National Days

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National Days

History of Pranking from ancient Rome & Persia to Medieval April Fools Day

April Fools Day, RIP Ronnie Corbett

Spoilers are okay after midday, but sadly it was no April Fools Day joke that the biggest little man of comedy, Ronnie Corbett, to whom even Miranda Hart “looked up to”, died at 85, yesterday – if only he’d held out another day the Internet would have been awash with April Fools lingering doubts. It seems appropriate to light four candles (aka ‘fork handles’) in tribute and say with him:

Ronnie Corbett
Ronnie Corbett

“It’s good night from me – and it’s good night from him.”

He was all about double entendres, misconstrued meanings, and great comic timing:

“West Mersea police announced tonight that they wish to interview a man wearing high heels and frilly knickers, but the Chief Constable said they must wear their normal uniforms.”
“We’ve just heard that in the English Channel, a ship carrying red paint has collided with a ship carrying purple paint. It is believed that both crews have been marooned.”
“There was a fire at the main Inland Revenue office in London today, but it was put out before any serious good was done.”

A History of Pranking

The job of kingship has historically been a stressful one, and alongside advisers and seers, royalty often had court jesters around to lower the tone and raise the mood.

April 1, All Fools Day
April 1, All Fools Day

In the late 14th century Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set on March 32nd, a nonsense date, i.e., 1 April. Whilst this may be a copyist’s error, the tale itself is full of comic irony.

April 1st jesting is attested throughout the early 16th century in French and Flemish customs and several origin stories suggest it was due an end March to 1 January calendar change in Britain or France.

The first British reference is in 1686, and in 1698 people were tricked into going to the Tower of London for the annual “washing the lions” – a fake event that was still conning people as late as 1857!

On the eve of April Fool’s 1864, the Evening Star of Islington, London, announced that a “grand exhibition of donkeys” would be held the next morning at the Agricultural Hall. Next day, a large crowd gathered outside the hall until they realised that they themselves were the donkeys on display!

While it goes by the name of All Fools, April Fools’ or April Fool’s Day, as well as Poisson d’Avril “April Fish” in French, it’s been around much longer. In earlier times and different calendars, our current 1st April would still have coincided with the advent of Spring and the end to the darkness of winter. So it is a season to be celebrated and it seems from of old to have attracted festivities, pranks and jokes.

Ancient Persian Sizdah Bedar

Nowruz, the 13th day of the Persian New Year falls on April 1/2 and in Iran this is still a day for jests going back over 2500 years, possibly the oldest pranking tradition in the world. It is called Sizdah Bedar “13 Bedar” and may be part of the origin of April Fools but it is uncertain how it may have spread from ancient Persia. The 13th of the month Farvardin is celebrated as a day to “go out”, be-dar in Persian, and have fun outdoors and pray for spring rains, indeed at midday the defeat of the Demon of Drought by the Angel of Rain was celebrated. Zoroastrian beliefs that “laughter and joy symbolize the throwing away of all bad thoughts” account for some of the merriment on Sizdah Bedar. There are also some beliefs that Sizdah Bedar meant “13 going out/getting rid of” and unlucky 13 and all its bad luck was disposed of on this day.

Roman Hilarity

The Roman festival of Hilaria, held on March 25, also had similar themes of joy and jest. March 25, until a few centuries ago (the French moved their calendar and year-end in 1564) was New Year’s Day and part of a week-long festival until April 1. “The Day of Joy” (Hilaria) celebrated the resurrection of Attis, Cybele’s consort – Cybele was mother of the gods. The whole Agdistis, Attis, Cybele, Galli mythology and worship is full of interesting gender asides…

Modern Era

Back in 1957, before the British were so accustomed to pasta, the BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast a documentary hoax showing spaghetti growing on trees which convinced many, especially with the serious authority lent it by anchorman Richard Dimbleby!

The great spaghetti spoof harvest joke ranks no#1 in the Museum of Hoaxes top 100! Other hoaxes have included Alabama changing the value of Pi to a biblical value of “3” or Burger King making a “Left-handed Whopper”.

In 1976 National Humor Month was founded by comedian and author of 53 books on humour, Larry Wilde, Director of The Carmel Institute of Humor. “It is designed to heighten public awareness on how the joy and therapeutic value of laughter can improve health, boost morale, increase communication skills and enrich the quality of one’s life.”

Most newspapers carry at least one April Fool’s story buried somewhere in the paper and it is fun to guess which it is. Sadly, our crazy world means that many real stories appear to be jokes but are not.

Last year saw organic giraffe milk being offered at Paignton Zoo, Dodo and chips being eaten in 18th century Bristol leading to their extinction, and Yoyo the macaroni penguin laying a golden egg – and, no, its name wasn’t the April Fool, Eudyptes chrysolophus is a yellow crested penguin drawing its name from an 18th century Dandy fashion dubbed Maccaronism, a “flamboyant or excessive ornamentation”.

Political Jokes

In modern times, there are comedians everywhere, including and especially in politics, well jokes anyway. There seem to be more fools trying to lead countries and even some comedians considering election, e.g., Sandi Toksvig, Eddie Izzard and in Italy, Giuseppe Piero “Beppe” Grillo.

If only Donald Trump’s views on abortion, women, Muslims, Mexicans, immigration, equal marriage, etc, were an April Fools Day joke, as it is he and his views are the joke that Democrats and rational people worldwide must hope fall flat rather than get elected.

 

National Days

International Transgender Day of Visibility #TDOV

Transgender Day of Visibility #TDOV

The last day of Women’s History Month, the day before April Fool’s, is the International Trans Day of Visibility (TDOV), 31 March. Since 2009, it has sought to celebrate transgender positivity in contrast to the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) events around 20 November that draw attention to the high levels of violence and murder that trans people suffer in some countries. Even where murder is less likely, bullying, harassment, and discrimination can be part of the transphobic package that can add to the likelihood of suicide, which some 40% of trans people attempt, and twice that number, consider.

TDOV is an opportunity to portray positive role models, to let the many trans just coming out know that “it gets better“. I’ve spent ten plus years ‘out’ and it’s been a rocky road, with the almost requisite marriage break-up, suicide attempts, looks in the street, and transphobic abuse online. But that need not be everyone’s experience and for many, it is getting easier, with better support and a more accepting society.

SuperTrans Coming Out Transgender Visibility
SuperTrans ‘Coming Out’

Ironically, many trans people don’t want to be visible, they’d rather not be noticed, hopefully passing as fellow human beings in a crowd. Inevitably, some of us stand out more than others, some by choice, some by fate. Don’t always assume a trans person wants to be recognised or feted as one, many would rather be seen as your common or garden variety man or woman. I’m of the louder and more visual variety, who’ll probably die still not conforming to gender stereotypes and expectations.

Non-Binary leads to inevitable visibility

I’ve found, indeed, that being non-binary is a better fit for me than the discrete categories of man or woman, male or female, boy or girl. I, personally, don’t mind whether anyone sees me as a “real woman” or not, I know basic biology, although mine is more complex and many people exist that makes one think again about binary sex default and gender constructs.

I am, however, also not a “real man”, that too is fine! Perhaps, as one of my godchildren once cheekily remarked to me upon opening the door, saying, “Half-ladies first”, I am a “Shim”, also his delightful invention. Other people should be respected, however they prefer to be addressed.

Beyond He or She Gender Time Magazine cover
Beyond He or She Gender Time Magazine cover, March 2017

Whilst 2014 has been regarded as the “Transgender tipping point”, 2016-17 seems to be the year of Non-Binary Genderqueer and Genderfluid. In January, National Geographic ran a “Gender Revolution” special issue, and this March, TIME Magazine ran with “Beyond He or She”. 

Half of young people now see gender as a spectrum and identify their own sexuality between gay and straight. Most now know someone who is trans and/or non-binary, and they are broadly accepting, the best it has ever been, teaching older adults the way to be around identity and expression. Whilst traditional feminists regard gender as a construct, it is young women who are most likely to see it as a spectrum, blurring the lines between gender and sex. Some 22% of young women identify as other than 100% female.

New Gender Honorific Titles on Bank Cards

Just this week, HSBC announced 10 new non-binary honorifics besides the usual Mr, Mrs, Ms etc,. Metro Bank and RBS NatWest already allowed Mx (as I have) or no title. HSBC customers can now choose from:

  • Ind (individual)
  • M
  • Mx (pron. “mix” or “mux”)
  • Misc (miscellaneous)
  • Mre (mystery)
  • Msr (mix of miss/sir)
  • Myr
  • Pr (pron. “per”, for person)
  • Sai (pron. “sigh”)
  • Ser (pron. “sair”)

A Most Reluctant Transsexual

To be honest, I haven’t had it too hard, people have been accepting, and although gender dysphoric, at times I’ve been euphoric to finally be myself. Even with some trials and tribulations, it has been worth it.

Katy Went Transgender Voices NHS NSFT photoshoot
Katy Went “Transgender Voices” NHS NSFT magazine photoshoot

My ten-year journey as Norfolk’s “most reluctant transsexual” – as my psychiatrist once called me, has recently closed one chapter and turned the page to another. After nearly 6 years on hormones my resistance towards surgery shattered and I went ahead with a version of GRS that suited my identity and needs. It has made me a happier, healthier person, with no regrets. Rather surprisingly, to myself at least, it has improved my other mental health condition, bipolar, for now at least, with just pockets of extreme downs, rarer hypomanic highs, and many more days of productivity and calm.

In going ahead with surgery I found my mind changed as much as my body. It really was life-changing, even saving, surgery. Whilst I had near constant doubts leading up to it, I’ve had none since that no-going-back day of 6 February 2016, and felt as much lighter between the ears as between the legs. I feel like a psycho-emotional brain tumour has been removed, I have more space in my head, in my thoughts and feelings, no longer obsessed and disturbed by gender identity. I feel no more female, just less encumbered and more myself. Oddly, I feel just as non-binary, non-conformist as ever, and, if anything, less gendered, though more comfortable in my body.

NSFT NHS Insight Magazine
NSFT NHS Insight Magazine

Prevalence of transgender people

I am but one of millions of trans people worldwide, more than a million in the USA alone, perhaps 300-600,000 in the UK or more. The NHS used to say that there were around 1-in-30,000 people born male (AMAB) transitioning to female (MTF) and 1-in-100,000 people born female (AFAB) transitioning to male (FTM). Those serious underestimates are reflected in the huge waiting lists of 1000s of people to access the handful of UK Gender Identity Clinics (GICs).

Given that the incidence of trans people seeking NHS help is now around 7,000 new referrals p.a., figures over an adult working lifetime would suggest a prevalence of 300,000-600,000 adults, around 0.5%-1% of the population, 1-in-200 or 1-in-100 people, perhaps more. In addition, For every trans person not seeking HRT or surgery there are four or five feeling and presenting as gender questioning or non-conforming. Recent surveys suggest 2.5% may identify as non-binary, 1.75% may be born intersex, and 2% may identify as trans or genderfluid. Overlap between these populations may suggest around 5% total, 1-in-20 people. This isn’t to conflate intersex with trans, just that some can be both, and it shows the degree of sex and/or gender atypicality in the population as a whole.

National Geographic, Gender Revolution
National Geographic, Gender Revolution, January 2017

Visible Trans Persons

In the UK we have many visible trans already such as the comedian, actor and now marathon-addict, Eddie Izzard. Other trans comedians include Bethany Black and Andrew O’Neill. Then there’s the arts writer and ceramicist, Turner Prize winning artist, Grayson Perry. In the world of journalism, there’s LGBT Pink List-topping radio and print journalist Paris Lees, along with several contributors to the Guardian newspaper such as Jane Fae, Juliet Jacques, and Roz Kaveney. In the field of law and diversity, Professor of Equalities Law at Manchester – Stephen Whittle, Christine Burns, formerly of Press for Change, Rachel Reese of the University of Law, law partner Clare Fielding, and barrister, Caroline Harrison, QC.

In sport, there’s recently-out boxing promoter, Kellie Maloney, and MMA fighter Roxeanne/Alex Reid. In business, there is Kate Craig-Wood, an entrepreneur and founder of one of the UK’s largest IT groups. Musicians like CN Lester, Thomas Dolby’s son Harper, and a magician, Fay Presto. In politics, there are several trans people who have stood as councillors or for election, across the political spectrum. On television, there are actors and a spate of reality TV stars. Among people who came out in the 1960s and 70s, there’s models April Ashley and Caroline Cossey, and writer, Jan Morris –  all well known British women with open transgender histories. I could go on as I know of hundreds of trans lawyers, doctors, activists in public life, here in the UK alone.

Time Magazine Transgender Tipping Point Laverne Cox
Time Magazine “The Transgender Tipping Point” Laverne Cox

In the USA, Janet Mock, among others have blazed the way by being out and public in their defence of being themselves, creating a tipping point of trans visibility, perhaps leading to the timing of former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out.

Also, recently, we’ve seen big names like Lana and Lilly Wachowski of the Matrix films, Chelsea Manning of Wikileaks fame, Cher’s son Chaz Bono, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me. Actors like Alexis Arquette, Candis Cayne (“Dirty Sexy Money”), Laverne Cox (“Orange is the New Black”) and Calpernia Addams. Nor are “Gender Outlaw” author Kate Bornstein or Jennifer Boylan to be forgotten. Dr Marci Bowers, is an American gynaecologist and surgeon and actually carries out gender/sex-reassignment surgery. There’s the US biologist and author of “Evolution’s Rainbow” Joan Roughgarden.

The names above are just a sprinkling of the probably tens of millions of trans and gender-variant people million worldwide.

For more information about the transgender spectrum visit www.genderagenda.net.

 

National Days

World Bipolar Day, Bipolar Mood Scale, Vincent van Gogh & Manic Creativity

World Bipolar Day

Today and everyday is bipolar day for 2-3% of the population who have a Mood Affective Disorder including Cyclothymia and Bipolar I & II. A day to recognise the issues, struggles, and occasional joys and spurts of creativity – sometimes manic, experienced by people with bipolar, was created to coincide with Vincent van Gogh’s birthday, 30 March, since he was posthumously believed to have had a bipolar type condition. World Bipolar Day aims to:

“bring world awareness to bipolar disorders and eliminate social stigma.” – International Society for Bipolar Disorders

Bipolar Incidence & Prevalence

Whilst 1-in-100 or 2.6% are commonly cited figures, some studies have shown wide variations, ranging from 2.6 to 20.0 per 100,000 per year, in the incidence of bipolar affective disorder (Lloyd & Jones, 2002). These variations have been e.g., regional, SE London is twice that of Nottingham and Bristol, or by ethnicity, by socio-economic class, by childhood intelligence – especially high verbal IQ, or by hormones and gender – some studies show a much higher incidence in the female population.

“estrogen fluctuations may be an important factor in the etiology of bipolar disorder and it is obvious that more research on this topic is needed to clarify the role of estrogen in women with bipolar disorder…Why is it that rapid cycling occurs more often in women?” – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23510130

It also alleged that among artistic and creative types there is a higher incidence of bipolar mood disorders, that may be genetic. Indeed, as many as 40x the national incidence, among a group of 30 American authors, studied over 15 years:

“43 per cent of them had bipolar disorder compared to only 10 per cent of the control group and 1 per cent of the general population.” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

A further survey of 47 British authors and visual artists from the British Royal Academy found that 38% had been treated for a mood disorder.

“A recent study carried out at Stanford University by Santosa and colleagues found that people with bipolar disorder and creative discipline controls scored significantly more highly than healthy controls on a measure of creativity called the Barron-Welsh Art Scale. In a related study the same authors sought to identify temperamental traits that people with bipolar disorder and creative people have in common. They found that both shared tendencies for mild elation and depression with gradual shifts from one to the other, openness, irritability, and neuroticism (roughly speaking, a combination of anxiety and perfectionism).” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh The Starry Night Google Art Project
Vincent Van Gogh, “The Starry Night”, 1889, MOMA, NYC via  Google Art Project

The famous Dutch post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh suffered quite wild swings in his mental health and many paintings were produced from his asylum room. Van Gogh is thought to have shot himself, after struggling with declining mental health in his mid-30s. He had spent most of the last 18-months of his life in an asylum, but two months later was dead as the result of a presumably, though not proven, self-induced shooting incident or suicide attempt.

Ironically, it was a period when he produced many iconic paintings, some en plein air. His famous image titled ‘The Starry Night’ was a pre-sunrise nocturne as seen from his East-facing asylum window, but finished in the asylum studio, as he was only allowed to draw in his room, not paint. Van Gogh’s beautiful and happier ‘Village Street and Steps in Auvers’ was painted just days after release from the asylum:

Vincent van Gogh Village Street and Steps in Auvers
Vincent van Gogh, “Dorfstraße undTreppe in Auvers mit Figuren” – ‘Village Street and Steps in Auvers’, 1890

Barely weeks later, and days before his death, he was painting several large wheat fields canvases and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness….I’m fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.” – Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 10 July 1890

His late paintings demonstrate an artist at the height of his talent, yet also the depths of his troubles, for whom art and the outdoor landscape was creative catharsis and therapy. What would the art world have witnessed had he lived on?

Bipolar Mood Scale Diary

It is typical for a bipolar diagnosis to take a decade and work through several misdiagnoses en route. I was first diagnosed with Cyclothymia over 4 years ago, but subsequently told it was Mood Affective Disorder and then Bipolar II, along with rapid cycling and mixed mode variations. CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, helped my management, but so did self-knowledge, awareness, and diarying. I enjoy my hypomanic periods, less so the depressions which I’ve fought for 12 years or so. Finding balance when you only exist at the poles is a tricky act to accomplish and may involve staying in when you feel like going out and going out when you feel like staying in!

Risks, when hypomanic, for me include inappropriate conversation, loss of impulse control, manic spending, flirting, obsessional behaviours, risk seeking. Yet, the benefits when high are hyperactive stamina and energy, stream of consciousness ideas flooding, huge reading and writing output, charismatic and entertaining confidence and loquaciousness.

“I managed to rack up £300k of credit, hardly average! I was, and indeed am, very convincing when hypomanic, it made me a good salesperson, deal-maker, innovator, public speaker but terrible at time and money management.”May 2013

Having been in a balanced mood state for nearly 3 months now, a rare occurrence, possibly due to recent endocrine changes, I miss the hyper states. I also realise, however, how destructive they could be to life, economics, and relationships, whilst at the same time being a creative buzz. I don’t miss the lethargic, inactive, hopeless depressive episodes at all, although they were a great way of avoid life and its stresses.

The best advice I was given was to monitor my mood on a daily basis, as I was already doing with my insomnia diary and general personal diary. The catharsis of writing and recording also came with the recognition that moods, highs, lows, sleeplessness all came in phases, that changed – they got better, and they got worse. Unlike, when I suffered with depression for 6-8 years as that felt like nothing would ever get better. The Bipolar Mood Scale diary has helped me to hold out for the good days, and to manage my moods better.

Bipolar Mood Scale

Mania
10Total loss of judgement, exorbitant spending, religious delusions and hallucinations.
9Lost touch with reality, incoherent, no sleep, paranoid and vindictive, reckless behaviour.
Hypomania
8Inflated self-esteem, rapid thoughts and speech, counter-productive simultaneous tasks.
7Very productive, everything to excess (phone calls, writing, smoking, tea), charming and talkative.)
Balanced Mood (Euthymia)
6Self-esteem good, optimistic, sociable and articulate, good decisions and get work done.
5Mood in balance, no symptoms of depression or mania. Life is going well and the outlook is good.
4Slight withdrawal from social situations, concentration less than usual, slight agitation.
Mild to Moderate Depression
3Feelings of panic and anxiety, concentration difficult and memory poor, some comfort in routine.
2Slow thinking, no appetite, need to be alone, sleep excessive or difficult, everything a struggle.
Severe Depression
1Feelings of hopelessness and guilt, thoughts of suicide, little movement, impossible to do anything.
0Endless suicidal thoughts, no way out, no movement, everything is bleak and it will always be like this.
0-10 Scale of mood from depression to mania

Being or having bipolar – people’s attitudes to which verb to use varies, should not be romanticised. It is both a blessing and a curse, and for some is very hard to live with. I’ve made friends with mine, though it is still unpredictable. I’ve come to appreciate the moment, mindful that it can change, but I take the rough with the smooth now. Hopefully, I can look back on past suicide attempts as distant memories, and seize the creative periods to be productive and expressive, whilst trying to rein it in when it tips into hypomania.

 

 

 

National Days

Human Rights & Writes on World Poetry Day; And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

World Poetry Day and Human Rights

A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.

Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:

“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.”Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001

Sadly, in 2016, we are little further forward according to several human rights experts:

“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”

She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.

Watch Maya Angelou read her poem A Brave and Startling Truth which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:

We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …

… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.

Maya Angelou – Still I Rise

In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:

“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)

She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.

The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

Maya Angelou 1974
Maya Angelou, 1974

Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud

Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:

“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.

“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.”
– Maya Angelou

She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.

National Days

UN International Day of Happiness – its pursuit as a human right or goal

United Nations International Day of Happiness

Firstly, I did not know there was a UN resolution for me to be happy today on the International Day of Happiness, nor that there was an International Society of Happiness Professionals! Perhaps their job is to help me pursue it, attaining it is another matter, a goal, not a right. However, in a UN Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 28 June 2012 it decreed:

“Recalling its resolution 65/309 of 19 July 2011, which invites Member States to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies, conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal, recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives, recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples, decides to proclaim 20 March the International Day of Happiness!” – United Nations

The Pursuit of Happiness

But as Benjamin Franklin once said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” Although some would argue that the more you pursue it, the more it runs from you – I’m inclined to agree. It’s a state of being not chasing. Whatever the American Declaration of Independence granted “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as an inalienable right, pursuit is no guarantee of capture:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” – American Declaration of Independence

Revolution to bring about change, overturn a government, to better “effect…safety and happiness” now that’s radical!

The 17th century English philosopher and liberal John Locke, said to have influenced the US Constitution, wrote in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding‘ that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

“The pursuit of happiness lies at the core of human endeavors. People around the world aspire to lead happy and fulfilling lives free from fear and want.”

Does pursuing happiness annoyingly aid its very escape, making it elusive rather than an elementary state that can be taught and caught?

Happiness – All in the Mind?

Yes, we would all like lives free from fear and want, but in this world, is that any time soon? Or can we follow the optimists and Abe Lincoln and think ourselves happy, despite outward circumstances:

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

Will a positive outlook overcome those fears and wants? It certainly won’t feed us, unless we believe in some kind of positive law of attraction that by being happy we will attract to ourselves good things.

Is it as simple as clicking on www.wikihow.com/Be-Happy and following the simple steps for “How to Be Happy”? I certainly wouldn’t suggest it to anyone who has suffered from depression as I have, yet paradoxically, I have also felt an inner happiness even amidst the powerlessness and chemical low of depression. So is happiness about acceptance, contentment – even in poverty, insecurity, and challenges to mental wellbeing?

“in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder…it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal/eternal sunshine in the darkest winter.”

Wealth and/or Happiness?

Studies suggest that a certain minimum level of wealth aids happiness but wears off with future income increments (hedonic adaptation) and lottery wins do not a happy person make. Indeed, with both wealth and poverty comes worry, worry you’ll never have it and worry you might lose it. To have money without worry would be nice. Whether you are rich or poor, being compassionate and generous can make one happier and the poor often give more than the rich, proportionately.

“Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.“, according to psychology professor Norbert Schwarz.  Similarly, “differences in reported sleep quality are associated with a very large difference in reported enjoyment during episodes at home.” – Having been both in chronic eviction-worthy debt and suffered for 44 years from insomnia, clearly I was not worried about money at 5 but I was at 45. I’m still an insomniac, but $60k might reduce anxiety further.

Just be Grateful

It is commonly suggested that being grateful can help, it puts things in perspective, and allows you to focus on the positive amidst the doom and gloom, and may lift you and turn your vision outwards and upwards. All happiness and depression can be relative. Relative to another’s better or worse condition. But the words are just words and often of little comfort when told at least you have your health, when your lack of wealth means you are fighting off debt collectors or losing your job or relationship. Indeed, your health may ungratefully quickly follow the loss of other things.

Be Yourself

Albert Camus said, “To be happy we must not be too concerned with others”, constant comparison, pressure to conform, following the crowd, keeping up with the Joneses. Being yourself takes less energy and improves your sense of happiness.

“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Albert Camus

Can Happiness be Measured in an Index?

Today may be the International Day of Happiness but the reality of that is hugely personal, cannot be dictated from on high, whether by religion or politics – the UK government even attempts to measure a happiness index but there are many ways to measure it. Whilst it cannot, to my mind, be enumerated, feeling and experiencing it, are of immeasurable worth.

National Days

No AdBlock isn’t broken it’s Amnesty’s World Day Against Cyber Censorship

World Day Against Cyber Censorship

12 March is World Day Against Cyber Censorship, first designated in 2008 at the request of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières/RSF) and Amnesty International. Like World Press Freedom Day (3 May) it concentrates on restriction of Internet access issues and online freedom of expression. It’s purpose is to:

RSF Stop Cyber Censorship - World Day Against Cyber Censorship
RSF Stop Cyber Censorship

“rally everyone in support of a single Internet that is unrestricted and accessible to all. It is also meant to draw attention to the fact that, by creating new spaces for exchanging ideas and information, the Internet is a force for freedom. However, more and more governments have realised this and are reacting by trying to control the Internet.” – Reporters Without Borders

The event logo, designed by Reporters Without Borders is a computer mouse freeing itself from its chains, symbolising the defence of free expression online.

Freedom of Expression Index 2015-2016

Last year say saw 64 journalists killed carrying out their jobs, along with 6 media assistants. A further 19 netizens and citizen journalists were killed.  In the first 10 weeks of 2016 another 11 journalists have been killed and over 300 journalists and citizen campaigners have been imprisoned for defending freedom of speech.

Freedom of the Press around the World 2015 RSF
Freedom of the Press around the World 2015, RSF

The United Kingdom has fallen from 19th to 34th on the RSF press freedom index since 2010.

Turkey’s censorship & state media interference

RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Turkey
RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Turkey

EU member hopeful, Turkey, ranks in the 150s out of 180 nations, and on 4 March the state forcibly took over the critical newspaper, Zaman. A decade ago it ranked at #98. “Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline.”[UPDATE – the day after

“Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline.” – RSF World Press Freedom Index

[UPDATE – the day after World Day Against Cyber Censorship a bomb exploded in the capital city Ankara killing at least 37 and injuring over a 100. Turkey’s state response included a broadcast ban by its broadcasting agency, RTÜK and then a court banned Twitter and Facebook after blast scene images were shared online. This despite Facebook instituting its “marked safe” check-in procedure for its users there.]

AdBlock call for the Internet to be Unblocked

Computer Privacy Quote, Amnesty
Computer Privacy Quote, Amnesty International

Only for today, AdBlock is “un-blocking” some ad banners – just those from Amnesty about online censorship and freedom of speech. AdBlock’s CEO points to RSF’s “Enemies of the Internet” list as justification for this wake-up call:

“On their current list of ‘Enemies of the Internet’, Reporters Without Borders include China, the United States, North Korea, the United Kingdom, and many others.” – Gabriel CubbageAdBlock CEO

“Blocking ads is both easy and ethical”, says Gubbage, but blocking the Internet is not.

Saudi Arabia Internet Content Blocking

Freedom of Speech Quote, Ai Wei Wei, Amnesty
Freedom of Speech Quote, Ai Wei Wei, Amnesty

Raif Badawi is one of many in Saudi Arabia, e.g., Waleed Abu Al-Khair and Tariq al-Mubarak, to have fallen foul of one of the world’s leaders in Internet content blocking. Strict web filtering is in place to block content deemed pornographic, or “morally reprehensible” – the latter has come to include religious apostasy, state criticism, or discussion of human rights issues and abuses.

United Kingdom Surveillance

Being Watched Quote, Edward Snowden, Amnesty
Edward Snowden on “being watched”, Amnesty International

Even the United Kingdom is a current “enemy of the Internet”. Why the UK? For our unprecedented CCTV, cyber and telecommunications surveillance, in some areas second only to China and in others worse than the US, according to Edward Snowden. This stems from a confusion that journalism equates with terrorism, or its risk, as the Guardian knows only too well.

“GCHQ thus gathers an unprecedented quantity of information”. – RSF

Meantime, in the USA, the FBI have ordered Apple to create unblocking software to release the contents of a killer’s iPhone to them, a move resisted by Apple with the backing of Facebook, GoogleMicrosoft and the United Nations!

RSF Cyber-Freedom/Netizen Prize

Since 1992, Reporters Without Borders, along with more recently TV5 Monde have offered a journalistic freedom Prize to reporters and online activists around the world. 2003 saw RSF give a first cyber freedom award to imprisoned Tunisian cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui. Since 2010, RSF has been awarding a Netizen Prize to the cybercitizen online activist, blogger, or journalist, who has most fought for freedom of expression and reporing on the Internet.

2010 – Awarded to the Iranian women’s rights activists, including co-founder Parvin Ardalan, of the Change for Equality website, www.we-change.org
2011 -Awarded to the founders of a Tunisian blogging group named Nawaat.org.
2012 -Awarded to Syrian citizen journalists and activists of the Media center of the Local Coordination Committees.
2013 – Awarded to Vietnamese blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh.
2014 – Awarded to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi.

Countless other thousands of journalists and activists, and millions of netizens, deserve a free and unfettered Internet. We must learn to police ourselves, rather than be censored by others. For who decides when a state is right or wrong if the freedom to even discuss or criticise that state is removed from us?

RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Worst placed countries
RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Worst placed countries
National Days

International Women’s Day 2016, another 100 years wait for gender equality?

International Women’s Day 2016 Theme

United States Woman Suffrage
United States: Calls for Women’s Suffrage

The theme for the still necessary International Women’s Day (IWD) this year is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality“, or more simply, gender parity. An IWD was called for as long ago as 1910 by Clara Zetkin and 100 women from 17 countries at a conference in Denmark. It was celebrated for the first time in 1911 and by 1913 it was recognised in many places, including Russia, the same year it moved to its current date of 8 March. In 1908, 15,000 women demonstrated in New York for equal rights, and in 1909 held the first National Woman’s Day. Yet after more than a century, by some accounts, we are still at least a 100 years away from equality:

“The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn’t close entirely until 2133.” – International Women’s Day

8 March 2005 International Womens Day rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Trade Union Kendra - Photo by Soman, Wiki
8 March 2005 International Womens Day rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Trade Union Kendra – Photo by Soman, Wiki

Recalling last year’s theme of “Make it Happen” and this year’s “Pledge for Parity” it seems we are still struggling to accelerate progress and in some instances we are slowing down.

Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued in a statement on IWD for positivity because of past change:

“We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Great, but progress is still slow, hardly “sweeping away”, and those campaigning for change don’t want to wait another 100 years for parity in education, employment, democracy, legal rights, sport, representation in the media etc.

Women in Education

A timeline of women’s history – or rather some choice and interesting examples, as it does little justice to many forgotten women – includes Mexico’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who in 1691 fought for women’s education, saying:

“one can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”

Malala Yousafzai Bring Back Our Girls
Malala Yousafzai #BringBackOurGirls

We wouldn’t even accept that comment now, 400 years later, regarding it as sexist to assume that she should be the one to be cooking the supper. Yet education parity hasn’t arrived either with 50% more boys than girls in school in sub-Saharan Africa and the well-publicised situation in NW Pakistan brought to the fore by the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in 2012. Men are twice as likely to be literate as women in Pakistan and there are three times as many schools for boys as those for girls with twice as many male places.

Money Talks

Frida Kahlo and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz on Mexican currency notes
Frida Kahlo and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz on Mexican currency notes

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz ended up on Mexico’s currency, as does Frida Kahlo on another peso note, and we all know that money talks, yet barely a dozen nations have historical female figures on their national printed currency.

Even Syria, much in the news, has third century Queen Zenobia on a high value note. The Ukrainian 200 Hryvnia note features women’s rights activist Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka (Lesya Ukrainka), a writer and poet who died in 1913. Israel and Turkey also have female figures on current or planned notes, whilst Argentina has Eva Perón.

The UK has its female head of state on the front of every note and on the reverse of others Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, and soon, Jane Austen will be added to their number. The United States will only have a woman on its banknotes in 2020.

Unpaid and Low Paid Working Women

The UN 2015 Human Development Report which monitors the gender-related aspects of empowerment (GEM) and development (GDI) says that whilst 47% of women are in paid employment and 72% of men, they nonetheless contribute 52% of global hours worked to men’s 42%, indicating high rates of unpaid labour. Socio-cultural reasons for this and expectation within marriage and motherhood, explain some of this, but women are still often expected to do more for less.

UNDP Infographic Progress in gender equality
UNDP Infographic Progress in gender equality

A UNDP infographic shows how we are approaching parity in education, but that workforce equality and executive jobs are lagging behind, and whilst female representation in parliaments is growing, ministerial positions for women are still rare. The blue polygon represents the aims of parity on 5 axes. The green is where we are at, and the orange where we were two decades ago in 1995. Even in the UK there are more male MPs now than the total number of female MPs ever.

Sexual Violence

Far from ending sexual violence after more than a century of IWD activism, in some places it seems to be on the rise. In areas controlled by Islamic State (ISIL) and similar groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab, sex-based violence is used as part of military control and conquest. Forced marriage, gang rape, mutilations and punishments are all carried out in the name of jihadist terror.

No such thing as a Safe Space for Women?

A far cry from Africa and the Middle East lie the streets of Britain on an average Friday night or even the office workplace, on any given day. Sexism at work, inappropriate banter or touching, still occur – 30% of British men admit to being sexist. The risk of being groped by a stranger in public for a young woman is nearly 1-in-2 with a majority wishing members of the public had intervened to stop it happening. The End Violence Against Women campaign report that 85% of women-under-25 had received unwanted sexualised attention and 45% sexual touching, in public. Nine times out of ten, nobody helps.

Woman in Sport

A Women in Football survey of women working in the sport reported that 2-in-3 women were the butt of sexist jokes and comments, 1-in-4 were bullied and 1-in-6 experienced actual sexual harassment. These figures are a rise on the last survey, 2 years ago. Perhaps, this could be accounted for by improved reporting and confidence to complain, or it could actually be getting worse.

Feminism is for all Women

Women attacking women is not unknown either, whether workplace bullying, school gangs, or policing each other’s feminism. Feminisms, rather, for a great range of feminist labels and ideologies now exist and needlessly attack each other rather than the societal systems that oppress them. Some avoid the term feminist altogether in protest, but when asked what they believe in, the basic principles of feminism are still held up. Namely, equal economic, personal, political, and social rights for women.

Feminism is for Men too

Whether you’re a feminist or an egalitarian, equality is what matters. Indeed, there is also an International Men’s Day, on 19 November during ‘Movember’ month. Joining in bringing disadvantaged women up to the opportunities, levels and ceilings, currently experienced by most men, brings equality and benefit for all. That is why we need International Women’s Day and campaigns against gender disparity in places where the scales of power are tipped in favour of patriarchal and often religious, political and economic establishment privilege. Men’s Day is a time to focus on their health and other disadvantages, but today in Women’s History Month is a day to focus on girls and women.

National Days

Gandhi, Rustin, Tolstoy, Civil Rights & MLK, Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day, celebrated on the third Monday in January since 1986 (Reagan agreed it in 1983), his birthday was on the 15th. Born in 1929 to a pastor and a schoolteacher, he himself became a Baptist minister and advocate for African American equality and social justice from the 1950s through to his 1968 assassination. He was instrumental in the bringing in of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Mahatma Gandhi & Non-Violence

King was inspired by the Hindu lawyer and campaigner for rights in South Africa and India, Mahatma Gandhi, and his principles of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience over and against armed uprising. Gandhi was also an advocate of religious tolerance but was in the end also assassinated, in 1948, by a Hindu nationalist. King managed to visit India in 1959.

Gandhi had succeeded in the 1920s in uniting Muslims and Hindus against the common enemy of the British empire. Yet by the 1940s an independent Muslim nationalism led to the eventual division of India and creation of a separate Pakistan.

Some of Gandhi’s more extreme pacifist views included recommending that Britain openly yield to Hitler rather than defend itself, and that the Jews should have willingly surrendered to the Holocaust as an act of collective suicide. He did not support the idea of the state of Israel gained through violence or Zionism, but only as something within the gift of the Arabs to bring about peacefully.

Gandhi’s principles meshed with King’s own Christian principles, as he said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Another early source that energized King was the Christian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was also an influence on Gandhi.

Bayard Rustin, Gay Communist

Bayard Rustin was a sometime adviser to Martin Luther King and had also visited India, in 1948, not long after Gandhi’s assassination. He shared both Gandhi and King’s principles of non-violence. King’s involvement with him was discouraged by others due to Rustin’s former membership of the Communist Party and his homosexuality, which King had little problem with.

Rustin later became a gay rights activist, in addition to his earlier civil rights campaigning. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The journey towards civil rights was more of a bus route, with lots of stops and delays. Rustin had been beaten and arrested back in 1942 for sitting in the second row of a segregated bus.

Thirteen years later, in March 1955, 15 year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on a in Montgomery bus. Due to Colvin’s unmarried and pregnant status the civil rights activists waited for a better test case and were rewarded with the defiance of the now famous Rosa Parks who was arrested later that year, in December, for also refusing to give up her seat.

The 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued, which whilst planned by others was publicly led by King, and resulted in his house being firebombed.

“All men are created equal”

The path to equality culminated in the quarter-million strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, predominantly organised by Rustin. Despite its being unprecedented in size and diversity, it was boycotted itself by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for being too soft and sanitised, promoting peaceful harmony and integration rather than strength and independent identity.

The iconic “I have a dream” speech, much of which may have been improvised on the spot, includes the famous and inspirational line:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”

Whilst King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and indeed the Nation of Islam, fought for black equal rights, the case for full civil equal rights for “all men” continues. LGBTI equality, for example, has been the focus of the last decade of legal progress in the USA, something that Rustin fought for until his death in 1987.

King’s Assassination and Death

King was ever the optimist, preaching love over hate, peace over war, forgiveness over resentment.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

It was a belief that may have cost him his life, and not a little opposition from other members of the civil rights movement. After President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, King said to his wife, Coretta: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” Five years later, he did indeed suffer the same fate.

Black Lives Matter

Despite all the progress, the reality on the ground, is that black lives are still not considered equal. The last year or two has seen so many cases of unarmed black men being shot dead by American police officers that it is clear that stereotypes persist in the minds of many. 980 US citizens were shot dead in 2015 by police, 91 were unarmed and a disproportionate 37 of them were black.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The laws may have changed half a century ago, but it is hearts and minds that still need to be won, in this generation and in every one that succeeds it. King may have been a pacifist, but he was not passive about change, and how it was to be accomplished:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals…Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”

National Days

National Biscuit Day, that’s Cookies for the Americans and Dutch

National Biscuit Day

Apparently it’s National Biscuit Day (29 May) and the ones we like reveals spooky stuff about us, says one utterly pointless survey. For instance, shy Rich Tea biscuit lovers are most likely to come from East Anglia and watch TOWIE (if you don’t know what this stands for, you are best left in the dark). In my mind, the best place for biscuits is either dunked in a cup of builder’s tea – albeit in a fine bone china cup, or scrunched up in a double thickness, double chocolate, cheesecake base – yum!

McVitie’s Biscuit Personality Survey

The “nation-wide” survey (that didn’t ask me) portrays Digestive biscuit devotees as “fun-loving”, Fruit Shortcake savourers as not nuts, but “charming”, whereas Ginger Nuts describe themselves as “feisty”, and Jaffa Cake crunchers self-identify as “cheeky”. As for HobNobs

HMCE & VAT on Jaffa Cakes

Cakes, cookies or biscuits
Cakes, cookies or biscuits?

As to Jaffa Cakes, well they are biscuits, not cakes, unless you are a tax man working for HMCE and trying to assess VAT on them as “luxury” rather basic zero-rated foodstuffs. Jaffa Cakes, in 2012 the UK’s most popular “biscuit”, have been made by McVitie’s since 1927, currently at the rate of 2000-a-minute. Whilst there is no VAT on a basic biscuit or any cake, add chocolate to a biscuit and it becomes a luxury, whilst presumably , chocolate cake is still a basic nutritional need! So McVities have always defined Jaffa Cakes as, well, cakes – hence their name, despite being sold in the biscuit aisle. Her Majesty’s Customs and Killjoys tried to define them as biscuits in a court battle against United Biscuits (now owned by Turkish Yildiz bought for £2bn at the end of 2014) from 1991 but lost in a tribunal review.

“One of the critical aspects of the argument was related to what happens when biscuits or cakes go stale. The court found, as anyone who has forgotten to put the lid on their biscuit tin properly will know, that when biscuits go stale they go softer. But when cakes go stale they go harder. The test was done, and when Jaffa cakes are left exposed to the air they get harder. So Jaffa cakes are definitely cakes and not biscuits.” – Jaffa Cake fan site

Biscuit Etymology

Chocolate baking
Completely gratuitous home baked chocolate

As a kid I called them bikkits, some call them biskwits, but what is the etymology of “biscuit”, or the linguistic cookie crumb trail of koekje.

Us Brits know what a biscuit is, indeed a cookie is a biscuit too, but are all biscuits cookies? The linguistic division here is similar to how British crisps are baked and dried potatoes but chips are fries, whilst in the USA and the Netherlands, fries are chips, but chips are crisps!

The word comes from the Latin for “twice cooked”, bis-coctus (coquere=”to cook”) which ended up in Middle French as bescuit. This, in turn, ended up in 14th century Middle English as bisquite. Put simple, it means a twice baked product, first cooked then dried out.

Meantime, in Holland – more correctly the Netherlands, as my partner keeps reminding me, around the turn of the 18th century the Dutch adopted koekje, “little cake”, to refer to the same hard-baked foodstuffs, that have become cookies in the US. The slight pedantic culinary difference is that the Dutch “cookie” is a baked product that rises and cools, whilst the English “biscuit” has remains flat, having no raising agent.

National Biscuit Day needs no excuse to indulge in cake, cookie or biscuit, or all three!