Isra – a thoroughly modern muslim

This is a conversation I have had in two halves with a young Muslim woman. The first half was at a conference in front of an audience of youth workers. The second was on the phone last week. Like most of us I know few practising Muslims. Which is hardly surprising. After all they constitute only 3% of the population. She has profoundly opened my mind about her faith.
SF If we were on the radio and I said to the audience that you were wearing the hijab; they wouldn’t see in their minds who I see in front of me now. (This is because she is wearing a bright pink hijab, a white jacket, pink flowing skirt and jewelled slippers)
IJ I know. My friends and I call out selves the Hijabi-Barbies
SF That’s the first Muslim joke I have ever heard.
IJ Yes, it’s been a bit dull since the 16th century
SF And that’s the second
What does the hijab mean to you?
IJ I can’t remember a moment when I decided to wear it. I often say it grew over my head. As I got older, and I know this sounds stupid, I realised how much we are judged by how we look. I hear boys saying, “she’s a real minger” about some girl when I know she’s really sweet and “she’s fit” about some girl who is just horrible. If you believe in a merciful God then everybody is beautiful. To call someone ugly is condemning a creation of God. I know I am gorgeous, that I have a beautiful body. It’s the bit of me that is clever and caring that you can’t see. The hijab in a way makes you naked.
SF Do you have lots of different coloured hijabs?
IJ I think I have more hijabs than knickers. Sometimes I think that’s going against what I am saying. But I don’t claim to be a perfect Muslim. I rationalise that I am living in a western country, so do in Rome and all that. It’s my way of bridging the gap. If I am sitting on a train, I am far less threatening to someone sitting next to me than someone covered from head to toe.
SF You’re melding your traditions with Britain?
IJ This kind of melding has been going on for centuries with Muslims.
SF What is your relationship with the Muslims we so often see in the news, ‘Beeston’, if you like?
IJ I feel towards them the same as I feel towards the BNP. I recognise that we share some things. With them I recognise that we have our faith in common. With the BNP we live in the same country and watch the same TV programmes. But both groups are making my life really different.
SF How?
IJ One group is making me into something I am not. When the radicals are aggressive about this country and the way of life I feel very difficult. I have made this my country and I would die for it. Their actions are limiting me.
SF I sense that you might find it difficult to criticise other Muslims in public?
IJ Lots of Muslims want to change Muslim behaviour. But part of me still feels extremely defensive. When these debates happen in public I feel pulled in two directions. There is a certain amount of friction in public which is damaging to Muslims when we are so misrepresented in the media. But I know that when I say this to you, you’re going to write it down. It is only 2% of my concerns but it always gets far more attention than it deserves. I wish more people would just say that there are millions of different Muslims. Because all of a sudden we became the same thing – associated with sects in Pakistan. I don’t know what a Madrassa is!
SF Do you find it difficult to criticise your leaders in public?
IJ What they have done is important. Getting Muslim organisations into the mainstream is a way of bridging the gap. At the same time do they represent me? They sure as hell don’t sound like they do.
SF Now you’ve graduated from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) what do you want to do?
IJ I want to work for an NGO. I am starting looking for jobs now. But I went to a recruitment agency and they said that I should make some of the stuff on my CV, voluntary work etc, look less Muslim. So I’ve changed things like the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue to IFID. I don’t want to be unemployed for ever!
SF When I write this up how shall I refer to you?
IJ I think as Ms I Jawad. I have a funny thing about seeing my name written down. I’ll finally be Isra Jawad when I write “The Hijabi Barbies, the Muslim update of the Bridget Jones diaries”.

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Leicester – city of no surprises

I went to a vegetarian restaurant the other day. (Bear with me on this.) The food was terrific. But more than that, Halli Restaurant somehow summed up the idea of a plural city, a symbol of a very modern take on diversity.

It’s in Leicester. There are myths about Leicester. One is that it is dull. In one sense this is not a myth at all, but rather part of the story of a city that was once most famous for producing socks and pantyhose – the wonderfully Mrs Slocomb-esque “hosiery”. Leicester is the embodiment of a kind of ornate suburbia. Joe Orton and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, both masters of the language of comic self-importance, were born there. Both were geniuses at imparting over-significance to the minutiae of the everyday, with hilarious effect. Leicester has the same quality. It once launched a glorious promotional slogan. On all the buses in huge letters, incredibly, ridiculously, it read “Leicester City of Surprises”. Most people tittered.

At the end of the sixties the city played host to a group of Indians, fleeing East African. They are now the largest minority group in the city. Unlike in many other cities in the North and the Midlands Leicester’s Asian population is largely Hindu and Indian rather than Pakistani or Bangladeshi and Muslim. In clumsy broad-brush strokes Leicester is roughly 60% “white” and 40% “black or Asian”. Which has given rise to another myth, a rash of stories uncritically reported by the papers and repeated by the CRE and other agencies that “Leicester will be the first non-white majority city in Britain by 2011”.

But according to Professor Ludi Simpson and Dr Nissa Finney of the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research at the University of Manchester in their recent paper, this is highly unlikely to happen before 2020. And anyway, they argue, this really only has any real significance, if you think that “white” or “black and Asian” have any kind of homogeneity as groups. They point out that the story is really a shorthand for anxieties that some existing consensus about how to live in and govern cities will be displaced by a different and foreign one, that “newcomers….will upset the applecart of the accepted way of life and governance”.

During the conference where I was speaking (hence the dinner the night before) a number of people referred to diversity in such clumsy ways as organised religion or these broad ethnic groups. Clearly both notions do contribute to our identities, but they do not describe the whole of us. They are just stepping-stones on the journey to creating what Robert Putnam, the American sociologist, calls ‘a new we’. One woman next to me muttered in my ear with a sarcastic grin “my boyfriend is white and I am not having an arranged marriage”.

So why did the restaurant seems to transcend this? Well, because when I walked in the door, my spirit slightly dropped as I looked at the décor. There was more blonde bargain pine in there than in Ikea. The pie crust backs to the chairs and the dark wooden floor made me think that we had come to one of those vegetarian restaurants that in the 80’s called themselves Health food Cafes. I expected to be bloated with faceless veggie gloop, off a menu, of the kind that I once described as being ‘lentilly handicapped’. But in fact Jamion Thomas the owner came from Kerala six years ago to join his wife, an NHS nurse, and after a working life spent in the hospitality industry, realised his dream of opening a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant. The food has its roots in Udupi, a village – a Halli – in Karnataka. I asked the waiter for a wine recommendation, but he was a Muslim, so it wasn’t his strong suit. He smiled and we chose. The customers, who were an all-encompassing bunch, were ordering the food with the confidence of regulars. Outside proudly hangs the banner announcing Halli’s Award as Venue of the Year in the Leicester Comedy Festival. In February they play host to a regular diet of comedy newcomers.

What was so striking about this cultural melange was that the aesthetic of the place had broken free of its preconceptions. It just felt like a restaurant in Leicester. Rather ordinary looking, it’s light hidden under a bushel of inexpensive pine (even the menus are made of wood), it is a symbol of what Leicester is now. As the city tells the story of its next forty years, those who have come to live there have not so much changed it as become it. Listen to them talk and they don’t sound Asian, they just sound Leicester. A city of no surprises whatsoever.

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So the Bishop gets of for actually hurting somebody’s life and the three foul mouthed, aggressive Muslims go to gaol despite the fact that they just shouted nasty things and offended everyone. Shouldn’t the bishop go to prison and the Muslims just be told off for abusing other people’s sensibilities?

The bishop of Hereford for reasons of pure prejudice denied someone a job for the simple reason that he was gay. John Reaney, the most reasonable of men took him to a tribunal and won. Mizanur Rahman, Umran Javed and Abdul Muhid shouted “Bomb, bomb Denmark, Bomb the USA”. One of them, unpleasantly, shouted for the soldiers to be brought back from Iraq in body bags. But, you will note, Denmark and the USA were not bombed, not by Mianur and his friends anyway, and they have not killed any soldiers in Iraq. They just offended everyone.

We have to get a handle on how we deal with these clashes of lifestyle, belief and freedoms. So see if this helps: there is a difference between words and actions and a difference between offence and material hurt.

The publication of the Danish cartoons caused my head to spin. Freedom of speech fought with the idea that we needed to protect people from being offended. Then I realised we didn’t need to protect people from that. In fact being offended is part of the deal in a free society. Religions have the freedom to practise and the rest of us have the freedom to offend them. I can’t shut up the Bishop’s prejudiced words and he can’t stop my feelings of anger towards him.

Nor can we stop the silly extremist posturing of these Muslim men. “Freedom of speech has to be exercised with restraint,” says the usually admirable Lady Scotland today. Why? Incitement to action when there is a real and proven connection between words and action should be policed. Yes indeed there is a dotted line between general racist abuse and the death of Stephen Lawrence. There is certainly a jagged connection between the foul faggot bashing and perverted poof punishing of the homophobes in the streets and the vicious murder of Jody Dubrowski. But that doesn’t mean that words are actions. They aren’t. We should police actions but just suffer the offence caused by words

The Bishop of Hereford had the cheek to hold a press conference yesterday after being found guilty by the Tribunal and said, with no apology at all, “I took the decision after a great deal of though and prayer and anguish”. Oh yes Your Grace this is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me, as the sadistic headmaster said while he hid behind the thin veil of false concern.

Next time think why don’t you think harder and pray to a God that might advise you against harming someone’s life. At least in their perverted appeal to their God the Muslim guys only postured. You sacked someone.

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I have been talking to young people. And it scared me. They were basically lovely. Four lads from North London. They are all 14 and have the innocent posturing of the almost young man plus of course the bum fluff and the creaky voice. And they fight after school. Not each other. But big set piece rucks involving fifty or so boys. They come from one estate and their opponents from another. I am not going to say where they’re from. It doesn’t actually matter, except that it may put them in, if not danger, certainly potentially some difficulty. They were Asian. That again doesn’t matter. I only say it to dispel the wrong conclusion that this violence is somehow ethnically inspired or generated. The author of the most recent report on gangs in London, Professor John Pitts, who was also there at this conference, makes it very clear that “impetus towards gang membership is determined by the social predicament of gang members rather than their race or ethnicity”. And my four youngsters are not gang members. Not yet. Might they be? I hope not. They came to me via the Leap Project’s Quarrel Shop, where young people learn “mediation, communication and conflict resolution skills”. So there’s hope.

But Pitt’s report “Reluctant gangsters” is an arresting read. Coupled with meeting the four young guys, it was the source of my anxiety. I asked them why they fought like this. “It’s our area, isn’t it” said one. “They’re coming into our area,” said another. It was local pride distorted. And it sounded like an excuse. They wanted to fight. They were tiny, these boys. Yet they were being swept up into clashes of fists and weapons involving tens of youths in which they could easily get hurt. Have they ever been hurt? Or hurt anyone? “Not badly” is the sheepish admission. They want to fight but it scares them, so they don’t want to fight, but they do. They fight, they say, because the others “cursed my mum”. Each of them says it. They “cursed my mum”. Why not turn your back? What did you learn in the Quarrel Shop about your red flag (what it is that tips you over into a conflict)? “That we should know our red flag and back off”. Why don’t you then? Peer pressure? Older boys making you fight? No, apparently not. Just they “cursed my mum”

Their parents know what they are doing. They naturally disapprove. The boys feel their disapproval. Acutely. They drop their heads when I mention it. But it doesn’t stop them fighting, even though they say if they get into trouble with the law, they will bring dishonour on their families. The Policeman with them, Steve, whom they clearly respect, says to me that they’re not bad boys. And they don’t seem so to me. Except, oddly the smallest one who seems full of hidden menace. But will that parental disapproval eventually kick in?

Pitts’ report flags up a big warning. It is in the title. He estimates that at least a third of those involved in gangs do so not wholly voluntarily. Not getting involved can have dire consequences for a young person. They are frightened of being seen a “pussy”. Worse, their families or siblings might suffer. What is quite clear from his report too is that many of them are terrified of their own involvement. Like, on a much lower level, my four little fighters are in fact frightened too. One boy quoted by Pitts says, “He was crouched up in the corner crying because he brought the gun out to protect himself and he was challenged so he pulled the trigger… he didn’t want to pull the trigger”. One on level, no sympathy. But on another a clue to helping kids out of gangs is to recognise that a bit of them doesn’t want to be there.

I heard story this week about just such a lad in another city. It took months for him even to talk to this youth worker. He just hung around. Eventually the worker discovered that he was in a gang and couldn’t see a way out. So the worker did something clever. He got him an ASBO and had the other gang members named in it. The kid had an excuse not to associate with them. He began his exit from the gang.

What is frightening about this report is simply that as violent crime falls overall, gang crime and violence, a more extreme from of social dislocation, is more and more focused in poor areas. And furthermore, in the sixties and seventies, gangsters were mainly burglars and fraudsters. Now it’s changed from blag to business. From cracking safes to crack cocaine. Drugs drive it all. The street crime, the violence and the guns. Protection of territory and family is the excuse.

”They came into our area”. “They cursed my mum”. Is that how it starts? I hope not. Pitts’ has produced a seven-point plan for Waltham Forest. It’s worth a read. It may just save my four kids from anything deeper than just a fistfight after school.

Professor John Pitts, is at Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, University of Bedfordshire
His report “Reluctant gangsters: youth gangs in Waltham Forest” can be obtained form Waltham Forest Council.
Gangs: Implications for Social Work Practice
Tuesday 9 October 2007
10.00am – 1.00pm
King’s College London, SE1,,2128391,00.html

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Back it don’t copy it

Pat Stewart is remarkable. She takes for granted that someone has to do what she does and it might as well be her. She set up a project in Gorton in Manchester called On The Streets (OTS). I made a Radio Four programme about it last autumn. It’s just a terrific project. Yet today it has no regular funding. It’s ears are full of the praise of every agency you can lay your hands on. The Council press office boats, “Manchester City Council is impressed by the work undertaken by On The Streets” and then goes on proudly to trumpet that they have approved funding for “almost £27,000”. Oh yippee. At the last count there were 369 young people who attended OTS projects, 3000 times. That’s £73 a young person.

“Is it time to throw in the towel now?” says Pat, despite, as she asks the question, sounding eternally optimistic. And she steadfastly refuses to criticise any of the funders or the council. She is endlessly generous about the agencies that seem to me to be strangling her project.

In 2001 Pat, who had brought her two children up in Gorton, went back to the area. A large number of kids were out of control and behaving anti-socially. The residents were terrified. So she, and a colleague called Rob Burley, called a meeting of the young people. The Housing Department, who bless them seem to have been constantly supportive, lent them their canteen. They thought noone would show. But 36 arrived. “They virtually insisted we did something and not give up on them” says Pat. At the next meeting there was 72.

The special thing about the way OTS works is that it focuses on groups of kids not just individuals. “Anti-social behaviour is a bloody spectator sport” says Pat, “I am not just going to deal with one person, I want the whole group”. And further than that they try and work with the whole family. “That way we leave the young person with nowhere to hide and no-one else to blame”. Tough language. Pat and Rob are insistent that OTS is a Crime and Disorder project and what they are doing is facing these young people with the consequences of their behaviour. Getting them to see that they have choices in their lives.

Pat is constantly praising the youth service in the city. “They were very very good, When we started they gave us the framework – insurance, child protection rules, Criminal Records bureau checks and all that”. But you can’t help feeling as you listen not just to Pat, but to others talking about OTS, that the youth service also rather resented their tough way of working. There is a blunt ness with the kids and an ease with making judgements of their behaviour which traditional youth work often eschews. “:These young people have a choice. They can carry on behaving badly or live decent lives”, says Pat. She is a great fan of ASBOs. “They put a break on someone. They are not a badge of honour. That’s ridiculous. They are one of the best things this country has ever done. Young people know when they are committing anti-social behaviour. They need to be told in a direct way. If you water down the challenge, they don’t take us seriously”.

Of course as the project became successful, the inevitable happened. The Council, in that dreaded automaton phrase, wanted to “roll it out”. But you can’t bottle what Pat and Rob do and just reproduce it in-house. Yet Pat is again endlessly complimentary. She says the Council probably doesn’t have enough money to fund the kind of intensive work that OTS does. They have their own youth service and they have to pay for them first. This woman is so damn conciliatory to the Council it’s remarkable. She wouldn’t be that soft on the kids.

So let me say it for her. OTS is successful. People in Gorton feel safer. OTS could grow if even more of the kids who have been through the project could be trained to be volunteers and workers. That’s what Gorton needs, not more professionalized youth workers. Manchester needs to learn how to invest in OTS’s innovation and grow its impact across the city. Yes, there are problems of scalability, as they call it and of unusual ways of working. But give me a hundred of those problems to solve and a tribe of Pat and Robs and their kids than a roll out of the idea through the Youth Service.

When I asked to talk to anyone senior in the council, about this I was referred to their press office. They all ran and hid. If you ask me, Manchester City Council needs some tough talking to, to be served with an ASBO and told to change their behaviour and fund this project.,,2106413,00.html

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Blame the Parents – I say

Everyone is talking about manners in Britain. Naturally there should be a queue. And I want to talk about manners. But after you, of course. Nice, warm cuddly things they are. Everyone wants them. There’s even a National Day of Courtesy on…… (??). But everyone is too scared to enforce them. And they need enforcing; they don’t just come about through natural grace. They work because there is a social sanction, even if it’s not spoken. Despite the evident benefit to our general sense of well being, and the self-interest in simply getting what you want a great deal more easily if you are polite, we do not seem to behave in a graceful and generous way to each other freely. But we have a crisis of authority. We have outsourced it to asbos, the police, teachers, the council. Anybody but us. We have become scared of enforcing rules. The left has gone all wibbly woo about cultural relativism and how you can’t impose out values on others? And the right is still trying to enforce rules that no one agrees with any more.

The trouble is that those we have outsourced it to sacrificed our admiration. A long time ago the Police took refuge in bombast and authoritarian ways compounded by corruption. And teachers went the other way and became feeble negotiators rather than guides. In their different ways they lost our respect. Bobbies became bullies and racists. And then refused to deal with their reputation and their behaviour until even the Lords Scarman and McPherson had to point out to them that they had to change or sacrifice their effectiveness forever. Teachers, on the other hand, began to fear the children in their care and, instead of exercising firmness, they started to bargain. Fearful of retribution from parents they backed off. But it is to parents we have to look most of all to give children the senses that there are rules, that there is a framework for life. That there are manners. And I know your liberal heart is huffing and puffing now about what an old fart I have become. But many parents refuse to draw boundaries.

They seem to have enormous difficulty in putting themselves in a position where they are unpopular with their children. We feel strongly that democracy matters and that tyranny is bad. We want to be seen as kind, negotiating, sensitive people. So the way people parent is more about how they want to feel about themselves, and be seen, than it is about the good of the child. Parents are negotiating with three year olds. They ask them what they want for supper. If parents start abrogating responsibility when their children are that young, what chance do kids have later on when they are teenagers and need to rebel to find their, and your boundaries?

There is a mistaken belief that manners are the natural attribute of the gracefully born. They’re not. They stem from a value system that has within it the idea that there are right and wrong ways to behave. This is not about how you hold your knife and fork. That’s etiquette and was designed as a trip wire for the working class. Manners are the respect you pay to other people by treating them with thoughtfulness. Manners are a form of mutual obligation. Without the sense that there are rules justifiably enforced by our own authority, how can there be an agreement about decent behaviour? Without our preparedness to take responsibility for other people’s behaviour and our own, how will courtesy even become national? Even for a day?

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Shaun – a self build man

When I ring Shaun he is checking the fire alarms at the Tyneside Cyrenians building. He’s their maintenance man. Not so long ago, if I’d rung him he’d probably have been drunk. He drank to pass the time. He was never an alcoholic, just a chaotic drinker. “I could take it or leave it. But most of the time I’d take it”, he says ruefully now. His is a classic story. For no particular reason he “fell by the wayside’ after school and for seven years drank and got into trouble. His parents threw him out. He slept rough, lived in hostels and generally failed to get it together. Eventually he went back to live with his dad and one night, after drinking, crashed his dad’s car. His dad threw him out again. It was the wake-up all. He’s not sure why, but since then, with the exception of the odd pint on a Friday night, he’s been teetotal. Now with a partner, Lisa and two kids, Ben, 2, and little Shaun, 6 months, he says he hasn’t got time to drink. It’ll be three years in September that he’s been the maintenance man.

Everybody speaks very highly of Shaun. But his story is about more than just personal will. It goes back to when the Cyrenians decided to improve their hostel. They could have just got in a contractor. Instead they decided to recruit from the people who used their services. The risks, according to Stephen Bell, the Cyrenians chief-exec, were huge. But the potential rewards were enormous. The challenge was not so much that in order to satisfy the funding and give the guys a real chance of working in the building trade afterwards they would all have to achieve an NVQ level 2, but that it wasn’t really the building skills that they needed. It wasn’t about getting them a qualification but supporting them so that they could sustain themselves in work, after in some of their cases having been out of employment for 10 – 15 years. You can learn bricklaying or timber frame assembly once you’re on site. But it’s getting on site in the first place, sober, regularly. And then being able to apply for other jobs. Even as one person put it, learning to shake hands again.

With University education, we take this for granted. Just because someone studies history they’re not necessarily learning to be a history teacher. They’re learning to marshall an argument, write coherently, analyse facts. They are learning to deploy themselves in the outside world of work. But when it comes to basic training, the Learning and Skills Councils and the other agencies tend to be obsessed with qualifications and for projects to squeeze the other, and ultimately more important support out of the money available is almost impossible. June Barnes of Thames East, in the midst of the East London regeneration spree that is the Olympics, says they can only do it because they are big enough and financially robust enough. They have mentoring services in their organisation already. Funding needs to be more imaginative in the first place, she says. Start with the broad human objectives with people who have been out of the swim for so long and work back to the NVQ.

The Cyrenians had to find a partner who understood this. With so much building going on there are considerable opportunities to get the long term unemployed into work. But the industry finds this very difficult. Mostly the big companies contract the work out to small businesses who just don’t have the capacity to mentor people like Shaun. In the Esh Group however, Cyrenians found a company with local roots in the northeast that, unusually, employs 1200 people directly. Including one Peter Darkings, who according to his boss Bill McCafferty “has an exceptional ability to communicate and grow people. He rose to the occasion becoming father and brother to the guys with inspiration and patience. Although when it was needed he can certainly tell them, as we say in Scotland, ‘which way is up’”. Darkings, and a man called George Evans who was too modest to talk to me, ran the project.

Shaun’s story is not just a personal triumph, but the project’s victory over the narrowness of the funding system. Of the thirteen people who worked on the hostel rebuild, none of them are living in hostels anymore and seven have jobs in construction. The NVQs are really the least important piece in the jigsaw of their rebirth. It was the investment in them as individuals. The project title was a play on words. Cyrenians Self-Builders. It wasn’t a hostel Shaun built. But with his foreman and his mentor, it was himself and the rest of his life.

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Brian & Amy – Love’s learning curve

This journey started when I met Brian and Amy at a conference. The plan was that I interview them in front of an audience of support workers. It was a gathering brought together by Support Action Net, which is a framework for organisations working with vulnerable people that are dedicated to getting closer to their service users’ social and emotional aspirations. These organisations want to relate to the clients they work with through their sense of self; through their passions, interests and abilities rather than their problems.

And Brian and Amy are in love, so we talked in front of the two hundred people about romance and children and sex and living together. There was quite a lot of laughter and quite a lot of intimacy. Brian and Amy told me afterwards they were very proud to have done it. Most of the audience saw that. But some of them didn’t. You could hear the bristling from the back of the hall. “Inappropriate”, “intrusive”, “outrageous for SF to ask the couple about their sex life” and “I felt totally uncomfortable with it” said a minority in the feedback.

You’ve probably guessed by now, Brian and Amy are not a ‘usual’ couple. Amy has Downs Syndrome and Brian has ‘moderate learning difficulties’. And I was fascinated by the discomfort in the audience. I had found the interview entirely new territory and the issues of consent and vulnerability that it raised unnerved me. We rehearsed all the questions in advance and in that process I found myself challenged at every level by the way the workers who support Amy and Brian behaved around them. I found that never mind how I tried, my inexperience meant that I still had to work hard to avoid patronising them, to slip ever so slightly into “Does he take sugar?” mode by not asking them the questions I would ask any other interviewee and, if I did, not wholly trusting their answers. Their support workers on the other hand, who come from a small company in Hinckley in Leicestershire called Cornerstone, had a very different attitude. They started from the simple but unusual point that Amy and Brian do know what they want, express it and can, as one of them put it, “like the rest of us, reach for the stars” So I went to Hinckley.

Cornerstone was started by Kathy Aucock in 1997. She had long been a social worker and had developed a passionate view that people with learning difficulties could live independently and that to do that, first they needed a space where they could experiment with different patterns of life. What was needed, she thought, was a place where they could express what they wanted and then be supported to make it happen. She wanted to get away from “the blanket assumption that people with learning difficulties couldn’t learn the skills they needed”. She only founded Cornerstone because, in the end, no one else would do it. So she chopped her house in two, and three people with learning difficulties came to live in the other half.

Brian and Amy met there four years ago. Amy fell immediately “I felt really happy when I was around him”, she says, “He’s a bit sexy. And I felt lovely and strange meeting this sexy guy”. Did Brian remember seeing Amy the first time he went to Cornerstone? “No!” He laughs. He has a laddish twinkle. “I was a bit nervous as I was leaving my foster family. I was broadening my horizons, that’s what they say”. His mind was on other things, but in time the relationship blossomed. “We started to watch football together. And wrestling.” says Amy, who seems pretty aware that she’d have to put up with this blokeishness if she was going to net Brian. “I taught her the offside rule”, he says. In many ways they are a very traditional couple. Brian likes the pub and football and Amy is house-proud and loves to cook. He goes out to work. She stays at home.

It’s not so long ago that they would have been actively discouraged in forming a relationship, let alone living together in their own house. As David Congdon, head of campaigning and policy at Mencap, says, “We’ve finally begun to move from a situation where a large number of women with leaning difficulties were sterilised without their consent to now when they are being given contraceptive advice.” There is no medical evidence to suggest that learning difficulties or Downs have a genetic component. But Amy and Brian will not have kids. This is partly because Brian is dead clear about not yet wanting to get married, despite Amy’s constant requests that they do. “I am too young. I have got loads of time ahead of me,” he says. Typical man. But also because Amy has a weakness in her heart, which would make pregnancy dangerous to her health. She’s never expressed any interest in kids either. As Deana Salt, one of the Cornerstone workers says, “ She has always said she wants to go to college, get married and live in a big house. No mention of kids or work. Ever!”

I found myself saying at one stage “Well maybe it would have been quite stressful for them to have kids anyway, being parents might have been hard for them”. And Deana just looked at me and said “Why?” Indeed. Assumption unmasked. Alison Shea, the Assistant Director for Housing & Support services at Mencap, told me a story about a vicar who wouldn’t marry a couple who both had Downs syndrome because “they wouldn’t understand the implications of getting married, what the consequences of it were.” And she just said to him. “Well, which of us does? We just fall in love and do it!”

There are obvious issues of consent when it comes to sex and sexual relationships. The law in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, according to Sarah Andrews, an expert in the law around sex and learning disability, is clear is about protecting people if a “mental disorder impedes choice”. But apart from that it is, as with everyone else, a simple question of consent. But there is still unease from social workers and from parents. Salt points out that parents of people with learning difficulties often view their kids “as eternal children. And we have to help raise their expectations of their child.” She and Aucott both have stories from not that long ago of parents dressing their grown children in ankle socks, referring to their adult day centre as “play school”. One young woman they know was still being put down for an afternoon nap at twenty-seven years old. And parents and social workers can, often from what they think are the best of motives, be very overprotective. Shea tells of one father who wanted them to give his son bromide. When it comes to sex, social workers regularly think, even if they no longer say, “you just shouldn’t allow it”, she says.

But when Brian and Amy were clear about wanting to be in a loving relationship together, Brian’s social worker, Nalini Osman was immediately clear that he would, like any other young guy, need sex advice. “It was not a question of testing what he wanted”, she says, “but of understanding the implications. What did it mean for the support we gave?”

She arranged for Amy to speak to an advocate. “We had to make sure”, says Osman “that she wasn’t just going along with it. And she wasn’t. She really wanted it”. Osman thinks that many social workers are just very risk averse, but “that results in people being treated as lesser human beings.” Andrews says bluntly “People should be allowed to make mistakes. We all do! But sex and loving relationships are good things in people’s lives. It’s awful to see them as a problem. Can’t we want to see people in relationships without having to have a case conference about it?”

In their flat, Amy is making me tea. Kathy is perched on the sofa and we are laughing about Brian’s driving lessons. He’s had about eight so far. It will mean a lot if he can pass his test. The Co-op, where he works in the warehouse, is a twenty-minute drive but an hour and a half by public transport. At the moment though it’s a bit touch and go “I still have to look down at the pedals when I go from the accelerator to the clutch” he says, “to make sure I am pushing the right one”. Much laughter. Amy says, “I want to drive too”. Brian says dryly:” My advice is to keep of it”! He may never learn to drive. “But none of us really knows we can till we try, do we?” says Salt. “But it was on Brian’s wish list, so he has to have to the opportunity to fail, if need be”

Attitudes to people with disabilities have changed remarkably over the last ten years. The general view is that the change started with the emptying of the institutions by the Community Care Act in 1990 but has been greatly enhanced by the rights advocacy of the Disability lobby and the power of Valuing People the Government’s strategy for people with Learning Disabilities, which emphasised individual choice and respect. But as Osman says “that’s all very well on paper, and it’s good, but it doesn’t always happen”. Parents are still overprotective, vicars still patronise and social workers still back off making sure that people make their own choices about life and relationships for fear of something going wrong.

But as I leave Brian and Amy’s Aucott says “People often say ‘what if it breaks up?’ Well that’s a question we all ask ourselves. So many people with learning disabilities go through life without experiencing the quality of life Brian and Amy have. It’s still pretty unusual. Which is odd, because they only ask to live an ordinary life”

15-17 Hawley Road
LE10 0PR
01455 617817


Sarah Andrews


Brian and Amy (surnames, checking) are not a ‘usual’ couple, though they are in love. I met them when I chaired a conference for professionals who work with vulnerable people. I interviewed them about romance and children and sex and living together in front of an audience of 200 people. There was quite a lot of laughter . Brian and Amy (ages) told me afterwards they were very proud to have done it. Most of the audience saw that. But some didn’t. You could hear the bristling from the back of the hall. When the feedback forms came there were comments like: “Inappropriate”, “intrusive”, “outrageous for Fanshawe to ask the couple about their sex life” and “I felt totally uncomfortable with it.”
The couple are unusual in that Amy has Downs Syndrome and Brian has moderate learning difficulties. I was fascinated by the discomfort in the audience. As for myself, I had found the interview entirely new territory:I I had to work hard to avoid
patronising them, to slip ever so slightly into “Does he take sugar?” mode by not asking them the questions I would ask any other interviewee and, if I
did, not wholly trusting their answers. Their support workers on the other hand, who come from a small company in Hinckley in Leicestershire called Cornerstone, had a very different attitude. They started from the principle that Amy and Brian know what they want, express it and can, as one of them put it, “like the rest of us, reach for the stars”

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Tony Miller – a great public servant

Over the months I have written about many people whose resilience, intelligence, quirkiness or ordinariness tell us a story about public service – the best and the worst of it. At the core of all these tales is a belief that in working to improve people’s lives we owe it to each other to be as imaginative, as innovative, as humane and just as brilliant as we can. To engage with the world to make it a better place and, let’s face it, brighter, sunnier and more fun to be alive.

This month in Brighton there is a hole in the city and in our public service after the death of a splendid, funny, clever and original man who exemplified all those values and entirely unpredictably became the deputy chief executive of the Council. Tony Miller was not your usual council officer – and I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant people who are. But if I tell you that on the road to being a senior executive he started one of the first listings magazines in the country, owned two second hand book shops, promoted the Real Sounds of Africa before any journalist minted the phrase ‘world music’, was an early champion of Norman Cook in the Housemartins days, probably managed the Levellers (no-one can quite remember) and even, in what seems prehistory when I was a starting out as a comic, was my first agent, you’ll begin to see the idiosyncrasy of his journey.

He was physically slight, freckled, verging on the ginger and radiated a sardonic warmth that gave his sense of humour a wryness and a dryness. When people die at 53 of a horrible illness, the temptation to find some kind of consolation through hagiography is very strong. But with Tony there is no lie to the sheer volume of praise heaped on his memory by those he touched and those he worked with.

His values flowed from his politics. But although he was a Labour man through and through he was peculiarly un-tribal. He talked the language of true politics which, at its very best, is when you can find some common expression between people. What do I mean? I mean that when devising a citywide campaign on diversity, he didn’t ask me or some other predictable representative of a strand of diversity to chair it. Instead he invented what he called “The Supporters Club” and asked the managing director of the Football Team to chair it. This put a rather different spin on the notion of diversity.

He was always finding ways of knitting together the story of our community. He saw the possibility in the Millennium bid for city status for people to coalesce around their pride in the city. One of his greatest friends and colleagues who worked with him every day summed it up as his ability to talk to two different people of opposing views and yet get them to agree on a course of action that satisfied them both. And then, always his first love, to get a good media story out it. If public service is going to improve the city, why keep it to yourself? That is real politics and is founded on an underlying optimism that even opponents can discover shared values and on the basis of what they do have in common commit to the public good.

He also never took the obvious angle. He was a great promoter. He never lost the PT Barnum instinct that once made him put on a Real Sounds poster “one of the greatest live acts of all time”. So to promote environmental change, long before David Cameron got on his bike, he invented a campaign called Nine Lives in which, on line, nine people in Brighton recorded video diaries of their lives as they changed them to become more sustainable. They became the city’s poster citizens of greening and it won many, many awards for originality in a public service campaign.

He just didn’t do things as other people did. He spoke a language rooted in a wide experience of the world. He respected the processes of local government, but they never limited him. His examples of strategy came from his bike ride to work or his young son on the tennis court. He never drowned the human purpose of what needed to be done in the soulless language of official jargon or mumbo-jumbo. He never lost an outsider’s humility in the way that he saw the world. He was a terrific public servant and we miss him dreadfully.

published in The Guardian 21.03.07

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I’m Free

John Inman is dead. But Mr Humphries is alive and well in a number of surprising hearts. Mine included. “Are You being Served?” ran for a gratifyingly suggestive 69 episodes between 1972 and 1985. And many gay men hated it. We protested against it. But in the last ten years or so, reassured by retro and equipped with a political and social confidence we never had before, we embraced the mince and took John Inman to our hearts. One gay friend claims he has never shrieked “I’m free!” – even in his weakest moments. But he’s the only one. What changed? Society changed.

In the seventies we were poufs. And John Inman was the uberpouf. Larrry Grayson was his right hand man – oooeerr missus. Inman’s entendres were not just double, but like heart bypasses, they were quadruple. He was the suggestive gargoyle of suburbia, the human embodiment of the doiley. Inman’s wasn’t a show, it was a performince. His entrances, anticipated with more and more incipient hilarity by viewers of every episode, were like Shirley Bassey’s. His were the limpest wrists, the most swivelling hips. And as he fairy footed it across the shop floor, warming the metal end of his tape, in a desperate lunge to measure an inside leg – which of course is what he was permanently free for – we cringed. He humiliated us. Because if we were gay we had to be poufs. It was Inman or the closet. Even though Inman’s closet, which he remained firmly inside until he married his partner Ron Lynch in 2005, was painted such a gorgeous nelly pink it screamed gay at an almost deafening pitch. And straight boys didn’t like poufs because we liked theatre, and sewing and… boys.

If you were teased, abused or beaten, it was because you were one of “them”. Not one of us whose wrists were as stiff as our lips and who walked as straight as we were. But one of “them”, an Inman whose eyes roved lasciviously over real masculinity. Yet Inman was safe. Poufs on the telly never had sex. They just suggested it. Yearned after it. Measured the inside leg of the possibility of it. But we did have sex. It went from being illegal to being underground and we just wanted it out in the open. Oooerr again. Mr Humphries became the boundaries of our identity.

But we have learned to defy the power of the insults. We’ve started to enjoy the ambiguous manliness being gay gives us. We don’t mind being poufs now. We had a massive sense of humour failure. Mainly because there was a link between the pouf on the telly and the fist in our face. That still happens but now we can realise that it’s not us who have to stop being nellies, it’s them who have to stop being bullies. We’ve found our confidence. So altogether now, put your coats over your shoulders, let your wrists go limp and shriek through those lips pursed like a pussy’s behind “I’m Free!!!”

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