Neurodiversity, And Why It Can Be Great For Business:

https://www.jaluch.co.uk/hr-blast/top-tips-for-embracing-neurodiversity-in-the-workplace/

Just in case you missed my last post, its purpose was to explore the ways in which conditions such as Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia can adversely impact the life trajectories of people living with these conditions, and the public and social costs of ignoring these implications. This time, I’d like to focus on the opportunities we have to embrace neurodiversity in our workplaces, and realise significant benefit as a result.

There is no getting away from the fact that the stats I’ve (again) included below clearly illustrate that currently our organisations are not (to a large extent) channelling and capitalising on the talents of our neurodivergent communities:

“Only 16% of adults with autism are in full time paid work. Of those surveyed, over three quarters (77%) say that they want to work.” (1)

“A high percentage of people with ADHD are likely to experience difficulty at work including regular loss of employment.  ADHD affects 5% of children and nearly 3% of adults. The effect of inadequate support for those with ADHD across society including health, education, criminal justice, work and benefits,homelessness and social care  is vast and little understood or discussed, let alone addressed.” (2)

For some people, dyslexia can present a serious obstacle to finding a job. A bad experience in education may have left individuals lacking in confidence and self-esteem, or they may find that problems with reading and writing can make it difficult to apply for jobs that would otherwise be a good fit for their skills.” (3)

“People who are dyslexic are five times more likely to be unemployed than those who are not.” (3)

Getty https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/megan-ward1/being-unemployed_b_15665646.html @HuffPostUK

To the uninitiated, this would seem to suggest that organisations are getting on very nicely with their existing talent pools (thank you very much), but a bit of not very close inspection clearly illustrates that’s not the case. According to the Open University’s 2018 Business Barometer (4), the UK skills shortage is costing organisations £6.3 billion, and in 2018 “91% of organisations have struggled to find talent with the skills they require in the last 12 months.”

The report goes on to say that (again over the last 12 months):  

  • 64% of employers have spent more on recruitment in the past to find applicants with the right skills
  • 63% recruited at a lower level than intended because of the skills shortage
  • 56% increased the salary on a role to recruit someone with the right skills
  • 51% left a position vacant because they could not find an appropriate candidate
  • 47% hired temporary staff because they couldn’t find an appropriate candidate
QES: Skills shortage biggest risk for business https://www.norfolkchamber.co.uk/news/policy/qes-skills-shortage-biggest-risk-business

Without wishing to be dismissive of the very real challenges organisations have in successfully recruiting and retaining the right talent, I think it’s clear that there is something amiss when often neither candidates nor employers are gaining what they want from existing recruitment practices.  It is also clear that these challenges do not only apply to those living with Autism, ADHD or Dyslexia, but a lack of diversity in various guises is a big cause of concern for organisations themselves.

@ALDIANews

“Various sources offer conflicting statistics, but one thing is starkly apparent –UK manufacturing has a shamefully large gender and diversity disparity, and progress appears to be moving at a glacial pace.” The Manufacturer: (5)

“Despite the business benefits being clear, women continue to be under represented in the transport workforce.  The latest EU figures show that women occupy just 22% of UK transport jobs.” JFG Communications: (6)

“Ethnic minority professionals perceive a ‘glass ceiling’ to progression, and companies do not have strategies to bring about change in ethnic minority representation at senior levels, or even beyond entry at graduate level.” Equality and Human Rights Commission, Race Discrimination in the Construction Industry: A Thematic Review:(7)

Additionally interesting to observe is that factors including gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, neurodiversity and physical disabilities can all have an impact on the levels of confidence individuals have about securing a job, and therefore whether they will submit an application for a specific role- or even start it. For example, it is well known that women are particularly prone to not applying for jobs unless they meet all the criterion on the job spec.

WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

So again, if you are a company that’s struggling securing the right talent, it’s worth reflecting on whether there are ways you can alter your current recruitment strategy to expand the pool of good quality people applying to work in your organisation. 

But again, why does this matter? Principally, because a business with a genuine and practical (rather than aspirational) commitment to diversity and inclusion is a more successful business, and as I’m sure you’re all pleased to know, I’m not the only one who thinks so:

In 2015, McKinsey & Company’s published their report ‘Why Diversity Matters’ which illustrates that:

“Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians” (8)

“In the UK, greater gender diversity on the senior executive team corresponds to the highest performance uplift in [their] data set; for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5%” (8)

Boston Consulting Group report that “employees who do not believe that their company is committed to diversity are three times more likely to leave than those that do.” (9)

PWC’s 2015 report also illustrates that over 80% of the more than 10,000 millennials asked the question, said that that “an employer’s policy on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion is an important factor when deciding whether or not to work for them.” (10)

https://viccareers.com/2017/08/21/workplace-diversity-how-do-millennials-stack-up/

In a nutshell therefore, an organisation’s approach to diversity and inclusion not only impacts their brand’s general reputation, but also the talent they are able to acquire and cultivate, and their financial performance.  To make things even more interesting, whilst I have no desire to perpetuate the myth that every person on the ASD spectrum is Sherlock Holmes or Rain Man (or ideally a female protagonist who also happens to be on the autism spectrum), it does seem to be the case that certain characteristics frequently manifest in individuals who also happen to be neurodivergent.  For example, and as recently observed by the Institute of Leadership & Management, “Dr Kevin Antshel, of Syracuse University in the US, investigated anecdotal claims that ADHD people perform well in entrepreneurship, finding that their traits do indeed result in high entrepreneurial performance.” (11)

One of the main facets of entrepreneurship is disrupting the status quo and changing how our society operates. Therefore frequently the individuals who frequently exhibit this trait are significantly less likely to accept the status quo without challenge. They are also significantly more likely to feel constrained by very rigid working patterns or a working culture that prizes long hours in the office over outcomes. Importantly, this does not only apply to people with ADHD but is fairly typical of many people working in more creative and entrepreneurial professions, and this is often facilitated as almost a given for these types of individuals. What this illustrates is that organisations absolutely are willing to be flexible if they believe the gain is greater than the loss. On this basis I believe it is clear that if we choose to, we could easily be better at supporting neurodivergent people in the workplace… in exchange for some extremely tangible gains.

Being an Autistic Engineer: https://ima.org.uk/10049/being-an-autistic-engineer/
M.I.N.D. Strengths by Fernette and Brock Eid https://www.facebook.com/SusanBartonDyslexia/posts/mind-strengthsby-brock-and-fernette-eideof-dyslexic-advantagepeople-with-dyslexi/1698062606895162/ @SusanBartonDyslexia

The Covid 19 pandemic has forced thousands of businesses across the UK (and almost everywhere else) to dramatically change how they operate.  One of the most obvious examples is the vast swathes of people who were previously spending significant time and resource commuting, and suddenly found themselves working entirely from home.  Amongst them will undoubtedly be a large number of employees who had been petitioning for a more flexible work structure for months and even years, but were told by their employers their requests were impossible. 

https://www.cpni.gov.uk/covid-19-workplace-actions-0

Thus far, the implications of Covid 19 have been catastrophic almost without exception.  However, the newly found ingenuity, agility and bias for action our businesses have been forced to acquire, can now start to be utilised to improve these businesses, and the lives of the employees that work for them, now and in the future.  The business world now knows it can do things it previously thought were impossible, and this could mean great things on a huge scale.  For the purposes of this post though, I want to explore what this could mean in relation to how organisations can better channel the professional gifts of our neurodivergent communities.  To return to the example of ASD therefore, another reasonably common traits amongst those on the ASD spectrum is intense sensitivity to sound. 

https://www.griffinot.com/auditory-sensitivity-autism-sensory/

As stated by Web MD, “Loud noises may be painful. The din of a city street or a mall can be too much. When overwhelmed, people on the autistic spectrum may cover their ears to try to block out the noise. They may also start up self-soothing behaviors such as rocking or shaking their hands. Some people with autism also have central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), a condition that makes it difficult for them to perceive subtle differences in sound and language.

Touch. Just like sound, physical sensations can be exaggerated and overwhelming to people with autism. Feelings that most people barely register — the sensation of clothing on the body, a breeze — can be unpleasant.” (12)

So what this means is that (for some and categorically not all) people on the ASD spectrum it may not be possible or desirable to travel to work using public transport (which is hardly a restful experience for anyone), and/or it may be that a busy, noisy office is also very stressful.  I’ll reference also that this could also be relevant for ADHD people, who often (as above) respond poorly to rigid working patterns, but are often extremely hard workers… at least in part because they tend to have huge volumes of energy. My point again, are these not exactly the types of qualities that businesses frequently say they want in their employees?

Image courtesy of stayfitlivehealthy.wordpress.com, https://gethealthaccess.com/do-you-have-adult-adhd/

This could be really simple. If it is not crucial that the role in question is office based (or whatever other flexibility measures may be required), make it crystal clear on the job specs, and that might encourage individuals with these types of conditions to apply for roles that they might otherwise consider impossible. Great idea to get one of these as well.

https://www.right-resources.org.uk/neurodiversityaware.html

So far I appreciate that this all sounds like a lot of effort, so other than being nice, why should organisations bother?

Again, because it’s good for business, and one company that is already reaping the benefits of a more progressive approach to recruiting neurodivergent people is Direct Line.  As Mark Evans (Managing Director, Marketing & Digital at Direct Line Group) wrote for the Institute of Leadership and & Management’s Edge Magazine earlier this year,

“At Direct Line, one of our core values is to ‘bring all of yourself to work’… By taking this approach, we are galvanized to create a fair and accessible career path for any individual who chooses to join our company… It might seem obvious, but if we are to succeed in serving a very diverse range of customers throughout the UK, then we need to be powered by a workforce that feels supported in its diversity.

https://www.directlinegroup.co.uk/en/who-we-are/values.html

Neurodivergent people are hardwired to think differently, and approach problem-solving from unexpected directions as a result.  This is often likened to having ‘superpowers’.  Therefore, if we prize innovation so highly in our business, it’s a no-brainer that we would want to employ people who are adept at solving some of our customer’s trickiest challenges.”

One of the ways they’ve been doing this is through working with an organisation called Auticon, an organisation who have recognised that:

Autistic adults often have extraordinary technical or cognitive abilities, yet many find it difficult to secure or maintain mainstream employment. The ongoing STEM skills shortage poses a real challenge to UK businesses.  Auticon recognises this potential and is the first enterprise to exclusively employ autistic adults as consultants. By creating autism-positive work environments and offering highly individualised, sustained support mechanisms to autistic employees, auticon provides its corporate clients with a means to tap into the amazing talents of autistic people while creating well paid long term careers for its team.”

Read auticon’s 2020 Global Impact Report here: https://auticon.co.uk/auticons-2020-global-impact-report/

Back to Mark at Direct Line who wrote

“We also actively recruit through auticon, a consultancy that specialises in recruiting autistic people into businesses via unconventional methods.  Auticon does not use CVs or or interviews to match talent to assignments, since these often systematically disadvantage autistic candidates.  Instead the use skills tests and tasks to assess an individual’s suitability to a role and organisation. 

In one instance, auticon’s style of recruitment enabled us to identify an analyst who reworked a very complex data processing activity in under two months.  This task would have typically taken a small team over six months to accomplish.”

This really is just one example of very many, and throughout I’ve tried to include as many links to different articles and organisations for anyone seeking further information as I can. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and again, if any of this resonates with you or anyone you know, please seek assistance with any of the below.

National Autistic Society: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/benefits-care.aspx

Autism Services Directory: https://www.autism.org.uk/directory.aspx

The ADHD Foundation: https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/

The UK ADHD Partnership: https://www.ukadhd.com/support-groups.htm

British Dyslexia Association: https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/

The Dyslexia Association: https://www.dyslexia.uk.net/about-the-dyslexia-association/

Sources:

1) Autism Employment Gap Report, National Autistic Society, 27th October 2016

2) ‘ADHD in the Workplace’ Unison: the Public Service Union Conference 6th July 2018

3) British Dyslexia Association

4) Open University’s 2018 Business Barometer: http://www.open.ac.uk/business/apprenticeships/blog/uk-skills-shortage-costing-organisations-%C2%A363-billion

5) https://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/women-diversity-manufacturing-summit-2018-key-takeaways/

6) https://www.jfgcomms.co.uk/news/22-what-does-the-general-election-mean-for-transport-and-gender-equality

7)https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research_report_23_race_equality_in_construction_industry.pdf

8)https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/business%20functions/organization/our%20insights/why%20diversity%20matters/diversity%20matters.pdf

9) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-work-diversity-lgbt-gender-pay-gap-uk-workers-companies-a8733071.html

10) PWC’s 2017 report ‘No Holding Back: Breaking down the barriers to diversity’, they cite a finding from a previous report in 2015 of more than 10,000 millennials (people born between 1980 and 1995), and “over 80% said (https://www.pwc.co.uk/human-resource-services/assets/documents/real-diversity-2017-no-holding-back.pdf)

11) ‘ADHD can drive entrepreneurial success’ Edge Magazine, Spring 2020, The Institute of Leadership & Management

12) https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/features/understanding-autism-symptoms#:~:text=Intense%20sensitivity%20to%20sound%20is,to%20block%20out%20the%20noise.

Neurodiversity, And Why We Have To Get Better At It

Photo: Getty Images

“Only 16% of adults with autism are in full time paid work. Of those surveyed, over three quarters (77%) say that they want to work.” (1)

“A high percentage of people with ADHD are likely to experience difficulty at work including regular loss of employment.  ADHD affects 5% of children and nearly 3% of adults. The effect of inadequate support for those with ADHD across society including health, education, criminal justice, work and benefits,homelessness and social care  is vast and little understood or discussed, let alone addressed.” (2)

For some people, dyslexia can present a serious obstacle to finding a job. A bad experience in education may have  left individuals  lacking in confidence and self-esteem, or they may find that problems  with reading and writing can make it difficult to apply for jobs that would  otherwise be a good fit for their skills.” (3)

“People who are dyslexic  are five times more likely to be unemployed than those who are not.” (3)

As you might expect from your average Guardian reading, Radio 4 and Guilty Feminist podcast listening bleeding heart liberal, I find this information unbearably sad because (and I’m shouting for those at the back) NEURODIVERGENT PEOPLE HAVE AS MANY SKILLS, TALENTS AND ABILITIES AS THE REST OF US, THEY JUST SOMETIMES NEED A BIT MORE SUPPORT TO ILLUSTRATE THEM.

Anyway… in addition to this struggle, we also know that diagnoses for many of these conditions seem devastatingly challenging to come by, and the complications arising from this state of affairs are astronomical. If though, for example you are not of the bleeding heart liberal persuasion described above, why should you care?

https://irishelectionliterature.com/ @electionlit

Well principally, because it is eye wateringly expensive. Just a tiny insight into the scale of the public cost, is the prevalence of people with ADHD to be found in the prisons of England and Wales. Research has found that whilst ADHD is thought to affect only 3-4% of the general adult population (4), whereas ADHD Action believe that 30% of people in UK prisons are thought to have the condition, and some (including me) are calling for the introduction of mandatory ADHD tests for anyone who commits an ‘impulsive crime’ (5)

According to the House of Common’s Library briefing paper ‘UK Prison Populations Statistics’ (6):

“The average direct cost per prisoner in was £26,133 but taking into account all resource expenditure the overall cost per prisoner was £39,385.31
• The average direct cost per prison place in was £28,088 but taking into account all resource expenditure the overall cost per place was £39,922.”

https://www.manchesterusersnetwork.org.uk/2017/01/28/shocking-uk-prison-suicide-numbers-demand-government-action/

I will be writing about the welfare of prisoners more generally in due course, but for the time being I’m sticking with our ADHD friends, diagnosed or otherwise, and for the sake of full transparency I’ve included the full list of systems as defined by the Mayo Clinic (7) below:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing
  • Poor time management skills
  • Problems focusing on a task
  • Trouble multitasking
  • Excessive activity or restlessness
  • Poor planning
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Problems following through and completing tasks
  • Hot temper
  • Trouble coping with stress

This list does not to me, sound like a group of people who will react well to life in prison.

It would also be extremely remiss of me not to mention the extreme prevalence of self harm and suicide in prisons and the ADHD community, and given the information I’ve shared here, it seems like that’s probably not a coincidence. Whilst anecdotal, it is also often noted that people with ADHD often feel trapped in their day to day lives, so the psychological implications of prison for these individuals will often be simply intolerable, and be a significant factor in their decisions to end their own lives.

https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/health/homelessness-makes-people-vulnerable-to-mentalhealth-issues-4408085/

In addition to the above, it is well documented that ADHD is also linked to (5):

  • Poor school or work performance
  • Unemployment
  • Financial problems
  • Trouble with the law (I told you so)
  • Alcohol or other substance misuse
  • Frequent car accidents or other accidents
  • Unstable relationships
  • Poor physical and mental health
  • Poor self-image
  • Suicide attempts

As if this wasn’t enough… people living with ADHD often also suffer from the following (5):

  • Mood disorders. Many adults with ADHD also have depression, bipolar disorder or another mood disorder. While mood problems aren’t necessarily due directly to ADHD, a repeated pattern of failures and frustrations due to ADHD can worsen depression.
  • Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders occur fairly often in adults with ADHD. Anxiety disorders may cause overwhelming worry, nervousness and other symptoms. Anxiety can be made worse by the challenges and setbacks caused by ADHD.
  • Other psychiatric disorders. Adults with ADHD are at increased risk of other psychiatric disorders, such as personality disorders, intermittent explosive disorder and substance use disorders.
  • Learning disabilities. Adults with ADHD may score lower on academic testing than would be expected for their age, intelligence and education. Learning disabilities can include problems with understanding and communicating.”

So we all know that we shouldn’t commit crimes… but looking at all of this, we can see that an enhanced tendency towards criminal behaviour is absolutely one of ‘symptoms’ of this condition. This is not an all-encompassing criticism of the UK’s prison system (watch this space), but simply a request that we remember that before our ADHD prisoners were prisoners, they were people. They were and are our children, our siblings, our lovers and our friends.

Also critical to note is that the socio-economic status of these individuals and their families is crucial. Middle and upper class families much more frequently have the resources to protect their people, whilst poorer families do not, and whilst the individual circumstances may differ, the heartbreak does not.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/the-black-family-in-the-age-of-mass-incarceration/403246/

Just an FYI- whilst the majority of people we know have ADHD are male, this is at least partly because the majority (and there’s not that much anyway) of research in the space has been focused on men and boys and not girls and women. This is typical, but I’ll save my patriarchy speech for another day and just mention here that (obviously) women and girls also have ADHD, it just may not present in quite the same ways.

The purpose of this post is simple, we need to understand this condition better, we need to get people diagnosed and we need to get them treated. Because they need our help, it is in our power to help them, and doing so may change the trajectories of their lives.

https://closler.org/passion-in-the-medical-profession/the-power-of-laughter/attachment/kids-laughing
https://www.independent.co.uk/money/spend-save/prisoner-families-insurance-high-premiums-refusals-offenders-poverty-debt-housing-children-a7714601.html

An early ADHD diagnosis is advantageous but it can be transformative at any age, so if any of this sounds like you or anyone you know, please seek help at:

The ADHD Foundation: https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/

The UK ADHD Partnership: https://www.ukadhd.com/support-groups.htm

The National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service (ADDISS) http://www.addiss.co.uk/

Additional Information: https://www.itv.com/thismorning/articles/adhd-helplines

Sources:

1) Autism Employment Gap Report, National Autistic Society, 27th October 2016

2) ‘ADHD in the Workplace’ Unison: the Public Service Union Conference 6th July 2018

3) British Dyslexia Association

4) https://www.adhdcoaching.org/adhdfacts

5) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-47443263

6) House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number CBP-04334, 3 July 2020 (https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN04334/SN04334.pdf)

7) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/adult-adhd/symptoms-causes/syc-20350878

The Diversity and Inclusion Agenda, and why we’re still talking about it

Over the last few years numerous organisations have started speaking openly about the importance of diversity and inclusion as a key part of their talent strategies, but statistics (and people) continue to illustrate and confirm that almost across the board, not enough progress is being made. For example:

Finance Focus: “A new study from Boston Consulting Group on behalf of the social mobility charity Sutton Trust shows that for many British students educated in a state school, a career in financial services remains elusive.”

The Manufacturer: “Various sources offer conflicting statistics, but one thing is starkly apparent –UK manufacturing has a shamefully large gender and diversity disparity, and progress appears to be moving at a glacial pace.”

National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ): “A lack of diversity within the British media​ continues to be a major concern in​ the industry and beyond.”

Solicitor’s Regulation Authority: “The report Mapping Advantages and Disadvantages suggests that on average across all types of firm there is a 73.5% chance of a white man becoming partner, compared to 29.1%, 18% and 13% for BAME men, white women, and BAME women respectively.”

The stats above indicate that unless there is something uniquely superior about white men and their leadership capabilities, there is something glaringly wrong with the ways in which our society defines, identifies and develops talent.

In 2019, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic published his book ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It)’, and within it he questions the characteristics we associate with leadership and how helpful these associations are. For example, he argues:

“traits like overconfidence and self-absorption should be seen as red flags”, when, in fact, the opposite tends to happen. “They prompt us to say: ‘Ah, there’s a charismatic fellow! He’s probably leadership material.’” It is this mistaken insistence that confidence equates to greatness that is the reason so many ill-suited men get top jobs, he argues. “The result in both business and politics is a surplus of incompetent men in charge, and this surplus reduces opportunities for competent people — women and men — while keeping the standards of leadership depressingly low.”

https://www.ft.com/content/3641f914-3433-11e9-bb0c-42459962a812

Gender is absolutely not the only challenge with regards to leadership- race, socio-economic status, sexuality, gender identity, physical disabilities and mental health and/ or neurodiversity are also significant contributing factors. However, what is interesting to note (and consistent with the wider themes of the D&I agenda) is that again and again, and despite reams of data illustrating that more diverse businesses make more money(!!!), we continue to give the same types of people top leadership roles… regardless of how frequently that same relatively small social group has messed it up royally up in the past. The reason I suggest that we should reflect upon this, is because we punish the members of much smaller social groups with disproportionate scrutiny when one of their members breaks through their particular glass ceiling, and is judged and found wanting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW888do1awo

In his talk at the New Yorker Festival in 2013, Malcolm Gladwell talks about “the illicit strategies that the stronger parties use to stay strong… to stay in power’ and goes on to question the narrative that we tend to accept, that once a single example of a newly accepted social group is invited to enter the bastion of privilege in question, it automatically ‘opens the doors’ for others of that social group. We often believe this to be the case, but Gladwell argues the opposite- that there are far more examples of the ‘pariah’ becoming the ‘token’ as opposed to the pioneer, and also questions how members of social groups outside the majority are treated.

“The number of your kind drives the way you are treated by the majority… you are always treated as a member of your group and not as an individual… people can’t get past the category… you are seen and yet unseen for who you are… and that creates an impossible dynamic”

In summary, Gladwell goes on to argue that in many cases the elevation of an individual member of the social group in question, is motivated by a desire to appear progressive- specifically to distract attention from an overwhelming lack of progress that is neither present nor desired amongst the privileged group in question. In general, the only exception to this rule is where it benefits the existing elite to be inclusive.

Following this talk and in response to a question asked by an audience member, Gladwell goes on to state ‘I don’t believe that those in positions of power willingly give up their authority… it has to be wrested from them.” Similar to the sentiments famously shared by Martin Luther King Jr. from Birmingham Jail on the 16th of April 1963 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

What this means is for those of us continually amazed by the anger and contempt that a simple belief in equality and justice seems to provoke, is that the only time positive change happens, is when the people demand it.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr

British History, and what we think it looks like

For those appalled and horrified by the desecration of some of our statues on the basis it’s ‘deleting history’ my question is real. How accurate do we think the history we are taught is? How many of these statues actually contributed to an increased and honest understanding of our country’s history? For example:

I must have missed this lesson…

I remember learning about Winston Churchill, and I remember being taught about how vital his leadership was throughout WW2. I could elaborate but the point is clear. I believed that Winston Churchill was a hero, who saved us all from Hitler, and that was pretty much the end of that story.

What I don’t remember (and seemingly nor does Boris) is being taught about his views clearly illustrated below:

“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror.”

 “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” 

He didn’t like the Palestinians much either, but presumably that was mainly their fault for being “barbaric hoards who ate little but camel dung,” 

Another good one: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

This post is not even a diatribe against Churchill. It is however something of a diatribe about why our collective ego is so important that we will not acknowledge that there have been and are now, times when the British weren’t the good guys. This is so obvious that it seems laughable, but why then, is there so much resistance to demands that we evaluate the history we are teaching?

In 2018, Michael Taube wrote for the Washington Post: “Should we ignore history, or attempt to rewrite it, because a small number of individuals are having an exceedingly hard time dealing with historical figures whom most of us have long since moved past?”

Of course we shouldn’t, but as increasingly insight about individuals like Churchill become more widely known, it’s starting to seem that those having ‘an exceedingly hard time dealing with historical figures’ are not those that seek an honest account of our history. It is instead the people who are so desperate to preserve an idealised and sanitised version of ‘Great Britain’ and its history, that they will go to almost any lengths to prevent any deviation from that narrative.

Sources and Further Reference:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/not-his-finest-hour-the-dark-side-of-winston-churchill-2118317.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/08/23/the-removal-of-statues-in-canada-reflects-a-will-to-erase-history/

https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/afua-hirsch-british-empire-podcast

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/05/britain-colonial-history-curriculum-racism-migration

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/09/a-quick-reminder-of-why-colonialism-was-bad

https://www.theblackcurriculum.com/

How helpful is more white opinion in discussions about race?

Recent events have illustrated that despite any improvements that may have occurred, there is a huge amount of tension regarding how people of colour are treated in our society, how we educate young people, and how appropriate it is to celebrate individuals that in some ways contributed positively to our society, but also engaged in behaviours that at this time in history we can no longer condone. Whilst it is evident that racial tensions exist across the board, given the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement once again creating headlines around the world, there are people of all races and backgrounds who want to show their commitment and support to eroding the systemic persecution of people from black communities.

Black Lives Matter Protest – South Park, Oxford03/06/2020Picture by Ed Nix

For those people (obviously myself included) there is a real question here on how to clearly illustrate this support without distracting the attention from the real lived experiences of black people, and how racism has impacted their lives. My response to this recently has been to try and educate myself, and use my channels (such as they are) to share and amplify the voices of people who know a lot more about this than I do, but I am also genuinely interested to hear the opinions of people from across the board, on how and why some of the things I’ve mentioned have caused such an emotional reaction. Like almost everyone, I’ve seen a lot of ‘but all lives matter’, agreement about statues needing to be moved but rioting not being the right way to achieve it, and accusations of ‘erasing history’ and ideally I’d like to understand more about these feelings, and what is behind them. Pretty much anyone that knows me will know already that my beliefs are almost always from a left wing perspective, but at the same time I’m genuinely interested to hear from people that don’t necessarily share my political views about why they believe what they do.

London monuments boarded up ahead of protests: bbc.co.uk 12/06/2020

Finally getting to the point of the title of this post, there are a few experiences (none terribly dramatic) that lead me to ask ‘how helpful is more white opinion to discussions around race? The first is nothing more than a gut reaction to the reasonably frequent appearance of a room full of men being asked their opinion on whether or not sexism is still a problem in our society, and my gut reaction being ‘honestly, who cares what they think?’ Again a challenging path to navigate as I do believe that social progress requires and should encourage allies from different social groups to form a part of the effort, but again in the context of race, can the opinion of someone like me who has never experienced racism be a useful contribution to the dialogue? On a perhaps less politically loaded note, I’m extremely unlikely to offer my opinion on (for example) DIY, accounting, law or brain surgery, because I have close to zero knowledge or experience in any of these things, and I suppose my question is, are social issues like gender and race exempt from this rule? Should we all be encouraged to discuss these things because they are a part of the society we all live in, or not?

One thing I do know, is that we need to create equity in how and the circumstances under which these discussions occur, and this belief is derived from the other example I wanted to share that leads me to ask this question again now. Several months ago when the Great British Public’s favourite hobby was gossiping about Harry and Meghan, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu (@SholaMos1) was invited to appear on Good Morning Britain to talk to three white people about whether or not the negative treatment of Meghan Markle in the press was in any way rooted in racism. Unsurprisingly, none of the three present thought that racism had anything to do with that antagonism. Equally unsurprisingly, Dr. Mos-Shogbamimu spoke incredibly eloquently on the subject, including the insight below:

‘Let me explain what racism looks like from the lens of white privilege. ‘White privilege whitewashes racist and inflammatory language as unconscious bias. It perpetuates the bigotry of intolerant white people as ignorant, it defends and protects their private views once spoken as misspeak, and then it camoflages racist behaviour as error of judgement.’

In relation to my initial question though, what really struck me was the total unfairness of that ‘debate’. How can it be a debate when it’s one black woman trying to tell three white people that racism is still a problem, when all things considered, it’s much easier for us to comfort ourselves with the idea that racism is a thing of the past?

If there are readers still with me here, I’d genuinely like to know your views on these subjects whether you agree with me or not, as I’d like to educate myself more, and hopefully contribute to an increase in open dialogue.

Thank you for reading! X

Jon Sopel- If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes from Trump’s America

If Only They Didn't Speak EnglishIf Only They Didn't Speak English 2

I find it really hard not to start all these posts with ‘I bloody love this book’ but as I read recently ‘I unashamedly only write positive reviews’.  This is the whole point of this blog, I just want other people to know about the books that I think are brilliant and bang on about all the time.

Speaking of:

What it’s about:

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, we the Brits were filled with horror and consternation (and I stand by this notion), asking only one thing… how could a man like Donald Trump possibly have been elected as president?! But seriously, how could this happen?!’ Note… we may not be quite so outraged and indignant these days, being somewhat preoccupied with our own political farce, but I digress.

Back to Trump- according to Sopel, this question can only be asked based on the fundamentally erroneous belief that we hold in Britain, that ours and American cultures are very similar.  As Sopel himself puts it “the special relationship is something that concerns us far more than it does them”.  That bit’s in the intro, and I was already finding it really interesting.  The premise of the book is that the British believe that we know everything there is to know about Americans, because essentially they’re just like us.  In ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’, Sopel writes with great insight on some of the most fundamental tenets of American culture, covering subjects such as race, guns and anger with knowledge, candour and sensitivity.  The result is a book that is truly fascinating.

PS.  I actually went to the book launch for this and Jon Sopel was absolutely brilliant.

PPS. If I ever wrote a book I’d want it to be a book like this one.

Just some particularly interesting stuff: 

  1.  Sopel references the novelist and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates who wrote of Obama in January 2017: “The kinds of trauma that marked African Americans of his generation- beatings at the hands of of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building- were mostly absent for him.  Moreover, the kind of spacial restriction that most black people feel at an early age- having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance- were largely absent from his life.”  Just an interesting observation that I think questions whether the election of the first black president of the US was as big a victory for African Americans as it seemed at the time.
  2. “Nine out of 10 American adults believe in God… In the US, half of all Americans deem religion to be very important in their lives compared to only 17% in Britain.”  According to Sopel (and I’m sure he’s right but I haven’t checked) this is not only unusual compared to Britain, but goes against the grain for developed countries as a whole as typically adherence to religious beliefs and systems diminish in  correlation with the growth of wealth.   I think this must be significant though I can’t explain why… thoughts or ideas are welcome.
  3. Guns… this is massive, and in my opinion a particularly important example of quite how vastly the British underestimate differences between US and British culture.  Sopel writes: “The argument you will hear again and again is this: America is a vast sprawling country, with millions living in massively remote places, miles from anywhere.  They still have a frontier mentality and won’t- often can’t- just pick up the phone and say, ‘Can the state come and sort this out?’… In Britain’s small, overcrowded island that may a difficult idea to comprehend… But at the back of a lot of American minds is the belief that the only person you can trust to defend your family and your property is you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hester Velmans- ‘The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old’ & ‘On the Bright Side The NEW Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen’

the secret diary of hendrik groenon the bright side

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are they about: 

Fairly self-explanatory.  These books are the secret diaries of fictional character Hendrik Groen, and the reason I’ve reviewed them together is simply that I love the same things about them.  Hendrik Groen is (at the beginning) 83 1/4 years old, and lives in a care home in (I think) Amsterdam.  In the care home, he and his friends decide to live out their final years in style through the launch of ‘The Old But Not Dead Club’.  The club appears to have 2 key aims at the outset, the first being to have a good time, and the second to spy on and detect the suspected wrongdoings of Stelwagen the care home director.  The best way to describe these books is charming.  Hendrik is an extremely likeable character, and the accounts of his day to day existence of he and his friends (and enemies) are both humourous and touching.

What I Love:

  • I love how cheerful and irreverent these books are whilst still covering sad and often poignant moments.  With Groen and his friends, Velman manages to capture a real sense of joie de vivre, emphasised by the humorous accounts of the preoccupations of the non ‘Old But Not Dead Club’ members.  They are also excellent role models for those in their late eighties, and those younger but aspiring to a ripe old age.
  • In a society that tends to relegate older people as ‘less than’ Velmanns work is a timely illustration that the lives and emotions of older people are as all-consuming and passionate as those of everyone else- there’s not an expiry date on the capacity to be consumed by love and grief.
  • The ongoing analysis of the

My Favourite Quotes: 

  • “My fastest sprint time in the 100-metre is currently 1 minute a 27 seconds,  I timed myself yesterday… My one-and-a-half minute sprint required five minutes on a bench to recover.”
  • “I wish I could try one of those new-fangled pills that make it possible for youngsters to dance and rave for hours on end, but I don’t dare.  Not that I want to rave for hours on end but I would like to spend a little more time partying at an an acceptably dignified and serene pace.”
  • “Doctor, you want me to drag myself all the way over to Groningen in order to confirm something we already know: I have brittle bones.  These bones are eighty-six years old, you understand.”

Susan Howatch- The Heartbreaker

the heartbreaker

What it’s about:

This is the story of high class ‘leisure worker’ Gavin Blake.  On the surface, Gavin has everything he could ever desire.  Money, glamour and the adulation of every woman he meets.  In general, Gavin has mastered emotional detachments from his clients, however his encounters with Richard Slaney seem to remind him of a life he had lost.  This seemingly transient connection quickly spirals, and brings Gavin into the realm of Carta Graham through her work at St. Benet’s.  Consistent confrontations with a different reality, forces Gavin to question a number of beliefs he’s long taken for granted, and in doing so indirectly put him in grave danger.

What I Love:

  1.  We gain a much clearer insight into the character of Elizabeth Mayfield and the world she inhabits.  As with most of Howatch’s work (all those I’ve read anyway), all the novels are stand-alone but interlinked, and the Heartbreaker provides answers to many of the questions raised by The High Flyer.
  2. The complexities of the relationships between the characters.  As is the case in life, the relationships in Howatch’s work are multidimensional, fraught and as challenging as they can be rewarding.
  3. The way that Gavin himself adopts different identities as a coping mechanism.  Whilst the discrepancies between his personas are extreme, many people struggle to consistently display their authentic selves.  Taking as given the notion that a truly unified personality is what we must all strive for, Howatch magnifies this very human tendency within Gavin’s character to illustrate the potential dangers this presents.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “If I had stayed at home that evening I would have moped, wept and drunk too much in an orgy of anxiety and depression, but fortunately I had been saved from all this rubbishy behaviour because my friend Alice needed me.”
  2. “We swivel, we swoop, we sweat, we lunge, we twirl.  We’re wonderful and everyone knows it.  The other couples melt away.  The blokes in the band are smiling.  The waiters have stopped serving.  The punters are goggle-eyed.  There’s never been such a performance of ‘In The Mood’, never.  It’s Saturday night at the Savoy, it’s Saturday night at one of the greatest hotels on earth, and Susan and I are special, we count, we matter- and never more so than at this moment when we’re living out something that’s more than just our own truth.”
  3. “It’s painful to be trapped in the wrong life, as you yourself well know.  It stifles the spirit when you lead an inauthentic existence, out of tune with the person you really are.  Indeed, the person you really are becomes crushed and maimed.”

Susan Howatch- The High Flyer

the high flyer

 

What it’s about:

In the High Flyer, Howatch introduces us to the world of  Carta Graham and her soon to be husband Kim Betz.  Both are navigating extremely successful careers, and whilst Carta faces challenges in her career, altogether her life plan is coming together nicely.  But very quickly it becomes clear that all is not what it seems and the story develops an increasingly chilling narrative, forcing Carta to seek help from what seems a very unlikely source.

What I love:

  1.  A poignant illustration of how the most well-planned existence will can go awry, but that sometimes the alternatives that emerge are better.
  2. Again we meet the characters from the Wonder Worker.  I love it when authors do this, not only is it like meeting old friends, illustrating the passing of time and the evolution of characters you’ve met previously, helps to solidify their identities and makes them feel like real people.
  3. The consistent emphasis on the critical importance of integrating one’s identity and personality.  This is a theme that permeates many of Howatch’s books, and the tranquility and peace that this concept symbolizes is a consistently compelling aspect of her work.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “But Tucker, you can’t just sit here in the heart of the City of London, where wealth and status symbols are worshipped as Gods, and voice these kind of sentiments!  I mean, this is very subversive propaganda you’re spouting, it’s quite contrary to mainstream thinking, it’s in total defiance of the Zeitgeist!”
  2. “For a moment I remembered my life-plan, mapped out in the days when the past could be ignored, the present was always under control and the future was always subject to the power of my will, and as I saw how efficiently this vision had been hacked to pieces I wanted to scream with rage and despair.”
  3. “Haunted, even enslaved by our troubled pasts, we had been chasing fantasies that did not exist, and as we had moved together through our cynical hall of mirrors, the false image had merely multiplied to deceive us further and lead us on into a life unconnected with reality.”

Robin Hobb- Assassin’s Quest: Book Three of the Farseer Trilogy

Assasin's QuestWhat it’s about:

Basically sh*t’s got real.  The end of the last book has left Fitz in many ways more dead than alive, not least because everyone (even Molly) thinks he’s dead.  As we’ve seen in the first few books Fitz has had a consistent feeling of being forced down a path that was not his choosing, and yet now that life has ceased to exist.  As events unfold, what starts as an (almost) entirely solitary mission of vengeance, instead becomes a reunification, and once more a fight for the continued survival of the Six Duchies, and indeed the world as we know it.

What I love:  

  1.  As in the last book we gained a much clearer understanding of the true depth of the Wit, ‘Assassin’s Quest’ educates us in the power and lore of the Skill.  Hobb has truly created exceptional depth in the history of this world, and the magics that govern it.
  2. The discovery of the White Prophet in the Mountain Kingdom, and the circumstances of Fitz’s rescue.  I also really like how for much of his recovery he behaves very badly- it adds to the authenticity of the story- there are numerous examples of heroics, but our noble hero intersperses these with realistic and cheering behaviour that is both childish and petulant.
  3. Difficult to say too much about this one without giving the game away, but one of my very favourite characters manages to find something of a happy ending in a way that is far from anticipated.

My Favourite Quotes:

  1.  “Black Wolf is very large.  And quick.  I am stronger than he is, I think, but he knows more tricks.  It was much like when you fought Heart of the Pack.” 
  2. “Slowly the figure drew nearer.  A great shivering of cold and pain racked me.  I could go to the wolf.  I summoned the last of my strength to defy myself.  ‘Here!’ I croaked to death. ‘Here I am.  Come and take me and let it be done at last.”
  3. “Burrich, who would have stood and spat and fought to the death, dropped his sword and pleaded for the sake of my child.”