhere and they’ve spoken to their only friend they’re like; ‘what else have they got left then?’”

I wonder aloud “why people don’t deal well when somebody comes to them with such a big issue?”

“Because everybody feels like they’ve got to help.” She says with conviction. “Like they have got to say the right thing. Whereas all you really need to do sometimes is to listen to people to let them get it off their chest. And just for that person to know that someone is actually listening to them. And taking them seriously.”

It almost sounds easy. Or at least if not easy then obvious.

“So where friends make the big mistake...” I begin.

“...is because they’re too involved already.” She clarifies.

“Or that they’re trying too hard to offer solutions?” I ask.

“Or that they’ve got their own agenda already.” She adds. “Even if they don’t realise it. Because they’re already involved in the situation.”

The request for a reference also wanted to know if “the applicant has any views or attitudes that would conflict with the Samartians’ Vision, Mission and Values”.

The Vision is “that fewer people die by suicide”. But this Vision is balanced by the Samaritans’ stance on ‘Self-Determination’. Their policy is that “Callers remain responsible for their own lives and do not lose the right to make decisions even if that decision is to take their own life.”

When some people call they are intent on suicide: “[They] start talking it through,” she says, “they vent out. [Sometimes] their conversation changes and before they know it they’re like; ‘actually I feel a bit better now I’ve got it off my chest, it doesn’t feel quite as bad.’

“The Samaritans might offer to ring them back the next day. Have a bit of a chat. And for them to know there’s somebody there who actually cares.

“Even to say ‘we’ll ring you tomorrow is something for them to hold onto.”

But sadly there are times where the conversation doesn’t suddenly change. The caller remains intent on ending their life. Sometimes the Samaritans are “there just to make sure they’re not alone while they’re doing it, so at least it won’t be as miserable for them.”

The final question in the reference asks me to “please give any other information that you feel would be helpful.” They also invite me to “continue on a separate sheet, if necessary”.

But it isn’t necessary.

I intended to complete it. To sign it, to date it and to print my name at the bottom. I planned to fold it into thirds and seal it inside the stamped and handwritten return envelope.

But I was busy at first. Then a bit tired. Then angry that I had left it so long. Then embarrassed. I was evasive when asked about it. Then it got lost.

I called to ask for a replacement but they told me I didn’t need to bother anymore.

The Samaritans have a fact sheet for the media; guidelines for reporting suicide. They suggest sensitive phrases to use and dispel common myths.

Myth number four states: “If a person is serious about killing themselves then there is nothing you can do.”

Everybody told me this. When I argued and when I cried; “there’s nothing you could have done.”

  ©a_marga/Flickr

©a_marga/Flickr

 

He sent me a message. It was November 17th 2006. We hadn’t spoken in a while and he wanted to catch up. He sounded breezy, light-hearted.

At school we were always paired up by teachers. I was meant to be a good influence on him.

I intended to reply to him, but I was busy. It was my second year at university. He hadn’t applied. I would compose a message in my head. I wondered what I should tell him. I wondered what I should ask.

 

Soon it was November 24th. It was early in the evening and I had already had a drink. I was young. My computer was beeping. A girl from school had logged on and was typing to me on MSN Messenger. I had set my status to Away as a default. Another beep, and then four, five, six more. I walked over, opened up the alerts.

“We need to talk NOW! Seriously! Call me.”

 

I will accept that replying to his message might not have made the difference. But what I know is that I didn’t respond. And not responding gives you no chance of helping.

When the phone rings, she picks it up.

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Losing My Edge

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Losing My Edge

 

It’s 2011 and I’m sat in my sister’s car. Her stereo is permanently tuned to Radio 1, and in eighteen months time she’ll update her Facebook status with a  : (  on the morning of Chris Moyles’ final breakfast show.

Some soppy, non-descript r’n’b song starts up, the singer sounding desperately sincere. Having withheld my opinions on the presenters, throughout the news report and in spite of the tweeting listeners, I wilfully break our musical détente for a matter of public interest.

“Did you hear what he just sang?!” I cry out.

My sister gives a distracted tut-and-sigh which I immediately protest.

I believed I’d just heard lyrics that must surely be a spoof. Lyrics that seemed almost sociopathic in their comprehension of what a person should hope to offer their significant other.

An aberration in the history of songwriting.

I believed the world would share my hyperbolic vitriol, and that this song would be universally panned.

The song was Grenade by Bruno Mars. And I was wrong.

 

By itself, this was not enough to make me wish to leave the country. But when the opportunity arose to temporarily move to the other side of the world it made the decision easier. The outward journey, to New Zealand, via Asia confirmed that Grenade had gone viral, but the return journey through the United States confirmed my worst fears of a pandemic. The usually reliably-fundamental Americans had forsaken the sanctity of marriage en masse, and were now singing along with Bruno about getting wed as a dumb prank to alleviate boredom.

Maybe music isn’t made for me anymore.

Maybe I am losing my edge.

 

But, a few months later, in a hip shop in Chicago I stop still. Over an electro-disco beat somebody is wistfully crooning: “Dance with me until I feel alright”. Like buying framed art for your living room wall or saying no to that sixth pint of beer, this is a sentiment that could only be appreciated by people older than twenty-five. James Murphy, frontman of LCD Soundsystem was forty when he recorded this track.

I type the most distinctive of the lyrics into my phone which I later Google, and then listen to the song again on Youtube. My mum would have been suitably impressed. My friends would wonder why I didn’t use Shazam, or some other new app. (But I was on Facebook in 2005! When you needed a university email address and your finger on the pulse!!)

When my sister joined that social networking site it immediately lost its cultural cache. Not that she is innately uncool though. Back in the nineties I used to steal CDs from her. She was my source of new, cutting edge music, but somewhere along the way she grew up and gave up. I first noticed it when we were driving to Manchester a couple of years ago. The White Stripes came on the radio and She Turned The Volume Down.

  ©Cliff Byrd/Flickr

©Cliff Byrd/Flickr

And there I was. In 2011, in that same car. But this time I’m reaching for the volume control. Not for the first time was I railing against something popular, but out of sheer frustration I heard myself question what had happened to “proper pop music” and also wonder aloud what had happened to “proper lyrics”.
Somewhere in between The Strokes’ first and fourth albums I had gotten old.

Nothing quite confirms that you are losing you edge more than when the “new” bands that you discover turn out to be defunct. (Except for realising that you won’t be able to buy standing-room only tickets to see them live and feeling a slight tinge of relief.)

But LCD Soundsystem changes that. From the sudden blast of distorted machine gun bursts - reminiscent of the crunching guitar chorus of Creep - in Dance Yrself Clean, to the dreaming, heart wrenching longings of Home, their third and final album This Is Happening reawakens that raw, intense excitement and connection with music that had started to heal over.

This is a record by a man who clearly has an extensive record collection, but the influences (Talking Heads, David Bowie) feel as though they have been percolating, and assimilating themselves into the overall sound rather than being ripped off wholesale. The lyrics have an assured perspective to them. It takes exhausted experience to be able to say “From now on/I want what I want”, and when James Murphy pleads with us to “Shut the door on terrible times…[and] forget a terrible year”, it doesn’t feel like it’s the first person who has asked that of us recently.

The album’s lead single Drunk Girls is visceral and inanely riotous, while being both perceptive and irreverent it is irresponsibly catchy.  All I Want channels Arcade Fire and the Velvet Underground on a song detailing the unsalvageable unravelling of a relationship, with loose, noodling guitars overwhelming and eventually drowning out Murphy’s vocals.

Pow Pow and You Wanted A Hit are extended streams of consciousness whose seeming randomness and nonchalance belie a witty charm and literacy.

But this is an album primarily to be felt, and on the first track we are asked not to “kill it with close inspection” but rather dance ourselves clean.

This Is Happening is not considered radio friendly. With some songs in excess of seven minutes they contravene the accepted boundaries for length.

So the next time I am out driving with my sister I bring along the CD to give her an introduction. She taps along her feet to the opening track until it explodes with a cacophony of drums and synths.

She grimaces at the noise of it all. She goes to turn the volume down.

And I smile. A deeply satisfied, youthful smile.

 

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Richard Neutra: The Austrian Architect Who Designed California

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Richard Neutra: The Austrian Architect Who Designed California

The West Coast of the United States is physically, culturally and environmentally distanced from Vienna, yet one of Austria’s most famous residents helped design the quintessential modernist houses that pepper the hills of Los Angeles and the Californian desert. We discover more about the life and work of influential architect Richard Neutra.

Read the full article here

Perhaps the biggest testament to his abilities is the fact that his clients lived in their homes for decades, reluctant to leave a space that was designed with an understanding of exactly how they lived.

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A Foodie's guide to Napier: Eating out in the Art Deco city

 Emporium Bar | © Art Deco Masonic Hotel

Emporium Bar | © Art Deco Masonic Hotel

Risen out of the ashes of a devastating 1931 earthquake, Napier is a sun-drenched city famous for its pristine Art Deco architecture and surrounded by an abundance of Hawke’s Bay wineries.  Over 90% of the buildings in Napier were razed by that earthquake, but fortunately the rebuilding of this ruined city coincided with a prevailing style of sunbeams and opulence and ethereal motifs. This bold and optimistic Art Deco ethos has come to define the city, extending to the people of Napier who seem influenced by the confident, carefree attitudes of the Roaring Twenties.

Read the full article here

High-end dinning is on offer in this coastal city at Pacifica, but within a refreshingly relaxed and endearing setting. New Zealand’s familial, unpretentious and welcoming spirit abounds in this restaurant, set in a weathered beach bungalow.

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Nicholas Payton Profile

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Nicholas Payton Profile

 Photo courtesy of nicholaspayton.com

Photo courtesy of nicholaspayton.com

If Jazz was looking for a saviour the obvious choice might not be the man who seems intent - on the outside, at least - to confront and challenge everything we think we know about the genre. But Nicholas Payton, virtuoso horn-player and writer of the provocative essay 'Why Jazz isn't cool anymore', is determined to reclaim this music from conservative record executives and force his fellow artists to keep innovating.  

Read the full article here

The reverberations and self-reflection that his 124-line treatise inspired throughout his respective field is profound.

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Profile on Chris Mullins

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Profile on Chris Mullins

Talking to the former Sunderland MP about politics and posterity

 

In Mowbray Park, Sunderland there is an imposing bronze statue of industrialist and former MP John Candlish. It was built five years after his death in 1874 to recognize his outstanding contribution to the city.

Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South for fifteen years longer than John Candlish but he says he “entertains no such expectations” for his career to be commemorated in such a way. The region that Chris Mullin was elected to represent in 1987 would have been almost unrecognizable to Candlish who, just over a hundred years before, was responsible for the largest shipbuilding town in the world.

In his three volumes of highly acclaimed diaries Chris Mullin is frank about the limitations and frustrations he faced both in Parliament and back home. When asked about his achievements during his time as MP for Sunderland South he begins by outlining his regrets.

“There are a lot of things I wish I had achieved…Myself and my colleagues were forever being called in at the last minute in attempt to save factories and shipyards that were going under, and there were some quite big battles. And I'm sorry to say we failed in just about all of them. I don't think anything, the struggle over the shipyards or the brewery, none of them resulted in those surviving.”

Although disarmingly modest by nature Mullin doesn’t need much prompting to recount the examples of successful regeneration projects that followed this industrial decline.

“Doxford International, the business park on the outskirts of town. Well that was a green field 15 years ago, now 7500 people work there. Of course Nissan has been an enormous success. That really has done wonders for the local economy. [There’s also] The University’s riverside campus where one of the old shipyards used to be. There is a promenade along the front, all the dereliction has gone and you've got a wonderful university campus. Sunderland has come up a long way in the last 10 or 15 years.”

But the former MP doesn’t assume individual credit for each of the successes that Sunderland experienced during this time. He is quick to point out that “unless you are one of the top politicians, you’re only actually a small cog in quite a large wheel”. For Chris Mullin there was a great deal of satisfaction to be found in the work he could do directly with the residents of the city. “I quite liked the surgeries because although you weren’t always able to change the big picture you could sometimes make a difference in an individual constituent’s life.”

During the recent public lecture at the University of Sunderland Mullin took a wry pleasure in recounting tales of the opposition he faced when he first stood for election from tabloid newspapers.

“Rejoycing was not unconfined.” He remembers.

The Sun, who nicknamed him “Crackpot Chris”, had also printed the headline “Looney MP Backs Bomb Gang” in relation to his campaign to free the six men who were convicted of carrying out the Birmingham Pub Bombings. But in 1991 when the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six were quashed Chris Mullin began to see a change in his political fortunes and he became “respectable”. Despite this improved reputation, and the opportunities for promotion that it conferred, Mullin was keen to maintain his integrity. His promotion to Minister for Africa entitled him to a ministerial car and driver, but he sought to avoid the fleeting trappings of office. “I discovered when I became a Minister that, not entirely to my surprise, the numbers 3 and 159 buses continued to run past my front door even though I was a Minister. So I continued to get on.”

When the expenses scandal broke the claims from the former Sunderland South MP caused some light relief when it was reported that, as opposed to claims for plasma screen TVs from some colleagues, he had claimed $45 for a license for his black and white TV.

By the time this particular scandal broke Mullin had already decided that he would retire from politics. He said he preferred to leave when people would be asking “why” he was stepping down rather than people demanding to know “when”.

When he made this decision Chris Mullin recalls feeling “a great deal of angst and doubt as to whether any useful role awaits me outside the world of politics”. But the success of his three volumes of diaries and the political thriller A Very British Coup, have led to a large number of invitations to speak at lectures and literary festivals, and also a return to his former career in journalism.

And perhaps he should be grateful, not just for the continued interest in his writing but, of the fact that he has been afforded the modern 21st century equivalent of his likeness being cast in bronze.

He and his work have been recorded for posterity on prime time television.

Recently he was offered a walk-on part in the remake on Channel 4 of his novel A Very British Coup, now titled Secret State.

“That’s my acting career peaked!” Mullin says of his five second cameo.

Let’s just hope that when it comes to air he manages to watch it on a colour TV.

 

Secret State courtesy of Channel4.com

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On giving prisoners the vote

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On giving prisoners the vote

  ©secretlondon123/Flickr

©secretlondon123/Flickr

The European Court for Human Rights has ruled that it is illegal for the UK to have a complete ban on prisoners being able to vote in elections. In a survey for You Gov last year 69% of the public said that they believed no prisoners at all (irrespective of the length of their sentence) should be allowed to vote.

 John Hirst was the man who successfully petitioned the ECHR to overturn the UK’s blanket ban.

 John Hirst also spent 25 years in jail after killing his landlady with an axe.

Is it possible to agree with him?

People who commit monstrous crimes are not necessarily monsters. If they were, things would be easy. But they aren't and it is one of the experiences of life.”
―Bernhard Schlink

 

There was nothing easy for Nina Burton-Harris following her mother’s death at the hands of John Hirst. In an interview with The Guardian she reported that she wasn’t allowed to identify her mother’s body at the police station because of the nature of the crime.

Concepts like redemption and forgiveness, which are usually argued over abstractly when discussing crime and prisons, are difficult for her to consider when the consequences of her mother’s murder are still profoundly affecting her 27 years later.

She said that she will never forgive the man who took her mother away. An event that led to the break-up of her relationship of her fiancé and her being proscribed tranquilisers, and an event that she believes changed her father irrevocably and led to his early death.

The notes from the trial of John Hirst recount the murder of Mrs. Bronia Burton as follows:

“On the evening of June 23 they were watching television when Mrs Burton asked the defendant (Hirst) to collect some coal from the shed. He went to the shed, got the coal and at the same time picked up a heavy hand axe. He returned to the living room, put the coal on the fire, and then approached Mrs Burton and hit her, perhaps seven times, on the head with the axe. He then went to the kitchen to make coffee and drank it, waiting for Mrs Burton to die."

Hirst eventually spent 25 years in prison.

In 2001 he decided to sue the High Court over the law that prevents all prisoners from voting, and lost. Undeterred, he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, and in 2004 they ruled in his favour.  This ruling consequently required the U.K. to amend legislation that had been set down in the Forfeiture Act 1870 and to allow some prisoners the vote. The justification was that the current law violates Protocol 1, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which provides citizens “the right to regular, free and fair elections”.

This was not a popular proclamation.

  ©JamesRussell/Flickr

©JamesRussell/Flickr

 

When You Gov surveyed 2097 adults in 2011 they asked people to decide which of the following options best reflected their view on this matter:

-          All prisoners should be allowed to vote (8%)

-          Prisoners serving less than four years should be allowed to vote (3%)

-          Prisoners serving a sentence less than one year should be allowed to vote (9%)

-          Prisoners serving less than 6 months should be allowed to vote (6%)

-          No prisoners should be allowed to vote (69%)

-          Don’t know (5%)

As Neil O’Brien, director of think tank Policy Exchange, who commissioned the survey, wrote in the Daily Telegraph “This isn’t what the public want”. He added: “And this on a question strongly loaded towards giving prisoners the vote”.

In response to the ECtHR’s suggestion that this law was archaic and outdated and had not been properly reconsidered, Jack Straw MP and David Davis MP tabled a motion in the House of Commons to debate the matter. In the consequent vote MPs were overwhelmingly in their opposition to the ECHR’s ruling by a sum of 234 to 22.

David Cameron has gone on record declaring that the thought of subsequently being forced to give prisoners the vote makes him feel “physically sick”.

It seems though that other leaders in Europe are perhaps not as weakly stomached as Mr Cameron. The only other European countries who share the UK’s outright ban are Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Romania and Russia. The other countries either allow all prisoners to vote or have legislated that only those convicted of certain crimes or serving whole-life sentences are excluded. According to the BBC News website: “Germany's laws actually urge prisons to encourage their inmates to vote.”

 

If such a ban had never existed in the UK and was being proposed now, would the public or the press feel that this consideration would be a valid use of MPs time in Parliament when facing a potential triple-dip recession? And in the same circumstance if the introduction of such a law put the prerogative for disenfranchisement into the hands of sentencing judges how prolifically would it be enacted? Judges currently determine punishments based on parameters set by the Sentencing Council.

According to Mr. Justice Globe, speaking on the BBC News Website, there are five broad principles that inform the Sentencing Council's decisions, “protecting the public, punishing the offender, deterring crime, rehabilitating the offender and offering reparation to the victim”. Into which of these would the revocation of voting right fit?

Peter Selby, former Bishop to HM Prisons has said: “Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose of deterrence”. The European Court of Human Right similarly said that they “found no evidence to support the claim that disenfranchisement deterred crime and considered that the imposition of a blanket punishment on all prisoners, regardless of their crime or individual circumstances, indicated no rational link between the punishment and the offender”.

But there also seems to be a lack of proportionality to the ban when used as punishment. On Election Day both those imprisoned for failing to pay their TV license and convicted serial killers are similarly prevented from casting a vote.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform believes that “In general the public mood is punitive and the suggestion that prisoners should be able to vote is seen as evidence of ‘being soft’ on prisoners.”

Interestingly, the turnout at the last general election in 2010 was 65% of the eligible voting population; so it would appear to follow that at least 4% of those polled by YouGov would deny prisoners the vote while they themselves choose not to vote.

 

  ©Ivana Vasilj/Flickr

©Ivana Vasilj/Flickr

It is much easier to maintain that those who commit crimes are simply evil. To see the world in black and white, where the distinction between good and evil is a cavernous gulf, and not where wrongdoing occurs on a sliding scale. The public may think that the question as to whether to extend any kind of suffrage to prisoners is an obvious “no”, but an immediately hostile and emotion response to crime leaves little opportunity to tackle its causes and rehabilitate offenders.

In the book A Place of Redemption: A Christian Approach to Punishment and Prison it is argued that it is unrealistic to simply hope that each prison sentence relieves the outside world of another problem: “For too long there has been a tendency to consider prison at the ultimate backstop for all society’s problems. This must stop. Prison must not be a dustbin for the problems society fails to address elsewhere… Prisons without hope are mere storage pens. Our present penal policy is tantamount to a sentence of banishment and little more…”

Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty has said: “A victim of a crime may feel understandable revulsion if a convicted prisoner re-builds any kind of life but this re-building can prevent future crime. Depriving some people of their liberty is vital for public protection but depriving all prisoners of the vote is as petty and counter-productive as depriving them of books or communication with their families.”

But are there positively active reasons for giving all prisoners the vote?

It’s not that simple says Andrew Neilson: “Giving prisoners the right to vote would have some symbolic value in rehabilitation, as it is a step away from the kind of civic alienation which poses a barrier to people desisting from offending.  It is much harder to evidence a meaningful impact in something like reoffending rates, however.”

This positive symbolism at least contains belief in the potential for reforming offenders. Maintaining the opposite surely can have no constructive outcomes.

 Prison Library  ©Gavin Harper/Flickr

Prison Library ©Gavin Harper/Flickr

For John Hirst a turning point in his life came when Stephen Shaw, then Director of the Prison Reform Trust visited his prison and handed him a copy of Prison Rules: A Working Guide. This transformed Hirst’s perception of how to challenge authorities and alleged abuses of power in a constructive way. Speaking to The Independent in 1996 he recalled how he used to try and get his own way with violence, but not only was that easily contained by prison guards it also diminished his authority when later posing legitimate complaints. For him, reading extensively on Law and giving himself an education, gave him a voice. This knowledge was empowering, and a much more productive and successful way to enact change than violence ever had been.

In spite of their legal obligation, and a lack of logical justification for the status quo, the government appears to be stalling for time.

Their tactic of postponing amending the current law by publishing a draft bill on potential options for allowing some prisoners to vote seeks to outwardly show kind of progressive gesture to the European Court. But, according to Joshua Rozenberg writing in The Guardian, the re-enacting of the ban to cover those sentenced to six months, or four years or more both may not suffice either:  "There are arguments that a ban determined by sentence length only remains 'general, automatic and indiscriminate', and as such incompatible."

Despite the loud and provocative protestations coming from parliament about giving rights to rapists and burglars and paedophiles, Andrew Neilson believes that MPs are less concerned about the ethics of disenfranchising prisoners and more concerned with their authority being superseded by the European Court: “Ultimately I think it is the ECtHR which is the target of much of the media and political opposition. So the real issues driving opposition to prisoner voting would be concerns around parliamentary sovereignty and an antipathy to all things ‘Europe’.”

That the real issue might not be about prisoners voting at all is reflected in the incongruous current legislation on electoral fraud. It is believed that those who commit electoral fraud – who actively seek to manipulate elections themselves for their own personal, financial or political gains – can duly be trusted to vote again after a ban of just five years. So it seems inconsistent to suggest that the government’s opposition to the ruling is simply based on ethical considerations about criminals being given an equal say in society and not a long held opposition to the ECtHR.

The UK was instrumental in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights, and when it ratified the document in 1951 it wilfully gave up a small amount of sovereignty to the associated Court. And let it not be forgotten as well, say Humanrightsblog.com that “much of what the Court (and, more broadly, human rights law) does is to protect unpopular groups from popular but aggressive state acts”.

The Prison Reform Trust argues that “voting should not be privilege; it is a basic human right. This entitlement is not a selective reward for those who have been judged morally decent by a government”.

This idea is echoed by James Graham from Unlock Democracy who has written that “it is a mark of civilisation that the majority does not always get its way and that we respect the rights of minorities; this is the basic standard we expect all countries to respect.”

Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling and its persistent calls for the UK to act on this matter are offering the largely Europhobic government a perfect, and seemingly reasonable, opportunity to rebel against the ECtHR and use this as an excuse to withdraw from the convention.

With regards to the actual debate on prisoner voting, James Graham believes that “all sense of proportion in this debate appears to have been lost.”

At one point, in 2011, David Blackburn, writing for The Spectator, reported that the UK’s refusal to comply with the ruling could lead to an eventual “compensation liability of £143million”.

It has subsequently been reported that Chris Grayling is considering blocking prisoners from access to legal aid to try to stem this potential liability. But despite this, and other similar posturing, David Blackburn claims that parliament will not be able to escape compensation claims if they vote to keep a blanket ban on prisoner voting, even if they took the most extreme action of withdrawing from the European Convention, as they would still be legally obliged to compensate prisoners.

To maintain parliamentary sovereignty and authority and power it appears that the government may be willing to defy the European Court, and the example of many of its neighbours, and readily give prisoners thousands of pounds rather than the vote.


John Hirst has Aspergers Syndrome.

John Hirst was incessantly passed around from care homes to foster families when he was younger.

John Hirst pleaded guilty to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, but not guilty to murdering his landlady Mrs Bronia Burton with an axe. Cruelly this then caused Mrs Burton’s family to hear, and be forced to consider, the extenuating circumstances to this unprovoked murder.

Nina Burton said in her interview with The Guardian: "Yes he'd had a bad upbringing. He was sexually abused. And I do feel very sorry for him for that. But there was no reason to be a criminal. The judge said he should serve a minimum of 15 years, but I just couldn't believe it. I wanted him in prison for the rest of his life.”

Nina Burton should not be expected to agree with any leniency shown to convicted criminals. Nobody should seek to convince her that there are strong economic or philosophical or moral arguments to giving prisoners the vote, or preach to her that suffrage may improve their rehabilitation and be another factor in attempting to prevent recidivism.

But society as a whole should not be so quick to dismiss these arguments, and should demand a better standard of scrutiny from their elected representatives. And when somebody points to low voter turnout in prisons in the Republic of Ireland, at their last general election, and says that prisoners probably never voted in the past, and wouldn’t even vote if they were given the chance anyway, society should respond by asking ‘why’ and wonder if this apathy can be explained.

Why are they so dislocated and what effect has that been having? And what could happen if we helped to change this?

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The Intelligent Designer, Marc Newson: in demand and omnipresent

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The Intelligent Designer, Marc Newson: in demand and omnipresent

How do you describe the man who seems to have designed everything? Taschen has attempted to condense Marc Newson’s prolific career into just 610 pages in a new coffee table-sized tome. But the Australian-born designer, who is one of only a small number to work across a number of disciplines whilst enjoying transcontinental successes, is a hard man to pin down.

Read the full article here

What Google have done thus far, I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing. I think it looks pretty stupid.
— http://www.dezeen.com/2014/03/27/marc-newson-interview-design-industry-pathetic/

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