Merry Christmas, Scrooges!

Among all the Christmas adverts on telly right now there is one that makes me chuckle quietly. It’s not particularly a genius display of Mad Men-ish-advertising skill, but it still gets a giggle out of me, even if I couldn’t actually remember which company it was for before I sat down to write this and had to Google it.

The advert I’m talking about is this Tesco one. Like I said, it’s hardly groundbreaking or gone viral or anything (2,470 hits? Pull your finger out Tesco, John Lewis is on, like, two million something). But it still makes me laugh. Some family sits around the dining table for Christmas dinner, pulling crackers and wearing colourful tissue paper hats. Except for one kid who, with his Bieber-esque hairstyle and furrowed brow, is clearly supposed to be far too cool to be down with this stupid Christmas stuff. He will not wear his crappy paper hat. Nope. He won’t smile. He’d rather be anywhere else but here, frankly, surrounded by his gawky idiotic family. Stupid bloody Christmas.This teeny boy makes me laugh because there are so many ‘grown-ups’ who act just like him at Christmas time, miserable, shouty-moany people who think Christmas and family stuff is a load of crap and that those who join in are missing a few brain cells and clearly not clever enough to see through the shame of it all. ‘Consumerism!’, they cry. ‘Commerical nonsense!’, they say banging their point-making fists on the table.

Someone I once worked with used to go on and on constantly about how much they hated being forced to spend Christmas with their family and pretend like they got along – grumbling about having to buy presents and pretending like they were grateful for what their grandma got them. Talk about bah-humbug. These kind of shouty-moany people are all like the moody boy who won’t wear his paper hat on Christmas.

Today, I wrote about how much I love Christmas (if you can’t already tell), for the Guardian’s Comment is Free. I do. I unashamedly love it. I can’t pretend like I’m too cool to spend time with my family or that I don’t enjoy seeing our long dark evenings brightened up by fairy lights. Call me rose-tinted and Disney, but this is the stuff that puts a smile on my face. Two years ago, my family went on a winter holiday to Oman – my brother and I genuinely missed England and our cold, cold Christmas so much that we vowed to each other we’d never go away on Christmas day again.

Growing up, I never exchanged Christmas presents with my family (although I did offer wrapped up Body Shop dewberry gift sets to school friends as per the norm in the nineties) so I’ve never really seen Christmas as this great big consumer-fest of giant wish lists of expectations that other people complain of. Last year was the first time I bought Christmas presents for family members, specifically my in-laws with whom my husband and I will be spending the season with again this year – and I loved picking presents out for them all. If you don’t want Christmas to be all about consumerism, it doesn’t have to be – all my Christmasses growing up were about friends, family, good food and staying home, and being grateful for it all, and I still loved it.

I was expecting the moany shouty types to be out in force below the line on my piece today. Sure, there were a few (some called my version of Christmas a ‘fantasy’; one chap said he ‘loathes’ Christmas for its ‘stupidity and hypocrisy.’) But I was warmed by the number of commenters below the line who said they loved Christmas too.

By the end of that Tesco advert, the moody boy bows to the slightly alarming display of peer pressure (including a grandad stomping his walking stick while chanting ‘hat! hat!’ to the soundtrack of T-Rex) around him and sticks aforementioned paper hat on his head. And, finally, he smiles and joins right in. So you see, secretly, even all the grumblers love Christmas too. Have a good one!

 

The Guardian: Miss Moti – a comic character with a difference

 

Meet Miss Moti. Her name means ‘fatty’ in Nepali, Hindi and Urdu. She is chubby and curvy and has beautiful long dark hair, and she sometimes gets stuck in stairwells because of her size. She might be overweight, and her name might mean fat, but she doesn’t think about it too much. Miss Moti is happy.

Among the superheroes, manga characters and moody protagonists of graphic novels featured at this year’s international comic festival Comica, which took place in London last month, brown-skinned Miss Moti quietly stood out. She doesn’t have superpowers and she’s not invincible, but she has quietly become an unlikely yet utterly lovable character among comic fans across the world.

Miss Moti was created by Kripa Joshi while she was studying for her master’s in illustration in New York. Joshi was born and brought up in Nepal but now lives in Surrey, and says she struggled for most of her teenage and adult life with her weight. Creating Miss Moti has helped her feel better about it.

“In Nepali and south Asian society your weight is the first thing that family and friends comment on. They mean well, but it’s not like they are incredibly polite about it,” Joshi says. “You almost feel like not going out because you expect criticism and it makes you retreat a little.

“But Miss Moti is not like that. She might be big on the bum, but she doesn’t let that stop her – she doesn’t sit there worrying about her weight all the time. She’s a dreamer and she’s probably a little bit lonely and looking for someone to live her life with, but she’s positive and sweet and quirky. People don’t see her as a fat character, they see her as a very likeable character they can love.”

In an interesting play on words, the meaning of the word “moti” changes in Nepali, Hindi and Urdu depending on the pronunciation; softening the “t” every so slightly transforms the meaning from ‘fat’ to ‘pearl’. “So Miss Moti is a gem of a person really,” says Joshi. “It’s about perception.”

Although there are some south Asian female illustrators who have created female characters – Amruta Patil is widely considered the first Indian female graphic novelist – they are few and far between, which makes Miss Moti refreshingly different. Joshi says she’s not sure if Miss Moti is specifically Nepali or just south Asian in general. “She’s not a western woman, but she’s living in the west,” she concludes.

Miss Moti stars in her own two comic books, Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy and Miss Moti and the Big Apple. Both follow her on various day-to-day errands in New York, where the most mundane things take on a magical twist, fuelled by Miss Moti’s daydreaming imagination. Miss Moti has also appeared in an annual comic magazine, Ink Plus Paper, andthe Strumpet, a comic anthology which only features work by female comic artists.

“Women are doing very different types of comics,” says Joshi. “We’re not necessarily doing the big commercial stuff, but we’re taking on personal stories about ourselves – I’ve noticed some female comics taking on serious issues like mental illness. As women comic artists, we have different stories to tell. It’s a very exciting time for us.”

The Guardian: Blythe dolls: too scary for children, loved by adults

 

This weekend 230 people, mostly women, will gather in a hotel in Manchester for a 40th birthday party. The birthday party happens to be for a doll: Blythe.

If you don’t know Blythe by name, you may know her by sight. She is instantly recognisable by her big, lollipop head and huge, vaguely manga-style eyes which sometimes change colour; her expression is slightly forlorn. She mostly sports geek-chic hair – a heavy fringe, sometimes dyed different colours – and wears vintage-styled outfits. Blythe is basically a mini version of Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry combined. Except she’s a doll.

Saturday’s event is the annual, all-day Blythe Convention for fans, taking place in the UK for the third consecutive year. There will be stands selling the latest Blythe outfits and masterclasses on “how to sew a dress for Blythe in under an hour.” Later there will be a big birthday cake, competitions and raffles, with all proceeds going to charity. Tickets for BlytheCon, as it is known, sold out within weeks of going on sale.

“There is a large Blythe community in the UK,” says Sam Holland, a university research fellow from Leeds who is co-organising this year’s convention. “It’s a surprisingly social thing to do – mostly, though not always, grown women getting together, sharing a creative hobby. It’s an unusual hobby, yes, and there can be a lot of nerdiness around it. But it’s really no different from any other hobby.”

Blythe is big business, although it didn’t start out that way. The dolls were first made in America in 1972 (hence the 40th birthday) by now-defunct toy manufacturer Kenner, but they never caught on. The big head and the big eyes made the dolls too scary for little children to play with, and Blythe was ditched after just one year.

But nearly 30 years later, a Blythe renaissance occurred. Gina Garan, a TV producer in New York, was given an old Blythe doll by a friend. She fell in love with it and started hunting down Kenner originals on eBay.

Garan, an amateur photographer, started taking pictures of her Blythe dolls, styled up as if in in a fashion magazine. In 2000, her photo collection was snapped up and published in a book called This is Blythe. Over 100,000 copies of it have sold since.

A year later a Japanese company, Takara, began to produce new versions of Blythe. This time her popularity soared, and not just in Japan – thanks to Garan’s book and website, the Blythe craze was well and truly under way.

There are now Blythe conventions all over the world, including New York, Barcelona and Berlin, where thousands of Blythe fans congregate every year. In the UK, there are also smaller ‘Blythe Meets’ taking place regionally and regularly. Blythe has even featured in advertising campaigns for Sony and Alexander McQueen.

Blythe 2010, ClarityClarity, the limited-edition doll for 2010. Photograph: Sam Holland

For most Blythe fans, it’s not so much about playing with the dolls but more about photographing them. There’s a huge Blythe community on Flickr, where amateur photographers share inspiration and set each other challenges (one challenge involved taking a photo of your Blythe in a new outfit and setting every day for a year). At BlytheCon this weekend there will be a Flickr wall, where collectors can meet their online friends in person for the first time.

Julieanne Kay, who is in her 40s and lives in Manchester where she runs her own business, owns six Blythe dolls. She bought her first one 10 years ago. “The first time I saw Blythe, I thought she’d just be amazing to photograph. I’ve always been very into my photography, and Blythe is very endearing and very photogenic. It’s quite a creative process, thinking of how to photograph them and set the scene.”

“Blythe is a great muse,” agrees Fiona Berger, 53, a Briton who now lives in Norway. She is travelling back to the UK for BlytheCon with her daughter and says she is “addicted” to Blythe – she owns 277 dolls, including three original Kenners. “She’s so versatile, she can be whatever you want her to be – cute, mysterious, sophisticated or nerdy. Taking photos of Blythe is a great way to share the hobby with others online, and that’s a real part of the appeal.”

It’s not just photography that draws Blythe fans in – there’s an entire world of Blythe fashion and craft to explore too. Etsy is flooded with Blythe accessories, from tiny handbags and shoes to smock dresses, headbands and thick framed spectacles.

“There’s so much talent in the Blythe community, it’s hard not to be inspired by it,” says Jess Lowndes, a 24-year-old software developer who owns 11 Blythe dolls. She’s taken up knitting and crochet since discovering Blythe eight years ago. “I can appreciate the time and effort that goes into making such detailed things at such a small scale.”

Blythe dolls are, however, an expensive hobby. Original 1972 models can easily fetch over £1,000 on eBay, while even recent Takara versions can cost anything from £60 to over £200. Even the tiny clothes come at a considerable cost. Are they worth their price tag?

“It’s a lot of money to pay for a doll,” concedes Holland, who owns six Blythes. Her first doll, which she bought in 2010, cost £220. “There’s a very busy international retail market – some people are prepared to pay thousands, which is amazing. It is kind of weird, when you think about it. But then you could say it’s also weird how people pay loads of money to watch a load of men chasing a leather ball around a field.”

Holland, who specialises in gender and subculture in her research, says it tends to be professional women buying Blythe, purely because they want to. “These aren’t desperate women with 14 cats, these are intelligent women with careers and children who have a hobby,” she says.

For many Blythe fans, owning and photographing the dolls and getting to know other collectors online is a welcome and often rare escape from reality. Holland bought her first Blythe because she desperately wanted a distraction from her job; something that was creative and would inspire her artistically in her spare time.

Lowndes, who is about to start her PhD, doesn’t think she’ll ever grow tired of Blythe. “One of the nicest things about her is that she’s there when you need her to be. She’s an excellent way to de-stress,” she says. “I can go through patches when real life means I’m too busy to do ‘doll stuff’ but when I’m free again, I can pick her up and it’s like we were never apart.”

The Guardian: Inspiring women – Clare Smyth: ‘Having a woman in the kitchen makes men behave’

 

 

Clare Smyth is the head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. She is the first British female chef to run a restaurant with three Michelin stars.

I believe that if you’re going to do something, then you do it all the way. You don’t quit halfway through because it’s too hard to get there. Anywhere worth going is always going to be difficult.

I’ve always had that focus. From the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a top chef. When I first took over as head chef, I felt like I was destined to do it, because I’d worked so hard for it. I felt like there was nothing stopping me.

But in the beginning, when I started at Gordon Ramsay in my early 20s, there hadn’t been too many women that had come through the kitchen and done well. The guys rolled their eyes and said, “She’ll be gone in a week.” I was determined to get on with it, put my head down and show people I was capable. But I was petrified too.

In some ways, I was overdriven – I didn’t want people to turn around and say “Ah, she couldn’t cope because she’s a woman.” Any young chef is desperate to prove themselves; I was as well, but I put myself under that added pressure to prove myself because I’m a woman too.

I’ve been in this role for five years now, and I don’t have to worry about that anymore.

Another woman started on my team two weeks ago. She’s the first girl we’ve had in a long time and I have high hopes for her. Whenever a woman comes in the kitchen, I’ll try to take them to one side and say, “Just talk to me if there’s a problem.”

Restaurant kitchens are testosterone-driven. It’s a tough world; the hours are bad and the conditions are harsh. But the atmosphere changes when there’s a girl in the kitchen – it’s nicer. The guys talk more softly, snap less and speak with a bit more respect. Having a woman in the kitchen makes the men think about how to behave. And they should think about it – they should be gentleman all the time, and I’ve told them that.

Working in a restaurant with three Michelin stars means you can’t afford to get complacent. You can’t ever have a bad day. Every plate that leaves this kitchen has to be absolutely perfect. There are expectations, and the pressure builds up. In the kitchen, I wear my heart on my sleeve. If things go wrong, we all feel it and we say it as it is – but it’s never personal. It’s always about the food.

Did I make sacrifices to get here? Yes and no … you spend so many years trying to get to the top, and when you get there, you’re at the age you’d want to be having a family. In a normal job, you can put your kids in daycare and go to work nine to five during the day. But as a chef, you often work every night, every weekend, and it’s just not suitable – unless you get to a point where you can have a nanny. There’s lots to think about.

My restaurant is closed on weekends, so I spend time with my partner then, and that gives me a bit of work-life balance. When I’m at home, I like cooking simple, homely food – big Sunday roasts with everyone round the table. I also end up eating out a lot because I like being on the other side as a customer. I like the hustle and bustle of being in a restaurant.

My partner isn’t in the restaurant business, but he totally gets that I have to work long hours. And that I want to work long hours. Most nights I finish at midnight, and I’m back by 8.30 in the morning. I don’t really get tired – I’m just so used to it, it’s part and parcel of my life.

The Guardian: Inspiring women – Nicola Adams: ‘Women should be able to do any sport they choose’

Nicola Adams became the first ever female Olympic boxing champion when she won gold for GB at the London 2012 Games.

Boxing is so much more than just a physical sport. It’s a game of the mind. It gives you willpower and determination. It teaches you how to be dedicated. Nothing compares to that feeling of getting into a ring, in front of hundreds and hundreds of people, and knowing that when the bell goes, it’s just you in there, fighting for yourself. That teaches you a lot about confidence. Now I know that if I want to get something done, I can do it as long as I put my mind to it.

When I was young, I used to watch Muhammad Ali fighting on the television all the time with my dad. I loved how exciting it was. When I was 12, my mum took me with her to the gym because she had an aerobics class and couldn’t find a babysitter. There was an after-school boxing class on and I ended up in there. I loved it, and started going three times a week. Our class was like a little family.

The boxing classes were meant to be mixed, but I was the only girl in there. I didn’t mind – I’ve grown up with two brothers, so I’ve always been used to being the only girl. As I got older, I trained exactly as hard as the lads did. If they did 10 push ups, I did 10 push ups. My coaches never said that I couldn’t do it because I was a girl. I used to spar with the boys. I was never treated differently; I was treated as an equal. If anything, that made me a better boxer.

When I realised I’d won gold at the Olympics, I had goose pimples all over. I remember wanting to cry and wanting to cheer at the same time. I couldn’t believe how much support I had; afterwards, I heard the prime minister and the royals had been watching and it was just unbelievable.

Winning gold was my dream come true. It was what I had set out to do, but at the time I didn’t think about what I’d done for the country, or how much it meant for the sport – that’s still taking a while to sink in. It’s so great that more girls want to box now. I hope that when I retire, there will be a young woman ready to fill my shoes.

It feels weird to think younger women see me a role model, but it’s an honour at the same time. My role model is Sugar Ray Leonard. I got to meet him last week and he asked me what made me take up boxing and I said “you”. It was amazing that he even knew who I was; I couldn’t believe he knew my name.

I still get nervous before every fight. It’s those fight-or-flight nerves. My way of dealing with it is to try and stay in control of the situation, rather than let the nerves take control of me. I’ll listen to music before I go on, maybe something by Kanye West – music that fires me up and gets me in the zone.

I know there are people who don’t agree with women boxing. But at the end of the day, boxing is just a sport and women should be able to do any sport they choose. We’re at a stage now where it’s all aboutequality. If a woman wants to play a sport, she can. There’s nothing stopping us.

The Guardian: Inspiring women series – Diane Abbott

In 1987, Diane Abbott became the first black woman ever elected to the House of Commons. She is currently the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and shadow minister for public health.

When I was elected, 25 years ago, there were only 41 female MPs. Now there are over 100, and there are more women from ethnic minorities too.

Certainly there’s been progress, but in my opinion it’s not enough. I’d love to see more women in parliament. At the time that I was elected, I didn’t have this sense of making history as a black woman. Obviously it was an extraordinary moment for me personally, but it’s only now that I recognise how important it was.

The biggest challenge I faced was racism. People simply didn’t think I could do it – that I could be elected as a black woman. But I learned a long time ago that you just have to get on with it; you can’t let racism hold you back from what you want to achieve.

Today it is still quite challenging to be a woman in politics. There’s still a sense that women have to prove themselves. As a politician in the public eye, life is very difficult and stressful, and your mistakes are far more public. That’s something you have to deal with.

It’s extremely difficult balancing a demanding job and being a parent – there are a lot of antisocial hours. My son is at university now, but I always used to take him to school in the morning, and would try to pick him up in the afternoon, though I did often rely on friends, family and babysitters. He went to Ghana, where his father lives, for sixth form, so when he left I went through empty-nest syndrome. As a single mother, you become particularly close. He’s at Cambridge now, and I’m proud of him.

My Jamaican heritage is something I’m also very proud of. I love Jamaican culture. Culture is in everything – food, music, literature. I believe if you don’t know where you come from then you don’t know where you’re going to, so it’s been important for me to show my son his roots, both his Jamaican and Ghanaian heritage. I still have lots of family in Jamaica, and visit regularly – I was there this summer. It’s good to get away.

In the Olympics, I supported the Jamaicans as well as Team GB. I loved the Games. I was sceptical about the Olympics, because I was worried there would not be enough jobs for local people, but I just loved Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and it made me feel much more positive about it. I loved that it put Britain’s multicultural heritage at the centre. I got to see the swimming, athletics and hockey. Like most people, I think I should be more active, but I just haven’t got time.

On Monday and Tuesday nights we finish at 10pm in the House, and on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm. I don’t get much time to relax – I don’t tend to switch off in the evenings, because there are always emails and Twitter. I don’t enjoy social media, but as a politician it’s all about communication. Most weekends I’m doing something work related, but when I do get time I love watching Gardener’s World, and I’m a fan ofCome Dine with Me.

This year’s been a fantastic year with the Olympics and Paralympics; next year I’d love to see the coalition government collapse and Labourwin in a general election.

The Guardian: Inspiring women series

I’m working on a new series for the Guardian, weekly interviews with inspiring women who have achieved a first in their chosen field.

 

Felicity Aston

Felicity Aston alone in Antarctica: ‘I realised that this was what it felt like to be terrified’

Briton Felicity Aston became the first woman in the world to ski solo across Antarctica in January 2012. She skied 1,744 miles in 59 days.

When I look at a map of the world, my eye tends to wander to the fringes – that’s where I want to be. I want to see what’s there. I’m incredibly curious.

The decision to ski alone across Antarctica was about pushing my personal limits to see if I could do it. I’ve always had a sense of adventure, and this seemed like the ultimate adventure. But it’s not an experience that I will put myself out there for again – not alone. I reached my limit.

When the plane flew away and left me, I felt like I was having a panic attack. I was tripping over, breathing hard, doing things in the wrong order. I realised that this was what it felt like to be terrified. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but afraid of this whole new league of being alone.

It doesn’t sound very heroic, but my reaction was to cry. I cried and cried and remember thinking ‘I’m sure Sir Ranulph Fiennes didn’t sit down on the first day of his expedition and cry’, but for me it was a way to recognise my fear. Every morning, the first thought I had was ‘I can’t do this’, and every morning I had to face a mental struggle to get out of my tent.

Then I’d think about how I had to get up else I wouldn’t finish, and think about everyone who was supporting me. But the most powerful motivator was thinking of all those people who had underestimated me or put me down – I didn’t want them to be right, I wanted to be right. And so I’d get the strength to carry on, to get up and go.

Now when I look at a map of Antarctica, it feels ridiculous to think that I’ve skied across that entire continent. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to knowing that.

In 2009, I led a team of women to the south pole. They were all beginners; some of them had never seen snow. But they did it. You don’t have to be superhuman – I’m not – you just need the will to do it. You need the mental drive.

Sometimes I work with amazing women and yet I sense they have this lack of confidence in their own intrinsic abilities. Sometimes I do too – and I wonder why we do when men don’t?

On most of the polar projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been in the minority. When I’m talking to a group of men of a certain middle age, it takes a while to convince them of my expertise.

But I believe the gap between men and women is closing when it comes to extreme endurance - Hannah McKeand smashed the record to ski from Antarctica to the south pole and the guys who have tried since have only managed to shave a few hours off that. When it comes to ultra distances, we’re starting to compete on an equal footing.

I’m 34 now and I’d like to have children in the future, but I don’t know yet how I will feel. What will I do when I have children? Will I be able to leave them while I’m away on an expedition? Will I be able to take them with me? I don’t know. I haven’t found those answers yet. But right now, I can’t imagine not feeling the lure to travel.

Antarctica is amazing. I lived there for three years as a researcher. I wish everyone could see it. Once you’ve stood there and felt how old and vast and empty it is, it’s impossible not to be struck by how small and vulnerable we are in the face of nature.

The Guardian: The women teaching cross stitch to convicted murderers

 

Frankland prison in County Durham is notorious. The high-security, men-only jail has housed some of the most dangerous criminals in the country, including Charles Bronson, Harold Shipman and Ian Huntley. Three months ago, two inmates there murdered and then disembowelled another.

It’s not the sort of place where you might imagine a spot of cross stitchwould go down well. But for more than six years Linda MacMullen, a grandmother and part-time French teacher, has been going to Frankland every fortnight to teach needlework to a group of 12 prisoners. She wears a personal alarm around her neck every time she goes in, and two prison officers stand outside the open door as she teaches.

“I know all the men who come to our class are in there for life sentences. I assume they are responsible for killing someone, but I don’t know that. And I don’t want to know. I just don’t,” she says. “But I also think they are different people now to who they were. You can’t be in a prison for 10, 15 years and still be that same person.”

MacMullen is one of 200 volunteers with Fine Cell Work (FCW), a social enterprise and charity which trains prisoners in paid intricate needlework, producing cushions, wall hangings and quilts. Most volunteers help out at the charity’s offices – but 60 of them, like MacMullen, go into jails to work directly with prisoners.

On Monday, the charity was presented with the Queen’s award for voluntary service, the highest possible honour that can be given to a volunteer group. FCW’s founder, Lady Anne Tree, who died in 2010, spent decades lobbying the government to change the law to enable prisoners to earn money from their cells, before officially launching the charity in 1997. There are now more than 400 prisoners in 29 prisons across the UK making FCW products.

It has been a busy time for FCW: the charity’s first retail space opened last month (albeit a temporary one), a pop-up store in Mayfair. Products for sale include hand-embroidered cushions in retro geometric patterns, tote bags emblazoned with the word “swag” and pretty patchwork quilts. Big names in the craft world including Emily PeacockCath Kidston andDaisy de Villeneuve came up with designs specifically for the shop, which the prisoners then stitched up. The pieces aren’t cheap (there are cushions for £150), but reflect the painstakingly long hours that go into each item – one cushion can take 100 hours to make, while a quilt takes a year.

Next week the shop will be hosting craft events as part of the London Design Festival, including an all-day stitching session where members of the public can drop in and sew a message to a prisoner.

Almost all of the volunteers who teach needlework are women and the majority of the prisoners are men. It can make for a challenging dynamic, says Piero Donat, who works in FCW’s head office. “It is tough. We need to know the volunteers can work in a prison environment. Some prisoners haven’t been taught by a woman before.”

Caroline Wilkinson is a retired teacher from south-east London. She started volunteering to teach patchwork and quilting at Wandsworth prison 12 years ago. Recently, the wing where she taught closed and the classes have since moved to Brixton jail.

“Wandsworth prison is pretty horrific. The physical surroundings are really intimidating. But inside the people are like you and me,” she says. “That’s what I’ve come to appreciate.”

In the early days of her involvement with FCW, Wilkinson said she didn’t want to go in a men’s jail. But Katy Emck, the charity’s CEO, persuaded her to give it a try. “She said: ‘It might not be as bad as you think.’ And she was right.”

Wilkinson teaches three groups of 12 once a week. “I did wonder how quilting would go down. It’s not a very macho thing and I didn’t think it would be attractive to them. But then 27 men turned up to my introduction, and I realised they just wanted to do something. The chance to earn money was a motivation, but not the only one. They are bored out of their minds and a lot of the prisoners just want to do something meaningful. And they can – just because they are in jail, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have practical or creative skills.”

Marjorie Coles is a former nurse who used to teach quilting to local women in her spare time; now she teaches a group of 10 male prisoners at Bullingdon prison in Bicester.

“Very occasionally there will be someone who I can tell is thinking, ‘Oh, you’re just a woman’, but I ignore it,” she says. “My group is not aggressive or high-tension in any way, and works well together. They tell me they are much less wound up now when they are in their cells because they have something to do. I wouldn’t say I know them very well, but I don’t see them as prisoners. I see them as people.”

FCW prepares its volunteers for going into prison as much as it can. It advises them not to ask about crimes committed – “The important thing is not the crime, but that the prisoner is trying to take a step towards changing his life,” says Donat – and cautions against sharing personal details.

But the volunteers say it’s natural to form some sense of attachment and pride, especially when work is finished and handed in.

“The change you see in the men who come to the classes is amazing,” says MacMullen. “At first, they tend to be withdrawn. They won’t make eye contact and won’t talk, or lean away if you sit next to them. But slowly, with encouragement, they start to see what they are capable of. They start to talk, help each other. One man told me he was always being put in solitary [confinement] for fights, but that since he’d taken up stitching he didn’t get put in there anymore. Instead of fighting, he’s in his cell, stitching for hours and hours. That’s the difference this makes.”

Hanging just inside the entrance to the pop-up store is a cream quilt with embroidered maroon birds in flight. It was made by one of Wilkinson’s class members, and she called his sister to let her know it was there. “She is absolutely devastated that he is in prison. It’s the first time anything like that has happened to their family. But his sister is just so proud of the work he’s doing, and knowing that has given him self-esteem too,” Wilkinson says. “It’s just so extraordinary that craftwork can make such a difference.”

The Guardian: The day I invited non-Muslims guests to iftar

Published in g2

I have two strangers coming for dinner. This is nerve-racking: who in their right mind invites strangers into their home? Also, I’m worried I’ve over-seasoned the curry I’m making, but there’s no way of checking: I’m fasting so I can’t taste as I go.

I’m taking part in Dine@Mine, an initiative set up by 25-year-old Maryam Douale from Manchester. The idea is that Muslims host an iftar (the meal with which you open your fast) for non-Muslims, to forge better understanding over food. “Ramadan at my house is loud, fun and full of love and good food,” Douale says. “It’s my family at its warmest and best. I thought what if we could give non-Muslims a chance to see what a normal Muslim family is like? Food plays such an important role in cultures and traditions … it brings people together”

My guests, Jack and Jenni, live nearby. I email to say we will break our fast at precisely 8.49pm, while my husband, Richard, wonders helpfully if it’ll be “really awkward”. Meanwhile, I have a meal to prepare. I think of what I grew up with in Ramadan, my mother’s big steaming pots of hearty, spicy Pakistani food.

After a thorough phone consultation with her, I settle on my dishes: salaan (a yoghurt-based chicken curry infused with heaps of coriander), sabzi (a vegetable curry of chickpeas, spinach and potatoes) and muttar pilau (peas and rice) with mint and cucumber raita on the side – particularly satisfying when your tastebuds haven’t been used all day. I skip the deep-fried pakoras and samosas that feature at most iftars as I find them heavy after a day’s fast and for dessert, I’m including a good old British fruit crumble to reflect Richard’s background. We’ll open our fast the traditional way, with a date and water, a practice that goes back to Islam‘s beginnings. (And dates give the instant sweet energy rush needed after a day without food.)

Jack and Jenni arrive. We offer them elderflower drinks, explaining we will wait until we’ve opened our fast, but they say they want to wait with us. Although they haven’t fasted ahead of the meal, they are excited about joining in: “When would I ever get the chance to experience any part of Ramadan?” Jenni asks.

At 8.49pm, Richard passes the dates round. Then we help ourselves – there’s no formality with Pakistani food. Our guests’ plates are laden with rice and both curries, and, reassuringly, they both want seconds. Jenni asks what we normally eat in Ramadan, and I confess that when I lived alone, I’d gorge on pasta, which left me bloated after a day without eating. Now I cook Pakistani food for special occasions – after a day’s fast, there’s nothing like it.

I was worried the experience might put us on show – Look! Here are Muslims who fast! – but it hasn’t at all. Friends and colleagues are intrigued about Ramadan but shy of asking questions and I want our guests to feel they can ask anything. Being used to fasting, I forget this is what baffles people most. “Do you really get up at 3am? Is it like a midnight feast” asks Jenni, who thinks sehri, the pre-fast meal, sounds “magical”. I tell her that eating bagels while half asleep is quite mundane. They’ve been reading up on Ramadan, and instead of bringing flowers, made a donation to a charity for the homeless.

Religion can be one of those subjects you steer clear of at dinner with strangers, but in this context it’s easy to be open and honest with our views.

The simple act of sharing a meal together has laid down the foundations of a new friendship – Douale will be pleased to hear we’re going over to theirs for dinner after Eid.

The Guardian: ‘We’ve been cheated of our lives as a couple’

 

 

Published in Guardian Family (cover story)

Amy Tyreman should have been getting married this summer. Everything was planned. She had chosen her wedding dress, the venue was booked and the invitations printed. Her fiance, Danny, with whom she had been for seven years, proposed last year on her birthday while on a camping trip in the Lake District. They were both 28.

But in January, Amy and Danny’s world crumbled. One Saturday night, Danny fell down the stairs of their Rochdale home. She found him in the morning. The paramedics pronounced him dead. Danny had fractured his skull and had a severe bleed in the brain, which killed him instantly.

Sudden death is always a shock. But for Amy, losing the man she believed was her life partner so young compounds her grief. “I feel we’ve been cheated of our lives as a couple, that everything’s been taken away. I feel that Danny has been robbed of his life,” says Amy. “I have been angry and devastated. I still am. But mostly, more than anything, I just feel sadness. I’m on my own now,” she says.

“Some of my mum’s friends have lost their husbands. But they are all so much older, in their 50s and 60s, and I can’t talk to them about what I’m going through. I’m not suggesting their grief is any less than mine. It’s just not quite the same.”

According to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, there are around 36,500 widowed men and women under the age of 40 – considered young widows – in Britain, while figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 11,100 young men and women between the ages of 20 and 35 were widowed in 2010.

In the aftermath of Danny’s death, Amy used to stay up, scouring the web to find someone in her age group who had been through a similar experience, who had lost their partner in extreme, tragic circumstances and could understand what she was going through. Despite having friends and family around, she felt alone and desperately felt a need to connect with someone who had also lost their partner young, to make some sense of her situation.

“My family and friends have been incredible, but as great as they have all been, they don’t necessarily understand the loss that I’m living with. I don’t think they get that, when they’re not here, there are times I sit alone and cry,” she says. “It sounds morbid, but I didn’t necessarily want to speak to someone who’d lost a partner through illness – I wanted to find someone who had been thrown into this like me.”

It was on one of those sleepless nights that she happened to visit a Facebook group page for the Way Foundation, a support group for young men and women who have lost a partner. There she found two people whom she now describes as her close friends and “lifeline” – Graham Openshaw, 32, and Kerry Bamford, 25.

Both Graham and Kerry understand what it is like to lose a partner. Graham’s fiancee, Deborah, was killed in a road accident last year while they were on holiday in Italy. Kerry’s fiance, Luke, killed himself seven months ago. Between these three, an unlikely yet unusually strong friendship has formed out of what is a terrible coincidence – that each of them has lost their partner far sooner than they could ever have imagined.

“To make friends through a support group for the widowed, is, well, strange,” says Graham. “We would never have met had we not gone through what we have. When I first met Kerry and Amy, it was as if I was talking to myself. We don’t pretend to know what each other is going through. And we don’t say the things that other people, say, such as ‘You’ll find someone else.’

“But we understand the impact this horrible thing has had on each other’s lives, and that makes it easy to open up to each other.”

The Way Foundation was set up in 1997 as a network for young widows and widowers (under the age of 51) and now has more than 1,500 members across the country. Regional groups organise meets and what Amy calls “safe” social activities such as picnics, bowling and cinema trips. Its aim is to offer support by putting in touch people who have lost their long-term partners at a young age. Members are as young as 19. “Peer support can be just what you need when you find that friends are finding it hard to understand what you’re going through,” reads its membership leaflet. “We talk, we listen, we understand – we’ve all been there too.”

I’m meeting Kerry, Graham and Amy at Amy’s house – it happens to be the day before the first anniversary of Deborah’s death. The mood is fragile and sombre, weighted with grief.

Photographs of Amy with Danny cover the walls. Both Kerry and Amy are aware of the significance the following day bears for Graham, even though they have not yet reached that milestone themselves. As he talks, they sit quietly by him, reaching out in silent, understanding reassurance that speaks louder than words.

Deborah, 31, was a clinical psychologist: beautiful, clever and successful. She was run over by a motorcyclist in Rome as she crossed the road; Graham behind her. She died instantly.

“Deborah was everything I’d ever wanted, everything that anyone could ever want,” says Graham. “We’d been together for 12 years and got engaged very young, before going to university. The day she died, we talked about how it was time to finally start planning our wedding. I wish so much that I could have just married her. I’d have married her again and again, and again.”

Not having had the chance to get married is a massive source of pain for each of them. For Amy, every day is a difficult reminder that she will never have the married life with Danny they had planned. “I just want to get this year over,” she says. “There are too many dates in the diary to get past – his stag-do, my hen-do, his birthday, our wedding day, our honeymoon, the day he proposed. If I can just get through this year, then that’s a start.”

Amy and Danny were to collect their wedding rings on the morning of his death. “It feels so cruel, like it was dangling there in front of us, the perfect day and then someone thought, ‘No, not for you.’ It feels so unfair.”

 

Kerry nods, eyes welling with tears. Her wedding dress is stored at her mother’s house, where she has been living since Luke’s death. She changed her surname to Luke’s after he died, in an act of symbolic union for the marriage they never had.

Kerry met Luke when she was 19 and he was 20; he killed himself, aged 26, at the end of last year. The couple were about to move out of their rented home and buy their first place. She says Luke was stressed from work (he held two jobs, working in a bookmaker and as a gardener) and depressed in the three weeks before he killed himself – he had stopped sleeping and eating. Luke sent Kerry a text message on the morning of his death, telling her he would always love her. Although he had not been diagnosed, Kerry believes he was manic depressive. “I was so, so worried, but at the same time – and I know it sounds silly – but I thought maybe he just needed to sleep. Maybe he would be OK. I just needed to get him to rest and eat. But I couldn’t,” she says.

“How do I feel? Numb. Angry. I was angry towards everybody at first. Angry at Luke for leaving me. Angry towards myself for not being able to stop him. I still feel like that.”

Kerry hasn’t heard from some close friends since Luke’s funeral seven months ago and although she can depend on her mother and stepfather, it has been hard for her to move back in with them. “It’s great support but it’s not the same as living with Luke.”

“My mum says some of my friends probably feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, but I don’t think that’s good enough,” she says. “Right now, it’s about how I feel – not about how they feel. So because of that, meeting Amy and Graham and everyone through Way has been a massive support. They just understand. Plus, I find it easier to talk about Luke with people who don’t know him.”

Kerry and Amy exchanged emails on Facebook before meeting. They now get together and talk regularly. “I couldn’t read about what had happened to Amy and not let her know that I knew how it felt. I told her it happened to me recently and that I was here if she needed me. If I could at least help someone else with what they were going through, that would, in turn, help me.”

Although Graham and Amy had a strong support network of friends, they agree that even the most well-meaning and loving friends and family can’t comprehend what it is to live day to day with the grief they carry. That’s the strength of the Way Foundation – and particularly its Facebook page, which lets members chat privately.

“My friends have been outstanding. But it is different talking to someone who has been through loss as young as we have,” says Graham.

Amy agrees: “I didn’t believe that there was anyone else in the world who could feel the way I did.” Kerry says it also helps to talk to people further along in the grieving process: “I need to know that what I am feeling is normal.”

Kerry, Graham and Amy have fought hard to carry on with their daily lives. Kerry and Amy had their first night out since Luke and Danny’s deaths, a few weeks ago – and all three are on standby for texts, calls and shoulders to lean on when any of the others need to talk. Amy, a primary school teacher, is back at work. Kerry returned to her job as a receptionist two months after Luke died. Graham, a project manager, is going on holiday to Japan this year – somewhere Deborah had always wanted to visit.

“You have to carry on. There’s nothing else you can do. What we are going through is horrific, but it’s nothing compared with what our partners went through,” he says.

“I don’t know if there will be a point at which I will become OK. The best I can hope for is that I might have two loves of my life, but I don’t know if that’s achievable. But the reality is that in any couple one half is going to die. Sooner or later, everyone will go through this. It’s just that for me and Kerry and Amy, it’s just happened far too soon. And that changes your whole perception of life.”

 

For more information, visit wayfoundation.org.uk

The National: Female Arab athletes – lives through a lens

Noor Al Malki couldn’t believe it when she was told that she was going to represent her country, Qatar, in the Olympics. “Me?” she says, before breaking into a huge smile on camera.

At 17 years old, Al Malki is making history as one of the first three women ever to represent Qatar at the Olympics. Al Malki, who is competing in the 100m sprint, runs wearing a bandanna to cover her hair. She says she first felt shy running without a veil – but her brothers encouraged her.

“They said just be strong,” she says. “Sport has taught me that I can do anything.” Al Malki’s story of how sport has inspired her is just one of many such stories being shared at an exhibition in London, which sets out to celebrate Arab sportswomen. The exhibition, called Hey’Ya (translated as ‘Let’s go’), features powerful, large-scale portraits and moving video footage of more than 50 Arab sportswomen from 20 Arab countries, put together by the photographer Brigitte Lacombe and her sister, the celebrated documentary filmmaker Marian Lacombe.

The Lacombe sisters were commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority as part of a series of initiatives to enhance awareness and debate about women in sport.

“To be offered a project such as this was a dream,” says Brigitte, an award-winning photographer whose work appears in The New York Times magazine, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. “I was able to work on subjects I have always been interested in – women and the Arab world – as well as explore something entirely new, which was sport.”

Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport is the result of 18 months of hard work. The Lacombes first travelled to Doha last December while the Arab Games were taking place to start the project, and then moved on to Morocco and Saudi Arabia to photograph and film more women.

The end result is a series of striking, powerful and dramatic portraits of sportswomen doing what they love most – practising their sport. The athlete Feta Ahamada, from the Comoros Islands off the coast of Mozambique, stands strong and poised, holding her runner’s pose. Her muscles ripple as she stares determinedly past the camera, towards her goal. The Sudanese athletic team, a squad of five young women, are warming up in their bright red Sudan tops – a few of them are laughing infectiously to the camera. The Qatari gymnast Nadine Wahdan is shot in action in a star-jump, the beads on her red leotard catching the light. Some of the women are covered, but many are not.

“I want people to see that all women from the Middle East are different and are not the same,” says Brigitte. “There is so much diversity between these women and it’s very important for people outside of the Arab world to appreciate that.”

The physical strength of the women, as shown in the photographs, is enhanced by the emotional strength they share in the video footage, filmed by Marian.

The Palestinian runner Woroud Sawalha talks straight to the camera: “Islam doesn’t prevent women from sports.” In another historic first, Sawalha is participating in the women’s 800m event at London 2012. “I will try to change society’s views,” she says. In a different video clip, Dhai Al Mulla, an athlete from Kuwait, says: “Everybody fights against women taking part. We don’t have enough support or enough coaches. But we love it, so we’ll do it. Running makes my day.”

“Some of these women are so young, and they are pioneers,” says Marian. “It is not always easy for them, but everything they have done is such an achievement. The thing that struck me most was that they do not compete for individual performance – they compete to help each other and inspire other women. There’s a real sense of responsibility of opening doors for girls who are younger than them.”

“I hope people will feel exhilarated by the sense of joy and beauty and strength they see in these women,” says Brigitte. “They are no different to any one else.”

 

Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport by Brigitte Lacombe and Marian Lacombe is running at Sotheby’s London until August 11 and will then move to the QMA Gallery Katara in Doha next spring

 

Dalma Malhas, equestrian, Saudi Arabia

American-born and raised, Malhas was set to make Olympic history this year as the first woman to ever represent Saudi Arabia in the games. But after her horse, named Caramell XS, reportedly sustained an injury, her place in showjumping was withdrawn. That doesn’t diminish Malhas’s sporting prowess in her chosen field – the 20-year-old won bronze in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010. Malhas trained in Italy, under the guidance of her mother, Arwa Mutabagani, also a former show jumper. In Hey’Ya, Malhas is photographed protectively embracing her horse. In the video footage, she says she hopes her achievements will “trigger hope for a lot of Arab girls – not just Saudi girls – but all Arab girls”.

 

Mariam Hussein, basketball player, Somalia
The captain of Somalia’s women’s basketball team, Mariam Hussein has been described as the country’s “national basketball ace” in the international press. The 27-year-old was born in Somalia, but won a scholarship to the US and now lives in Canada. Last year, Hussein led her team to victory in the Pan Arab Games in Doha, beating Qatar and Kuwait. In her Hey’Ya video, she says sport has given her “confidence, structure and order”.

 

Nada Mohammed Wafa Arkaji, swimmer, Qatar
Nada Arkaji has been swimming since she was nine years old. She’s now 17 and will be competing in the 50m freestyle swimming event at this year’s Olympics. She’s been preparing for the Games by training in the pool every day for two hours; her goal is to beat her personal best of 30 seconds. In her video interview for Hey’Ya, she says being in the water makes her feel free. “It doesn’t matter if I come first, second or last. This is such a big achievement.”

The Guardian: Arab women in sport – ‘There will be no more barriers for us’

Maysan Mamoun has a dream that one day she and all other Saudi women will be able to play sport openly.

“I don’t think this will last forever,” she says, referring to the restrictions in place on Saudi women, who are not even allowed inside sports clubs, let alone to play for them. “We are pioneers. We will open doors.”

Mamoun is the co-captain of the Green Team, a women’s basketballteam in Saudi Arabia. The only way the team can play is in private – they practice in the back garden of their other captain, Maysan Al Sowayigh. Al Sowayigh persuaded her parents to convert the space into a court for her so that the team would have somewhere to play.

Mamoun is speaking directly into a camera, filmed by a French documentary maker, Marian Lacombe. The interview forms part of Hey’Ya (which translates as ‘Let’s Go’), a free exhibition in central London that celebrates Arab women in sport, from amateurs to Olympians.

The videos complement dramatic large-scale photographs of more than 50 Arab sportswomen taken by Marian’s sister, the photographer Brigitte Lacombe.

The footage was taken long before Saudi eventually agreed to send two women to the Olympics and gives an insight into the determination of Saudi women fighting for the simple right to play sport, despite the discrimination they face.

The Green Team is trying to convince families to let their daughters train with them, but says it’s not an easy task in a country where sport is banned for girls in public schools.

“There was a sense of frustration among some of the women,” says Brigitte, who travelled with her sister to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Moroccoto photograph and film the women. “But what is so remarkable is how they kept their focus. They will do what it takes to be able to participate in sport. I was humbled by their determination, smartness and dignity.”

The Lacombe sisters were commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, which will be showing Hey’Ya in Doha next spring. Recently, Qatari authorities have been making an effort to prove to the International Olympics Committee that they are not discriminating or restricting women from participating in sports, as they prepare to bid for the 2024 Games. This year, Qatar is sending four women to the Olympics for the first time ever.

One of them is Noor Al Malki, a 17-year-old sprinter who is competing in the women’s 100m. She has also been photographed and filmed for the exhibition. In one portrait, Al Malki is on the floor, stretching out in her sports gear, while in another, she poses side-on in the tight bandana she wears to cover her hair while running. In a video clip, Al Malki says she was too shy to run without her normal veil at first, but her brothers encouraged her. “They said just be strong.”

Also featured in the exhibition are Hania Fouda, an Egyptian archer whose hands are painted with henna, and Feta Ahamada, an athlete from Comoros, a majority Muslim country off the coast of Mozambiquewho will also be competing in the women’s 100m at the Olympics. Ahamada runs in a cropped athletic top and shorts. “If covering your body or your hair makes you feel comfortable, it’s not a handicap,” she says to the camera. “It’s only sport. Everyone should do want they want.”

Some of the women photographed are fully covered but most are not. “I want people to see the diversity of women in the Arab world. They are not all the same,” says Lacombe, who spent seven months on the project.

Seventeen-year-old Reem Al Sharsani from Qatar missed out on an Olympics place this year in her sport, shooting, but has come to London for the start of the Games. She believes things are changing for young women of her generation; her older sister Yasmian plays golf and set up the Qatar Golf for Women club. Both were photographed by Lacombe.

“Before, women couldn’t go out or do sports, but then everything changed when the Asian Games came to Qatar in 06. That’s when women started realising it was possible to play too. Now I have a lot of support.”

Yasmian, who wears a flowing black robe, agrees. “I’m so proud of all these women. I want to show the world we can do anything, even if we are covered. There will be no more barriers for us.”