The Greatest Threat

I have a new heroine; her name is Halla, she’s a 49-year old Icelandic choir conductor and a fearless eco-warrior waging a one-woman war against energy corporations. Cycling around remote areas of Iceland armed with a saw and bow-and-arrow, she sabotages energy pylons, at one point hiding her face under a Nelson Mandela face mask as the authorities chase her with helicopters and drones.


Sadly, she’s not real, but the quirky protagonist in Woman at War, a fabulous film by the Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson.

How I wish she was real though, or how I wish I were her! For the world is in dire need of people who act not out of greed and a desire for power, but out of respect for the natural world as well as fellow human beings.

In response to the state of Alabama passing a law – by a vote of 25-6 – that bans abortion in almost every case, including incest and rape, my brother posted this comment on Facebook:

“At this point, I feel that Margaret Atwood is like, ‘uh, I did not write The Handmaid’s Tale as an instruction book.’”

For who can ignore the very real parallels between Atwood’s dystopian novel about a totalitarian state that controls and politicises the bodies of fertile women, and the draconic laws imposed on women’s bodies not just in Alabama, but in Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi and Georgia, states that recently passed laws banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

While pouring outrage onto the lawmakers responsible for these abortion laws, let’s not forget that the United States is not alone in having some of the most restrictive and punitive abortion laws in the world. While abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales, it constitutes a criminal offence in Northern Ireland, unless the pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk. And in the tiny British territory of Gibraltar abortion is punishable by life imprisonment.

As many opponents of the new Alabama law has pointed out, the 25 senators who voted it through were all white men. Is history not repeating itself? Are we not moving around in circles, failing abysmally to learn from the past? Could it even be the case that human progress has reached the end of what we’re capable of as a species?

While technological and scientific progress continues to seduce us into turning a blind eye to the huge environmental costs that such development demands, our ability as human beings to rise above ego, pride, greed and lust for power is much more limited. All those dystopian novels and movies from when I was young, labelled as science fiction, well, they don’t seem so fictional anymore.

Speaking of rich white men with big egos and unchecked power. Is there anything more dangerous in the world than that type of human? As evidenced by the 25 Alabama senators, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, to name but a few contemporary examples, the greatest threat to women, poor and marginalised people, and our planet as a whole is rich white men.

That is why we desperately need people like my fictional Icelandic heroine.


Babies vs Prozac

My twitter feed is currently full of comments like ‘I’m no fan of the royal family but…’ in reference to the birth of Prince Harry and Meghan’s son. And many people have commented on the lovely photo featuring the Queen, Prince Philip, Harry, Meghan, the baby and Meghan’s mother, that was released yesterday. Whatever you think of the royal family, it is a beautiful picture and the Queen’s enthusiasm as her youngest great-grandchild is introduced to her is plain to

The birth of Harry and Meghan’s son, the first mixed heritage baby to be born into the royal family, has particular meaning to me as my children are also mixed heritage. The royal birth is perhaps particularly poignant given the proliferation of racist views in British public discourse since the EU referendum.

Brexit and royalty aside, a newborn baby is always something special: a new life, as yet unspoiled, full of potential, yet vulnerable and innocent, is something to celebrate no matter whose baby it is.

I still recall the birth of my daughters as the most magical, life-affirming moments of my life, and since then I count myself enormously fortunate to have become an aunt several times over, most recently last week, when my sister gave birth to her third child.

I sometimes say, jokingly, that I wish I could get a job that simply involved carrying around babies, because of the sheer joy it gives me to hold a baby in my arms.

What is it about cradling an infant that makes me feel so happy and full of life? It’s not just the fact that they’re adorable to look at and that they smell lovely, but, as I discovered a few years ago while holding a Guatemalan baby in my arms at a cleft-clinic in Antigua, it’s something much more profound. It’s the realisation that each baby, no matter what its circumstances, is born perfectly whole.

Baby Juan was three months old when I met him, and he was about to have his first operation to repair the cleft lip and palate, which, like me, he was born with. While I adore all babies, I admit I am somewhat partial towards cleft babies, which I consider the most beautiful babies of all. It’s just something about their eyes and their captivating cleft smiles.

Baby Juan was no exception. Luckily for me, he was in a jolly mood on the day, and perfectly happy to be held by a bunch of strangers, some of whom practically fought over him. Cradling him in my arms, his gaze meeting mine, I was almost taken aback by the sheer strength of the euphoria that radiated through me, very similar to what I experienced when I first held my newborn daughters. Whenever I’m having a rough day, I just have to take a look at the photo of baby Juan and me that sits in my study, and I feel at once a little happier.

And to the psychiatrist who once said to me, ‘you need a baby like you need a hole in the head,’ I say, babies are far more effective anti-depressants than Prozac.

Money, Money, Money

cashier-1791106_640Every Friday afternoon, right about the time when I’d really like to wind down the week with a lazy night in, I pack my daughters into the car and drive off to their swimming lessons. The 9-year old usually doesn’t mind because she loves swimming, but the 12-year old is less enthusiastic; she’d much rather hang out with her friends than suffer through a Friday evening in the company of her uncool mother.

Frankly, I’d rather not have to leave home on a Friday afternoon either but, as I tell my children, I don’t make them practice an instrument five times a week and I don’t expect them to study until their eyes bleed; but swimming lessons are non-negotiable.

But this is not a blog about the virtues of being a good swimmer. What I want to tell you about is the highlight of my Friday evening. Continue reading